A Diary of Social Distancing

March 26, 2020

I THOUGHT THIS morning of conjunctivitis. Specifically, I was thinking of Pratapaditya Road, my uncle’s house, which I visited summers and winters. There must have been an epidemic in Calcutta at the time: the infection had been named, tackily, “Joy Bangla.” This I remember clearly. It dawns on me that it must have happened soon after the creation of Bangladesh. The fight for liberation had engendered the slogan “Joy Bangla,” and now — the war over — some idiot had decided to use the term for the epidemic and the joke had caught on.

My first cousins Basab and Neel, whom I loved very much and thought of as my “brothers,” got infected. I was terribly disappointed. They were quarantined in the bedroom in which they studied at a table — the bedroom with the adjoining prayer room. They were having all the fun to themselves. Anything they had which excluded me — in effect, life in Calcutta, since I was growing up in the boredom of Bombay — was fun or “maja.”

Enforcement was lax. I told my mother that I’d decided to contract Joy Bangla. I went to my cousins’ room several times, hugged and wrestled and rolled about with them. They looked like devils with their red eyes. Ah, the temptation to embrace, to keep alive the contagion of togetherness, to become castaways on that special bed! I fulfilled my ambition — my eyes were pricking the next day. It was no fun. I savored our indiscriminate closeness and wore my redness as a badge of honor.


I’m to teach an online class today. It’s the third time I’ll be doing this. The course will end soon and so will, with it, these Zoom sessions, which I approach with a purposefulness that I last saw in my late mother’s vigil at the dressing table.

I’m going to discuss an essay with my students. It’s called “John Clare in Babylon.” It’s by the Irish poet-critic Tom Paulin. At the essay’s heart is the exoticization and cultivation by Clare’s contemporaries of his poetry — Clare was a rural man in the early 19th century, neither a landowner nor a bourgeois — and its subsequent neglect. But Paulin is also preoccupied with the Enclosure Laws that turned the English landscape (and so-called “nature”) into private property, robbing it of its ungoverned commons, putting the country into a perpetual lockdown in which space and land became capital. This loss of liberty — the freedom to roam, to (as Walter Benjamin would conceive it later) learn how to get lost, to light upon the unlooked-for — traumatized Clare, according to Paulin. For Paulin, the British live in the midst of the legacy of Enclosure today.

Rereading the essay after at least 10 years, I find, alongside mention of Protestant “Dissenters,” a reference to the “Ranters.” This is such an enviable rubric for any group, religious or political, that I want to look them up. I find them to be largely working-class men and women ranging in England from the 17th to the 18th century, their leanings countercultural, mystical, political. They advocate a destruction of social distancing in favor of free and sometimes profligate mingling. Not for them the binary of monastic solitariness on the one hand and class-based gregariousness on the other. Both the constraints of solitude and class are to be wilfully ignored; it’s disorderliness that will presumably lead to meaning and spiritual experience. A key Ranter is the preacher Abiezer Coppe (1619–’72), a sort of precursor to William Blake. He started out as a self-flagellating and meticulous believer, punitive toward any impulse in himself to disregard the literal word of God. Then something erupted in him. He became his other. While remaining a preacher, he also joined the army and became a political activist. He kept working-class company, “ranting and swearing” freely. As I surf in the lead-up to the Zoom session, Spartacus Educational tells me that he “asserted property was theft and pride worse than adultery: ‘I can kiss and hug ladies and love my neighbour’s wife as myself without sin’.”

I’m wondering for some reason, reading about Coppe, what it was that took me compulsively to my cousins in the time of Joy Bangla.


March 27   

Kurosawa has come to mind. As has the small attic flat on Alfred Street in Oxford in which my wife and I lived when we were still students finishing our doctorates. British television still hadn’t been completely corroded by the market. It showed us the most wonderful films. I copied them on VHS.

Among them was Seven Samurai, a film set in a period of evident transition, when the dominance of the samurai was in decline, and marauders terrorized villages. The elders of a particular village hit upon the idea of recruiting samurai to fight the bandits who trouble them periodically, but realize it would be wise — given they have little money — to identify jobless, disbanded samurai for their purpose. It isn’t easy to get the seven together; but, once they’re in place, the seven samurai are skilled enough to repulse the wave of bandits.

The one thing that’s stayed with me from Kurosawa’s film is the combat. Seven Samurai doesn’t have the extraordinary large-scale battles that Kagemusha or Ran do; it has musically orchestrated skirmishes. Each is like a village performance. As in a performance, the villagers watch, agog, and even move from spot to spot as the fighting progresses and changes position. As in a Bengali jatra, the stage comprises the entire village. The villagers are audience and actor.

Cinema inherits from European theater the idea of the proscenium — the stage with a boundary. With the proscenium comes a notion of distancing, between the illusion or representation that inhabits the proscenium, and the passive audience in the theater. Brecht turns to the stylization of Chinese theater to question the fictionality of the proscenium; he wants theater to give up the pretense that it represents a “life” outside our own. The Bengali directors in Calcutta who adopted folk forms like jatra in the 1960s — where the audience sits around a performance; where there is no stage; where the performance can move at any point outside the center — wanted to extend Brecht, and remove the sacred lakshman rekha separating audience from story.

I think Kurosawa was doing something similar in the fight scenes in Seven Samurai: startling us into remembering that we, the crowd, are not only outside the action, but, at every moment (like the villagers), in it. Our vantage point isn’t static, as it might be on a seat in a cinema; like that of the villagers, it’s both absorbed and constantly shifting. The crowd is a political, transient, and shifting entity: in Kurosawa’s film, the villagers comprise an audience, and the audience is alive. In this way, passive Hollywood-style “identification” with this or that character, good guy or villain, is dispensed with, as is, by suggestion, the distance between screen and life. This destruction of distance is joyous and political.


Yesterday, I brought up the Bible in the Zoom session.

This happened when the discussion of Clare and poetry led us to the early turning points at which sacred or religious texts began also to be read for literary reasons. Of the Bible, Matthew Arnold said in 1873: “[T]he language of the Bible is fluid, passing and literary, not rigid, fixed, and scientific.”

More recently, in 1992, the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici pointed out that the Bible is a particular kind of literary text, “a communal work, a massive series of chronicles and stories joined together, written over a thousand years by many people”; it is not “one man’s […] work.” Josipovici suggests we read the Bible not as a critic would read a poem, by focusing on its particularities, but by accommodating its excess: “[F]or the bulk of the Bible, however, the world is multifarious, always in transformation, and can only be grasped through juxtaposition and discontinuities and in the dimension of time […] our attitude to it should be one not of focus but of participation.” Focusing might imply control and mastery — in effect, distance; participation implies our willingness to allow the world and its history to impinge upon us. We can isolate ourselves from the incursion of the world or life no more than we can from spiritual experience.

Josipovici’s words take me back to the first months of my married life. My wife and I would return to India from Oxford and spend a few months in my parents’ flat in Calcutta. My mother was a passionate disregarder of privacy. She would often turn up at the door to our bedroom to share thoughts as they occurred to her. My wife quickly developed new reserves of humor and fortitude. She called my mother’s taking for granted of our accessibility “participation.” She said it ran through my family and marked me as well. A decade later, when we were spending more time in Calcutta, one of my uncles, an unmarried man who’d lived all his working life in England and had lately moved to Calcutta to live among relatives, would spend days in the flat and invariably turn up at our doorway in the evenings to discuss cinema or music or human nature. This was a living example of what Josipovici and my wife have termed “participation.” The initiator has no idea they’re behaving unusually; those who find themselves forced to be participants might get annoyed, but miss the errant person when they’re gone. Social distancing is our default condition; the harbinger or child doesn’t recognize it.


March 28

I’ve received a message on WhatsApp this morning saying that doctors are informally advising steam inhalation and salt water gargling to stave off the novel coronavirus and the illness it triggers, COVID-19. The virus lodges in the throat, and gargling and steam make its tenancy difficult. Bear in mind, we’ve also been told that the virus is not a living organism — though a verb like “lodges” encourages us to anthropomorphize it.

I think back to my pre-concert preparations. Let’s say I’m supposed to sing somewhere. Two weeks prior to the performance I begin to salt water gargle every night. It’s a tedious commitment, but I take it on. The voice doing riyaaz is vulnerable to pharyngitis and infection. When you feel the beginnings of scratchiness, it’s best to start gargling immediately. Common sense told me years ago that I might as well gargle as a prophylactic rather than as a cure. If — and this happened in Jaipur once — I contract an infection anyway, and grow hoarse, I submit myself to multiple, excruciating sessions of steam, and the throat clears up.

The other thing to do before a concert is to speak less and stop going out. Both overuse of the vocal cords and exposure to pollution are great dangers. In other words, I have had some familiarity with self-isolation and social distancing without knowing either term until two weeks ago.


March 29

A couple of nights ago, I saw two young men by chance on TV, standing on a highway. They said they were walking from one suburb of Bombay to another. They had nothing to eat, and meant to walk home, wherever that was.

In the modern world, extreme crises make people walk long distances. Otherwise, walking is an anachronism. I began to enter the rhythm of a poem that Arun Kolatkar had written when he was 36 years old about an “inner crisis” (mentioned nowhere in the poem) he’d had when he was 22. The poem was in Marathi, but what I knew was Kolatkar’s own English version, “The Turnaround.”

Bombay made me a beggar.
Kalyan gave me a lump of jaggery to suck.
In a small village that had a waterfall
but no name
my blanket found a buyer
and I feasted on just plain ordinary water.

I arrived in Nashik
peepul leaves between my teeth.
There I sold my Tukaram
to buy myself some bread and mince.
When I turned off Agra Road,
one of my sandals gave up the ghost.

We have no idea what the crisis was. But Kolatkar gives a full account of what it gave birth to.

It was walk walk walk and walk all the way.
It was a year of famine.
I saw a dead bullock.
I crossed a hill.
I picked up a small coin
from a temple on top of that hill.

Kopargaon is a big town.
That’s where I read that Stalin is dead.
Kopargaon is a big town
where it seems shameful to beg.
And I had to knock on five doors
to get half a handful of rice.

Each time I’ve thought of those two men, standing on a highway such as they would have helped build, I’ve thought of this poem. I have now gone back to “The Turnaround,” in case it contains an answer. This afternoon, I see that the two men have swelled into thousands, wearing masks or handkerchiefs, often with families, walking or queueing up or milling around buses. It’s not just hunger that drives them; they’d rather die at home, they say.

The closeness and delight I felt diving toward my cousins! The one-time experiment of a protected child.


I’ve finally caught up with myself. This diary is no more a fiction or structure. People have been dying, including the famous — the football player P. K. Banerjee and the photographer Nemai Ghosh. I’ve found myself catching my breath on getting the news. Uppermost on the mind now isn’t the death. It’s the question: “Did he die of the coronavirus?” When you hear they didn’t, there’s a complex sensation, of relief and disappointment. Your consciousness is fixated on the coronavirus. You’ve forgotten that people are dying everywhere of other causes and diseases, many of them far worse than COVID-19. You think you have become more alert, possibly more empathetic; but you’re growing numb too. You’re losing your relationship to the world’s multifarious forms of suffering at any given point of time. It’s about now, or about two or three weeks. All you must do is wait.


Amit Chaudhuri is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is Friend of My Youth. He is also a poet, a critic, and a musician and composer. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia. His new book of essays is The Origins of Dislike.


Featured image: "Safe Newspaper Vendor - coronavirus" by Vaikunda Raja is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

LARB Contributor

Amit Chaudhuri is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is Friend of My Youth. He is also a critic and a musician and composer. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Awards for his fiction include the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Betty Trask Prize, the Encore Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and the Indian government’s Sahitya Akademi Award. In 2013, he was awarded the first Infosys Prize in the Humanities for outstanding contribution to literary studies. He is professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia.


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