Review: The Quarantine Papers

March 27, 2011
Author: Kalpish Ratna
Publisher: Harper Collins India
Year: 2010
ISBN: 9788172239145
Rating: ★★★★☆
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The Quarantine Papers is many things – a deftly plotted mystery that flirts with the speculative; a searing indictment of the communal hatred that has always throbbed under the ephemeral skin that is India shining; a dirge to a magnificent city repeatedly abused by its denizens; the chronicle of one man’s cross generational journey towards closure and the greater purpose he was always meant for. Charting events that unfold in Mumbai in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, ‘Quarantine..’ is at once a gripping thriller, a love story (or three) and a disturbing portrait of a people divided.

On the day a distant act of premeditated vandalism causes Mumbai to erupt in violence, young microbiologist Ratan Oak discovers that his crippling migraine attacks are, in fact, a portal of sorts, allowing him to relive the life of his own great-grandfather, Ramratan, a trained physician in the late 1800s, with a gift for forensic examination. Seguing between the horrific violence he witnesses first hand in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, and the darker secrets lurking in Ramratan’s life, Ratan soon finds himself racing against time – and across it – to discover the truth behind the mysterious death of an old woman, the fate of a pair of star crossed lovers, and the disappearance of a few vials of terrifyingly lethal bacterial spores.

‘Quarantine..’ hurtles breathlessly between two different time frames and traces a path that includes secret pacts, violent outbreaks of disease (biological and fanatical), a quest for a biological weapon, three separate love stories doomed by religious bigotry, and a huge cast of characters that include historical figures from India’s colonial past. A fraction of these elements would be daunting for lesser writers, but in the hands of its gifted authors, 'Quarantine..' makes this journey with effortless ease and unwavering pace, to conclude on a note at once cathartic and beguilingly open ended.

I say ‘authors’ because Kalpish Ratna is really two people – Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, both surgeons and prolific writers best known for their articulate newspaper columns and books for young readers. Swaminathan, in addition, has several books to her credit, including the Lalli mysteries, the gripping‘Ambrosia for Afters’ and ‘Venus Crossing’, an elegant collection of short stories that won the Vodaphone-Crossword Award for fiction in 2010. ‘The Quarantine Papers’, the duo’s most ambitious fictional venture so far, was inspired by their research for an earlier work of non-fiction about epidemics and their management in British-ruled Mumbai; it is easily their best work of fiction as well. Readers left in thrall of this dazzling book, and bereft in its wake may take heart – “Quarantine..” is the first in a series of atleast ten Ratan/ Ramratan mysteries that the authors plan to write.

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