I TEXTED MY best friend a few days into India’s massive second wave of COVID-19 infections this April, right after the symptoms hit me all at once and turned my nose into a piece of plastic:
Does it happen to you that sometimes you want to see yourself in a movie or TV series so that you can know what happened to you in the end? Like when you’ve met someone new, or when you move to a new city, or when you have a new job, or like when you’re living through a pandemic. You know in these dire circumstances, don’t you want to know what the future looks like for you?
I had tested negative and been vigilant about quarantine. So I was seized by the prominent notion at the time that the government was fudging infection numbers, and I made myself feel better by being thankful that my symptoms were mild. Confined to my room, I began reading Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee’s collection of essays, The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown.
Plowing through the book while the virus wreaked havoc in Delhi (the city Bhattacharjee writes about with so much love and where I also live), I felt a burning sensation within. A few days before, literary critic Parul Sehgal had tweeted that Delhi had turned into a “pyre.” That was by no means an exaggeration. In the month of April, deaths piled upon deaths in Delhi. COVID-19 was back in a raging avatar and swallowing people’s lives irrespective of age. The government’s slow-moving efforts to vaccinate the nation were the most prominent of its failures, and we were all caught in the grips of the bellowing virus.
Bhattacharjee dedicates the book: “To the eucalyptus tree beside my terrace for its rustle of leaves, birds and ancient company,” and it is a breather. He writes in painstaking detail about various aspects of life under the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns in Delhi: waiters in the food markets, lone dogs lying in the street, Kollam fish curry. Bhattacharjee reveals himself as a seasoned ethnographer of a place’s various moods in this gamut of pointed-but-meandering essays.
The last essay in the collection was written on April 14, 2020; I would begin showing symptoms on this same date the next year. A strange synchronicity ran between the book and my present circumstances. The house Bhattacharjee stayed in while writing these essays is in the same Delhi district where I live. Like him, I spent a greater chunk of my locked-in 2020 summer waking up in the wee hours or not going to sleep until I saw the sun rise each morning. Like him, I too traversed the varied paths of movies, literature, and conversation to make my quarantine a bit more bearable:
The lockdown […] prompted renewed interaction with nature. The sudden disruption of life’s mechanised routine and the conventional, daily ties with the world, led people to look elsewhere. There they found nature. […] This accidental love of and return to nature was one undertaken under duress. It may remain transitory. Transitory passion is the essence of modern existence. People have been treating the environment like a commode: both, by a physical flushing out of the trees around them and flushing them out of memory.
The pandemic gave many of us a taste of too much unstructured time. In 2020, during the barren solitude of my quarantine, I funneled much of my time into revisiting old books, movies, and my own journals. What was new, though, was my increased attention to nature. Akin to Bhattacharjee and his eucalyptus, I spent time on my tiny balcony, staring at a gulmohar tree whose blossoms I photographed.
But the philosophical musings of lockdown are harder to follow this time as death floats all around us. In college, I loved Charles Baudelaire’s take on the amateur flâneur. But as I read Bhattacharjee now, the modern need for escapism feels more cumbersome than natural.
Last year, under one of the world’s most strict lockdowns, the case count in India had seemed under control. Even though we were locked in for unduly long periods of time, devoid of everyday life, a kind of safety permeated the air. The virus was not affecting as many people as we had feared it would. That stillness, even tranquility, floats through the pages of Bhattacharjee’s writing:
The pandemic had forced my mind to swim back and recover what it remembered as something close to paradise. Paradise has been foolishly understood in history as a place for everyone. Each person has their own paradise, and yet it is a singularly impossible place to visit. Our dreams carry us to that place. It is pastoral because it is past. It is preindustrial, premodern, an escape from modern, urban life.
We seemed on a road back to normal. Few heeded social distancing norms anymore, and the government encouraged a post-pandemic line of thinking. As March came, I would wake up feeling ill at ease. Vaccination for 30-year-olds like me was and still is a distant dream. Bhattacharjee’s essays soon gathered a film of frivolous intellectual deliberations. In another time, I might have given into the temptation of reading about the pandemic as a masochistic pursuit, thinking that Bhattacharjee’s portraits of his city’s hesitance, of his fish-cooking and his reading, made for a nostalgic and ironic read during my own self-isolation. But I was simultaneously too angry and too sad to enjoy thoughts like this:
I was happy to be among trees and birds after seven years of having lived in a one-room apartment that looked onto the ugly backside of other buildings. The days were already slowing down. I was used to spending days and long hours at home. I occasionally taught an elective course on lyric poetry in the university and occupied myself with this for a time. Otherwise, I have been mostly writing. The lockdown did not shock me into a new life.
Fluttering too far from the present moment, his musings felt strangely unsuitable. There was no joy in our moorings now. The trees and birds outside my balcony did not provide any solace in their silent community. The entire country had erupted in wildfire. In some neighborhoods of our Delhi district, not a single family was left uninfected. If I were to read my field notes from 2020’s life under pandemic, I might have similar records, but they’d seem sepia-toned, foggy, and slightly capricious now.
In India, the writer types who belong to the great middle class, including Bhattacharjee and me, are prone to musings, collecting misty mosaics of pretty prose. We are expected to fall in line and write starkly like Megha Majumdar and Arundhati Roy, sketching a grim portrait of our “great Indian democracy.” Perhaps beautiful prose like Bhattacharjee’s has no space in a country that is so cruel to its own people. Perhaps the deeply moving compositions, creative fiction, and nonfiction can be left for the “outsiders” to do. Perhaps we are better if we are able to write that novel, that clutch of essays or melancholy poetry that casts a piercing glance into the life and times of the Orient.
Bhattacharjee might have published this book too soon. The deadly spring of 2021 was foreseeable. The lockdown of the mind will continue.