June 13, 2021 6:20:45 am
SUMANA ROY, 46, Writer and poet
ON THE SECOND or third day of June, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay “Notes on Grief” (first appeared in The New Yorker in September 2020) with a group of school students from across the country, 14- to 17-year-olds, who have enrolled in a writing course. Along with Adichie’s, I’d put these on their reading list for the essay: CJ Hauser’s “The Crane Wife” (2019), Roland Barthes’s “The Brain of Einstein” (1957), Buddhadeva Bose’s “Bengali Gastronomy” (originally published in Bengali in 1971), and Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s Sister” (1929, A Room of One’s Own).
I give the class an exercise. “When I tell you this word, you must give me the name of the first person that comes to your mind.”
I see them smiling in their Zoom rooms, anticipating a game. They have been away from team sport for more than a year, after all.
“Genius,” I say.
Their answers come like bullets: Einstein, Newton, Shakespeare…
I point out the obvious: these are all men, White men; there are no women or Indians or Africans or… on their list.
Soon after Woolf’s critique of genius being a male preserve, we read Barthes’s essay on “the brain of Einstein” and observe his demolition of the mythicisation of the scientist and his “genius”.
My original intent in choosing these essays was to show the different forms the subjects of the essays force the essayists to take. Reading them with the students now, more than a year after COVID-19 and lockdown, something had changed. I’d lost friends and relatives; they, so young that it hurt to see them caged in these Zoom boxes, had come to know death, too.
How could the way we read and write not change? How could the concept of genius not change? Why had our political and pedagogical movements still not been able to dislodge the elitist notion of the genius? Surely that would need to change, after these deaths, illogical and avoidable deaths, surely the grief and the anger would make us think of systemic discrimination, made on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, caste and class, family and geographical location, as all contributing to the inflated idea of the genius? Surely the abracadabra worship of “knowledge” should recede to make space for a pedagogy of kindness and equity and a consequent literature of emotions?
When we read Adichie’s essay, written after her father’s death last year, we noticed two things right away: the essay was called “notes on grief”, that it was a collation of fragments, for such is the nature of grief, fluctuating, crippling, taking over our bodies, changing us every moment; the paragraphs are marked with numbers. There is little that links them, nothing except a scavenging sadness; they are brought together by grief, like Adichie’s relatives are to her house in Nigeria, to mourn. Grief becomes the family surname, and the surname of the essay. Adichie and her siblings and mother, scattered on different continents and time zones, placed adjacent to each other by Zoom. Fragments; the fragmentary. Enough with the illusion of the complete. (American poet and writer) HD, writing about the effect of World War I about a hundred years ago, had said that the age of the epic was henceforth dead, that there could only be a “diminished epic”. After COVID, after these losses that have turned our minds into cemeteries and our bodies into anxiety chambers, perhaps the only form that our bodies and minds will be able to withstand will be compulsively in the nature of the fragment. Trauma will need to find more accommodative forms, those that allow more elasticity?
When we read “The Crane Wife”, I couldn’t help invoking (Malaysian writer) Preeta Samarasan’s essay “Wagers” (2021) that I’d read only a few days ago. The essayists, both women, write about their relationships, of loving and losing, by bringing in parallel narratives from the animal world, of science and of myth. Why were so many women writers increasingly moving towards the non-human world to argue against social behaviour? This, I think, will increase, not for the invasive behaviour of the coronavirus alone, but because it is time to think of “relationships” outside the human perimeter.
Teaching the rasa theory while being aware of its human-centredness, I have been trying to think and feel and write about the possible relations between emotions and the elements, our elemental life.
RAHUL RAM, 57, Musician
THE PANDEMIC HAS come as a punctuation mark in all our lives. A pause, momentary, long-lasting or permanent. In India, the second wave brutally jolted everybody, including the rich and the well-connected, who were shocked to know that their wealth and connections were not the insulation they had always assumed.
Like everyone else, I, too, have lost people known to me, and countless near and dear ones have been infected with varying degrees of severity. But I don’t feel I will necessarily make different music now. Definitely not with (the band) Indian Ocean, who have always sung about the bigger picture. I’m not really the kind of artiste who “makes” music by himself. I have always been part of a collective, it is our shared energies and thoughts that make music. Just when we will sit together as a band and make music is not clear as yet, and maybe my assertion will be proven wrong. But I have made a song (rather, a version of an existing one) about the inept handling of the pandemic by our government, in collaboration with my (stand-up collective) Aisi Taisi Democracy friends. But this is an indictment, not a lament.
Will the world make art that is dismal, gloomy and apocalyptic now? Some of it will be, but there will also be the contemplative, the joyous, the exhilarating. All artistes are different, and will react according to their experiences and personalities. What I did think about was the people of strife-torn regions of the world — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo, Kashmir… They have seen their lives battered for decades, with sudden death an ever-present possibility, but they haven’t given up. Neither is their art and music all doom and gloom. This is what the rest of the world needs to learn from them. Life, and art, will go on.
I’m fully aware that I say this from a position of immense privilege. I have not lost my job, have not been infected personally, as yet, the ones closest to me have survived, so far. But my empathy remains. I feel strongly that one has to fight, and be happy to the extent possible, without shutting our eyes to reality.
Indian Ocean is currently working on three commercial projects and I’m busy composing songs for all three. Unlike a lot of my musician friends, I do not miss performing live shows. I’ve done them for 30 years, so a year or two without early-morning alarms and innumerable flights is not bad. Live shows will return. In the meantime, I have done several online concerts, which I quite like since I can hear the band much better and concentrate more on the music. I feel they are here to stay as they allow us to connect with audiences the world over, who would have never seen us live were it not for the internet.
And on this positive note, I’ll stop!
GR IRANNA, 50, Artist
THE PANDEMIC HAS taught us several lessons but the most important realisation has been how nature is paramount and our lives vulnerable. Last month, when my wife, followed by our daughter and I, contracted COVID-19, we were gripped with fear. All that we prayed for was to survive. We realised that things such as wealth, power, fame and everything that the human race aspires for, is irrelevant. Even as we heard about the dreadful situation around us — from scarcity of oxygen to hospital beds — we were just grateful that we could recover at home.
Born into an agrarian family in rural Karnataka, I am aware of the numerous cycles of nature but a time like now still seems unreal. I distinctly remember how right after the lockdown in March 2020, when I would drive from my house in Asiad Village to my studio in Okhla, the roads would be empty, Delhi looked like a haunted city. In the emptiness and silence, one could feel the pain of the city. At the time, I was preparing for my solo show “Boodi”, which took place at Gallery Espace early this year. While I have used ash as a medium for several years now, I felt that in the present context, the medium had acquired new meanings. It is the residual matter we all turn into irrespective of our deeds; it also represents the circle of life, its impermanence and nothingness, reminding us how life and death are absolute realities.
In the last few months, I have heard of so many deaths — from the 31-year-old son of one friend to another one who lost both his parents to the pandemic. While I am stunned by what is happening, I do feel that we have reached a stage where we no longer know how to react to the news of death that arrives ever so often. Till little more than a year ago, most of us could never imagine that something like this could happen.
My own experience with COVID-19 has also made me seek solace and find inspiration in Sufi poetry, the Upanishads and the Vedas. The spiritual leanings have become more dominant and I feel that will continue in the years to come.
(As told to Vandana Kalra)
JOY MAISNAM, 44, Theatre director
I HAVE BEEN a migrant in Delhi since I joined the National School of Drama as a student in 2005. When theatres closed and workshops stopped during the lockdown, it became difficult for theatre practitioners like me to make ends meet. My family thought of leaving Delhi for our village in Manipur, where we could find work on the farm. The villagers, however, told us over the phone that nobody would be allowed to enter. Our friends and relatives were afraid that we could bring the virus with us.
News bulletins do not record such emotional moments; only stories can keep these alive. We are waiting for theatre to return to normal so that we can tell such stories. We want to stage a new play, A Tale of 1943, which will revisit the Bengal Famine of 1943 as a metaphor for the present. In 1943, enough food was produced in the villages of Bengal to sustain the region. Yet, three million people died of hunger because of the faulty policies of the Winston Churchill government. Starving masses fled villages in search of food in the cities — a scene familiar to all of us who watched migrant workers walking back home during the pandemic. In man-made tragedies, we see human stories unfolding. It is going to be my most political play after Andha Yug (his 2017 critique of war won four awards, including Best Play, at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards in 2019). I hope that the play will enable the audience to draw parallels between how the colonial government treated us and how our elected representatives have acted.
The lockdown made online theatre popular but many artistes like me are finding it difficult to transition to Zoom or YouTube. A Tale of 1943will be a live show. If I have to make an online performance, I will have to change my entire method of theatre-making. One has to think about where to put the camera and how certain scenes would look in a frame. On the other hand, we are aware that live shows might not return to the way they used to be. We stand at the crossroads.
SURESH ERIYAT, 48, Animator
‘Essential Shopping’ during COVID-19
K SATCHIDANANDAN, 75, Poet and writer
IN THE dark times/ Will there also be singing?/ Yes, there will be singing/ About the dark times. These lines of a poem by Bertolt Brecht have seldom been more relevant than in these times when darkness of every sort seems to envelop, almost engulf us. The last 15 months have not been easy for any of us, except for the minuscule minority that has benefitted from it, including the political taskmasters and some profit-mongers, who built their fortunes around the pandemic and the scare it generated. It was a time of depression and loss for most of us, not to speak of the lakhs of migrant workers, the youth who lost their jobs or the small merchants and peasants who suffered severe setbacks. Two of my family members suffered the attack but without lasting consequences. I lost several of my close friends to COVID-19, including some fine writers from various languages — Sugatakumari, Manglesh Dabral, Shankha Ghosh and Tarannum Riyaz — while some other writers just returned from hell. I had only one major solace to fall back on: my writing. Writing was not easy, yet I managed to write a few poems that directly or obliquely express the anxiety of the new plague. When I found even writing difficult, I began to look for poetry that either attempted to articulate the anguish or tried to provide hope. Thus, along with Nishi Chawla, a poet-friend teaching in a US University, I edited two anthologies that respond in different ways to these times: Singing in the Dark (2020, Penguin Random House), a global collection of lockdown poems that capture the diverse dimensions of the experience of a species confronted with a catastrophe, and a companion-volume,The Greening of the Earth, that carries poems written in different languages around environmental issues and the revival of nature that will be published soon. Then there was the other substitute: translation. I embarked on a series I had always dreamt of — of chosen Bhakti and Sufi poets in my mother tongue. Two of the books are already out: Daivavumayulla Sambhashanangal (Conversations with God), selected poems by Kabir and Shivoham (I am Shiva), a compendium of selected works by four major Shaivite Vachana poets in Kannada; the poems of Bulle Shah are in press and the translation of the selected poems of Tukaram is drawing to a close. I also used much of my free time to collect my uncollected poems, translations and essays. Five collections have come out of it — two in Malayalam and three in English. Reading books of more than 200 pages has now become a challenge for me for the lack of concentration, but I keep reading poetry, short stories, short novels and contemplative works that look at the human condition from the new, often post-humanist, perspectives induced by the pandemic, a reminder of our transience and our relationship with other beings and objects. I have begun to focus more on poetry than on prose as essays take a lot of time for research and writing and I have an overpowering sense of my transient existence, a feeling of urgency, that there is little time left. It was always there, but its intensity has increased. I am still looking forward to a time when I can resume my travels around the world, something I sorely miss these days. I realise with a sense of guilt how privileged I am when I look around and see people’s agonised struggles for mere survival. I can only look forward to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
GAUTAM BHATIA, 68, Architect and artist
THE PANDEMIC has been a difficult time for everyone, even for those who didn’t fall ill. When I got COVID-19 in December, my biggest fear was not death or dying, but that I hadn’t quite done anything to prepare for it. The will still had to be written; I had to make amends with some people. I had contributed nothing to society, built no houses for the poor, written nothing worth remembering, and only done drawing-room art. My life was incomplete; I needed more time. Then, of course, as soon as I got better, I forgot everything — the will, houses for the poor, everything. But it was hard to return to normal life. A strange fog of pessimism had descended, and covered everything in an oppressive mist. It was hard to write, harder still to draw, or build. For as long as I can remember, I drew humour from things around. I used to laugh my way through newspapers thinking that we lived in one of the funniest places on Earth — because we took ourselves so seriously. A while back I’d written a couple of books — Whitewash (2007) and Delirious City (2019) — both a rewriting of Indian daily life as satire. But after COVID, I found daily life was not just unfunny, but had become a serious unrelenting tragedy. With every increase in public suffering, those posing as provider-rulers made loud noises of compassion and caring. But hid from view. The middle class becomes unhinged in any emergency. People of my background — privileged, pretentious, a little aloof, always judgemental — are the first to hide when the world starts to drown. I worked on painting “Still Life”. It grew out of this grainy uncertain time — part fearful, part optimistic — trying to give physical shape to life’s transitoriness. The paintings became a long series, a frozen storyboard of events and were exhibited at Bikaner House in March. The central premise was that decay and atrophy are inevitable, everything passes, everything dies — home, family, love, business, even religion. In the evolutionary circle of life, love and melancholy, ambition and beauty, mix with death, leaving nothing permanent, appearing and reappearing like morning dew on grass. Repetitive time frames, in miniature painting, were used to show this process of ageing and decline. In view of the pandemic, the message was both real and satirical. The only way to make life tolerable is to laugh and cry at once.
SUPRIYO SEN, 50, Filmmaker
Like many, I have had relatives, people known to me, who have lost their mothers and fathers to the pandemic. When poet Shankha Ghosh died, I felt very sad, although he was quite old already. A sadness that I felt when actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay passed on last year. They were the conscience of Bengali society, guiding force of the Bengali intellectuals. The pandemic has taken away many artistes, journalists. Our loss has been as an individual as well as a citizen.
Personally, however, the lockdown has been very productive. In the first wave, the fear of coronavirus hadn’t yet consumed us like it has now. I have written four essays, scripts – a fiction centring on the response to the pandemic. And, after nearly two decades of making (some National Award-winning) documentaries, I made my very first feature film, Tangra Blues (the Parambrata Chatterjee-starrer is a fictional fleshing out of Sen’s 2018 documentary Waste Band, about an ex-gangster building a music band with young waste-pickers from the slums of Kolkata’s Tangra area). Shot this January and released on poila boishakh (Bengali new year, April 15), unfortunately it stayed in the theatres for just two weeks as the lockdown was announced, and migrated to the Bengali-language OTT Hoichoi.
I have been privileged. The coronavirus has attacked no one country in particular but our entire collective. It is a sign, a result of what happens when you destroy nature; this is how nature retaliates. If people don’t stand with one another in solidarity – not just in times of pestilence — if we don’t embrace nature in the process and keep destroying it, can our race survive? Look at the dead – how many have died of COVID-19? Most have died because of the lack of oxygen, hospitals, doctors. The whole world needs to introspect and ask: what do we want — idols or hospitals, arms or injections, doctors or armies? (Arch-rivals) China and Pakistan had offered to help with COVID-relief aid to India — now with whom will we fight? The pandemic has shown the futility of modern civilisation. So much has transpired, and yet, after all this, in the “new normal”, I don’t know if we will learn or just go back to being our older selves, the fighting self, the partying self, the caring-two-hoots-about-anything self, the self-obsessed self — like in the end of (Albert) Camus’s Plague (1947). If we do realise, it will be a tragic learning process, like after World War II, Europe learnt — albeit a little — about the futility of war. We need to invest in art and culture rather than arms and armament. The sadness has to come out through our art and cinema. And, at the same time, in the post-COVID world, there must be humour, otherwise our species won’t survive.
(As told to Tanushree Ghosh)
RUPALI GUPTE, 46, Architect
On March 24, 2020, we were asked to lock ourselves within our homes, only to realise that many didn’t have homes to be locked into. The city, which was home to many, had also turned its back on us. We were forced to conduct our architecture school online, in a discipline where people, architecture and city spaces are visceral experiences and an integral part of pedagogy. And then came the second wave; finding myself in a hospital, just when the health system had collapsed, going through a harrowing experience, of finding a bed, having to organise injections and constantly hearing of others who were in dire circumstances. At the School of Environment and Architecture, in Mumbai, where I am a professor, many went through equally traumatic situations. Yet we decided to run the full course undeterred, almost as a form of protest.
But as cultural practitioners, we found ourselves at a loss to come to terms with what was happening around us. The closest registers that humanity had to reckon with this state were natural calamities, where consequences were devastating, but life slowly returned to normal. While expectations were similar here, we soon realised otherwise. Things were changing around us and we didn’t know how to make sense of it; we didn’t have the critical distance to do so. Here we recalled Salman Rushdie’s mobilisation in his novel Midnight’s Children of the contemporary being akin to a cinema, where you are watching a movie with your nose to the screen, only seeing pixels. We decided as a school for 200 of us to come together to read each pixel and narrate its story, to collect our experiences of the pandemic in a glossary (covidglossary.net). The glossary is a method, an artistic practice, and a collective diary of the pandemic. With more than 400 constantly growing entries, we hope to piece together patterns, to speculate on the trajectories for the future in an online exhibition (www.covidglossary.online). These trajectories show us that the pandemic has reconfigured our spatio-temporal registers, where geographic and time-based boundaries are blurred; institutional registers, where modern institutions have failed and smaller solidarities forged through friendships and compassions appear to be holding our society together; and sensorial registers, where the sense of taste and smell seem to have diminished along with the sense of touch. The new normal would need to recognise these shifts to refract from and into.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.