Mind lock in India
Do you sometimes want to see yourself in a movie or TV series to find out what happened to you in the end? Like when you meet someone new, or when you move to a new city, or when you have a new job, or when you experience a pandemic. You know, under these dire circumstances, don’t you want to know what the future looks like for you?
I had tested negative and was vigilant in my 40s. So I was gripped by the prevalent idea at the time that the government was rigging the number of infections, and I felt better being thankful that my symptoms were mild. Confined in my room, I began to read Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee’s collection of essays, City is slowly emptying: on life and culture during lockdown.
As I perused the book as the virus took its toll in Delhi (the city Bhattacharjee writes so lovingly about and where I also live), I felt a burning sensation inside. A few days earlier, literary critic Parul Sehgal had tweeted that Delhi had become a “pyre”. This was by no means an exaggeration. In April, the dead piled up in Delhi. COVID-19 was back in a rampaging avatar and was swallowing the lives of people regardless of their age. The government’s slow efforts to vaccinate the nation have been the biggest of its failures, and we have all been caught in the clutches of the howling virus.
Bhattacharjee dedicates the book: “To the eucalyptus beside my patio for its rustle of leaves, birds and ancient companionship”, and it’s a break. He writes in great detail on various aspects of life under the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns in Delhi: waiters at food markets, lonely dogs lying on the street, Kollam fish curry. Bhattacharjee reveals himself as a seasoned ethnographer of the diverse moods of a place in this sharp but twisty range of essays.
The last essay in the collection was written on April 14, 2020; I would start showing symptoms on this same date the following year. A strange synchronicity ran between the book and my current situation. The house Bhattacharjee stayed in while writing these essays is in the same area of Delhi where I live. Like him, I spent much of my summer 2020 locked up waking up in the wee hours or not falling asleep until I saw the sun come up each morning. Like him, I too have traveled the various paths of cinema, literature and conversation to make my quarantine a little more bearable:
Containment […] sparked a renewed interaction with nature. The sudden disruption of the mechanized routine of life and the conventional, everyday connections to the world have led people to look elsewhere. There they found nature. […] This accidental love and this return to nature were undertaken under duress. It can remain transitory. Passing passion is the essence of modern existence. People have treated the environment as a dresser: both by physically flushing the trees around them and flushing out memory.
The pandemic has given many of us a taste of too much unstructured time. In 2020, during the barren loneliness of my forties, I spent much of my time revisiting old books, movies, and my own journals. What was new, however, was my increased attention to nature. Like Bhattacharjee and his eucalyptus, I spent time on my little balcony, looking at a gulmohar tree whose flowers I photographed.
But the philosophical reflections of the lockdown are harder to follow this time around as death floats all around us. In college, I loved Charles Baudelaire‘s vision of the amateur flâneur. But as I read Bhattacharjee now, the modern need for escape feels heavier than natural to me.
Last year, under one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, the number of cases in India appeared to be under control. Even though we were locked up for excessively long periods of time, devoid of everyday life, a sort of security permeated the air. The virus was not affecting as many people as we had feared. This calm, even this tranquility, floats through the pages of Bhattacharjee’s writings:
The pandemic had forced my mind to swim back and retrieve what it remembered as something close to heaven. Heaven has been stupidly included 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 take us to this place. It is pastoral because it has passed. It’s pre-industrial, pre-modern, an escape from modern, urban life.
We seemed to be on a way back to normal. Few people have heeded social distancing standards more, and the government has encouraged a post-pandemic line of thinking. In March, I woke up uncomfortable. Vaccination for those in their thirties like me was and remains a distant dream. Bhattacharjee’s essays quickly put together a film of frivolous intellectual deliberation. At another time, I might have succumbed to the temptation to read about the pandemic as a masochistic pursuit, thinking that Bhattacharjee’s portrayals of his city’s reluctance, his fishy cuisine, and his reading, were a nostalgic and ironic reading of myself. -insulation. But I was both too angry and too sad to appreciate thoughts like this:
I was happy to be among the trees and birds after living for seven years in a one-room apartment that overlooked the ugly backs of other apartment buildings. The days were already slowing down. I used to spend days and long hours at home. I sometimes taught an elective course in lyric poetry in college and took care of that for a while. Otherwise, I mostly wrote. The confinement did not shock me in a new life.
Flying too far from the present moment, his thoughts seemed strangely inappropriate. There was no more joy in our moorings now. The trees and birds outside my balcony brought no comfort to their silent community. The whole country had exploded in a forest fire. In some areas of our Delhi district, not a single family has been spared. If I were to read my pandemic life field notes for 2020, I might have similar recordings, but they would now look sepia, hazy, and slightly temperamental.
In India, the types of writers who belong to the upper middle class, including Bhattacharjee and I, are prone to dreaming, collecting hazy mosaics of pretty prose. We are expected to line up and write sternly like Megha Majumdar and Arundhati Roy, sketching a grim portrait of our “great Indian democracy”. Perhaps a beautiful prose like that of Bhattacharjee has no place in a country so cruel to its own people. Perhaps the deeply moving compositions, creative fiction and non-fiction can be left to “outsiders”. Perhaps we are better off if we are able to write that novel, that handful of essays, or that melancholy poetry that casts a keen eye on the life and times of the East.
Perhaps Bhattacharjee published this book too soon. The murderous spring of 2021 was predictable. The confinement of the mind will continue.
Anandi Mishra is a writer in Delhi.