Book Review | Illness as a metaphor for the Indian condition

All in all, a book that draws attention to the vibrancy of writing in the bhashas and the range and variety of topics that they cover.

The book is a laudable attempt to bring stories dealing with illnesses, cures, patients, attendants, doctors, vaids, hakims — and quacks from the bhashas into English. In so doing, it throws into sharp relief, the numerous beliefs, superstitions and practices that are inextricably woven through the intricate skeins of Indian society — both rural and urban.

One can see the parallels with the Covid pandemic especially in a story like ‘Quarantine’ (Rajinder Singh Bedi) and view illness as a metaphor for various human life situations emerging strongly through the stories. It is interesting in the intersectionality of medicine with literature brought out vividly in all of them, the common denominator running through the various languages and settings that they delineate being the sheer humanity and humanness of the personae, with their share of foibles, eccentricities, follies and heroism. As the stories take us through cities, small towns, villages — one cannot help but be struck by the sameness of needs, fears, anticipation, relief, helplessness and supplication that course through the characters, highlighting how, at the end of it all, all said and done, we are travellers on the same road that has been taken by many before us and will meet the same end, no matter what our caste, class, religion or status in society.

The ‘Introduction’ traces the tradition of such writing across the world and gradually narrows it down to the Indian literary scene while also bringing in concepts like medical paternalism, medical pluralism, and biomedicalisation. The reader is then treated to a smorgasbord of vignettes from Indian life, flowing through the pen of the likes of Rajinder Singh Bedi, Tagore, Manto, Premchand as well as some contemporary writers.

While the stories deal primarily with illness and death, in some stories like ‘A Major Operation’ (Basant Kumar Satpathy) or ‘A Crisis of Medical Treatment’ (Rajshekhar Basu ‘Parshuram’), there is a humorous look at hypochondriacs and patients waiting for treatment and the manner in which they are exploited by unscrupulous “practitioners’ of medicine of various hues as in some other stories as well (‘The Surgeon’ by Sheeba E.K.; ‘Mantra’ by Premchand). Social issues such as patriarchal oppressive norms (‘The Plague Witch’ by Master Bhagwandas; ‘The Gift of Vision’ by Rabindranath Tagore); women’s rights over their bodies; gender discrimination that begins from the unborn child in the womb and its psychological aftermath on the mother-to-be (‘A Day in the Labour Room’ by Jeelani Bano and ‘The Longing’ by Kartar Singh Duggal); poverty (‘Doctor Moni’ by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and ‘Whose Turn Now?’ by Shankar Raina); caste and class conflicts — even that of skin tone (‘The Cavern’ by Bhabendranath Saikia); dilemmas faced by doctors as they grapple with issues of justice, morality, ethics, and humaneness (‘Narova Kunjarova’ by Shirin Shashikant Valavade and ‘The Final Test’ by Amar) run through the stories, thus raising them from mere descriptions of malady to the level of valid social commentaries. ‘Heartless’ (Annie Zaidi) is in the vein of magical realism and takes an ironic look at human love and longing.

A word about the translations: they are somewhat like the proverbial curate’s egg — good in parts. While some stories are beautifully rendered into English, the language flowing easily and effortlessly, there are others with some annoying and misused phrases that jar on the reader and take away some of the potency that would no doubt have been present in the original. Some proof-reading errors also catch the eye in an irritating way and could have been avoided. All in all, a book that draws attention to the vibrancy of writing in the bhashas and the range and variety of topics that they cover, within the scope of medical maladies and their effect upon people and society.

Medical Maladies: Stories of Disease and Cure From Indian Languages

Edited by Haris Qadeer

Niyogi Books

pp. 322; Rs.495

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