What does a fledgling Bengali periodical for paranormal tales in early-twentieth-century Calcutta have in common with a contemporary anti-malarial tonic? Both sneak across the colonial divide in their formal heterogeneity. On the pages of the periodical Aloukik Rahasya (literally, Mysteries of the Supernatural), edited by the Bengali playwright Kshirode Prasad Vidyabinode from 1909 to 1915, the putatively Oriental Tantric rituals intermingles with the late-Victorian vogue for animal magnetism and hypnotism. Meanwhile, the anti-malarial tonic, called “Edwards Tonic”, produced by the firm Butto Kristo Paul, combines quinine with Ayurvedic herbs such as Gulancha Bark (Tinosfora cordifolia), and compounds such as Nishadal (Ammonium Chloride). The historian Projit Bihari Mukharji presciently argues that the medical concoctions of colonial Bengal often drew upon Western as well as indigenous ingredients, with only “English and vernacular names” marking them as foreign or native (103). Historians have disagreements about the specific “Edward” the tonic is named after, whether he is the Emperor of India, Edward VII (Mukharji 103), or Sir Edward Gower Stanley, Under Secretary to the Government of India, who allegedly supplied Butto Kristo with the formula of the drug (Basu 184). They unanimously agree, however, that the firm made a considerable fortune in epidemic-blighted colonial Bengal and even received “Viceregal patronage” at one point (Bhattacharya 76). What complicates this rich but relatively docile account of how the colonized seeks medical legitimacy from imperial authority are the spectral interlinks between the tonic and the disease-stricken ghosts of the periodical Aloukik Rahasya.
Edwards Tonic and Edwards Liver and Spleen Ointment are two of the most common advertisements in the periodical Aloukik Rahasya (see, for instance, pp 248 year 1, No 1), featuring alongside stories and novels with numerous references to diseases: especially cholera, malaria, plague and smallpox. Novellas such as Punoragomon (The Revenant) explicitly mention contemporary anti-malarial drugs, such as Edwards Tonic, and regret that if those were available more widely, the narrative events in the text would have taken a different course. The presence as well as the absence of specific medical pharmacopoeia shapes the diegetic interactions between the dead and the living in the supernatural tales.
The symbolic association of malaria with the loss of racial vitality of the Bengalis in the turn of the century renders the disease especially suitable for narrating how the deceased creep into the world of the living, and remain unrecognizable. This ubiquity of disease and death becomes a key way of capturing the political and social conditions of the malarial epidemic in colonial Bengal.
In a remarkable short story titled “Durbhikkhogrosto Byektir Pretatma” (“The Ghost of the Famine-stricken”) by Satyendranath Palit, the link between malarial mortality and chronic hunger under the colonial regime gets exposed. In this story, an old malaria-patient miraculously recovers his health on the way to a holy dip in the Ganges in preparation of death. As loss of appetite is marked as one of the key symptoms of malaria, excessive appetite signals his abrupt recovery. When the old patient finishes the food for the entire family for several days at a stretch, his daughter in law becomes suspicious and asks her husband to fetch an exorcist. Pressed upon by the exorcist, the ghost finally gives in and admits that he has been possessing the old man’s body. He requests plainly:
In the last famine I died of hunger. I had a lot of desire for food left. Suddenly, under the tree, I saw the dead body and decided to enter it. Son, please don’t drive me away; let me eat. (207-208)
The medical imaginary of some of these supernatural tales questions the patriarchal mores of contemporary upper caste Hindu society. An anonymous short story titled “Bhutabesh” (“Spirit Possession”), written in the form a real letter by one Hrishikesh Shastri, begins by referring to a host of failed rural remedies against malaria, and bemoans the lack of availability of recent anti-malaria drugs when the event took place. In the story, a deceased malaria-patient named Parbati miraculously comes back to life on the way to the cremation grounds. However, she returns as a much grumpier person, neither regaining her health nor her devotion to the supposed duties of domesticity:
In this way, Parbati did come back to life, remained free from disease, and regained her appetite, but did not recover her health. Her hands and legs became like matchsticks, her belly enlarged and her face remained perpetually morose. (457)
The ghost reveals her true self when her husband demands “kasundi” (the Bengali variety of the mustard sauce) at 1pm, after the rest of the household has long been asleep (458). After expressing her annoyance at the demand at that ungodly hour, quite unlike the expected behavior of the submissive wife, she agrees to bring the item without moving herself. Her hands keep getting longer to fetch the sauce until her husband passes out (459).
As I recount this history amid the cautionary announcements of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation during the peak malaria and dengue season after the monsoons I realize what Sari Altschuler calls the “inherent recursive temporality” of the gothic and the pandemic (145), could be extended to spatial analyses of the colonial sites. The ubiquity of the pathological, conditioned by invisibilized histories of the colonial, becomes visible in the spectral everyday of the colonized.
Note: The translations from the Bengali originals are by the author.
Altschuler, Sari. “After the Outbreak: Narrative, Infrastructure, and the Pandemic Time.” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, Volume 8, Number 3, Fall 2021, pp. 126-155.
Basu, Malika. History of Indigenous Pharmaceutical Companies in Colonial Calcutta (1855-1947). Routledge, 2021.
Bhattacharya, Nandini. “Between the Bazaar and the Bench.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine , Spring 2016, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Spring 2016), pp. 61-91
Mukharji, Projit Buhari. Nationalizing the Body: The Medical Market, Print and Daktari Medicine. Anthem Press, 2009.
Vidyavinode, Kshirode Prasad. Aloukik Rahasya, Year 1. Universal Library, 1909.