Plague & Quarantine is an Urdu short story written by Rajindar Singh Bedi (1915-1984). The central character of the story is William Bhagu Khakrub, the sanitation worker of the locality, and the quarantine. The narrator of the story is named Bakshi, a doctor who was appointed to oversee the quarantine to prevent the spread of plague in the town. The story is a dialogue and engagements between the two through quarantine and plague in the city.
Bedi was contemporary to Sadat Hasan Ali Manto and Krishan Chander. He has also written dialogues for several Bollywood films including Mughal-e-Azam and Devdas. He is one of the few Indian literature figures to have written about quarantine.
Separating people infected with transmitting diseases from non-infected population is an ancient practice across the world. During the medieval period, a ship coming from an infected region was quarantined for 30-40 days before the goods or people on it were allowed to exit.
The time and context of imposing quarantine may have changed, they have been implemented with force by authorities. What also did not change is the sense of panic it creates and denying the importance of the role played by sanitation workers while writing about quarantine and pandemics.
In the short story, Rajindar Singh Bedi writes that the total number of deaths caused due to quarantine was higher than deaths due to plague. Incidents he writes about are apparent currently, when a nationwide lockdown has been imposed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. People feared quarantine so much that they did not let doctors or even neighbours know if anyone in the family showed symptoms of plague (fever, cough, cold). He wrote, “The occurrence of infection from plague in any household would only be known when amidst the wails of people, a corpse would leave the threshold for cremation.”
Bedi’s story says even medical workers were afraid of patients and tried to maintain as much distance as possible from them. There is one character in the story who is not afraid of quarantined patients at all: a sanitation worker of the town, Bhagu. A recent Christian convert, Bhagu is a Dalit. He is also the ‘resource person’ of the locality and instructs people on precautions such as maintaining hygiene, spaying chuna (caustic soda/soda ash) regularly and not stepping out of the home.
Bhagu wakes up at 3 am. After drinking half a bottle of liquor, he cleans the locality, removes all the dead bodies and spreads chuna on the streets. Because other people are afraid of stepping out, he does their chores.
One day, when Bhagu is burning the dead bodies, a man who was believed to be dead gains consciousness. Bhagu jumps into the flames and pulls him out. But by then, the man was badly burnt and dies in great pain. Bhagu blames himself for the pain that the person suffered, and says, “Do you know the disease which caused his death? Not plague! It was Kontin (quarantine)! It was Kontin!”
Unlike other people, Bhagu also never hesitated to touch or even hug patients. He used to spend time with the infected, talking to them. He was a friend, some might even say family member, to all the patients in quarantine.
When a person in quarantine dies, Dr Bakshi says Bhagu is the only person who shed tears for the patient. “It was only Bhagu who was close to all of them. He carried pain in his heart for all of them. He used to cry and feel helplessness for each of them,” the doctor observes.
During a medical crisis such as COVID-19, where there is no immediate medical solution to the pain and suffering of both the diseased and others, it is important to take an emotional and loving approach. The people in quarantine/hospitals/homes and most importantly, the streets, may be feeling helpless. If these people can be helped to relate with the helplessness of the others, including medical staff, police, and governments, there could be positive results.
In a country like India, where the public health infrastructure is not equipped to deal with such a crisis, a collective effort of love, care and empathy is required. Perhaps this is what Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee suggested when he mean the police need to be sensitive towards the problem and suffering of the poor on the street. This is what Bhagu stood for, working with empathy.
Bhagu’s commitment to his profession and his sense of responsibility towards society inspires doctor Bakshi. However, the doctor also acknowledges repeatedly that he could never manage to replicate the courage, commitment and empathy that Bhagu has and continues to maintain distance from patients. Dr Bakshi was terrified of going into the quarantine centre. It was Bhagu who assisted the doctor when patients were required to be touched or cared for personally.
The character of Bhagu in the story can be taken as a protagonist who silently questions the work ethics of the medical staff. Similar roles were played in movie Munna Bhai MBBS and in the famous novel Maila Anchal by Phanishwar Nath Renu. In the movie, Sanjay Dutt’s character refuses to see patients as just a biological body and treats them with love and compassion. Similarly, Bhagu inspires and compells Dr Bakshi to look at patients as more than just bodies under treatment. He also forces the doctor to question his work ethics. It was Bhagu who helps the doctor to shift his attention away from increasing his success rate and towards the people in the streets of the city.
Bhagu’s commitment is such that even when his wife is inching towards death, he continue to serve the patients in quarantine. Dr Bakshi is disappointed with Bhagu for neglecting his wife but is also impressed with his commitment towards society. The doctor is also stunned to see Bhagu back at work the very next day after his wife dies. This compels the doctor to extend his work beyond his professional duty as a health worker. The medical staff reaches out to the slums of the town and treats them with love, compassion and commitment. As a result, the entire team of medical staff under Dr Bakshi is felicitated and praised for their work. But Bhagu does not get any recognition.
Around 80 years later, sanitation workers in India are still working in close proximity with infected patients and substances without fear and without even the required protection kits. A PIL had to be filed in the Supreme Court of India to ensure that the rights of the sanitation workers are safeguarded. There have been instances of sanitation workers being released from work without notice or pay. But in his addresses to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi failed to mention a single word for the sanitation workers. Hopefully, they will also be recognised as “warriors” in these times to fight against the pandemic.
However it is good to notice that sanitation workers in Punjab, Haryana and Odisha were greeted with garlands and flowers. The Delhi government announced accidental insurance for health and sanitation workers of the state worth Rs 1 crore. Though, these developments are long overdue, they may help us understand and assert the perspective that Bhagu ha on work ethic. A majority of sanitation workers across India belongs to the Dalit community. The news of an Adivasi sanitation worker from Telangana who donated two months’ salary to the CM Relief Fund should inspire others to understand the Bahujan’s understanding of work and professional ethics.
Sanjeev Kumar is a Program Manager at Tata Institute of Social Science. One can reach to him at email@example.com. He thanks professor Zeya-ul Haq, Thaku Pujari and Upasna Hazarika for translating Rajindar Singh Bedi’s story from Urdu to Hindi, Marathi and English.