Pestilence in Nineteenth Century Calcutta Notes

Pestilence in Nineteenth Century Calcutta: Poem summary and Critical analysis.

About the Poet

Keki N Daruwalla  is, without any doubt,  one of those writers of Indian English poetry who have really strived for the enhancement,  development and stimulation of modern day creative poetry right from the seventies and since then ,have been contributing to it in order to enrich it with a set of  poems that instilled a new fervor and tenor. . There is a vigour and immediacy of language in his poetry. One can notice  an  infatuated concern  for “love”,” death” “domination “ etc in his writings.   His poems are charged with deep skepticism and indignant cynicism. Also, there is a rare intensity in portraying living individuals and their plight in society.
Sardonic and sarcastic in themes, he deals with violence ,pestilence, epidemic,  bloodshed, riot curfew ,etc. His writings,  so robust, substantiated and relevant ,is not aimed at a fragile imagination at all,  for he is the type with  the heart of a hunter . One  can compare his writing to that of Ted Hughes, another lion- hearted poet who dealt with the morgue and the morbid.
Poem Summary
The poem opens with an abrupt, sarcastic comment made by the sahibs barber:
“ black fellow die much “, referring to the ramshackle  ghettos,   which were home to millions of bacteria and bacillus  which saw the seeds of  the great Asiatic Cholera, which forms the central theme of the poem . Death descended from the spawn beds which petrified soon to make one fall sick and die in no time. The era witnessed the callisthenics of the dreadful disease and there was a considerable rise in the number of casualties.
The fire from the Pyres went higher and the souls of the Dead went up along with the cascades of  thick smoke , like fragments of liturgies lost in a great wind .
     Being an imagist, preferring precision and clarity of speech, his visual images are evocative, concrete and suggestive , imbibing from the rare combination of the sanguine and the gloomy .
     The Sahib’s shock intensified on  realising that Death,like a pregnant woman, was everywhere in the” land of mud  and mire”. one could take it from the Earth just like picking up a fallen fruit.The Sahibs stupefaction was augmented by the news of the death of a number of reputed British   families like the Reinharts, the Debussy  and the like, who fell like fragile skittles in the great gale of the Asiatic cholera. The British, the Dutch , the Blacks all were equal before Death, for it never made any  difference between the colonizer and a colonised. The British French and Dutch and the black” were interred  in the same loam mourned by same tolling Bells.”
     The climate was not so rough for them during the summer. But the first vaporous exhalations of the earth after the rains proved disastrous ,spreading fevers and fluxes . There was a talk among   commoners “that day you lunch with a fellow and by dusk he was dead and the tolling from the belfry was the only way you heard of it” Here the poet seems to be moved extremely m by the sufferings of the people; but at the same time he is inclined to project the cruelty and violence as realistically  as possible .
     Like a slipped disc in one's body, the whites carried the gut feeling and the fear of death along with them throughout their lives and they were ready to do anything to get rid of this ailment . They paid  the surgeon one gold mohur for a visit and spent a rupee over a pinch of salt and even experimented with witchcraft, blood letting  and doses of opium and mercurous Chloride .
     The Sahib’s reflections on his  experience at the John   company never saw death in its most hideous form, vigorously hacking away ,with its scythe lives of people all around. Hardly ten days after the barber had spoken, Sahib went down the Hooghly on his winter tour to pay a visit to  his Sikh abdar , who had served him during the Bara Hazri, . He too fell stricken. the very next day his man Friday told the Sahib: “now diseases come to stomach Sahib now story finish” and that evening the Sahib heard the sad news of the Sardar’s death      . The funeral rites were performed by the Kanjars . out of shame and trauma the Sahib decided to meet the funeral expenses  for which he received a bill regarding the same ,presented on a tray, next morning which read “ Five rupees for roasted Sardar”. The harsh reality  is presented without any ornamental emotion.

     It is indeed his style of writing that makes Daruwalla different from his fellow poets.  He excels in poetry of witness or committed poetry. His theory of poetry is deeply rooted in the belief that poetry has to fight two fronts: firstly, it has to tackle or re-tune reality or re- fashion reality . Secondly,One should deal with the environment , the time in order to write creatively.Then it becomes committed poetry,that is period-locked.
     Daruwala  stands unique and distinctive  as a poet much more concerned with social criticism of his time . With his oblique and subtle poetry he tries to reflect humanism and naturalism with contemplation . His poetry truly reflects Indian sensibility, past history and Indian surroundings .His  poetry never speaks of a golden tomorrow because it is deeply rooted in past and present.


  1. Can you please post the entire poem? I am not being able to find the text.

  2. Please send me the entire text.


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