Calamity in literature

Writing is an act of creating order out of disorder, coherence out of chaos and an attempt at making absurdity bearable

(Calamity doesn’t occur momentarily, it is a product of years of nurturing. — Qabil Ajmeri

Calamities, pandemics, and wars are an abrupt, devastating performance of a ‘competence’ constituted by an overall world view of society. The question is: what happens to a competence when a performance is in unusual yet full swing? Maybe, if performance is there, on the scene, manifesting its power with all its dreadfulness and destructiveness, competence is severed from the performance.

In simple words, in times of wars and pestilence the old order of peacetime is flung into suspension or experiences disorder. There are no clear-cut answers as the overwhelming calamity leaves little room for the kind of reflection that can result in a reliable cause-and-effect analysis.

However, our experience of calamity and its representation in creative literature tends to confirm that present disorder and its auxiliaries like uncertainty, disorientation, confusion, fear, gloominess etc originate in the order of the past. Disorder sprouts from within, like chaotic dreams that come from well-organised minds. What is more significant currently is that the well-planned order for globalisation seems to be on the verge of collapse. Borders are closed; free mobility, a hallmark of the globalised world, has ceased and the recent chain of events augurs no certainty for the near future. Only virtual mobility reins the socially distanced, quarantined individuals. In our own country, we are seeing a conflict of ideas regarding putting off religious congregations: a performance representing the competence of an ideological state.

Writing literature, too, is an act of creating order out of disorder and coherence out of chaos. It is an attempt to make absurdity bearable by describing it in a meaningful manner. So, it is not surprising to see that some of the great works of literature were produced in the backdrop of wars, epidemics, earthquakes and other calamities. A significant feature of the greatness of literature produced in times of crisis is the way it adapts to deal with human suffering.

The quote on Library Walk from Camus's The Plague

Sorrow represents one face of the coin that is suffering. The other side is a site where metaphysical, ethical and existential questions about the origin and reason of suffering are registered and debated. It might seem bizarre to be engaged in such philosophical questions while people are dying and need help, but the emergence of such questions makes sense. Suffering hits not only our corporeal bodies but our egos too. “Why me?” is a question asked by every tormented soul. The effort to discover the origin of our suffering is meant to salvage our anxiety-ridden egos.

The prototypal site of the debate about the origin of suffering is supernatural/abstract and corporeal/experiential. Every society inherits this prototypal site, but it is the historical trajectory of each society that shapes the mode, intensity, and norms of the debate over its origin.

Thinking in supernatural terms leads to the idea that sufferings unleashed on humans by natural calamities are the price of the crime humans commit in violating the will and order of their Creator. For instance, in the Holy Bible a plague is depicted as one of the punishments for sin. Voltaire, the French enlightenment-era writer, registered the same point in his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster written in the backdrop of the earthquake which destroyed Lisbon in 1755. He was disparagingly referring to the priests and philosophers insisting that ‘All is well’.

“Seeing this mass of victims, will you say,

“God is avenged. Their death is the price of their crime?

“What crime, what fault had the young committed,

“Who lie bleeding at the mother’s breast?”

In Urdu, we have Nazir Ahmad’s novel Tauba tan Nasooh (Repentance of Nasooh) written in 1874. Set in Delhi in the 1860s, it revolves around a moral reform project initiated by the protagonist, Nasooh, after, his recovery from cholera. He watches his late father – a victim to the epidemic – in his dream soon after surviving from cholera. The father shares with him a list of sins he had been guilty of. “Alam-e-asbaab mein reh kar asbaab-parast ho gia” (living in the material world, one became a materialist) is the crux of the long speech. Being a materialist, is thus the origin of sins and wrongdoing.

Our experience of calamity and its representation in creative literature tend to confirm that present disorder and its auxiliaries like uncertainty, disorientation, confusion, fear, gloominess etc, all originate in the order of the past.

In simple terms, the state of one’s faith and not some microbiological organisams, is the source of one’s sufferings. The idea not only recurs in popular Urdu literature of colonial and postcolonial periods but also lies at the heart of the debate that began in the late 19th century and has gone on. The novel shows how a resuscitated belief in the religionist explanation of the world gets heightened in times of pestilence and inculcates a missionary zeal among believers to initiate a moral reform project. The disorder caused by the common, yet unusually strong fear of death is used thus as an opportunity to promote ideological agenda.

The same happens in Albert Camus’s The Plague, first published in English in 1948. It narrates the story of a plagued Oran. Excerpts from Father Paneloux’s speech delivered from the pulpit of Oran’s cathedral show how people’s misery was interpreted as the flail of God. The plague, according to this narrative, was not a natural phenomenon – the work of microbiological entity; rather it was a punishment for the sinful. The sufferers deserved no sympathy and there was no need to do anything to lessen their pain or cure their disease. One only needed to learn the lesson: “the lesson that was learned by Cain and his offspring, by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, by Job and Pharaoh, by all that hardened their hearts against Him.” This way Father Paneloux seeks to uphold the Bible as the sole authoritative text to interpret everything that happens under the sky and to brush away any texts produced by humans that might claim to offer an understanding of natural phenomena and the social world. For him, the plague was a great opportunity to lead up the sufferers to giving in to the command of truth – the origin. Paneloux’s views are challenged by Dr Rieux who remains busy in his hospital, curing the patients. “Do you believe in God, Doctor?” asks Tarrou, a journalist visiting the fatigued doctor’s house in the evening.

“No – but what does that really mean? I’m fumbling in the dark, struggling to make something out. But I have long ceased finding that original,” answers the doctor. “Isn’t that it – the gulf between Paneloux and you?” Tarrou puts another question. What Rieux says in his reply is the summation of a worldview:

“I doubt it. Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn’t come to contact with the death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of truth – with a capital T. But every country priest who visits the parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do.”

Dr Rieux tells Tarrou that it was the suffering of dying people that drove him to form his ideas. In Faiz’s words “Bara hae dard ka rishta, ye dil ghareeb sahi”. Suffering can remove all kinds of distinctions, differences and hierarchies established by our racial, national, gender, ideological or religious identities. Common sufferings tend to unite people while ideologies cause splits. In times of suffering, we are closer to humanity.

The following couplet of Mirza Ghalib can be read in response to any of the calamities or the necessity to be quarantined.

(Let’s move to a place where there is no one else. No one to share our thoughts and none to know our feelings.)

Rajindar Singh Bedi’s Urdu short story Quarantine describes how bravely William Bhago, a sweeper, served patients of a plague in quarantine and lost his wife. An Daata (Benefactor), a short story by Karishan Chandar depicts the hard-hearted response of colonial rulers to the miseries of famine-ridden Bengalis. This story also shows that a calamity and its representation may be quite different: representation is a highly volatile ‘place’. It has equal potential to disrupt or strengthen the existing political order. That is why the elite never let the representation of a calamity take a fact-based course.

The kinds of psychological and existential behaviours shown by common folk in times of pandemics have been dealt with in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, José Saramago’s Blindness among other stories. There are diverse behavioural responses registered in these stories of epidemics. They range from fear, irrationality, avarice and jealousy to true love and indulgence in bizarre joyousness – all in their unusual, disorderly outpourings.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Rakh say Likhi Gai Kitab , among others. He teaches Urdu at Punjab University.

Calamity in literature