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THE SERUM, THE BLOOD AND THE WATER by Sampurna Chattarji

Graphic illustration of a person with a mask on walking aloneFor some reason, the word ‘cytomegalovirus’ leaps out at me from the pamphlet I am copy-editing. There have been times over the last two months when I glazed over just looking at the complex medical terms, the unpronounceable-until-broken-down words that I had to bend my mind around. I struggled to understand the links between cause and effect, to re-format information in a way that could be easily processed through all the urgencies and incomprehensions of communication in the time of the big C. Out of this welter – the one word that grabbed me was ‘cytomegalovirus’.

I look it up. A type of herpes virus with symptoms ranging from none to fever and fatigue. Only those with severely weakened immune systems experience the more severe symptoms like blindness. Is blindness a symptom or a result? The most serious ‘symptom’ is death. Infection of the brain (encephalitis), painful ulcers and pneumonia fall somewhere in between. Treatment ranges from none (the mild cytomegalovirus infection subsides on its own) to injections in the eye that cause severe side-effects.

My myopic, retinally-damaged eyes are drawn to those lines that mention the eyes, the retina. I wince at the idea of the needle entering the softness of the eye – fisheyes left uneaten because they seem too close, too akin to the human eyes that regards their soft pith and pulp, their globularity – yes, that hollow cell, that container that contains the root word from the Greek “kytos”. Cyto, I say, Cyto-Megalo-Virus. The word has a cadence to it. It is the one word that I have been able to say right, right away. And now I know it’s not the Cyto-graphy of it that got to me, it was the Megalo that led me straight to Megalomaniac – the Leader who speaks in Metaphors.

I have never been more averse to Metaphor

The Metaphor that kills, outlaws, ignores

The Metaphor that sidesteps, seduces, swindles

From the mouth of the CytoMegaloVirus – the pronouncements that evade all responsibility, eschew all fault. The infection has invaded and entered, controlled and replicated, spreading so fast. But the CytoMegaloVirus is blameless, benign even, harmless to all but those with weakened immune systems.

I think of all the people with “weakened immune systems” walking miles and miles to reach home, without food, shelter or water. I think of the “weakened immune systems” of the dead mother on the railway platform who would not wake, no matter how much her toddler tugged and pulled. I think of the “weakened immune systems” that lay down on the railway tracks to sleep after hours of walking – only because they couldn’t walk another step, because it afforded them protection (maybe) from rodents and snakes, so said the four survivors, comrades to the ones who got chopped into pieces by the wheels of the goods train, they thought no trains would be running during the lockdown… and yes of course “it was their fault”.

I am blinded

by rage, incoherent

60 to 90% of humans have had a cytomegalovirus infection at some point.

I am back to facts, back to lowercase. I have ceased to make connections that matter in the face of colossal failures, in capital letters.

And then, there was that other word – ‘serum’ – tugging at my brain. It was all those conversations about the vaccine, would there be one… how, when, if. Requests on WhatsApp to donate plasma if you were a COVID survivor. I couldn’t see the big picture (blindness, rage, incoherence) and so I clung to the little ones, the word-pictures offered by that ancient sanctuary: etymology.

Serum: 17th century: from the Latin for ‘whey’.

 Eating her curds and whey

suddenly made sense

Serum: “the clear liquid that can be separated from clotted blood”.

It’s the clot that made the difference between serum and plasma! Why did that feel like epiphany? Plasma was simply blood – unclotted, normal, filled with red blood cells and white blood cells and platelets. My heart snags on the word ‘platelets’.

Last month my father’s platelets were at their lowest: 54,000/cu.mm when the minimal count should be 140,000/cu.mm. We need to see a haematologist. It is unadvisable to go to the hospital now, unless it’s an emergency. What constitutes an emergency? Over the phone, we consult with my father’s cardiologist, the best, kindest, sanest doctor we could ever have hoped to find, the kind of doctor whose simple presence is tonic. He recalibrates the medicines. Advises blood tests after a month. I have become an avid reader of blood tests.

ANISOCYTOSIS MILD (says this one) under the header RBC MORPHOLOGY.

I need to cross-reference it with earlier reports. I need to go back several years when the crisis began. All those blood tests for occult blood (leading to nervous jokes about the supernatural, and why this must be the reason my dad enjoyed writing spooky micro-fiction), for possible cancer (ruled out, relief) – all that swinging to and fro between low and lower leading to these palpitations that make me wonder if I too suffer from my father’s condition, atrial fibrillation, these tremblings of the spirit that will manifest, one day, through and in my body, my blood.

Take away the platelets and the RBCs and WBCs and what you have is serum. I imagine this amber pale whey and wonder about the plasma of convalescent patients, convalescent serum antibody therapies, blood plasma requests on WhatsApp, about clinical trials and vaccines, no-profit and regulatory approvals, pledges and alliances, about the language of war that animates the “fight against COVID-19” and in my heart the tremor continues, closer home, thinking of damage, and more damage, the irreversibility of death, the should-not-have-happened agony of all the avoidable deaths, the accidents, the starvations, the terrible fumigation of the dispossessed as if they were pests (a pestilence), all the unwanted Biblical metaphors, the plague of locusts outside our windows and across the fields, dead-locusts being turned into chicken-feed by farmers, all of life is suddenly a clinical trial, and there is no such thing as “equitable access” and the blood in my system is turning to water.

I think of water as fact not ‘word’. Water as flooding. I think of Cyclone Amphan howling through Kolkata, flooding my relatives’ relatively affluent homes, severing power connections, bringing mighty trees crashing down on walls, and roofs. When Cyclone Nisarga comes Mumbai-wards, I think of the first line of my first novel “The city has been drowning since dawn”. We escape damage in Mumbai, in Thane. We call friends in Alibag, whose relative affluence makes them able to cope better than most with broken roofs and severed connections. “We have been pooping outdoors!” says a robust septuagenarian who works with the locals to rebuild and restore. I am in a bubble. The cyclone is inside me. All words, scattered and gusting, looking for landfall, looking for bodies to call home.


Sampurna Chattarji is a writer, translator and teacher.  Her eighteen books include seven poetry titles, the most recent being Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (HarperCollins, 2015, 2019); Elsewhere Where Else / Lle Arall Ble Arall (Poetrywala, January 2018), co-authored with Eurig Salisbury; and Over & Under Ground in Mumbai & Paris (Context, Westland Publications, October 2018), the result of a collaboration with poet Karthika Naïr, illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet and Roshni Vyam. Her translation of Joy Goswami’s Selected Poems is a Harper Perennial; and Wordygurdyboom! – her translation of Sukumar Ray – is a Puffin Classic. She is currently Poetry Editor of The Indian Quarterly.

Copyright © 2020 Sampurna Chattarji.


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