‘Nothing but a soap bubble’ [book review]

A review of A Ballad of Remittent Fever by Ashoke Mukhopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha

My first foray into Bengali literature has been an interesting experience, to say the least. Ashoke Mukhopadhyay’s A Ballad of Remittent Fever is an epic multi-generational saga that takes in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, chronicling the lives and times of four generations of a family of Calcutta doctors. There are births and deaths, loves and intrigues, family feuds and political upheaval aplenty, but throughout it all there is one constant: medicine. A good book to read during a global pandemic? In many ways, perhaps not. But in others – namely its portrayal of plague as a recurrent and therefore somehow reassuring cycle – this was absolutely the right choice.

A Ballad of Remittent Fever Ashoke Mukhopadhyay

A brief word of warning: it is advisable for anyone intent on reading this novel to be of relatively strong stomach. Though not exactly what I would deem graphic, Mukhopadhyay certainly likes to go into detail when it comes to describing disease-ridden and dead bodies and the surgical procedures involved in saving patients. From autopsies to roadside cataract removal and even one brief – uncharacteristic yet memorable – moment of necrophilia, A Ballad of Remittent Fever is unflinching in its portrayal of the gorier side of medicine and bodies. This is very much in keeping with the main protagonists of the novel, four generations of the same Bengali family who all devote their lives to the study of medical or chemical science. Progress means everything to them: it is not enough to simply practise medicine as others have done, but absolutely vital to understand as fully as possible how the human body functions.

Although they live and work under very different circumstances, each generation is driven by the same thirst for knowledge, an aptitude and desire for learning that seems to play an even greater role in their profession than does compassion. As such, it is unsurprising that the reader should be treated to details like where exactly to make an incision to remove a cataract, or a thorough description of a syphilis-ridden corpse. The sum total of it is very effective in transmitting the mindset of Mukhopadhyay’s characters, while the constant repetition of the learning process is something that – especially given the times we are living in – I found to be strangely comforting.

Cholera is the main cause of the fever that ebbs and flows throughout the course of this novel, but other pestilences descend on Calcutta too: typhoid, malaria, kala-azar, Spanish flu, even the plague itself. At every stage of their career the doctors find themselves caught up in a fight to outwit the latest disease terrorising the population of a city growing at a rate that is almost out of control. It is ‘a series of arduous battles’ complicated by the stubborn nature of the patients they have to manage, many of whom are dedicated to traditional ways of medicine, hold superstitious beliefs about treatments or causes, or object to progress in the form of contraception, vaccinations or water purification. Further complications arrive in the form of political unrest, war, the Indian caste system, and even conservative family members intent on putting a stop to their personal and professional development. ‘Human beings are by nature wayward,’ we are told at one point, a fact of life that seems as incontrovertible as the truth that diseases will always exist to be fought. Disease, however, I often had the feeling, is far more easily managed and defeated than human will.

The sheer volume of medical description and terminology contained within the pages of this novel will have made it – I imagine – a technically challenging work to translate. Arunava Sinha, one of India’s foremost translators, has done an excellent job of rendering the Bengali original into English that flows naturally even throughout these complex passages. Not knowing anything about Bengali, I am unable to say whether the translation also reflects the rhythms and inflections of the original language, or whether the rendering into a rather high register is intended to mirror the novel’s setting. Indian English, and particularly the one used during British rule – a constant presence that is as remittent as the fever, occasionally springing to the fore but never being allowed to overshadow the main action – tends towards the formal, which seems particularly apt considering the milieu Mukhopadhyay’s characters come from but does occasionally result in the narration seeming a little stilted.

This formality of tone may be one of the major underlying causes for the fact that, much as I was absorbed by the events related, I never managed to feel a great connection to any of the novel’s characters. Though drawn convincingly – Dr Dwarikanath Ghoshal, the first generation, for example, is prone to fits of violent temper and extremely impatient with anyone who seems opposed to scientific progress, but at the same time has a big heart capable of falling furiously and loyally in love – none of the four main protagonists managed to speak to me in quite the way I would like a fictional character to. The one who came the closest was probably Madhumadhabi, a strong female character whom I was pleasantly surprised to encounter, but despite sketching her youthful romance with a cousin and eventual dedication to medicine as an Ayurvedic doctor, she was just underdeveloped enough for me to be left wanting more of a connection. The novel’s tendency to jump backwards and forwards in time – not a problem in itself, though the lack of context in the opening chapters did make this slightly confusing at first – may also have played a role in never really allowing me to build up a strong relationship with any one character.

Despite this, I found A Ballad of Remittent Fever to be an enjoyable read – and certainly a memorable one. Although reserving much of his descriptive talent for medical matters, Ashoke Mukhopadhyay manages to paint a vivid picture of a changing Calcutta, offering us tantalising glimpses of the city as it grows out from under British rule. Particularly good at observing small details of everyday life, he deftly creates the worlds through which his characters move without ever feeling the need to explain too much. Sinha’s decision to leave in many original Bengali words, particularly when it comes to dialogue, is also extremely effective in giving us a flavour of this incredibly human city.

As much as they strive towards a better understanding of the human body and the bacteria and viruses which assail it, each doctor in A Ballad of Remittent Fever seems ultimately to come to their own realisation of ‘the ebb and flow of living’. Mirrored by their city’s annual resurgences of fever and the patterns of birth and death that follow it on a more drawn-out timescale, this central tenet makes the novel take on a uniquely relevant, strangely reassuring quality. Though lacking the lyricism I had perhaps been led to expect by the inclusion of the word ‘ballad’ in the title, this is a level-headed and immersive work of fiction that offers an interesting meditation on human insignificance and how we each need to carve out a path of our own choosing. A literal exploration of what makes people tick, it has at its heart a very universal truth: ‘human life was nothing but a soap bubble – here today, gone tomorrow.’

A novel about recurrent plagues might be a bit too much for right now, but this week I’ve also reviewed another work of translated fiction. Paulus Hochgatterer’s The Day My Grandfather Was a Hero is a brief, unsettling account of a young Austrian girl’s experience of the final days of World War II. My review of Jamie Bulloch’s translation is available to read here on Shiny New Books.

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