Guest-Editorial: Epidemics/Pandemics and Literature
By Nishi Pulugurtha
Living in the times of COVID-19, certain words have now become commonplace. The two-year-old who comes visiting her maternal grandmother, my neighbour, refuses to go outdoors without a mask. On social media, I see a video that has little children press a pole, a bottle, a jar, a fence, whatever they see and emulate the act of sanitization. Eleven months since the lockdown we are still unsure of how things are going to be. The pandemic has wrecked lives and destroyed livelihoods. Vast changes in all aspects of life are already clearly visible, in economic systems and various institutional processes.
Etymologically the word ‘pandemic’ has its roots in Greek and is a combination of two words: ‘pan’ meaning ‘all’ and ‘demos’ meaning ‘people’. The word has often been used interchangeably with the word epidemic. Chinmay Tumbe in The Age of Pandemic notes:
For a disease to become an epidemic, it must suddenly affect many members of a community at the same time. Time, that is, simultaneity, matters more than space, or geographic coverage.
But for an epidemic to become a pandemic, both time and space are equally important, that is, the disease has to spread across a sufficiently wide geographical region to be declared a pandemic. (2)
As Tumbe writes, “An English language dictionary in 1775 defined ‘pandemic’ as an adjective derived from Greek that meant ‘incident to a whole people’. The word was rarely used in the way it is used today, and ‘pandemic love’ was a phrase used to describe forms of vulgar love.” Tumbe further writes, “The words mari or maari have been used for epidemics for many centuries now, in large parts of India. Mahamaari, now used for the word ‘pandemic’, is clearly mentioned in the 19th century to describe plague in northern India.” Tumbe’s work published in 2020, the year of the pandemic, focuses on India in the period between 1817 and 1920, a time when India had to deal with three pandemics – cholera, plague and influenza.
Literary texts which deal with pandemics hold up before us examples of how things have been managed before in times of similar crises, as well as ideas about how we might restructure our societies in their aftermath. They reveal to us life in times of crises and aspects of human behaviour. There has always been literature of pandemic because there have always been pandemics and epidemics. What is characteristic of literary works in which epidemics feature is an attempt to try and make some sense of meaning out of the experiences of life in pandemic times – panic, fear, and hopelessness that characterize the times. Pandemic literature does not seek to analyse the reasons for the pestilence; rather the narratives and stories work as a reminder, that in spite of the quarantine, the physical distancing, the isolation, and all the fear, there is a sense in things around us – if not anywhere else, at least in the stories we tell and write.
As we try to hold on and deal with the immense changes that are happening around us, in a world where the virus controls much of our lives, it is definitely compelling to examine the way pandemics/epidemics have been presented in literature. Virginia Woolf, who dealt with so much illness and whose health suffered due to the 1918 virus, writes in her essay “On Being Ill” how illness and the body are left out of our art and conscious experiences. COVID-19 has changed that. Disease, death and mortality are issues that face us on a regular basis. We talk about death rates, mortality percentages, statistics and the like.
Literary texts that deal with pandemics/epidemics are many. Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353), Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (1939), Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi (1940), Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947), Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (1958), Octavia E. Butler’s Survivor (1978), Philip Roth’s Nemesis (2010), Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Masque of Red Death” (1842), Munshi Premchand’s short story “Idgah,” and “Doodh Ka Daam”, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s “Rebati”, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s novel, Thottiyude Makan, in the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, to mention some of them. It is interesting to see the kind of literary works that COVID-19 pandemic will result in. Already one notices a lot of poetry, short fiction and essays where life in the present pandemic times is reflected – the Decameron 2020 project, Quarantined Sonnets by Tabish Khair, Intimations by Zadie Smith, And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again, A Thousand Cranes for India, among other works. However, as Tabish Khair notes, “It is obvious that the profusion of pandemic writing is not simply the index of a world fighting a virus. It is also an index of the capacity to be secluded and indulge in creative activities in relative safety. In that sense, it is an index of privilege” (“Inside the Tortoise: On the literary responses to the ongoing pandemic,” The Hindu, 19 December 2020).
This issue of Café Dissensus on Epidemics/Pandemics and Literature consists of essays that discuss the way pandemics/epidemics have been represented in literary texts and the way they feature in the narrative and/or influence it. Literature, to use a cliché, holds up a mirror to us. That is true of epidemics as well. Literature takes us beyond figures and statistics to reveal how the crises affect the lives of individuals. It also shows the similarity in human response over the centuries and across geographical spaces.
Photo: Nishi Pulugurtha
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. Her areas of interest are British Romantic literature, Indian writing in English, diaspora literature and Shakespeare adaptations in film. She has published papers in refereed international and national journals and books. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of travel essays, Out in the Open (2019). She guest edited the June 2018 issue of Café Dissensus on Travel: Cities, Places, People. Her recent book is an edited volume of essays on travel, Across and Beyond (2020) and a volume of poems The Real and The Unreal and Other Poems (2020). She also writes short stories and on Alzheimer’s Disease. She is Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata.
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Thank you, Nishi, for that lucid and apposite Foreword.