Despite its flaws, Sidin Vadukut’s latest book is a fine medical thriller – a race against time as an epidemic spreads through Mumbai.
Sidin Vadukut, who made his initial mark with the quirkily humorous Dork series, branches out with a medical thriller titled Bombay Fever. As an epidemic ravages the city, leaving death and horror in its wake, everyone is in a race against time to figure out a way to prevent more deaths.
The story begins in Switzerland, where, during a business trip, a journalist named Hormazd comes into contact with a deadly bacterium that has claimed its first victim. Terrified by the manner of her death – “disintegration into a puddle of gore” – Hormazd rushes back to Mumbai, and in the process, the bacteria strain reaches India, mutates, and slowly starts spreading through Mumbai, wreaking havoc in process. People are clueless about its symptoms, medical professionals are helpless and the number of deaths start rising. It is not just the apparently certain death, but also the manner of death that scares everyone. City doctors and government officials try to fight and contain the epidemic.
During the initial phase of the spread of an epidemic, the agent evolves slowly and moves from victim to victim at a relatively slow pace, until the tipping point is reached, after which the spread is extremely fast. The pace of the book mimics this very well. During the first one-third of the book, the context is slowly set. Once that mark is reached, the pace picks up and stays high, making it really hard to set the book aside.
Many innocent people die for no fault of theirs and this is brilliantly brought out through brief stories of the victims. These are regular people, including doctors, hotel managers, advertising professionals and maids. Their panic, horror and misery brings alive the human impact of a catastrophe. These are stories of death, of the pharmaceutical black market, of political backstabbing and of people willing to kill unknown strangers to ensure their own survival. Stories like that of a MNC executive, who runs from pillar to post in the hope of getting some medicines for his children, only to be turned away by goons who are hoarding the remaining stock. He finally kills his neighbour and takes his stash of medicines. The sheer sense of helplessness, fear, chaos and despair conveyed in these stories is phenomenal.
Anil Bansal is a doctor whose clinic is crowded with patients who have nowhere else to go. One by one, he starts losing his patients and he loses hope. When a young boy is breathing his last, he screams, “I don’t know what to do. What do I do for you!” before dropping to his knees and sobbing.
These are also stories of courage, strength and determination of people willing to risk their lives to save others. A chief medical research officer is headed to his lab in order to complete the analysis of medical samples, to determine the pathogen behind the disease and help save lives, but is instead driven to his death by an out-of-control crowd. Despite these setbacks, the rest of the doctors and medical officers continue to search for a solution, determined to end the epidemic and save as many lives as possible.
Also present in Mumbai during the epidemic outbreak is India’s prime minister and Maharashtra’s chief minister. The book follows the actions taken to protect the leaders, as well as actions taken by leaders to protect people. Some delays in seeking help from global organisations is based on the possible impact this could have on India’s image. Disasters can also make or break political careers. There are often opportunities for politicians to further their own individual agendas in the hope of snatching away reins of power from the incumbents. At one point in the book, the prime minister tells his chief security adviser, “Very good. Thank you… you may have ruined my career but you did it for the nation”.
The book is mainly a thriller yet Vadukut’s sense of humour shines through. This clearly comes through in some parts, especially where he covers the impact of WhatsApp in the lives of people stuck between a rock and a hard place. People in the book share fake news and information with each other, mindlessly forward anything and everything, including a message that says, “the disease only affected those who were non-vegetarians,” in the hope that something will save them.
But the book is not without its flaws. The biggest one is that the entire story revolves around the initial death in Switzerland, and how the bacterium makes its way from there to Mumbai. The book’s credibility is stretched considerably when one has to believe that the Swiss police and medical administration would not respond immediately to the horrific death. Given our experience with SARS and swine flu, and India’s cancellation of an Africa-India summit, it is likely that such a health emergency would lead to massive investigation and a full lockdown. Of course, it is possible that a new bacterium, difficult to detect, could still make its way through customs, like illegal goods often do, but this is a small, though glaring, flaw in the initial premise.
That said, the structuring of the book, its pace and its descriptions of normal human beings caught in the midst of a massive calamity, make this a fine medical thriller, adding a feather to the cap of Vadukut’s achievements.
Apoorv Vij works on certification of green buildings and is based out of Delhi.