PETALING JAYA: Imagine this, if you will. You’re living a life mostly without incident, making an honest living when one day, everything falls apart when a deadly virus infiltrates your community.
And afterwards, life is turned on its head, with the authorities scrambling to halt its deadly spread. As for you, you are left to fend for yourself and hope for the best.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? After all, Covid-19 is quite fresh in the minds of Malaysians, with its challenges uncountable.
However, did you know that there was once a mysterious viral outbreak which began in Malaysia? Say hello to the Nipah virus outbreak of 1998!
And it is this forgotten time in history that local writer Ismim Putera revisits in his recently released novel, “Nipah Nightmares”.
Published by Gerakbudaya, the Sarawakian author’s work tells the story of Seng Boo, the 16-year-old son of a farming family in Negeri Sembilan.
While trying to cope with the usual trials of rural life, things take a sudden turn for the worse when the local farming community is stricken by an unknown disease.
With his own family’s business in tatters, Seng Boo must decide whether to protect his family, or to help an inquisitive doctor trace the origin of the disease.
A third-person narrative, the book takes creative liberties with its fictional main character, but the setting is very much based on real life.
And bear in mind that real life can be rather scary. While it is not marketed as a horror story, there are parts of the book which cross into that territory.
It may be surprising to learn that “Nipah Nightmares” is Ismim’s debut novel, for the way he builds tension and dread resembles that of a seasoned author.
Every few chapters opens with a quote from a real-life medical report or government statement of that time, highlighting just how serious the situation was back then.
Ismim also does not stay away from delving into unhappier topics, like how humanity can rear its ugly head during calamities.
In the book, racial tensions build as baseless accusations are hurled regarding where the virus originated, even though such discourse hardly helps anyone.
However, “Nipah Nightmares” is not entirely nihilistic, with quite a few characters proving to be unsung heroes.
FMT Lifestyle spoke with Ismim, who said he first learnt about the 1998 outbreak in medical school, but delved deeper only during the recent pandemic-induced lockdowns.
“I was surprised to find that not a single fictional work dealt with the outbreak, despite the abundance of academic journals covering the subject.”
As the outbreak was a very real thing, some research was required to tell a convincing story. This proved to be difficult.
“To be honest, it was challenging to locate relevant reading materials. Even newspaper articles about the incident were sparse,” he said.
Journals gave conflicting accounts, resulting in a messy timeline. That said, Ismim did acquire some valuable information from certain journals.
Is Seng Boo based on anyone in particular? Not at all, Ismim said, elaborating that since many of the affected victims were Chinese families, it only made sense to have an ethnic Chinese protagonist.
“The plight of the Malaysian-Chinese community during this outbreak was one I felt compelled to bring to light,” he said.
While the book is aimed at enlightening young Malaysians, it will appeal to just about anyone. Ismin even hopes that the book will be used as reading material for SPM students someday.
There are three messages he said he hoped readers will walk away with. The first, being the knowledge that the Nipah virus is named after the epicentre of Kampung Nipah in Malaysia.
“The fact that it could have come from secret pig farms in the middle of the jungle makes it a fascinating mystery.”
Secondly, Ismim cautioned that Malaysian authorities must strengthen its research facilities to allow for a rapid response to future outbreaks.
The last is regarding the contributions of Dr Chua Kaw Bing, whose hypotheses and efforts were vital in tracing the virus’ origins.
“When things do not make sense, remember that there is always another side to the story. A small spark could emblazon the path to a huge discovery.”
“Nipah Nightmares” is available from Gerakbudaya’s retail outlet and online store.