A reading of a society

A glance at Hansan Manzar’s novelette Waba in the context of the current pandemic

Dr Hasan Manzar’s novelette Waba (Pestilence) is the story of a hospital in Karachi. Though the writer does not mention the year when the story takes place, from the narrative one gathers that it is set in the early 1960s.

Manzar wrote it in 2008 and dedicated it to “All those who fight against the pandemic that has engulfed most of the weak countries in the world”. In today’s world the pandemic of Covid-19 has targeted the strong and the weak alike. Manzar successfully depicts the struggle waged by doctors, nurses, and paramedical staff who put their own lives at stake to save the general public.

In Waba, the doctors and nurses can barely cope with the worsening situation. The attitudes of the general public are mainly based on superstition. Most parents bring their children to hospital in precarious conditions, after exhausting all amulets, exorcism, incantations, and magical spells. Manzar writes that not only patients and their relatives but even doctors in the novelette are hostage to unscientific behaviours. Many doctors have degrees in medicine but disagree with some essentials of medicine or simply do not believe in what they practice. We can gather from Waba why today in our fight against coronavirus, Pakistan is witnessing almost the same ignorant behaviours. There are doctors even now who prescribe medicines for you and simultaneously suggest that you recite abracadabra.

However, in Manzar’s narrative, we see a Pakistani hospital where people belonging to various religions don’t feel scared to use their original names. They include Francis and Lobo, Dr Mustafa and Dr Anis. There is a nurse called Sister Hashmi, who was Shanta before the Partition. She is a Mahratta but now known as Sarah Hashmi. There is a Christian Sister Ruth and Jewish Sister Hannah.

The novel is set in a time when we treated nurses with respect and called them sisters. Nobody called them nurses and no one mistook them for houris after getting a dose or two. The social atmosphere exuded harmony which we later lost.

In today’s world the pandemic of Covid-19 has targeted the strong and the weak alike. Manzar

successfully depicts the struggle waged by doctors, nurses, and paramedical staff who put their own lives at stake to save the general public.

Manzar writes: “Dr Mustafa spends with caution and perhaps that quality prevented cordiality between him and his wife. Even a half-used injection was not discarded. He considered any expenses from government account as if it was being spent from his own pocket.”

50 years or so later, how many doctors in government hospitals safeguard public funds in this manner? There are so many other things in the novel that evoke nostalgia. For example, older readers living in Karachi would recall that on Lawrence Road (now Nishtar Road) near Ranchor Lane there was a synagogue which some people called Israel Masjid. It remained there till the 1980s. As I happened to pass by the place some time ago, all I could see were shops on the ground floor and flats above them. The solemn building that once stood there was just no longer there. That’s how we destroy our historical heritage and diversity of our society.

Reading Manzar’s narrative you recall those memorable days. In the novelette you also come across the peculiar Karachi vocabulary of olden days and get a glimpse of the social issues people faced. There is a scene in Waba where a hospital worker goes to Dr Mustafa’s bungalow to switch the lights on. Manzar writes: “When it’s dark, he comes and cleans the lantern and its glass, pours some ghaslate (kerosene), trims the wick and when it’s aglow, he puts the lantern in the veranda…He is always happy to see Sister Hannah and asks, “Sister when are you going to your country? Though Sister Hannah was not born in that country and has never been there.” (Page 24.)

There is a detailed description of how patients suffer from smallpox blisters, many die and some lost their eyesight; many scenes that make your heart bleed. But it also shows how far medical science has come in the past 50 years.

However, even after all the medical advancement, Pakistan is still one of the only two countries in the world where polio survives, mostly due to the sheer ignorance and stubbornness of some people. Sadly, we are witnessing the same kinds of attitudes with the current coronavirus situation. There is no dearth of ignoramuses who misguide the people openly by saying that coronavirus will do them no harm. There are so many who refuse to listen to sensible advice.

Manzar’s novelette Waba is barely 100 pages long but it improves the reader’s understanding of our society. Manzar is a huge name in Pakistani Urdu literature of recent decades. The readers may like to collect his other books Jaan Ke Dushman. Aik aur Aadmi and Insaan ka Desh. This is all good literature giving us a picture of Pakistan, its people, and their attitudes.


The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990. He can be reached at [email protected]

A reading of a society: A glance at Hansan Manzar’s novelette Waba in the context of the current pandemic