Writers in the time of Pandemic


New Delhi, April 26 She says human beings have a notoriously short collective memory, and are especially good at scrubbing minds of whatever they find inconvenient or unpleasant.

"I happen to think that many things in the world should change in the wake of the virus, but fear that once the immediate threat has passed, we'll rush headlong back into all the old ways, having learned nothing from this crisis," said multiple-award award-winning author Madhuri Vijay ('The Far Field' - HarperCollins India).

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While there is nothing holding back economists on 24X7 television from predicting the country's fiscal health akin to a post nuclear landscape once the lockdown is over, and new-age gurus relentlessly clog journalists' inbox on to deal with lockdown induced stress with the confidence of qualified psychiatrists, IANS spoke to writers across genres and generations to understand what they make of the current scenario, how their characters will imagine the world once Covid is a thing of the past, are they still on their writing tables? And of course, what are they watching on streaming platforms. Well, we do stretch ourselves to ask about their guilty pleasures too.



Around a year back, Madhuri began writing a novel about an epidemic of a very different sort spreading in a city. "Oddly enough, my characters are already thinking in ways consistent with the pandemic and its accompanying lockdown," she said. But no, she isn't really feeling 'trapped'.

"In the months before the pandemic became a global crisis, I was taking care of a newborn, which was, in its own way, a form of isolation, albeit one I chose to undertake. Thankfully, I'm still able to work under the current lockdown, and, as always, I find relief in reading."

But she does miss simply being able to be in public and watch people as they go about the ordinary business of their lives. "Frankly, I never realised how important that was to me, both as a writer and a person."

While she has just finished the most recent season of 'Babylon Berlin', and is reading Cesar Aira's 'How I Became a Nun', the author, when asked about the guilty pleasure she is indulging in makes it clear, "I refuse to feel guilty about pleasure. There are far more important things to feel guilty about."



Ask author Amitabh Bagchi, who won the 2019 DSC South Asian Literature Award for the novel 'Half the Night is Gone' (Juggernaut) if the world will be the same after all this is over, and he smiles, "There would be changes, but I think too much is made of this. After all, every few years certain radical changes do occur. Generally, it is radical political and economic changes that make the world unrecognisable, like the 9/11 strike or the economic collapse of 2008. So far I feel that the pandemic is actually accentuating existing political and economic fault-lines rather than creating new ones."

Considering Bagchi has just begun writing something which is more in the nature of introspection than fiction, he doesn't really foresee an immediate effect on his writing, but, in the long run, feels it will surely have an impact.

"However, I have read many bad novels that centre around 9/11 and having seen at least one bad movie of that kind, I hesitate at the thought of directly incorporating this catastrophe into my writing." While he feels that cleaning the house is good way to calm himself, the author, who normally doesn't go out much, said he does miss something -- "My son used to be obsessed with trains, so we would often go to one of the small railway stations on the Delhi ring railway and watch goods trains go by. I miss that."

Spending his screen time surfing though YouTube and enjoying long afternoon naps, the lockdown has forced him to pick up unread books from his own shelf -- Intizar Hussain's 'Dilli tha jis ka naam' and Lucy Ellman's 'Ducks, Newburyport' among others.



"But who says that the world is the same after anything? If we are to believe chaos theory, every incident, however small has some impact; and some impacts are disproportionate to their size. We have no way of saying how the pandemic will change the world but the good news for writers is that we are not paid to foretell change but to work with it and through it," said writer, poet and translator Jerry Pinto, author of 'Murder in Mahim' (Speaking Tiger) among others.

Working on the proofs of a translation, polishing poems for a new collection and trying to get a novel into shape, he says. "The 'me' has changed and therefore everything will change. Though he misses walking the streets of Mumbai, "or any city as that's where life is and life is my raw material", Jerry doesn't really feel trapped during the lockdown. "I chose to isolate myself and I choose it every day again as part of my social duty. Once you have exercised choice, you are fine."

While his last outing with a streaming platform was the documentary 'Cuba and the Cameraman', he is reading Juan Goytisolo's 'Landscapes after the battle', translated by Helen Lane. "The narrator is trapped in his apartment but ranges the world in his mind". He adds, "And yes, my guilty pleasure -- Not bathing until I want to rather than following the imperium of a timetable set by other people."



She feels people will no longer take for granted the ordinary joys of life. "Meeting friends, going to bookshops, restaurants, malls, museums and festivities with friends and family..." saID writer and journalist Tavleen Singh, author of books including 'India's Broken Tryst' (HarperCollins India), who is working on a book nowadays. Stressing that she misses the world as it was, reading 'The Gift' by Vladimir Nabakov and 'Goodbye to All That' by Robert Graves is what is keeping her busy. While she recently finished the latest season of the Israeli series on Netflix, 'Fauda', Tavleen is definitely missing going to bookshops.



Hoping things wouldn't go back to "being the same" and praying that this sees the beginning of the end of extractive, unethical capitalism; that this spurs a reassessment of our toxic consumeristic lifestyles, motivates a realignment of our relationship to our planet, and deepens our resolve to live with respect and compassion for all living beings, poet and writer Janice Pariat of 'The Nine Chambered Heart' and 'Seahorse' says: "But humans have notoriously short memories, and will power that's just short of hopeless, so we do sadly run the risk of returning back to normal, which as we know, was a state of crisis. I'm hoping that these extended lockdown periods may have nudged a shift in people, that this time has also served for reflection, and served to help us see things anew, and with new understanding."

The first writer from Meghalaya to receive an award from the Sahitya Akademi for a work in English, Janice, who is working on a new book, said "Strangely, the themes of the book, that of indigeneity, of our relationship to our planet, resonates very strongly with the conversations we're having now, so little has changed within the book. What the lockdown has provoked, however, is unlimited writing time at my desk."



Missing working in cafes, she added, "That lovely feeling of being part of the world but not quite in it, meeting family and friends, and travelling -- though I think I need to rethink travel and the burden it exerts on our planet."

Janice who has been watching a lot of Hitchcock ("There's just something so terribly safe and familiar about a Hitchcock film") on Youtube, doesn't read fiction while writing a book--so it's piles of research material on her desk at the moment, including but not restricted to 19th century botanical travel memoirs. "After I'm done with my first draft, I'll get to my "to do list" which is far trendier I promise you."

Well, the lockdown has made her go back to some old episodes of 'Sex and the City' and if she were not writing, crime novels from the 1950s.



Writer Nayantara Saghal, who has authored books including 'When the Moon Shines by Day' and 'The Fate of Butterflies' (Speaking Tiger) among many others has not been able to read a book for many weeks now. "I am finding it impossible to concentrate on anything but the nightmarish situation the country is in."

She elaborates, "The pandemic has made it clear that survival of the richest, which is the ruling ideology in a number of countries, including my own, has brought widespread and brutal suffering to the poor." Adding that there can be no return to what is known as "normal" once the pandemic recedes, she Nayantara elaborates, "This country must go forward to a more egalitaran and humanitarian society."

Considering the fact that he has worked from his beautiful pad in Landour all his life, Ruskin Bond is definitely not feeling 'trapped'. As always writing at least 500 words a day, he asks, "How can anyone feel cut-off with books around? I anyways read two books a week." Missing going out for lunches, the author feels that the world is bound to change post the pandemic. "I really don't think people will travel as much as they did in the past."