Chapter 2: A Ballad of Remittent Fever, by Ashok Kumar Mukhopadhyay

A sense of doom hung over the Chakraborty home in Belgachia. Most of the trees around seemed to have sensed the danger signals and lapsed into silence; their leaves were grim, not stirring. The bareness of the deciduous branches appeared to reflect the mournful environment evident inside the house. The birds had disappeared, with only a handful of ravens tilting their heads like experts to gauge the situation. This was necessary because the leftovers of ruti or luchi from breakfast had not yet been deposited on the rubbish heap. Nor had there been a shower of vegetable and fish fragments. For Shashibhushan, the youngest boy in the family, had a dreadful fever, accompanied by unbearable body ache. The end seemed imminent every time he began speaking deliriously.

There was just the one doctor in the vicinity—young Nabinchandra Gupta, rather green behind the ears. No one knew which college Nabin had studied medicine at. Not that anyone was bothered, because there were many medical practitioners who had acquired their abilities only from being in the company of skilled doctors. What mattered was whether they could cure an illness; the patient had nothing to gain from checking the doctor’s certificate. In fact, Nabin pratised both allopathy and ayurveda. Sent for at the onset of the fever, he had examined Shashi and prescribed a number of red and blue pills. But instead of being conquered, the fever had flared up further. Nabin had been sent for again.

Meanwhile, Shashi’s relapse into delirium had changed the atmosphere for the worse. Kamakhyacharan, the head of the family, was pacing up and down inside and outside the patient’s room. His heart quaked every time he glaced at this grandson, who had only recently lost his father. What would happen to him? No one knew. Shashi’s elder brother Phanibhushan, who had just joined college, felt the signs were ominous. He must be examined by a good doctor from the Medical College at once. Without waiting for Kamakhya’s decision he had rushed off to Calcutta with his friend Manmohan and their neighbour, Haldar moshai.

Three other neighbours were in the drawing room. Kenaram had carefully prepared hookahs for them, and Roy moshai, Baikunthanath Banerjee and Pratap Majumdar were looking for solutions as they smoked. Banerjee moshai was coughing intermittently; smoking made him cough a lot these days.

As soon as Kamakhyacharan entered the room Shashibhushan screamed, ‘Head bursting… tongue so dry… falling back… thirsty… water… oh i’m burning…’

– ‘Any minute now dadubhai, the doctor will be here… have a dose of his medicine meanwhile…’

Shashi looked up, sweeping the corners of the room with flaming, unfocused eyes. Maybe was looking for his dead father. Once again Kamakhya suggested taking the medicine. Now the patient shook his head.

– ‘More medicine?… Why is my belly swollen… so much pain… can’t have any more medicine…’

Kamakhya repeated his request. Shashi not only refused but also conveyed deep irritation.

– ‘A little amani… give me some rice…’

Kamakhya did not give up his attempts to persuade his dearest grandson. Holding the medicine close to the boy’s lips, he said, ‘Just a little medicine, baapdhon…’

Shashi was admant.

– ‘No medicine… no medicine… I’ll die if you force me, I really will die…’

Nabin arrived in the middle of this altercation between grandfather and grandson and surveyed the patient from head to toe. It didn’t take him long to understand the gravity of the situation. He checked Shashi’s pulse with closed eyes, willing himself to feel it throbbing.

Nabin opened his eyes a few moments later. ‘Was the medicine I prescribed yesterday given to the patient?’

‘Indeed it was,’ Kamakhya nodded. ‘Five of the six doses have been given… but… he is getting worse, so we sent for you…’

Meanwhile, the neighbours gathered in the drawing room were now crowding around the patient’s bed. The pillars of any society usually had opinions on everything from the post-office to prescriptions. Pratap Majumdar was no excetion. Because he had spent some time in the company of a doctor, he was under the impression that he understood the nature and progress of diseases better than ordinary people. Moreover, he was a plain speaker.

‘Acute thirst and pain, daktar moshai,’ he said, ‘as you were informed earlier… you said this medicine was certain to effect a cure… but what we observe now is quite the opposite…’

Nabin began to flounder. ‘The case had initially semed to be nothing but fever… I cannot understand why it took a complex turn… I suspect he has cerebro-spinal fever… his condition has deteriorated greatly since I saw him last evening…’

Roy moshai emitted a mouthful of smoke, his expression sombre. Drawing Nabin aside, he said, ‘What is your surmise now? Will he survive?’

Nabin tried to shed his bewilderment quickly. ‘Oh yes, I see no risk of anything else… considering the stage the illness is in… I’m here after all… there’s no danger.’

Boikuntho Banerjee expressed his view now. ‘How about rubbing some stale ghee on the stomach to reduce the bloating?’

Nabin knew these elders only too well. Acquiescing to their proposals helped both the reputation and the earnings of the doctor.

‘Yes… why not… stale ghee has a lot of benefits… it might ease the pain.’

Pratap was vehemently opposed to this idea. ‘Have you considered the possibility that this may lead to evacuation of the bowels? I daresay that will harm the patient.’ He was oozing annoyance.

One look at Pratap and Nabin promptly said, ‘Yes, that is possible too… what you could do is… take some cold water and whip the ghee thoroughly into it before applying it… you know, gentlemen, not every illness can be treated by looking it up in the Materia Medica… sometimes one has to attempt a treatment based on experience…’

Kamakhya approved of this statement about treatment based on experience. ‘See for yourself,’ he told the gathering. ‘Our Nabin can do allopathy, he can homoeopathy, he can do ayurveda… he diagnoses and prescribes as the situation demands…’

‘Of course,’ echoed Banerjee moshai. ‘How would ordinary people like us turn to him otherwise?’

Finally Nabin sounded sprightly once more. ‘You’re too kind… but it is true, I do study all the forms of medicine… now, I want you not to worry so much… I’m writing out a prescription… collect it quickly from my dispensary and give it to the patient…’

‘Amani… I want rice,’ the patient intervened. ‘Don’t want medicine.’

Nabin said before Chakraborty moshai could seek his permission, ‘Why not… let him have it… first the medicine… give him a little lemon juice with it… it will keep the stomach cool, no danger in that…’

‘Will my Shashi feel better, Daktar moshai?… My grandson means everything to me… I cannot rest till his illness is arrested…’

‘There is no need to be so nervous… the medicine I have prescribed will subdue any fever on earth.’ Nabin had a broad smile on his face.

The doctor left after taking his fee of four rupees. Kenaram the family servant followed him to collect the medicine. No sooner had they left than Pratap exploded in rage. ‘The imbecile has asked the patient to be given stale rice… and with lemon juice at that… it will lead to acidity… the stomach ache will become more acute…’ He shook his head repeatedly to indicate his opposition. ‘I concur,’ declared Roy moshai. Boikunthonath began to nod as well, leaving Kamakshya with no option but to listen helplessly to the neighbours arguing. Nabin’s medicine arrived meanwhile, and it was finally decided that, considering Shashi’s high temperature, it was the medicine and not the rice that he should be given. He was persuaded to take the medicine after much coaxing.

Shashibhushan’s fever shot up further in the next half an hour, with shivering and convulsions. Soon afterwards Shashi began to speak in a delirium, ‘There… come to take me away… the black demon… I won’t go, I won’t…’

Giving up hope, Kamakhyacharan began to pace and up and down again, going out into the street now and then to see if Phani was on his way back. When he returned to the drawing room Roy moshai said, ‘Don’t worry so much, Kamakshya… why not wait and see.’ Taking a long drag on his hookah, Banerjee moshai said, ‘Indeed… some medicines do take a little time…’ But he was overcome by a fit of coughing before he could finish, the intensity rising quickly. Boikuntho was left gasping for breath.

That was when the brougham came a stop outside. Manmohan had left for his college, and Haldar moshai had been summoned home urgently as someone there had a fever too. Dwarikanath strode into the house, with Phanibhushan carrying his bag. Kamakhyacharan welcomed him deferentially, and Kenaram rushed up with a hookah. Paying no attention, Dwarika went up to Boikunthanath, who had not yet succeeded in bringing himself under control. The doctor listened closely to the sound of his coughing; a raspy, grating cough. As Boikuntha returned to normal, Dwarika identified the sound and made his own conclusions.

‘Do not smoke.’ He snatched the hookah away from Banerjee moshai, leaving him bewildered. Had a callow young man just taken his hookah away?

– ‘Go home at once and see a good doctor…’

– ‘There is nothing wrong with me, the patient is inside.’

Boikuntho sounded displeased. About to continue, he was silenced by Dwarika’s cold eyes.

– ‘You have pleurisy… first stage… you need treatment.’

Dwarika went into Shashibhushan’s room without expending any further words.

All the windows were closed, and Shashibhushan was lying in the darkened room, tossing and turning on his bed like someone possessed by a spirit. Sunlight was necessary to examine the patient. The windows were opened in resonse to the doctor’s instructions.

Dwarikanath laid his palm on Shashibhushan’s brow. It was burning; his temperature must have been a hundred and four or hundred and five degrees. The pulse beat was a hundred and forty per second. Laying the stethescope on the patient’s chest yielded nothing unusual besides a racing heart.

– ‘Is the fever constant?’

Kamakshya was prepared. ‘No… it builds in the afternoon and at night… of late in the morning too… but at intervals…’

‘Get a seer of ice at once… put some cloth soaked in ice-water on his forehead… don’t move it till the fever goes down…’

‘Very well.’ Kamakhya nodded twice.

The examination continued. Rolling up the patient’s eyes, Dwarikanath found them a little too white. What about the tongue? Dirty in the middle, reddened at the edges. Gentle pressure on the spleen brought forth an a cry of agony; it was obviously enlarged. Pressing down on the liver also caused pain, though not to the same extent.

‘You do not anticipate a crisis, do you daktar moshai… his father… just a recently…’ Kamakshyacharan’s lips trembled.

‘What is the quality of his stools?’ Dwarikanath stroked Shashibhushan’s brow ‘Well, Shashi? Have you been to the toilet today?’

– ‘It was all right till yesterday… today though…’

Meanwhile, the three guests in the drawing room had entered again, including Baikunthonath, who had not gone home. He was more curious about the fate of his neighbours than he was concerned about his own well-being.

– ‘Hmm… all right, he must be isolated… use a mosquito net to…’

Turing to Kamakshyanath without finishing what he was saying, Dwarikanath noticed the three figures he had encountered in the drawing room.

– ‘Did I not ask you to go home?’

Baikunthanath became defensive under Dwarika’s glare. The doctor cut him short when he tried to respond. ‘Not another word, go home at once.’

And so Banerjee moshai went home like an obedient schoolboy.

Pratap began his usual litany. ‘Of course the boy has a fever, daktar moshai, but the headache and the body ache are very…’

Dwarika smiled. ‘Well then, it should be simple enough… a headache accompanied by a fever… leeching, laxatives and a cold compress… Medical College students have been committing this formula to their memories for ages now… do the same thing here… let loose leeches to drink the boy’s blood, give him laxatives and a cold compress…’

Pratap was rendered speechless at last. Roy moshai remained quiet too.

Turning to Kamakhya, Dwarika repeated, ‘A mosquito-net… he must be under one all the time… or else all of you will fall ill too, and it will spread in the neighbourhood.’

‘What is the matter with him?’ Kamakhya’s voice quavered. ‘Is it cerebro-spinal fever?’

‘What, cerebro-spinal fever? Nothing of the sort, it is malaria… a nasty strain, but do not worry, nothing untoward will happen…’ Dwarika smiled. And finally, there was a smile on Kamakhya’s face as well.

Now it was time to prescribe medicines. The doctor turned to Pratap, who sat down with pen and ink.

– Age?

‘Twenty-nine,’ said Pratap.

– Not yours, the patient’s…

‘He has just turned twelve,’ interjected Kamakshya quickly.

‘Twenty grains of quinine…’ said Dwarika, muttering, ‘I wish it could have been administered hypodermically…’

‘But who will do that hereabouts? I do not trust myself…’ Pratap trailed off, lest the doctor flare up in rage again. But there were no signs of anger or annoyance in Dwarika’s demeanour. He stared at Pratap.

‘In that case, compounder shaheb, he’ll have to be given a powder or a mixture…’

Pratap was embarrassed.

‘Get it from a reputable shop… Bathgate, Kemp, or Scott Thomson… make arrangements to get it at once…’

Kamakhya’s head bobbed up and down energetically, and Pratap nodded too.

– These twenty grains have to be divided into two or three portions and given in a space of twenty-four hours…’

‘If you could give us the measure in rotis…’ said Pratap mildly.

– One roti is roughly equal to two grains, so…’

‘Ten rotis a day…’ Pratap was about to say something more, but Dwarika stopped him and continued dictating the prescription.

– ‘Six rotis in the first dose, and then two rotis twice each. It’s best to give the medicine two to three hours before the shivering and fever begin. The same dosage will continue for one more day after the fever goes down, followed by three quarters of the dose the next day, and then half for the next two or three days. After this a quarter dose will continue for another three weeks…’

Dwarikanath gave these instructions as he paced up and down the room.

– ‘Quinine might lead to acidity, so along with the medicine or just afterwards…’

‘What should Shashi eat, daktar moshai?’ asked Kamakhya.

– ‘Milk misri sago barley fish curry sweet pomegranate grapefruit raisins grapes—he can have any of these that he wants… once the fever goes down, depending on the situation, milk with sago or semolina at night…’

Roy moshai was drawing rapidly on his hookah in the desire to speak. He was craving a cup of tea, too. Eventually he couldn’t hold himself back any longer. ‘Would you like some tea, daktar moshai?’

Pratap looked up.

Glancing at Roy moshai and Pratap in turn, Dwarikanath said, ‘Once the patient’s temperature returns to normal he must be given hot tea, but light, and covered with a quilt. If his body is warm to the touch the food must be cool. He must be given a sponge bath in tepid water. If he perspires he must be given fluids in adequate quantity…’

Gradually Pratap began to feel relieved. He realized that while the doctor was undoubtedly a little eccentric, he was a good man. Perhaps it was the sense of relief that suddenly made him want to urinate. He began in a composed but theatrical manner, ‘Daktar moshai, my urinary tract is somewhat…’

Suddenly Shashibhushan went into convulsions again.

After a quick glance at him Dwarika turned to Kamakhya. ‘Let me see what the previous doctor had prescribed…’

Dwarikanath looked grim after reading both of Nabin’s prescriptions. ‘Bring the medicines mentioned in this second one…’

The doctor was startled on sniffing one of the bottles. It smelt of tincture of iodine. Pouring it into a glass bowl, he tasted a drop with the tip of his tongue. He had guessed correctly.

Kamakhyacharan said, ‘It was after taking this that the convulsions began…’ Pouring the contents of the bottle marked Aqua Pura into a glass revealed froth.

‘The boy already has malaria, now he will develope a stomach problem as well…’ Dwarika began to shake with anger.

Kamakshya lapsed into silence. Pratap said, ‘In that case…’

‘In that case, what? Go and smear the esteemed doctor’s face with ink…’ Dwarikanath controlled himself quickly.

Explaining every last detail, Dwarikanath accepted his usual fee of ten rupees, which was on the higher side. But then he took his time and examined the patient carefully, for which charged more than others did. This was his principle. Anyone who wanted him to make a house call had to be prepared to pay this amount. He charged half for examining patients in his own house at Beliaghata.

Phanibhushan had not said a single word since they had entered, but his respect for Dwarikanath had grown. The man was straightforward and uncompromising, which was why he went directly to the heart of the matter, and made accurate diagnoses. Phani, too, believed in plain speaking. Now he asked the question that was on his mind. ‘Daktar moshai, quinine is so expensive, we may be able to afford it, but what will the poor people do?’

‘That is right, what will they do? One way out is to rub mustard oil into their bodies… and if the oil is not available, then crushed basil leaves… the main thing is to ensure they are not bitten by mosquitoes… burning resin or camphor in dark corners of the room every morning and evening can also keep mosquitoes away…’ His glance fell on the rubbish heap and puddles and overgrown weeds outside. ‘Unless these are cleared the malaria will continue to…’

‘The government is not doing anything…’ Roy moshai shook his head, ‘they do nothing at all…’

‘Those who have sailed across the seas to rule over us are thinking of little else beside being our lords and master… how much money do you suppose the government gave for building the Medical College and Hosital? Most of the money was donated by Indians… you have to arrange for everything yourself if you want to survive…’

Roy moshai was helpless against Dwarika’s outburst. Pratap, Kamakhya and Phani were silent too.

– ‘You will be the beneficiaries if you can keep your neighbourhood free of rubbish… you will not have to send for the doctor… you know what they say in English… fond of lawsuits, little wealth; fond of doctors, little health.’

Since Roy moshai was having trouble understanding the English saying, Dwarika explained what it meant. ‘Brilliant!’ applauded Roy moshai.

Dwarikanath arrived at the Calcutta Medical College to find the doctors in a state of immense excitement.

Pulin ran up to him. ‘Ghoshal moshai you lost a great opportunity… just to attend to a patient, you…’

Dwarika was irked. No suitable response was possible.

‘A new era begins.’ It was the gaunt Harimohan.

‘He has actually cultured the comma bacillus,’ said the stocky Bholanath.

‘Yes, and the germs do swim,’ added the lanky Hridayranjan.

Such were the fragmented pictures of the collective happiness. No cogent account of what had taken place was available. The sequence of events that emerged by joining the pieces was this: First, the principal of the Medical College, J.M. Coates, introduced Koch and his colleagues Fisher, Gafki and Tresco. Coch was not the one who gave the lecture; Fisher did, going to great lengths to explain the process of culturing the germs artifically. Before this they had tried to induce cholera in animals by making them consume the faeces of cholera-infected humans, but they had not developed the disease. It was in Calcutta that the researchers had discovered the comma-shaped germs for the first time in the faeces of cholera patients. The faeces of healthy people had no such germs. The cholera patient admitted to Sealdah Hospital from whose faeces the germ had been cultured was a young man of twenty-two.

Moulinath said, ‘He’s found the comma bacillus even in some pond in your Beliaghata, Ghoshal moshai, he’s cultured it too…’

‘Be very careful, therefore…’ warned Harimohan, his eyes protuberating, ‘drinking the water of Beliaghata makes cholera a certainty.’

Dwarika laughed. ‘In that case the newspapers will now demand an outbreak of cholera in my neighbourhood… it is not a matter of levity…’ He turned to Moulinath. ‘The treatment for cholera will change now… the older notion that the disease spread from foul smells will be replaced… now that the germ has been identified there will be a vaccination too…’

The other doctors joined the discussion, while the hands of the clock turned remorselessly. An engrossing exchange could make everyone forget time and place.

The night cannons were going off at the fort when Dwarika returned home. Panchu materalized out of the darkness suddenly.

‘At this hour?’ Dwarika was astonished.

‘Found a beautiful thing.’ He grinned, displaying all his teeth. By “thing”, he obviously meant a corpse.

– “Absolutely fresh, got it as soon as it kicked the bucket…”

Panchu was tottering on his feet, but there was no smell of alcohol. Dwarika realized that the rascal had had majoon—a mixture of sugar, flour, butter and milk with bhang. The intoxicant made a person weave as they walked, and smile for no rhyme or reason. It boosted sexual desire too.

By rights Dwarika should have been irritated, but he found himself feeling cheerful instead. For, a new corpse had been found. Fresh inspiration, renewed excitement. His curiosity – and enthusiasm – would not subside till he had learnt why yet another life had been snuffed out.

‘Want to take a look?’

‘Let us go.’ Dwarika walked ahead, Panchu trotting alongside with an oil lamp.

The corpse lay on a slab of ice. Dwarikanath was stunned into silence when he saw it. An exquisitely beautiful woman of about twenty-five, a foreigner. You could hardly tell she was dead; she merely seemed asleep. She looked familiar—where had Dwarika seen her? Was it in Kalinga or Birji Talao? He coudn’t recollect. Distractedly he returned to the quarters of the living.

Dwarikanath went to bed at the appointed hour. Sleep came to him as it was wont to, and so did dreams, which swam in front of his eyes, in his heart, in his body.

Suddenly there was an explosion in his head. Dwarikanath woke up. The McCabe & Co. clock on the wall said it was one-thirty in the morning.  An immense darkness lay beyond the window, quite impenetrable. There it was, the same sound once more. Not in his head, though, but at the door. Dwarika got out of bed swiftly and opened the door to discover a terrified Surweshwari standing outside, Mokkhada behind her, shaking like a willow in a storm, holding a ship’s lantern. She forced the word out. ‘Ghosts…’ 

The doctor was amused. Sureshwari and Mokkhada would never give up on ghosts as long as the autopsy room continued to run. They had claimed the presence of spirits two or three times earlier, and had been proven wrong on each occasion. And yet here they were, babbling about ghosts again. Annoyed at being awoken so soon after going to sleep, Dwarika nevertheless said calmly, ‘Ghosts! Where?’

Mokkhada pointed to the autopsy room. Going up to the window with the lantern, Dwarikanath discovered that there was indeed a flickering light in there, moving about. And now it was still suddenly. How odd.

Returning the lantern to Mokkhada, he ran downstairs. Finally returning to her senses, Sureshwari said, ‘Don’t go there baba Dwarik… I beg of you… take the lantern at least…’ By then a curious Dwarik had opened the front door.

When he entered the autopsy room the light was set in a corner. Dwarik turned towards the corpse, and almost stopped breathing as an icy current ran down his spine. The dead body was absolutely naked, and poised over it was Panchu, without any clothes, attempting copulation. Necrophilia! Panchu was a necrohiliac.

The practice used to exist in ancient Egypt; Dwarika had seen illustrations. There was a similar story in the Mahabharata too. The powerul king Bushitaswa of the Puru dynasty had died, leaving his wife Bhadra bereft with grief. She lay on her husband’s funeral pyre, clinging to his body, refusing to allow it to be cremated. She was, of course, distressed because of her beloved husband’s death, but a second significant reason was that he had left her childless. Even a single child would have made the grief bearable. As her lamentations intensified, an incorporeal voice spoke to her from the sky—arise and repair to the palace, o wide-hipped beauty. Perform your ablutions and await our consummation on the eighth or the fourteenth night on your own bed. It was the king’s voice. The corpse was preserved instead of being cremated. On the appointed day the king’s organ stiffened and Bhadra had intercourse with her dead husband, giving birth to seven sons afterwards.

Dwarika was incensed, a flame shooting up inside his head. Every drop of blood in his body seemed inflammable now, the fire spreading through his arteries and veins. Someone else was in control of Dwarika at these moments, a primitive man from thousands of years ago. How dare he! He had actually fondled and assaulted the dead woman, the rogue had defiled the corpse. A roar emerged from Dwarika’s throat—you necrophiliac!

Panchu was no less shocked. Overcome with anger at being interrupted, he jerked away from the dead body and charged towards, looking like an ape without his clothes.

Dwarika took two steps forward and aimed a mighty blow at Panchu’s jaw. His strong and muscular hand struck the young man’s face like a sledgehammer. Panchu collapsed on the floor.

Picking up a scalpel, Dwarika drew it sharply across both of Panchu’s cheeks. He screamed in pain.

Baiju had come running from the front gate. ‘What’s the matter, saab?’

He was astonished to see the naked Panchu, and even more puzzled to see him bleeding. Unable to grasp what was happening, he muttered, ‘Hai siyaram…’

The sight of blood brought Dwarika back to his senses. The fellow could well be mentally unabalanced. Beating him up would not cure him; he needed treatment.