By Suvasree Karanjai
I am not a prolific writer at all. A lazy academic, I procrastinate at the very idea of sitting on my laptop or tablet to pen down a few lines every day as most writers do religiously. But, lockdown has eventually left me with little option but to find a way of filling twenty-four long hours over twenty-one days, which has now extended much beyond. And hence, I am here on my table.
This seems to me the ultimate gift of this quarantine and the pandemic which many of us are facing for the first time in our lifetime.
Before I write at length, I must give this disclaimer that the write up is entirely based on what and how I see the pandemic and the consequent lockdown sitting in a small town by the foothills of Himalayas, called Siliguri (West Bengal, India). The beautiful place is fondly called the Chicken’s Neck as it connects India’s north-eastern states to the rest of the nation.
Initially, the lockdown shook us with not only the dread of the contagious virus afflicting lives across the globe, but also with the eerie news of suspension of all domestic help and our jobs. Taking a break from workplaces and the rigorous routine life was a great relief indeed. But the very thought that there would be no domestic help gave most Indians a cold shiver, I am pretty sure. And, therefore, immediately from the status of glossy working women, we were donning the shoes of pale, feeble and incompetent housewives. Yes, incompetent because, in most cases, neither could we imagine nor did we have the scope of doing housework for such a long stretch. This felt like was an imposition. We were left with no choice at all. In other words, it was a drastic flip of life.
I must add, the men were more alarmed. They could feel the shudder at the anticipation of their spouses’ mood swings over the coming weeks. Oh! How scary!
For the first few days, being a working woman, I really felt great to have leave and stay at home as a gharwali (a homemaker). I was longing for such a break, seriously. However, it really felt bad to have such holidays at the cost of innumerable lives. First two days most of us spent hours sleeping, working out routines and planning self care and personal growth.
Many portals extended help to all sorts of working people to deal with this frightening lockdown and to prevent a tragic breakdown. While for some the declaration was creepy from day one, others took the less-travelled and optimistic road.
As an academic, I felt I had won an unimagined prize. One always complains of dearth of time to read and write, or even rest, after loads of professional-academic work. Now, that I was ‘gifted’ (for others it might have been an imposition though) with all this time to explore beyond all boundaries, the depressing fact of escalating fear of the virus found no room for minimal shelter. The nights were long and vibrant, and the days aglow with brainstorming feed from diverse sources.
A creative and intellectual person always has his unique way to deal with any kind of crisis. The lockdown meant, for the academics, the best time for self-education. A thinker is never on leave anywhere and anytime. Self-isolation and self-confinement, which can be equalled with solitary living to a certain extent, is undeniably an essential criterion for any creative venture. For, if one is alone, one is completely with oneself with one’s strengths and weaknesses. Without knowing oneself well, an artist (in all fields, from literary to music and painting) can never create his/her original piece.
Quarantine is the occasion to give oneself to time and time to oneself. The outer world is suddenly shut off. There is no rush to office and no visitors drop in without notice; no horns blow on roads and no wedding drums turn one stone deaf. Though quarantine is not complete solitariness, as one might have to live with one’s partner or family, it does give ample time to pursue new and greater horizons of research and study. Time in quarantine is actually a boon for a bibliophile or academic.
When the lockdown began, the terror of death had not yet gripped the soul. But the gradual explosion in the number of premature deaths all over the globe suddenly gave way to anxiety. What if I die tomorrow? Will I be able to finish my dream work? I felt a threat standing before my bookshelves and the study table. And then, I heard an inner voice mewing, “I have so much to read and write.” I cannot quit before I reach that serene height of growth without giving this world the best of me.
Time is limited. The death-fear triggered my long withdrawn passion to spur on. Who knows who would fail to escape the gamble of this life-threatening virus?
While this might have been the case with few, the intellectual populace in general took the occasion to enlighten themselves and the world on diverse issues. A thinker always sees with a difference, and hence, makes a difference to the world too. The pandemic has created space for thought, introspection and retrospection. Across the globe, there is input of best intellectual ideas and perceptions which the world history demands now.
The pandemic is not an isolated event. It has deep roots in widespread world politics, history, economy and culture. It’s a major global accident in recent times that has created an unexpected opportunity to study the dynamics of human civilization and psyche. The Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Žižek has already come up with his new short book, Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World. He gives a groundbreaking comprehension of capitalism in the face of this global epidemic. And hence, the cult of pandemic literature is on. It is the peak moment for philosophy to accelerate and unfold a new venture.
The virtual book lovers’ clubs and meetings are now all the more replete with shares of bibliophilic impulses to read different genres. A large literary populace is reading those pandemic literatures which they somehow missed reading in regular busy life. Many have taken this opportunity to get engaged in online courses which are again proliferating in this lockdown. This is not just self-education but a manifestation of a vast community feeling among the academics and bookworms in the times of strict self-isolation. Various portals are now in roll with eye-opening articles to nourish our grey-matter. That itself says that intellectuals are on their feet. Alices are now enjoying their respective wonderlands.
As I had posted on my Facebook news feed: I am finally getting the opportunity to read the unread books , ones that Amazon and Flipkart push bibliophiles like me to buy and stow on overburdened bookshelves. In response to my post, a friend of mine commented that he could still not resist his impulses. Under the cloak of helping the small bookstores survive, he had indulged in buying new books. So there is actually no trick to stop thinkers, academics and bibliophiles. They always see the tunnel aglow, no matter how dark it might seem to the world around.
Suvasree Karanjai is a PhD candidate at Department of English, University of North Bengal, India. She has reviewed books in Wasafiri: International Contemporary Writing and Kitaab a couple of times. She has also interviewed eminent creative writers like Saikat Majumdar and Rajat Chaudhuri in Caesurae: Poetics of Cultural Translation.
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