As we glide in and out of different phases of the pandemic, recalling when it started to make news takes one to a different world, a world where human interactions, travel, life — all of it seemed more predictable. I remember, I heard of it while in Yogyakarta in December 2019. At that time, we just knew of some new outbreak that had taken toll of a few human lives.
In three months, it became larger and larger and lockdowns became a reality. At some point, the outbreak was named a pandemic. Now, it seems to loom over us like a Sisyphean burden which rolls back to a fresh threat from a new variant just as we start to feel we have finally overcome the virus and made it to the peak, where we can resume our old ways. Is this a hint that we need to redefine our lives and change the tenor of our existence?
With eternal optimism for a weapon, mankind has overcome more deadly situations, when there were neither labs nor technologies to overcome diseases. Writers on our pages have reacted to the multiple outbreaks in varied ways. Here we present a selection of poems, stories and non-fiction from Mid-2021 that feature the onset of the new waves of the virus, which eventually will hopefully evolve to become an endemic. What is heartening to see is some writing has started to move towards a direction to define new ways to overcome the fear and darkness that seem to have been generated by the inability to bounce back to our ‘normal’ ways of living within a given timeframe. Perhaps, one should tend to agree with Keith Lyons, when he says in his essay: “I’ve learned to better cope with the challenges of life. As Jedi Master Yoda once said: ‘Named must be your fear before banish it you can’.”
In conversation with Fakrul Alam, an eminent translator, critic and academic from Bangladesh who has lived through the inception of Bangladesh from East Bengal, translated not just the three greats of Bengal (Tagore, Nazrul, Jibanananda) but also multiple political leaders. Click here to read.
In conversation with Arindam Roy, the Founder and Editor-in-cheif of Different Truths, an online portal for social journalism with forty years of experience in media and major Indian newspapers. Click here to read
Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poem, Shammobadi(The Equaliser) translated by Shahriyer Hossain Shetu. Click here to read.
Tagore’sAmar Shonar Horin Chai(I want the Golden Deer) translated by Mitali Chakravarty, edited and interpreted in pastel by Sohana Manzoor. Click here to read.
To mark the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray, Ratnottama Sengupta translates fromNabendu Ghosh’s autobiography experience of Pather Panchali ( Song of the Road) — between covers and on screen. Click here to read.
Wendy Jones Nakanishi, an academic who started her life in a small town called Rolling Prairie in midwestern US, talks of her journey as a globe trotter — through Europe and Asia — and her response to Covid while living in UK. Click here to read.
‘Did life change or did I change from the events of the last year,’ ponders New Zealander Keith Lyons who was in the southern state of Kerala when the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in India last January. Click here to read.
Pavithra skipped into the apartment wearing a mask of blue denim. Everything about her was quick and she seemed to be float on a restless bubble of energy.
“Amma! The dress rehearsal went very well! I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
Savitri looked at her daughter and could not help but feel a surge of maternal pride. Pavithra had worked so hard. During the lockdown she had continued working on Zoom with her teacher all for the arangetram which was to be the next evening. They had been through a trying two months of lockdown due to the pandemic, but restrictions had eased a month ago and she had resumed classes with social distancing. It was two weeks since all restrictions had been eased, and she had booked a big hall near their home. The tailor had made the beautiful peacock blue and orange costume with shimmering gold borders. All the jewelry had been bought and decorations and food had been arranged. What had seemed impossible two months ago was suddenly possible.
“How many of your friends are returning home with us for dinner?” asked Savitri smiling at her daughter preening in her golden nose ring studded with deep red stones. “Pavi you look ridiculous wearing a nath with your jeans!”
“Only five, Amma,” said Pavithra giggling happily as she removed the nath. “The others have not got permission. With school going at breakneck speed their parents are not happy to send them, but they will all come to the hall.”
“Now go shower and change. I’ve made your favourite roti for dinner.”
“Ma, you are the best!” said Pavithra as she rushed to her room to shower.
Savitri heard her husband come into the sitting room and sit ponderously on the armchair. The next minute the television came on and the news reader was updating everyone on the latest about the nation. Pavithra fresh from her shower dressed in light blue pajamas came and perched on the arm of the chair telling him about her day. Vishwanathan partly listened but most of his attention was on the news.
“We interrupt the news bulletin to bring a special announcement from Delhi,” said the news reader. The Prime minister came on the screen and said that as they had seen an unprecedented spike in the number of cases, lockdown has again been instituted barring only essential services.
The moment seemed frozen in time as the reporter took over and droned on reading a list of essential services. A heartrending sob escaped Pavithra, and she rushed blindly to her room, eyes thick with tears. She lay face down on the bed and hot, angry tears flowed down her cheeks.
“It’s not fair,” she sobbed. “I’ve worked so hard! Just one more day just to do my arangetram that’s all I want. I hate this world!” Her mother and father sat beside her trying to calm her, make her feel better.
“Come and eat your dinner you will feel better,” said her Amma.
“Amma, Apu, I need to be alone. I don’t want dinner. Just leave me alone. I’m okay now,” said Pavithra. “Please I need some space. Take that with you please,” she added, pointing to the shimmering peacock blue outfit.
All her friends tried calling but they were met with mechanical recording that the device had been switched off.
In the morning Pavithra came in for breakfast looking pale and a little shamefaced. She hugged her parents and talked a bit too cheerfully and loudly, but she was not fooling anyone. The doorbell rang and the mother went out to find a large packet of fresh jasmine garlands and some roses that had been delivered as arranged by the milkman. She had forgotten to cancel the flowers for Pavithra’s hair. She quickly wrapped them up and took them to the kitchen. She would cut it up and send it to the neighbours after Pavithra went to her room. The fragrance of jasmine hung guiltily in the air around her as she bustled into the kitchen.
The crisp ghee masala dosas were her favourite and Pavithra pretended to enjoy them as she knew that it was her Amma’s way of consoling her. It took all of her courage and strength to swallow down the second. “I’ve got to catch up on some project work,” she said and slipped into her room.
Savithri’s phone rang, and it was Angela, Pavithra’s best friend and neighbor.
“How is Pavi aunty? She won’t pick up her phone!”
“Give her time Angela. She is trying to be good about it, but the poor thing is devastated. Infact the flowers for her hair came just now and I have moved the package to the balcony as the fragrance will surely make her weep again”
“Okay auntie! Take care! Will try calling her again after lunch.”
When Pavithra came in for lunch she seemed better. She brushed aside her Appu’s question with “I’m a big girl Appu. I got this!”
Her father knew that he could say no more on the subject. His heart was breaking seeing his daughter’s disappointment and pain, but he was also immensely proud that she knew how to pick her battles and accept hurdles and setbacks in her stride. He was dreading 6pm which was the auspicious time they had fixed for her arangetram. He wanted to discuss it with Savitri, but her phone had been ringing nonstop from the morning – all their relatives and well-wishers wanted to know how Pavi was.
While he was dozing in his favourite chair Savitri was busy with her phone. At 4pm, she went to her daughter’s room and knocked on the door. “It’s Amma,” she called out on hearing no response.
“Please leave me alone Amma, I’m alright — just need to be alone.”
“Open the door Pavi I want to ask you something.”
Pavithra opened the door. She looked miserable and was bravely holding back her tears. Savithri felt a rush of love for her brave child.
“Pavi put on the costume and flowers and dance for Appa and me. We will hold your arangetram at the auspicious time.”
“Amma our little apartment has no room, and I will be bumping into things. “
“With the curfew there will be no one in the quadrangle stage of our building. You can dance there and Appa and I will watch you.”
“What about the music? I don’t have all of it recorded.”
“Your teacher has agreed to send it all. She will bless you through Zoom and sing the first half herself.”
Pavi’s eyes started gleaming. Yes, it could be done even if it was just her parents watching. With a smile her mother started braiding her hair carefully attaching the piece that would make the braid reach her hips. Row upon row of jasmine flowers interspersed with a few roses were carefully attached to her hair. Then the golden ornaments were fixed at regular intervals. Her hair was ready.
“Love you Amma,” said Pavi as her mother started lining her eyes with black eye liner. After the make-up, she got into her beautiful costume and leant down to tie her ghunghoroos. The time was 5.45 pm. She bent down and touched the feet of her mother and father seeking their blessing. Vishwanathan could not hold back the tears of pride and joy as he looked at his beautiful, brave girl.
From the lift they walked to the quadrangle. Savi set up the cordless speakers and the laptop. Dot on six Pavi’s teacher came on the screen. Pavi received her guru’s blessing with her head bowed low.
Tha, they, thith, they… her teacher called out the opening notes and Pavi started moving her feet in the dark quadrangle. Suddenly a strobe of white light hit her hand, then another lit her face, yet another followed her feet. All around the residents stood in their balconies and at their windows aiming their bright, white phone torches at the dancing girl.
Pavi danced as she had never danced before. Her mother turned up the volume of the speakers and every pose was received with cheers and claps. When she finished Pavi bowed to her teacher, then her parents and finally did a twirling bow to all the people who were her audience. Plomp something hit her cheek. It was a rose, a zinnia landed near her feet, a Cadbury chocolate hit her ear, it was raining flowers and chocolates. “Love you all,” screamed Pavi as she blew kisses in all directions and collected her gifts. She had her arangetram and it was more special than she ever thought it would be.
Appu, Amma and Pavi walked silently back home, arms laden with gifts only to find many more gifts of food left at their doorstep. It is love that makes everything special said wise little Pavi as she hugged her parents.
Amma – mother
Arangetram – First debut public performance for Bharatnatyam dancers.
Roti — flatbread
Apa/Appu – father
Dosas – South Indian salty pancake with stuffing
Ghungroos – Bells
Guru — teacher
Sheefa V. Mathews is a professor of English Literature and enjoys writing. She is currently working on her first novel.
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