Fever dreams

I was rendered useless by a fever most of last weekend.

Most friends told me to read a book and relax, or watch a movie and distract myself, but I am smarter than that. I remember a fever a few years ago in Madras when I decided to read the World War Two book Flags of my Fathers. I was beyond 150 pages before it dawned on me that this was a bad idea: I now had pictures of battlefields and soldiers and big blasts in my head, and I wasn’t able to get rid of them. That night was filled with nightmares and visions of soldiers, wars, and blood. I swore to myself that night, delirious and sick, that this would be the last time I went near a book with even a hint of a fever.

But as with such things, the promise didn’t hold.

As I sat around the house recovering this last week, I started a book called Against a Peacock Sky, about a British anthropologist’s years in a Nepali village. More a researcher’s lived experience than travel literature in the strictest sense, it’s still a good look at rural life in a country then very unexplored. From an Indian perspective, what is familiar are the religious rituals, poojas, and certain superstitions; what’s different is the landscape. The fatal winters, the livestock which had to go south for the cold season, the travelling tourneys of traders from Tibet and the southern plains of Nepal, all of this was coloured, transformed, and lent sharpness by the vagaries of the cold.

I don’t know if it helped me recover, but it certainly didn’t give me nightmares.

As I finished it, I started thinking about this particular and peculiar couple: books and fevers. The easiest book-memory at that intersection for an Indian reader is Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, his absolutely brilliant novel of history, mystery, and myth. Published in 1995, it is still one of the better science fiction novels India has produced. I won’t give away spoilers, but If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It celebrates a kind of mysterious open-ended storytelling that is somehow, and you’ll understand this when you read it, very Indian.

Another book that comes to my mind when I think about fevers is Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, a novel I absolutely adore. It is in every way a Bombay book (a genre in itself, this). The sprawling city is both the hero & the villain of the story, a story that will take you to back alleys, to the politics of Mao's China and back to the changing metropolis, which keeps trying harder to blow itself up. Visions of colour, light & dark, good & evil, haunt the characters, but they have no idea which is which, and neither, as the reader, do you. I was talking about fevers, was I not?

In 2013, the first real winter I was experiencing in years, I was in Delhi, and the bitter wind would freeze me half to death every time I stepped out. Not very surprisingly, I ran myself into a week of high fever and general misery that I only remember parts of. However, sometime around that episode, I summoned enough willpower and stupidity to go see the Taj Mahal for the first time in my adult life. I wouldn’t have told you this as I chattered my teeth away that night, but looking at that great marble mausoleum in the winter moonlight was worth it; every coughing, sneezing, wheezing second of it.

I remember thinking what a terrible, almost unimaginable potion of pain, loss, ambition, and vanity someone must have drunk to even think of creating something like that.

But then, isn’t love a kind of fever too? Perhaps the most potent kind?

Written in November 2019.