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'Quarantine': A 1940 Story on a Sanitation Worker and His Mission

Is the sanitation worker beyond death, disease and quarantine?

Originally written in Urdu, this short story is about a sanitation worker and his engagements with the quarantine centre of his town. In his interactions with the doctor, the disease, the deaths it has caused, the mandatory quarantine and the people in the locality, there is uncanny resonance with these times.

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The fear of plague had spread its tentacles everywhere in the same way as a cloud of haze takes over the fields under the foothills of Himalaya. Every child in the city shivered at the word plague.

Plague was scary but ‘quarantine’ was scarier. People were more afraid of going into quarantine than getting infected by the plague. This was perhaps the reason why the Health Department of the city had added one more term to the life size advertisements that it had pasted on almost every door and wall of the city. The slogan which earlier read, ‘No Rats, No Plague’, now displayed ‘No Rats, No Plague, No Quarantine’.

The fear of quarantine among the people was justified. As a practicing doctor I can say that the number of deaths due to quarantine was not less than deaths due to plague. However, ‘Quarantine’ is not a disease, it was the name of a large building where infected people were kept separately from the healthy people so that the disease could not spread further.

Even though there were enough doctors and nurses in the Quarantine, as the number of infected increased, it became nearly impossible for them to attend to all those who were admitted. In the absence of any loved ones to take care of them, I saw many patients losing their will to live. A large number of people died several times before their actual death as they were surrounded by dying people. The atmosphere inside Quarantine was so bad that those afflicted by other diseases too lost their lives.

The last rites of the dead bodies were carried out according to the rules and regulations of Quarantine, and not according to the traditions and customs of the deceased. Hundreds of bodies would be dragged and thrown into a heap, whose height kept rising. The mass of dead bodies was then set to fire after being doused in petrol. As the the red flames of the fire rose to mix with the red flames of the sun, it appeared to the patients as if the entire world had caught fire.

There was another reason for the increasing deaths. The fear was so strong that even when anyone developed symptoms of plague, the person, along with their family, would hide the case so that they would not be taken to Quarantine. Not only that, since doctors had been instructed to keep an eye on their locality and report about all new cases to the higher authorities, people stopped consulting doctors completely. Cases would come to the notice of anyone only when, amidst the wails of people, a corpse would leave the threshold for cremation.

In those days, I was working as a doctor in the Quarantine and the fear of plague had gripped my senses. After returning from Quarantine in the evening, I would keep washing my hands for a long time with carbolic soap and gargled with another medicine or drink extremely hot coffee or brandy which used to burn my stomach. Due to this newly acquired habit, I started having sleepless nights and dark circles made an appearance below my eyes. Often I took medicines that would make me vomit to clear out my system. The excess consumption of hot coffee and brandy often caused inflammation in my stomach and high fever. As the fever took over my senses, I would start expecting the worst. Even a slightly scratchy throat would trigger a series of emotions… Oh! Finally I too have fallen prey to this fatal disease…plague and then, quarantine!

Also read: What an 80-Year-Old Short Story Tells Us About Ethics During Quarantine

It was around the same time that one day, William Bhagu Khakrup, who had recently converted to Christianity and used to clean our locality, came to me and said, “Babuji…The unbelievable has happened. Today, an ambulance came to our locality and took away 21 people who were ill.”

“21? In an ambulance..?”, I asked, taken aback.

“Yes, yes, total 20 and 1… they will also be sent to Kontin (quarantine)… Ohhh! Will they never return?”

On enquiring a bit further, I found out that Bhagu would wake up at 3 in the morning every day. After downing half a bottle of liquor, he would start pouring lime on the streets and drains of the colony as per the instructions of the authorities, so that the pandemic could not spread. Bhagu told me that waking up at 3 o’clock also meant that he had to collect the dead bodies of those who had passed away at the market place. He would also run errands for the residents who were too scared to step out due to the plague. He, however, did not fear the plague. He used to say, once death comes for him, he won’t be able to escape, even if he ran away.

At a time when everyone was keen maintaining distance from each other, Bhagu would cover his head and face, and continued to provide his services without fear. Even though he was illiterate, he would advise people on the preventive measures to be taken to save oneself from getting infected based on his experience. He used to advise people to maintain cleanliness, spray lime and stay at home as much as possible. One day, I even heard him advising someone to drink alcohol to prevent from getting infected. That day when he came to my house, I asked him, “Bhagu don’t you have any fear of the plague?”

“No Babuji…nothing can happen to me. You are such a big doctor, you have treated thousands of people. But even you won’t be able to save me from this disease once I get it. Don’t mind me saying, but that is the truth.”

And then, as if trying to divert the discussion, he asked, “Tell me something about Kontin, Babuji…Kontin…”

“Thousands of infected people are now in Quarantine. We try to treat them as much as possible. But its difficult. Even those who are working with me are afraid of spending a long time with the infected patients. Their throats dry up and they lose their voice due to fear. No one goes as close to the patients as you do. No one wants to put their life in danger as you do… Bhagu! God bless you! You are doing a great service to the people.”

Bhagu hung his head in shame and removed the cloth covering his face, to reveal a deep flush caused by heavy alcohol consumption. Then he said, “Babuji, I am not worth anything. If I can be of service to anyone, then that would be my fortune. Babuji, senior pastor Labe (Reverend Monit Lam, Abbey), who often comes to our locality to give sermons says that Jesus Christ teaches us to serve the diseased patients till our last breath…I think…”

I wanted to provide words of encouragement to Bhagu, but overcome by emotion, no words came out. His self-confidence and approach towards life inspired me a lot. I decided that today onwards I will do my best to treat the sick people in Quarantine and save as many lives. I will serve them till my last breath. But, doing is not as easy as saying. Once I reached Quarantine, the conditions of the infected patients and the fear of the droplets of sneeze reaching me shook me to my bones. I could not be as brave as Bhagu.

A quarantined area during the bubonic plague outbreak, Karachi, 1897. Photo: Wellcom Collection/CC BY-SA 3.0

Still, that day I managed to work better than usual in with Bhagu’s help. Whenever it was required to touch the body of the infected person or come closer to them, I asked Bhagu to do that and he did that without any hesitation…I still kept my distance from the patients. I was still scared of death and and more of quarantine.

But was Bhagu beyond both death and quarantine?

That day, around 400 new patients came to Quarantine and 250 of them died.

It was only because of Bhagu’s fearlessness that I could save many lives that day. The chief medical officer’s room had a graph which showed the rate of recovery of patients. In that graph, the line showing the number of patients who were recovering under me was on an upward curve. I used to search for opportunities to visit the office of the chief medical officer everyday and feel happy looking at the line which was slowly moving towards a hundred percent success rate.

One day, I drank more than usual. My heart started beating fast. I became very nervous and started running helter skelter. I started doubting that the infection has finally caught me and soon lymph nodes would start appearing on my neck and thighs. I was very scared. That day I thought of running away from Quarantine. The whole time that I spent in Quarantine, I was extremely nervous and met Bhagu only twice throughout the day.

In the afternoon, I saw him in the grip of one of the patients he was caring for. The patient held him as tightly as he could and said, “Brother, Allah is our master. Not even an enemy should be brought to this place. My two daughters …..”

Bhagu cut short the man and said, “Thank Jesus Christ, brother…you look healthy.”

“Yes brother, its the grace of God…I am better now. If I was not in Quarantine…”

The man had barely uttered these words when his arteries started pulsating. He began retching violently and spitting. His eyes hardened. After repeated strokes, the very patient, who had looked fine moments ago, was silenced forever. Tears appeared in Bhagu’s eyes. Except Bhagu, there was no one else to cry for him. He was the sole relative of everybody in Quarantine. He used to shed tears for everyone…

One day he approached Jesus Christ and implored Him to punish him for all the sins committed by humanity. He even offered his life in exchange for saving humanity.

The same day around evening, Bhagu came running to me. He was breathing fast and was groaning in pain. He said, “Babuji…this Kontin is hell. Hell. Pastor Labe used to give an exactly similar account of hell in his sermons…”

I said, “Yes brother, this is worse than hell…I am looking for an opportunity to run away from this place…I am not feeling well today.”

“Babuji, nothing could be worse than this…one patient who had lost consciousness because of fear of infection was declared dead and his body was thrown into the heap with other dead bodies. When petrol was poured onto the bodies and it was set on fire, I noticed him moving his hands and legs. I immediately jumped into the fire to save the man. Babuji! He was burned badly…My left hand also got burned while saving him.”

I saw Bhagu’s hand. The whitish flesh was left exposed after the skin was burnt. I became very angry. I asked, “Is he alive? Then..?”

“Babuji… he was a very good man. No one could take advantage of his kind heart and innocence. Despite being in terrible pain, he lifted his burnt face and looking at me through eyes that were almost dead, he thanked me.”

“And Babuji…” Bhagu continued, “Right after that, he was in so much agony…I had never before seen anyone dying like that… he died. It would have been better if I had not tried to save him from the fire. By trying to save him, I actually put him through a lot of pain. Now, I have thrown his body into the same heap of dead bodies with these same burnt arms of mine.”

He could not continue anymore. He stammered despite his pain, “Do you know…to which disease…he lost his life? Not plague…to Kontin…to Kontin!”

Even though attempts were were being made to supply people with all the essentials possible under these hellish circumstances, but in the middle of the night, as silence overtook everything, the screams of mothers, wives, sisters and children rent the air, creating a horrifying atmosphere in the town. At the time, when even a healthy person like me was suffering from anxiety, one can easily imagine the suffering and pain of the people who were ill inside their homes and could not see anything except despair. And then, there were those who were in Quarantine, who could see Death himself, who were holding on to dear life just as someone holds on to the top of a tree in a storm and the rising waves are trying to drown even that last resort.

The page containing the dedication and preface of the volume of Bedi’s stories among which is ‘Quarantine’.

One day, I did not go to Quarantine out of fear. I gave an excuse that I had some essential errands to run. However, I was not at ease, I kept thinking that my visit may have saved some lives. But, fear had taken over mind and all other senses in such a way that I could not come out of it. By evening, I was informed that today around five hundred new patients had arrived at Quarantine.

I was about to get into my bed after finishing my scorching hot coffee, that I heard Bhagu at the door. When the helper opened the door, Bhagu came in panting and said, “Babuji…my wife is ill…a swollen lymph node has appeared on her neck…for the sake of God please save her…our one and half year old son is dependent on her milk, he will also die.”

Rather than being sympathetic, I asked him, “Why did not you come earlier…has the disease begun only now?”

“When I had left for Kontin…she had only got a minor fever…”

“Great…she was ill and you still went to Quarantine?”

“Yes Babuji…” Bhagu said, shivering, “She had a minor illness. I thought may be she got the fever because of her breast milk…she did not have any other problem…and both my brothers were there with her in the house…and hundreds of patients were helpless in the Quarantine…”

“So because of your compassion and sacrifices you have finally brought the disease into your own house. I had told you a number of times to not go so close to the patients in the Quarantine…See, today I have not gone there just because of this. It’s all your fault. What can I do now? You are very brave, now you have to pay for your bravery. When there are hundreds of patients in the town…”

Bhagu said earnestly, “But Jesus Christ …”

“Get away from here…you and your Jesus Christ …you knew everything and yet wanted to play with fire. Now why should I face the consequences? This is not how sacrifices are made. I cannot help you with anything at this time of the night.…”

“But Pastor Labe…”

“Go away.… If the Pastor was there…”

Bhagu left sadly. After around half an hour, when my anger ebbed, I was filled with remorse. What a fool I was, to be worrying after he had left. The only appropriate punishment for me was to set aside my ego and rush towards Bhagu’s house to treat his wife after apologising for my behaviour. I hurriedly changed my clothes and reached his house…when I reached there, I saw both his brothers taking his ill wife out of the house on a bed… I asked Bhagu, “Where are you taking her?” He whispered, “Kontin”.

“So, now Quarantine is no longer hell for you…Bhagu?”

“Babuji, you refused to come, what could I have done? I thought doctors in Quarantine will at least treat her in some way and give some medicines to her. I will also take care of her along with other patients there.”

“Keep her here on the bed… you are still thinking about serving other patients…you fool…”

They kept the bed inside the house. I gave her the best medicine I had and started our battle against the plague. Bhagu’s wife opened her eyes.

Overwhelmed by emotions, Bhagu burst out, “I will never be able to repay you, Babuji.”

I said, “I am ashamed of my behaviour, Bhagu. I hope God will bless you for your services by giving your wife a new life.”

Just at that moment, I saw my enemy, the plague, raising its hood again. Bhagu’s wife became unstable. Her pulse started weakening. The disease was winning. I was losing. I hung my head in shame and said, “Bhagu! You unfortunate soul! Your sacrifice has been repaid in a strange manner!”

Bhagu started crying.

I will never forget that tortuous scene when he wrenched his howling son away from his mother, now separated forever and grimly told me to go back.

I had assumed that after going through so much pain, Bhagu will not think of helping others again. I was stunned to find him in Quarantine the very next day, serving the patients as diligently as ever. He saved hundreds of lives…while not caring for his own. I, too, was inspired by him to work harder. After finishing my duty in the hospital and Quarantine, I started visiting the poorer localities of the city to treat the people there. Most of these localities were dirty and located near filthy drains, which made them a hotbed of the plague and other diseases.

Soon the fear of the disease subsided. The entire town was cleaned thoroughly. Not a single rat could be seen on the streets. Occasionally, one or two cases emerged but they were immediately taken care of, thus, preventing it from spreading further.

The economic activities in the town resumed, schools, colleges and offices started functioning.

One thing I felt very intensely was that every time I visited the market, all eyes would turn towards me, with a sense of gratitude. The newspapers carried my photographs along with articles commending my work. The shower of praises from all sides filled me with a sense of arrogance or even vanity.

Finally, a lavish programme was organised where all the doctors and the who’s who of the town were invited. The chief medical officer chaired the programme. I found pride of place next to the chair, as the event had been organised in my honour. My neck was weighed down by garlands and my appearance became very different. I looked around, very pleased with myself… the committee thanked me and gave me Rs 1,001 as a reward for my services to humanity.

All the people present at the programme heaped praises on my fellow workers, and particularly appreciated my efforts during the crisis. They said that no words were enough to match the countless lives I had saved. I worked tirelessly without giving a thought to whether it was day or night; I worked as if my life is the life of the nation and my wealth is the wealth of the nation. I went to the houses of the patients in the worst affected areas and treated them!

The chief medical officer, stood up on the dais and with a thin stick, drew everyone’s attention to the graph hanging on the left side of the wall. The graph showed that the number of people recovering from the disease was increasing daily. In the end, he showed the point when hundred percent recovery was achieved. A total of 54 patients had been placed under me and all of them had been cured. That was the highest point of my success.

This was followed by the chief medical officer praising my courage and announcing that Mr Bakshi was being promoted to the post of Lieutenant Colonel.

The entire hall resounded with claps and words of praise.

While the clapping continued, I rose slowly and gave a long speech thanking the chairman of the committee and the people present there. I also pointed out that the attention of all the doctors and medical staff in the town was not limited to the hospitals and Quarantine, instead they were equally dedicated towards the poor residing in the slums. They were the most helpless section and had lost the most during the pandemic. With the help of my fellow workers, we zeroed in on the places which had emerged as the hotspots of the disease and tried to nip the disease in the bud. After returning from Quarantine and hospitals, we spent our nights in those horrifying places.

That day, as I returned home decorated as a Lieutenant Colonel, my neck adorned with garlands, and the Rs 1,001 gift in my pocket, I heard a small whisper saying, “Babuji…many, many congratulations.”

As he wished me, Bhagu kept the same old broom to the side and removed the cloth covering his face. I was rooted to the spot.

“You…? Brother Bhagu!”

I could barely speak. “Even if the world doesn’t know you, let it be…but I know you…Jesus knows you…the great disciple of Pastor Lam, Abe…god’s grace will always be with you…!”

My throat turned dry. The faces of his dying wife and his child swam in front of my eyes. My neck was bent under the burden of those garlands and the weights of the money tore through my pockets. And then…despite gaining so much recognition, I broke away and started mourning this ungrateful world!

Translated from Urdu to English by Upasana Hazarika and Sanjeev Kumar. Read the short story in Urdu here.