Earlier this year I had read Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s last major work of fiction (a novella actually) titled Asani Sanket [Distant Thunder] (1943-45) for an academic conference that was cancelled due to the global pandemic. On completing the institutional responsibilities for this last semester (January-May), I decided to re-read the text casually. I discovered in the work based on the 1943 Bengal Famine a short episode describing an act of quarantining a backward village from a rising cholera infection – a result of the famine. The episode had not registered during my earlier reading (sometime in January), but assumed significance only after words like ‘isolation’ and ‘quarantine’ started to feature prominently in media discourse. It enabled me to understand the events narrated in the episode socio-politically, as a strategy adopted by the current Indian government to engage with Covid-19 crisis.
Asani Sanket narrates the ways in which residents of an idyllic, bountifully utopian imaginary village named Nayagaon, geographically located in the North 24 Pargana District of West Bengal (an Eastern province in India), try to come to terms with the famine during World War II. When Kamdebpur, a village adjacent to Nayagaon, starts recording rising cholera cases, a person from the former requests the male protagonist Gangacharan Chakraborty – a cunning and unscrupulous Brahmin teacher-cum-health expert-cum-priest of Nayagaon, to isolate & quarantine the village. Gangacharan exploits it as an opportunity to gratify his material aspirations. He advocates the expensive measure of awakening kulakundalini (female vital force in a creature as per the scriptures), costing Kamdebpur thirty rupees, and demands that the village meet the expenses of his familial requirements – “ten seers of sunned rice, ten clusters of ripe banana, two-and-half seers of ghee made of cow milk, two-and-half seers of sweetmeats, three scarlet-bordered sarees for three Bhoirabis (a manifestation of Goddess Durga), full sized dhuti-chaador (indigenous apparel comprising of loin cloth and a sheet of cloth draped around the body) for Bhoirab (a manifestation of Lord Shiva), and a copper vessel for the ritual”. However, Gangacharan later informs his wife Ananga that the rituals are not required at all; he would merely follow the steps enumerated in a manual on health and hygiene.
Gangacharan drew everyone’s attention on the day of the performance. He knew quite well that Kamdebpur, untouched by rationality and modern knowledge, was a thoroughly backward village – an “awj paragaon”. Hence, quarantining needed to look fantastic and magical. He realized that only a spectacular experience would cast a spell on the residents and compel them to be charmed by the elaborately designed performance, failing which he would not be perceived to have succeeded. Consequently, he would not receive due credit or reward for his efforts.
Three clay pots painted with vermilion were arranged. Four arrows made of palmyra-leaf were tied to each other with the auspicious threads that adorn male Brahmin bodies and buried at the four corners of the ritual site. Dolls made of the wood of gaab trees were massaged with oil, decorated with vermilion and buried at a tripartite junction of the village. Gangacharan overheard the villagers murmuring their appreciation for him and deprecating the other local Brahmin priest, Dinu Bhattacharya; their reverence for him was becoming directly proportional to the absurdity of his demands. Gangacharan then demanded two compact earthen plates and two white sun plant twigs, to everyone’s surprise; one villager tried to reason that since they did not have an idol-maker or potter in Kamdebpur, it was almost impossible to fetch the items. Enraged, Gangacharan fitfully said that the need for these materials in quarantining a village was merely common knowledge. His aim, in short, was to demonstrate to the public how much little information and knowledge they had. He was successful in visibly shaming them – their cheeks had turned red.
The villagers analyzed the situation logically and decided that considering that Gangacharan was a perfectionist and an expert, his demands should be met. Gangacharan’s performance ended at about two o’ clock in the afternoon, with the awestruck villagers witnessing a host of unknown rituals for the first time in their lives. Once he had sprinkled around the holy water for everyone to be blessed with prayers of peace, Gangacharan announced that only the final task was left. Confounded in disbelief, the villagers looked at each other’s faces – everybody had had a really tough time satisfying Gangacharan’s demands. It was already three o’ clock and they were exhausted. Gangacharan asked for directions to find a Neem tree in the North-Western corner of the village that he had already seen on his way in. The villagers fumbled a bit but pointed out the tree to him on top of which a dhawja (banner) was tied, as per Gangacharan’s directions, by two sturdy young fellows. Once this had been done, Gangacharan emitted a sigh of relief and told the villagers in a convincing tone that since they had spent money on the entire process, it would be only ethical and professional on his part to ensure that there were no loopholes in the entire job. He reiterated that the task of quarantining a village was not merely a matter of words, but a labour-intensive job.
Overwhelmed with respect and profound admiration at Gangacharan’s words, everyone wondered: “Do not these words truly bear the hallmarks of a Pandit?” The villagers took him to the household of a milkman (belonging to the Goala caste) for food and water, where Gangacharan announced that he would drink only coconut water. He informed the villagers that for a month they were not supposed to use the river water for any purpose. They should not eat any stale or waste food. If flies were found sitting on the surface of the food materials, they should be immediately thrown away. The information was to be spread across Kamdebpur.
This is how Bandopadhyay describes the entire episode where primacy is given to caste Hindu rituals spectacularly performed by Gangacharan, apparently to fight the disease. Scientific thought regarding the medical-health crisis appears merely as cautionary warnings at the end of the ritualistic process. Scholars hint at some Bengali literatures being invested with the universally popular cultural and sub-cultural beliefs in the clash between good versus evil . However, that may not always be an automatic presence; some form of agency, at least, is necessary. This is demonstrated in Asani Sanket when Gangacharan manipulates the unaware villagers into believing that the cholera bacteria is an evil that has to be warded off by isolating and quarantining the village through symbolic rituals. The scientific resolution of the problem is given cultural, sub-cultural and religious dimensions by imposing a set of socio-cultural Brahminical ideas to meet the rural elite Gangacharan’s vested material interests.
Brahminical spectacle features centrally in the Indian government’s mode of tackling COVID-19 crisis too, but for political reasons. In March, just before announcing the lockdown, the Prime Minister beseeched citizens’ to participate in symbolic efforts of onomatopoeic unity in “fighting” the crisis. Consequently, considerable sections of Indian citizens ended up banging metal vessels and blowing conch shells. Later in April, while extending the lockdown he persuaded the citizens to light diyas, a metaphoric act of lifting the darkness that has befallen the world due to the Covid-19 outbreak 5). He largely refrained from reiterating policy matters regarding the crisis and turned the scientific guidelines into a grotesque carnival. The Prime Minister’s imprecations sought to mobilize popular cultural and sub-cultural beliefs – first, that the crisis marks a period of darkness and second, that the threat ensuing from clamour and din might scare the virus away. Both these beliefs are anthropologically founded on Brahminism. Why was this necessary?
India’s political history shows instances of charismatic leaders attaining cult personality status and enjoying public fandom. The carnival socio-culturally enhanced the present Prime Minister’s existent stardom and fan bhakti (devotion) and drove a binary wedge between people. Supporters of the present Prime Minister and enthused crowds overzealously indulged in these activities, flaunting them on popular social media. Critics questioned the government (for which, read the Prime Minister) for its silence on policies governing isolation, quarantine, the cessation of economic activities due to lockdown, and the uncertainties facing disadvantaged sections of society. Critical discourse was effectively brought to rest by a personality cult that has been consciously crafted over a sustained period of time. So far, the opposition and critics have been unable to construct a viable alternate counteractive sphere against it. The Brahminical performance isolated and quarantined opposition and critics alike, while the government invoked the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 and the Disaster Management Act of 2005. These rules deemed the Covid-19 situation as a law-and-order problem rather than as a health issue, enabled the central government to concentrate and wield power over the states’ authority, and made a permanent dent on the spirit of democratic federalism without any major obstruction. Such is the effect of pandemics on India then and now.
 Indigenous unit of measurement; 1 seer = 933.10 grams.
 According to popular Hindu mythology, Goddess Durga is an embodiment of benevolent motherhood and malevolent evil slayer. She annihilates Mahishashura, the leader of a group of rebels engaged in a power struggle against the Gods and demigods.
 Shiva or Mahesh is Durga’s husband who unlike other mainstream Gods bears many subversive qualities. He is a symbol of destruction.
 A kind of tree
 Pandit or Pundit is an honorific title bestowed upon a learned scholar or an astute expert in a certain matter.
 Earthen pots made of clay mostly
 The policies were articulated by State health agencies like Indian Council of Medical Research and others. However, there have been persistent debates within the medical fraternity regarding India’s approach in dealing with the crisis. Some of its policies have also been criticized by doctors and health care workers.
 Bhakti refers to a religious, socio-cultural movement in India based on the practice of devotion. It is popularly believed to have begun in 8th century and continued up to 17th century. The movement criticized Hindu orthodoxy, founded Sikhism and resulted in a reformation of Hinduism thus revived it on certain new terms and conditions.