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Forgotten Difference: Translating Quarantine from Urdu

By Ishan Mehandru

In the early months of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, wrote in The New York Times:

… historically it had always been harder to convince Muslims to tolerate quarantine measures during a pandemic than Christians, especially in the Ottoman Empire. The commercially motivated protests that shopkeepers and rural folk of all faiths tended to raise when resisting quarantine were compounded, among Muslim communities, by issues around female modesty and domestic privacy. Muslim communities at the start of the 19th century demanded “Muslim doctors,” for at the time most doctors were Christians, even in the Ottoman Empire.

Pamuk’s assessment may be historically correct. However, responses to ecological crises such as plagues, cannot be reduced to monolithic contours of caution and self-preservation, even if they are described as nature’s impartial equalizers. Epidemics are shifty phenomena traversing borders and nations, and yet, understanding the depths of their impact requires us to look at them from specific cultural lenses. For instance, the historian Nukhet Varlik points out that within the imperial imagination, plagues were not only discursively identified as originating from Asia, but ‘disease’ became a significant terrain over which the representation of oriental and specifically, Muslim bodies was charted. Building on preconceived notions of Islamic ‘fatalism’, Muslims were thought of as unscientific, irrational, and averse to hygienic practices, leading to a gaping hole in plague scholarship today and carrying an eerie resonance with contemporary biopolitical processes (consider, the Islamophobic panic constructed around the term “Corona Jihad” in India).

Pamuk’s account of “female modesty and domestic privacy” can be critically repositioned after reading a Muslim woman’s travel memoirs. Experiencing severe symptoms while sailing from Jeddah to Constantinople in January 1910, the Begum Sarbuland Jung takes a pity at the doctor her husband has brought to examine her condition:

He gave me some medicine that helped counter the cold, but the fever was running very high. The doctor is English. Poor man is very old, but also very nice. The elderly doctor went himself and got a Turkish Muslim doctor and said, “Let him examine you.” [My translation.]

In the ambivalent nature of a memoir recording, it becomes clear that the question of a Muslim woman’s modesty was in fact historically present but not bindingly uniform. On subsequent days as the Begum rests in recovery, she is never visited solely by a single doctor. Almost all consultations and provisions are conducted under the supervision of both the physicians on-board. Pamuk insists that the Turkish State’s interventions in preventing religious gatherings are more effective today, but this need not rule out the possibility of a collaborative approach in tackling diseases in the past. Is it that the Begum prefers a Muslim doctor to one who is “English”? Or is it that the English doctor does not know how to respond to a Muslim man asking him to examine his wife?

Begum Sarbuland Jung is the publicly used name of Akhtar un-Nissa, drawn from her husband who was the Chief Justice of Deccan Hyderabad. She published her travel memoirs after his death, under the title Duniya Aurat ki Nazar Mein (The World in the Eyes of a Woman), recounting her experiences while travelling through the Middle East and Europe in 1909-10. She describes the everyday lives of the women she encounters as an “Eastern” woman herself – East of the “Middle East”, thereby providing a spatial relationship that challenges contemporary geographical indicators, embedded as they are in global relationships of power. This attention to geography is essential, not only because her writing falls into the genre of a travel memoir, but because a lot of epidemiological research is primarily concerned with ‘tracking’ the disease. Any reading of the plague becomes implicated in questions concerning space – where did the disease come from? How far has it gone? Who has carried it across borders, regions, and continents?

For Begum Sarbuland, who travels through the world to discover its rituals and meets a wide range of people, the prospect of being stuck in quarantine is not so appealing. But contrary to notions of Muslim ‘fatalism’, there is another aspect of fatefulness that the Begum is willing, however unhappily, to put up with. When she hears that the quarantine – going on for five days now – is to be extended, she says:

… We also came to know today that orders have arrived that since the plague has spread in Jeddah, all ships coming from there must go through a ten-day quarantine period… Five days more, then. No point raging against the inevitable.

What is purposeful about these travels – meeting people of differing ethnicities, nationalities, and professions – is also understood with what is “inevitable” about travelling in general: the prospect of waiting, patiently bearing the costs of movement, and circumnavigating the restrictions on their way.

But who can bear these costs and still manage their way onwards? “No point raging against the inevitable” is a meek substitute for a Persian phrase which might literally mean, “the poor man’s rage hurts only himself.” While the Begum is only figuratively ‘poor’, there are people on-board whose social and economic condition implies a very different set of experiences than those recounted by the Begum and Nawab Sahib in their first-class cabins. While she gets to revel in the well-decorated environs of the zenana and the dining hall, play the piano and listen to Turkish gentlemen sing and entertain, is treated by an English and a Turkish doctor who visit her at least twice a day; being quarantined means very different things for travellers in the “third-class”.

When the ship stops near the port at Toor and the quarantine begins, the Begum comes to the upper deck and sees:

Of the passengers travelling in the third-class, the ones who are extremely sick and emaciated have begun to be deported with great difficulty. A few of them are so sick they cannot even walk, and some of them are suffering through pneumonia. It is a strange state of affairs to see that they are being taken off the ship. On the deck where I am, there is a health centre and a doctor present, and yet I can see patients being deported in front of my eyes… About eleven or twelve of them are miserably ailing, but were thrown out with great speed, and put on a departing boat. An old lady came on deck and began seeing this entire drama unfold as well but could only speak in Turkish. I want to talk to her but cannot. She laughed and left.

Perhaps writing about this encounter in her diary is one way of commiserating for her inability to communicate how she feels when she sees the ‘poor man’ suffering. It seems there is not much the Begum can do to change the status quo. However, when she presents the bare life of travellers outside her class and social sphere, we get to read her own experiences in a more nuanced light. When the quarantine period is finally over, and the third-class passengers are allowed to board the ship again, the Begum also notes that “… the servants on this ship are so nice, what can I say? They did a lot of my work.” There is a curious difference with which the sickly passengers of the third-class are talked about, against her own ailment that is largely attributed to being at sea. Here, “disease” or “plague” is as much a class-based experience as a mode of outward suffering. The Begum’s lifestyle as a traveller is constituted by her inability “to talk” about something that affects her, and her dependence on global connections of class. Along with a recognition of who is denied the right to journey as she does, there is also the fact of her life as an upper-class Muslim woman, travelling with a well-connected husband who decides to cut short their journey on the ship, lest they face quarantine again.

Though, as before, evading quarantine measures does not necessarily imply a peculiarly “Muslim resistance” to sanitation. The Nawab’s anxieties can also be understood in the context of a historical relationship between travellers, pilgrims and their run-ins with imperialism. Michael Christopher Low notes that while the hajj pilgrimage and its sea-borne routes came to be recognized as a key channel through which plague epidemics spread, the driving force behind the regulation of these routes, as well as the setting up of multiple quarantine stations, was the expansion of the British Empire. Especially after the 1857 revolt against British occupation in the Indian subcontinent, the maritime routes through the Suez became heavily scrutinized to stay alert to any pan-Islamic connection between the Ottoman empire and anti-colonial Muslims from the Indian subcontinent. Getting down at the Suez port and taking a train to Alexandria then, can be read as another historical manoeuvre on Begum Surbuland’s and Nawab Sahib’s part to toggle their relationship with geography as South Asian Muslims.

If the Begum’s diary has offered us a glimpse into how traveling, social class and imperial forces can contribute to a mutable understanding of disease and quarantine, reading an Urdu short story that sets itself around a North Indian town confronting an epidemic might help us understand the inertia of life in the face of disease. Rajinder Singh Bedi’s short story “Quarantine” has been given new life in light of countries instituting lockdowns across the world. Translated across blogs and adapted for dramatized readings, this story begins by drawing an imagery of movement and stasis: “Like a thick fog that crawls over and blurs everything in the plains lying at the foot of the Himalayas, the terror of plague had spread all over.”

“Blurs” is an appropriate description for an epidemic that makes distinctions between disease and treatment uncertain. As per this story’s narrator, Dr. Bakshi, the real terror of the plague lies not only in the threat of death, but of dying in state-enforced quarantine. The Health and Safety Department puts up life-size posters everywhere to warn citizens of rats, invoking not only the force of incurring the plague, but expanding their injunction to “no rats, no plague, no quarantine.” Such are the tales of the deplorable conditions of these facilities that people would hush up news of disease in their families, for fear of being taken away by town authorities.

Unlike the memoir which compels the recording of time and place, Bedi does not mention the year or the name of the town where Dr. Bakshi speaks from. Perhaps, when it was first published in 1939, the context for the story’s premise was both widespread and self-evident, even if it is forgotten now. Between 1896 and 1921 over thirty million people died due to outbreak of epidemics ranging from the bubonic plague and cholera to smallpox and influenza. The response in dealing with these diseases varied from apprehensions against colonial institutions to religious and caste-based notions. Many people refused to report they had been infected. The colonial government, on its part, did not institute a complete lockdown because the loss of labour would incur heavily on the British exchequer. Instead, it set up spies to report on households suspected of hiding family members who were infected and implemented the “Epidemic Diseases Act” that allowed them to restrict public movement and incarcerate anyone violating government directives. Years later, this act has been resurrected in India to deal with the ongoing pandemic. It is perhaps for this reason that a translation was published in a blog called “Coronablues”, with the following note from the translator:

I have intentionally left the Hindi double honorific and somehow self-humiliating “Babu-ji” untranslated so as to introduce its specific cultural sense, without modifying it… “Babu-ji” is the equivalent of “mister” and “sir” at the same time. It marks the unshakable respect that Bhagu displays, when he talks to a doctor. This usage has almost disappeared in contemporary India.

While the disappearance of this “honorific” is debatable, William Bhagu, the sanitation worker referred to in the above note, is perhaps the other reason this story might feel extremely resonant. After waking up at three in the morning and drinking half a bottle of alcohol, Bhagu goes out to spray disinfectants in the town’s drains. He is one of the few in the town that the doctor observes as “… hardly afraid of the plague. Instead, he believed that if death is around you cannot escape it, wherever you may go.” Bhagu displayed, in the doctor’s eyes, an unwavering commitment to helping people cope with the plague allowing families to stay indoors, carrying out their work and telling them ways to avoid falling sick. The veracity of his recommendations – which include consuming alcohol as a means of precaution – does not seem to bother the doctor. Instead, Bakshi finds himself inspired by Bhagu’s efforts, especially for the patients in quarantine. Bhagu was the only one who was not apprehensive of hugging the patients, motivating them to have faith in their eventual recovery, and mourning the loss of those who did not make it with his tears. This intimacy with sickness is contrasted with the doctor’s own regime of precautions, which he took upon returning home from quarantine, as well as the distance he maintained while treating his patients. Seeing Bhagu’s lack of care for self-preservation, the doctor asks: “Bhagu! Aren’t you afraid of the plague?”

A more accurate translation would be: “Bhagu! Aren’t you at least afraid of the plague?” Fear seems like the common denominator in all the public responses to the epidemics mentioned above. Whether it is the colonial regime’s fear for the loss of cheap labour, native fear for being incarcerated by alien invaders, upper-caste fear for mingling with the wrong caste, fear for the domestic privacy and purity of women across religions, or at the very least, the fear of confronting one’s own mortality in isolation. However, Bhagu is a Dalit, recently converted to Christianity, and as a sanitation worker, a ‘lower-caste’ person, he had to deal with the unwanted aspects of urbanity even when the plague was not around. He belonged to the town’s peripheries, the slums where nobody looked to counter the plague. Is fear an adequate lens to understand lives on the precipice of mortality, where vulnerability is an everyday phenomenon?

Bhagu is rendered a ‘self’-less object since his actions are always oriented towards someone other than himself. One day, the toll of suffering leaves the doctor engulfed with “terror” in his “mind and heart” and his legs “shackled”. He did not report to duty but later in the evening, is visited by Bhagu in a state of emergency. When the doctor learns that Bhagu went to help at the quarantine facility even though his wife was suffering, he scolds him for his “stupidity”. Eventually regretting his angry dismissal, Dr. Bakshi visits Bhagu’s home but is unable to save his wife. However, the sight of Bhagu’s child clinging to his dying mother spurs the doctor to begin tackling the disease at the town’s slums.

As the infection dies down and the town recovers from the ravages of the plague, Dr. Bakshi is felicitated at functions, for going beyond his designated duty and treating patients outside of the government’s quarantine facilities. On such occasions, being praised and garlanded by the town’s dignitaries, he “looked this way and that smugly”, felt immense pride for his efforts and welcomed gratitude from the townspeople. Towards the end of the story, he runs into a faint voice offering him “congratulations” and turns to find Bhagu:

“Oh, it’s you, Bhagu bhai!” I could hardly speak. “The world may not know you, Bhagu, but don’t worry, I know you. Your Jesus knows you…”

My throat went dry. The image of Bhagu’s dying wife and their child flashed before my eyes. It seemed my neck would break under the weight of garlands and my pocket would burst with the weight of my wallet. Despite receiving so much honour, I suddenly felt worthless…

Bhagu’s labour is the story’s subject only in as much as his presence proffers Dr. Bakshi the opportunity to evaluate his own self-worth. His status as a Christian South Asian is invoked only so Bhagu can pray to Jesus to forgive the sins of humanity and rid them of the plague. In addressing the doctor as “Babu ji” and referring to quarantine as “kontin” (another aural dimension of Bhagu’s character that the translation maintains), we are constantly reminded that for Bhagu, the prospect of treatment was always elusive. The quarantine facility is the very “hell” his Christian priest told stories about. When a patient is mistaken to be dead and thrown in with the deceased to be burnt alive, Bhagu tries saving him unsuccessfully. Bhagu’s experiences confirm what the doctor can only narrate: “the plague was deadly but the quarantine was even deadlier.”

Revisiting plague scholarship through translation allows us to see the continued instrumentalization of colonial power in contemporary settings. Perhaps more importantly, recounting forgotten histories of the plague through a diversification of sources helps reflect how globally diffused phenomena such as lockdowns, medical treatments, and quarantines interact with local sites of power. It is interesting, for instance, that Rajinder Singh Bedi’s story is recorded as “Quarantine” and “Plague and Quarantine” across different platforms. It should remind us that for a sanitation worker the difference between the two blurs – what saves some people, kills others.

Note: The author would like to thank Dr. Laura Brueck for her inputs and suggestions.

Works Cited

Acessing Muslim Lives. n.d. Begum Sarbuland Jung. Accessed December 10, 2020.

Bahadur, Begum Nawab Sar-Buland Jang. n.d. Duniya Aurat ki Nazar Mein. Accessed December 9, 2020.

Bedi, Rajinder Singh. n.d. “Quarantine.” Rekhta. Accessed December 9, 2020.

Mahaprashasta, Ajoy Ashirwad. 2020. Outrage as Adityanath Govt Uses Epidemic Diseases Act to Arrest CAA Dissenter. March 27. Accessed December 9, 2020.

Michael Christopher Low, “Empire and the Hajj: Pilgrims, Plagues, and Pan-Islam under British Surveillance, 1865- 1908”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2, 269 – 290, May 2008.

Pamuk, Orhan. 2020. “What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us.” The New York Times. April 23. Accessed December 10, 2020.

Rajinder Singh Bedi, Madhu Singh. n.d. “Quarantine* (Translation: Rajinder Singh Bedi).” Coronablues. Accessed December 9, 2020.

Spinney, Laura. 2018. “Vital Statistics: How the Spanish flu of 1918.” The Caravan Magazine. October 19. Accessed December 9, 2020.

Varlık, Nükhet. 2020. Rethinking the History of the plague in the Time of the Coronavirus. May 29. Accessed December 9, 2020.

Ishan Mehandru is a graduate student in the Comparative Literary Studies program at Northwestern University, USA. He is interested in women’s writings in Hindi-Urdu literature, masculinity studies and contemporary South Asian literature and culture. He can be reached at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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