Pestilence by Keki N.Daruwalla
Bijay Kant Dubey
Pestilence by Keki N.Daruwalla is one like Curfew in a Riot-torn City and The Epileptic taken from the same collection of poems entitled Under Orion which he wrote long back in 1970 to see its appearance from Writers Workshop, Calcutta as the first poetic venture of the writer and with whom he made his entry into the realms of Indian English poesy. Morning shows the day is the truth that holds true and it applies to Daruwalla, as goes the adage again, style is the man. The same Daruwalla we can still sense it now as he has not changed over the years. Death, disease and violence are the properties of his verse and he cannot without these. Here it is not curfew that he deals with, but pestilence, as the title is quite clear in revealing the same. The word pestilence means a deadly, fatal and infectious disease. It may be that the patient is afflicted with cholera, plague, small pox, diarrhea or tuberculosis. The defunct cholera and tuberculosis wards of the British period refreshen the memory with the imagery of the patients when there were not so many connect ways, bridges or the means of conveyance and transportation. The Indian countryside had been secluded and isolated enough, languishing in medievalism, superstition, poverty and illiteracy even after the attainment of freedom. The poet pictures such a scene fraught with hardship, bad luck and misery. The imagery of the poem is one of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to some extent depicting the old woman on the cart trying to save the patient, steering it across.
Daruwalla as a poet is a hard-hearted writer just like Ted Hughes and Robert Browning wherein the British period two-barrelled gun speaks the language of poetry used for a kill or to defend against the dreaded robbers of India, the Thakores, notorious Singhs. As a poet, he is verbose, bombastic and cathartic and purgatory. Poetry not born out of emotion and feeling, but out of brain-work and laborious attempts is the thing of deliberation. He writes not for pleasure and aesthetic sense. His is a language of violence, vengeance, wrath and ager rather than sympathy and its stroking. Riots, curfews, communal flares and frenzies are the stuffs of his poesy. Genealogically from Iran or Persia, one cutting the mythic ice of some different culture and clime, that too from the land of Zarathustra, he tells the Hindustani tales, originating from Lahore and Ludhiana to clutch Gujarat and the Terai region along in his stride to reach Delhi finally just like as Kipling told about Kim and Jim Corbett about the hunters. Such a pidgin-Indian stuff is in Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, but that laugh is not in Daruwalla, Indian gwala mixing milk in water and that too not the tap water, but the pond water as for to double the quantity. British India’s gossips we can hear in Daruwalla’s poetry after passing some time in the bungalows of that sort where the sahib, bibi and gulam played the cards just like Munshi Prem Chand’s Satranj Ke Khiladi not with the nawabs and his courtier friends, but with White sahib and his gulams-cum-care-takers.
They are not the palanquin-bearers who carry the load of the newly wed small bride and the groom, the hurly-burly Kahars going with the palanquin, but are the same taking a patient to the town hospital who is infected with some fatal disease. A girl in sixteen shringaras, dress-ups or make-ups not, but a frail and frozen body is being carried. The sickling, weakling lying weak and pale is lifted on a sling cot to be taken away to by the same men as and when situations call for and herein lie the differences in observation and marking. Such a thing used to do the rounds in the Indian countryside.
Crossing the fields and fallows, highlands and lowlands, rivers and hilly ways, if the palanquin is not available, they take the patients away to the distant health centre as for treatment though the music may be here different as and when we contrast with those of the small girls as village brides leaving their families and houses in tears and going to their in-laws’ house and the groom party retreating with the band, the twilight falling over on the ways trodden and untrodden. Catching the same rhythm and spirit, the poet here paints the scene in a different mood of tuning and tenor. The poem pictures the image of the palkhis taking the royal or noble ladies to their places of f destinations. But here the matter is not one of travel or conveyance or festive mood or one of parting or departure from. The patient is transported to a near-by or far-off hospital. With the palkhis, box-like wooden framework and structure at the middle, there picture the images of the Kahar caste people, blackly and robust bearing the bamboo poles on the shoulders and taking the passengers away to their destination.
India the land of loot and plunder, devastation and turmoil, foreign invasion and raids, in the wake of superstition, medievalism and backwardness, we have not forgotten, seconded by witch-hunting, hocus-pocus and incantation. The Sati system, child marriage, widow repression, dowry death and human sacrifice still make the hair stand on. Sprinkling Ganga jal, how can we cleanse it all? Can the hearts be cleaned, purified? Can the diseases be cured?
A reading of the poem makes us remember of the malaria wards. The local people used to attribute the cause to some evil effect haunting during the eve-time. During the rainy days, that too in the months of Shravana-Bhadra, many used to fall ill after taking the ripe palms and others in the shortage of cereals. The tales of exotic and impregnable India are many. Only the Aryan or Muslim version of history cannot tell it all. The British-period eye hospitals with the European doctors, White memsahebs and sahebs evoke the imagery otherwise.
The white marbled hospital, UNICEF jeeps, nurses clad in whites and the doctors present a contrast to the scenery with the bony, dehydrated and pale patients on string cots slinging and the blackly carriers carrying, bearing the load with. The White man’s burden was it really whether we accept it or not. Let them say what they want to, Gandhi, Nehru or Prasad. What is not British, say you. There had been the periods and ages of epidemics and pestilences. Typhoid, malaria, cholera, diarrhea, small pox, we have not forgotten those days of disease. Child marriage and pregnancy deaths have maligned and marauded ourselves for quite a long time.
Let us pick up a stanza to discuss the theme of the poem:
the hospital floors are marble white
black bodies dirty them
nurses in white habits
unicef jeeps with white bonnets
doctors with white faces receive them
‘who says they have cholera?
they are down with diarrhoea
who says it is cholera?
it is gastro-enteritis’
(Keki N.Dafruwalla, Under Orion, Rupa Co., 2000, New Delhi, p.16-7)
The stanza pattern of Daruwalla is very irregular and he is very casual in handling with. Some lines are placed zigzag and some slanting. Pestilence actually is a poem of the now-a-days lying defunct cholera ward, malaria ward which once used to vibe with.