‘Plague & Quarantine’ is an Urdu short story written by Rajindar Singh Bedi (1915-1984). The central character of the story is William Bhagu Khakrub, the sanitation worker of the locality and the quarantine. The narrator of the story is named Bakshi, a doctor who was appointed in the quarantine constructed to prevent the spread of plague in the town. The story is a dialogue and engagements between the two through quarantine and plague in the city.
Bedi was contemporary to Sadat Hasan Ali Manto and Krishn Chandar. He has also written dialogues for several Bollywood films including Mughal-e-Azam and Devdas. He also might be one of the rarest persons in Indian literature who has written about quarantine.
Separating people infected with transmitting diseases from non-infected population is an ancient practice across the world. During the medieval period, a ship with human or goods, coming from infected region were forced to quarantine for a period of 30-40 days before they were allowed to enter into the town or country. The measure of quarantine was adopted even for cholera outbreak, which was not a human to human transmitting disease.
A suspected person can be quarantined in his own house or any public/private building within the city. The entire locality, street or building can be quarantined. A group of people or individual can also be quarantined by sending them to a separate island or to the outskirts of the town. Total lockdown of any city or country can also qualify as quarantining of the entire city or country. Center for Disease Control and Prevention distinguishes quarantine from isolation. Quarantine intends to isolate person who is not verified of infection but still is suspected/exposed of infection. Isolation on the other hand isolate only person who are verified with infection.
Bedi & Quarantine
The forms for quarantine may change over time and context but what remained same is the forceful authorities with which it was implemented by state and state officials. What also did not change is its relation with the sense of panic, popular protests, migration, and non-diseased deaths. What also has not changed is the denial to the importance of the role of sanitation workers while writing about quarantine and pandemics.
Rajindar Singh Bedi gives quite a similar picture of Quarantine in Indian context. He claimed “जितनी मौतें शहर में क्वारंटीन से हुईं, इतनी प्लेग से न हुईं” (The total number of deaths caused due to quarantine was higher than deaths due to plague). People feared quarantine so much that they were not visiting any doctors or even let their neighbours know if anyone in their family got any symptom of plague which included fever, cough, cold etc. He wrote, “किसी घर के वबाई होने का सिर्फ़ उसी वक़्त पता चलता, जबकि जिगर दोज़ आह–ओ–बुका के दर्मियान एक लाश उस घर से निकलती।” (The occurrence of infection from plague in any household would only be known when amidst the wails of people, a corpse would leave the threshold for cremation.)
Medical Workers & Quarantine
The author also mentioned how even the medical workers were afraid of going into quarantine. There, all the medical staffs trying to maintain as much physical distance as possible from the infected patients. However, there was one character in the story who was not afraid of quarantine at all. He was sanitation worker of the town, Bhagu. He was a newly Christian convert dalit. It was Bhagu who was ‘informed’/resource person of the locality. His common instructions against spread of plague included to maintain hygiene, spread Chuna (caustic soda/soda ash) everywhere regularly, and not step out of the home. Sometimes he also suggested to consume liquor as preventive measure against Plague.
He used to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning. After drinking half a bottle of liquor, he used to clean the locality, remove all the dead bodies and spread chuna on streets. He was also resource person for everyone in the locality to bring things and works for their daily chores as people were afraid of going out of home at their own. In the day time he used to stay in the quarantine to serve the everyone in the quarantine. In between he also used to collect and put all the dead bodies together and flame them with petrol.
Bhagu blamed quarantine for at least one death. One day, a patient in quarantine who was believed to be dead gained consciousness while being torched along with other bodies. Bhagu jumped into the flames and took him out but by that time he was so burnt that no one could save him. Writhing with insurmountable pain, the patient died. Bhagu blamed himself for the pain that the person suffered as he tried to save him from fire. Bhagu said, “आप जानते हैं… वो किस बीमारी… से मरा? प्लेग से नहीं।… कोन्टीन से… कोन्टीन से!” (Do you know the disease which caused his death? Not plague! It was Kontin (quarantine)! It was Kontin (quarantine)!)
Bhagu was so attached to the infected patients that he never hesitated to touch them or even hug them. He used to spend time sitting with the infected patients and talking to them. He was like a family member to all the infected patients in quarantine. He was the only family for all the patients to cry and express heartfelt condolences on their demise.
On the death of one such person in the quarantine, Dr. Bakshi said, “भागू उसकी मौत पर दिखाई न देने वाले ख़ून के आँसू बहाने लगा और कौन उसकी मौत पर आँसू बहाता??कोई उसका वहाँ अपना होता तो आशु बहाता। एक भागू ही था जो सबका रिश्तेदार था। सबके लिए उसके दिल में दर्द था।वो सबकी ख़ातिर रोता और कुढ़ता था…” (Bhagu was shedding invisible tears of blood on his death. Who else was there to do that? Had there been someone for him then they would have cried on his deathbed. It was only Bhagu who was close to all of them. He carried pain in his heart for all of them. He used to cry and feel helplessness for each of them.)
During a medical crisis such as COVID-19 where we don’t have an immediate medical solution to the pain and suffering everyone, whether diseased or non-diseased, is going through, it is important to stand for the emotional and loving approach towards the disease and diseased. It may help us to convince the helpless people in the quarantine/hospitals/homes and most importantly streets, to relate with the helplessness of the others including medical staffs, police, and governments. In a country like india where the public health infrastructure is in extremely bad shape to deal with this kind of crisis through medical science, a collective efforts of love, care and empathy with the sufferers may help us. When novel laureate, Abhijeet Banerjee suggested to sensitise the police towards the problem and suffering of poor on the street, what he meant perhaps is what Bhagu stand for, ‘the work with empathy’.
Bhagu happened to inspire the doctor with his commitment towards his profession, and responsibility towards the society. However, the doctor also acknowledged repeatedly how he could never manage to achieve the courage, commitment and empathy of Bhagu and continued to maintain physical distance from the infected patients in the quarantine. Dr.Bakshi was terrified of going into quarantine. It was Bhagu who assisted the doctor wherever the infected patients were required to be touched or cared personally.
The character of Bhagu in the story can be taken as a protagonist who silently questions the work ethics of the medical staffs working in the quarantine. Quite similar was the role of the hero of the famous Indian movie ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’ (2003) and doctor of famous novel ‘Maila Anchal’ by Phanishwar Nath Renu. Dr. Murli Prashad Sharma in ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’ refused to accept patients as mere ‘biological body’ and treated them with love, compassion and apathy. It was Bhagu who inspired and compelled Dr. Bakshi to look at the patients beyond ‘body under treatment’ and his work ethics as beyond the premise of quarantine and hospital. It was Bhagu who shifted the attention of doctor from his increasing success graph hanging on the wall of Chief Medical Officer to people in the filthy streets of the city.
One day Bhagu lost his wife due to plague. He was in quarantine serving the patients while his wife was inching towards her death. Dr. Bakshi was disappointed with Bhagu for his ignorance towards the illness of his wife but at the same time impressed with his commitment towards society. Dr. Bakshi was stunned to see Bhagu in the quarantine the very next day after his wife died. This compelled the doctor to voluntarily extend his work beyond his professional duty as health worker in quarantine and hospital. The medical staff reached out to the slums of the town and treated them with love, compassion, and commitment towards the society and their profession. The entire team of medical staff under Dr. Bakshi were felicitated and praised for their work. But one person was missing in this felicitation ceremony. It was Bhagu.
Around eighty years later in the year 2020, the sanitation workers in India are still continuing to work in close proximity with infected patients and substances without fear and without even the required protection kits. One have to file a PIL in Supreme Court of India to ensure the safeguard rights of the sanitation workers in India. They were released from work without notice or pay. It is also believed that the workload on sanitation workers increased during the lockdown across the countries. But in his two consecutive addresses to the nation, our prime minister failed to mention a single word for the sanitation workers. Hopefully they may get the status of a warrior in these war-phobic times to fight against this COVID-19 pandemic.
However at the same time, it was good to hear the news that sanitation workers in Punjab, Haryana, and Odisha were greeted with garlands and flowers. Delhi Government announced accidental insurance for health and sanitation workers of the state worth 10 million rupees. Though, late but these news may inspire us to understand and assert the Bhagu’s perspective on work ethics. Not all but most of the sanitation workers across India belongs to the Dalit community. The news of an Aadivasi sanitation worker from Telangana who donated his two month salary in the CM Relief Fund may inspire others to understand the Dalit’s understanding of work and professional ethics.
Acknowledgement: I thank Prof. Zia-ul Haq, and Upasna Hazarika for collective effort to translate this short story by Rajindar Singh Bedi from Urdu to Hindi, & English. Hindi, English and Marathi translation of this story has also been published.
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