Sunday, February 28, 2010

REVIEW: The Quarantine Papers

The Quarantine Papers
Kalpish Ratna
HarperCollins India
Rs. 499
Pp 340
ISBN: 9788172239145

As the Babri Masjid is razed in Ayodhya, brick by ancient brick, Ratan Oak stumbles upon a corpse at the Kipling House in Bombay. It is the beginning of an unraveling for him, of the submerged identity he has sought to suppress all his life: that of his great-grandfather, Ramratan Oak.

Grappling with this tandem existence, Ratan realizes that the communal violence which consumes his city mirrors the turbulence it experienced in Ramratan's times. For, concealed in the scientific discoveries of the plague epidemic of 1897 is the terrifying truth about the dead woman of Kipling House. A novel that perfectly balances character and pace, The Quarantine Papers dissects the compulsions of a hate that corrupts, as it trails a doomed love story from nineteenth century Bombay into our own day.

Said A Pustule Outlook
That rare thing: a literary thriller, with the quality of producing a sensation of vulnerability. 

The Quarantine Papers is a masterful narrative: a thriller, a love story, a pathological view of history, a scrambled puzzle, a deeply disturbing morality tale, an account of the Bombay plague of 1896-98, the forgotten epidemic that marked India’s first direct collision between modern science and an epidemic.The story begins on the day of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and moves menacingly through the backwash of sectarian rhetoric and violence that followed. It focuses on the life and encounters of Ratan Oak, a Maharashtrian Brahmin and freelancing microbiologist, who is given to hallucinations. A second narrative emerges with Ratan Oak’s—a plague chronicle from Bombay of the late 19th century, when fear of death by disease settled over the city like a frozen blanket, and a small, lonesome squad of pathologists investigated the pestilence.

Terror And The Minibus Tehelka
On December 6, 1992, Ratan Oak is forced out of the apathy caused in part by his father’s illness and the defection of his wife. He is also propelled into the embrace of another mind he shares his body with. A mind that he realises, in this violent, concussed week, is the mind of his great-grandfather Ramratan Oak, a brilliant young doctor who married outrageously a young widow and even more outrageously, chose to love her. A bloody cross-section of the city emerges in this twin narrative, its capillaries strumming with cruelty and impossible love. Star-crossed lovers and idealists emerge in every generation that Ratan uncovers through his fragmented alter-memories. Unfortunately for the reader, the cast is a little too populated to keep track of easily and after a while you give up trying to keep track. You like Ratan and Ramratan so you are there for the ride. This is the first of the Ratan/Ramratan books so there are definitely many more intriguing history lessons to be had. And perhaps in the next book, the prose will not jar as it switches (almost from page to page) from lush, knowing passages to bare, journeyman competence.

Mumbai teri jaan Hindustan Times 
If The Quarantine Papers by Kalpish Ratna has a major flaw, it’s this: it turns you into an antisocial element. I foolishly began reading it on a Thursday evening. The next day, I deeply resented the need to go to the office, deeply resented having to go out for a drink, deeply resented everyone who phoned me, deeply resented everything that kept me away from the book.

Naturally, this made my work and relationships hell for a while, but it did bring some sunshine into a couple of people’s lives. Namely Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, surgeons, writers and the two halves of the duo that comprise the pseudonymous writer, Kalpish Ratna. “It vindicates us as the authors of the book,” says Syed.

Why The Quarantine Papers should require vindication is beyond me. It is a gripping, highly textured, very solid novel that had drawn me wholesale into its world(s) and even now, three weeks since I finished the book, I hate being away from it.

Timeout Mumbai 
For much of The Quarantine Papers, the new novel by authors Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, the reader hovers around hospitals and dead bodies. If there’s one emotion that surfaces repeatedly, it is hatred. However, Swaminathan and Syed, who write together under the pen name Kalpish Ratna, see the book a little differently. “It is, at heart, a love story on many levels – we have counted seven,” they wrote in an email interview with Time Out. “At its simplest, it is the story of our love affair with the city of Mumbai.” At its most complicated, The Quarantine Papers is a labyrinthine descent into plague. The bubonic epidemic that ravaged Mumbai in the nineteenth century acts as a parallel to the communal variety that scarred the city in 1992. Trapped in a limbo between the two is Ratan, the book’s main character.

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