Categories
Stories

From A Lockdown Diary: On The Lightness Of Being

By Sunil Sharma

Satish never thought that one day he would become a character from The Plague.

He had enjoyed Camus and the pop Hollywood films on disaster and pestilence but soon lost interest.

Unbelievable! Absurd!

Doomsday-projections.

Content produced for the core buffs thrilled by a grim future: catastrophes destroying civilisations; the bleak sci-fi talk of the mid-space interstellar collisions; meteorites decimating populations; apes or aliens taking over as masters — invasions of another kind, unpredictable, unseen events with tragic consequences. An Earth endangered. And a hero, as the last survivor of a devastation, impossible in real time, at least for him.

A big turn-off.

Yet, deep down, the end-of-the-world scenarios— extreme climate change; humans-turned- zombies; androids, apes running the world—exercised a morbid fascination also.

Was it a possibility?

Yes. Floods. Famines. Smog. Pollution. Melting ice. Pessimistic news that could no longer be denied.

One thing he could not escape was this terrible condition — the unseen fate of being overwhelmed by a tragedy of epic scales. Once it began to unravel without a warning, it could leave the planet paralysed.

Apart from terror and racial violence, disease and virus have emerged as new existential threats.

Pandemics could make the master race vulnerable, despite advancements of science and tech.

Naturally such disasters fascinated and repelled the mind.

Now arrives COVID-19.

***

His Mumbai apartment — his entire universe, post-work, shrank down to a cluttered space of 650 square feet. A mere glass cage, suspended in air; the Eastern Express Highway and an arching flyover, few kilometres away, as the bustling backcloth, signs of a busy mega city that never sleeps, a manic Mumbai in over drive — currently, it was in the quiet of a tough quarantine.

A state he never imagined could happen to him or the dream city.

But it was happening, like a nightmare, unspooling like a pestilential movie from Hollywood.

Fantasy becoming real!

He was both horrified and terrified.

Mumbai stalled.

Satish had never seen such a scene — a city of millions in lockdown.

Plague was an actuality.

And he was stuck inside his rented apartment, like a fluttering insect in a glass jar.

From the glass-window, he stared at the deserted highway. Half-an-hour later, he was watching the opposite tower, from the balcony, where families leant out or sat in view of the windows, bored to death by the lack of activity and movement.

It was lockdown.

Fear!

Nothing could ground the wheels of a community like fear.

Mumbai had come to a standstill– like India — first time in history for this length of time.

He was in self-isolation.

For 21 days!

The Plague and Hollywood look convincing, plausible—almost prophetic.

Sometimes art points out the way and correctly maps responses, individual and collective, to a gigantic apocalypse.

I plan to read Camus again and watch pestilence-themed Hollywood flicks.

Satish wrote in his journal.

Some genius suggested in one of the WhatsApp groups, to blog, vlog or write in a diary, one’s innermost thoughts, ideas, fears, joys of living in the vice-like grip of corona virus: “Better try the diary, friends! Write in a neat hand the trials and tribulations of getting quarantined in your own home! Diary writing is a vanished art now! Revive it. Pour out your thoughts, stories, moods, views there. Call it the ‘Jottings of a plague journal’. Or any other name. The important thing is an account of the days and hours spent inside a home turned restricted space, sanctuary, fort or cell—whatever—where an inner or outer transformation takes place. Be creative!”

The idea sounded good.

The only modification: He created an online diary.

He had never felt this limited, immobilized!

For twenty-one days, you were asked to stay inside.

There were rumors galore.

Suddenly, the virus had become global obsession.

Catch-22: If you went out, you would get caught by the cops or the virus or both; if you stayed indoors, you stayed safe. But there was an uncomfortable sense of suffocation within the walls.

He wanted to rush out into the open.

Such moments were terrible!

A sense of claustrophobia and an urge to go to the garden in order to gulp fresh air, reclaim the empty streets, to run and shout from the intersection; talk to the trees and birds — activities never thought of as desirable for a 32-year-old business executive with a travel agency in the Fort area haunted his being.

Break out!

Creativity offered liberation.

Writing.

Music.

These can set you free and make you wander unknown realms!

Satish jotted down his fleeting ideas in the journal, sometimes in italics. Earlier, he had maintained a diary, writing down his feelings as he could not share the pain and sadness of being a shy and poor teenager in a small town. There were things he could not trust with his two close friends.

That is the power of the word.

Life caught on and Satish had forgotten his diary.

Writing had given him an outlet.

He was reminded of the packed guitar.

I will play the guitar.

He jotted down.

Guitar.

Given with this message: “You wanted to play the guitar. A sister’s humble gift to a younger brother. Love from Boston!” He had cried the whole night.

He took out the Hawaiian guitar, unpacked it and felt nostalgic.

***

A home in Ghaziabad. A widow gave tuitions and raised two children.

The sister worked part time and excelled academically. Later on, she went to America on H-IB visa. She sent money to her mama regularly from Boston where she eventually married an Irishman.

Few years later, Satish too joined the agency and moved to Mumbai.

The sacrifices of the mother and sister!

I will write to mother. Request her to come down here.

***

It all started on Saturday, April 4.

It began like the previous day — ordinary and dull.

At 8.30 am, the boss sent a note: “Temporary staff terminated. More heads to roll soon. Recession takes its toll.”

 He panicked. What would happen, if I he got fired?

“Wait and watch,” said the boss.

Satish was on the edge of an abyss.

Instalments? Bills?

Another entry.

“First time I felt vulnerable. Uncertain future. I now understand the pain of the downsized whom earlier I dismissed as incompetent and poor performers.”

9.30 am:

Call from a co-worker. She was tearful: “How should I cope? They fired a lot of people. My husband is already out of job. Two kids. Old mother-in-law in need of medical attention. What should we do?” And more weeping.

“Please, Janet. We are with you. You need anything, let me know.  I have saved some money. I can spare something.”

“No, dear brother! Thanks…” Her voice trails off.

And the call gets disconnected

Moved, Satish writes:

Hope! It sustains the humankind in crises.

10.30 am:

The birdsongs.

It was a revelation. God exists.

Divine notes.

I see the flight of storks, parrots, pigeons, sparrows and crows. And a regal kingfisher.

The birds chirp.

Parrots squawk.

Mynas chatter.

And the song of a nightingale wafts on a fresh breeze from across the salt pens and few wetlands, at the back of the building.

I am hearing these natural sounds in a metro centre — after years.

Sheer delight, this heavenly symphony, confirms the presence of God again for me.

10.55 am:

…I want to fly freely in the space, like the birds!

How precious this freedom!

Give me wings, God, please!

I want to fly.

11.25 am:

Food.

The maid cannot come. I have to cook meals for the day.

Now I understand the value of home-cooked meals made by the women of family.

Wife!

Sakshi is at her maternal home. Must thank her for her daily loving meals that I often did not appreciate. As I have to cook daily, I, now, appreciate the value of her cooking and caring.

Resolution: I will write a thank-you note to mama, sister and Sakshi tonight.

***

Urgent: I must check with the domestic help, if she needs money.

Is she getting her daily meals during the lockdown?

11.55 am:

No response from the help.

God protect her and her family!

What about Chottu? Is he safe? Is he getting meals daily, this young boy from Bihar?

When Sakshi is not here, I go to this street-side cart where Chottu serves hot and sugary ginger-tea in little glasses. He always has a sweet smile, this frail kid with a mop of curly hair. Clad in the brown half pants and a yellow oversized T, bare feet, flitting between the customers and stall owner-cum-tea maker; washing the glasses quickly and then going to the shops nearby for the delivering the orders — it is like a one-boy show.

Everybody calls him Chottu. And loves his golden smile. Some regular patrons sometimes give him small tips. In the night, the boy sleeps in the hand cart only.

I must find out.

And Kaul Saab!

The elderly Kashmiri uncle, two floors above. Kind. Soft-spoken.

Once Sakshi had slipped down in the courtyard of the building, Kaul uncle immediately took her to the doctor in his car—and back.

Evening, he brought fruits to “my daughter Sakshi and son Satish. Anything you guys need, let me know. The retired person will be happy to be of some help.”

We both had felt indebted to this tall and gracious widower living alone in the teeming city.

Afterwards, we occasionally met in the elevator or the lobby and exchange few words.

How is he managing without his domestic help?

I will check with him also on phone, in case he needs something.

12.30 pm:

Got both on the phone!

Chottu was delighted and asked again, “Saab, you sure paying for my meals through the food- delivery app?”

“Yes, son. Sure.”

“Thanks, Saab.”

Kaul uncle was also happy. “Daily meals? Wow! Not tech savvy, though. Cannot handle these basic apps. Much appreciated! I will pay in cash.”

“No, Uncle! Let your son pay.”

“Thanks again for remembering your old uncle.”

5.30 pm:

I have this strange experience:

…I am getting lighter. The sky invites. Birds beckon. The sky is blue and beautiful. There is no smog. The air is intoxicating. I pray to God: I want to soar bird-like in the divine vault and savour the freedom of a vast expanse. Please, God!

Freedom!

And, suddenly, I get smaller, fly out of the window, grow instant wings, begin exploring the heavens, a man-bird in reality.

Amazing!

Up in the air.

The sun winks.

The clouds kiss my flushed cheeks

The birds include me in their joyous flights. I circle with them and describe patterns in the sky, like an expert.

I continue to soar above a city made better by the sights of strays being fed by solitary men; migrant workers being given rations or meals twice every day; cops served with tea and water bottles; the medical professionals presented with flowers — new unsung heroes and heroines — by strangers; trees and flowers grow fast; rivers cleaner; streets quieter; visibility increased: stars appear clearly before my startled eyes.

It is sheer magic!

This post-industrial world unseen, thanks to Corona, opening up, as a dream.

And me — flying and inhaling the fresh wind, so invigorating — over this altered landscape, freely, joyfully; I first time understand the meaning of life, positive living, despite the pandemic, COVID-19, the lockdown, the huge threat of infection and confinement.

The virus has completely destroyed the arrogance of humans as a master race.

Nature is taking back control. And giving lessons.

I keep on flying in my new avatar.

The towers and the city gleam beneath my gossamer wings and a full heart.

The network of twisted roads, almost empty of traffic.

No pollutants to sting skin or eyes.

Birds hop on the asphalt!

As I soar higher, I see the creatures out in the alleys and the highways, people reaching out, in a grand gesture, to those in need, like in a big community.

Liberated!

Free of earthly bonds, at last!

I fly lighter and higher into another realm of evolved consciousness, reality.

Ecstatic, I become one with the elements, in an odd transformation, in time of a pandemic…

Incredible! Is it not?

Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
For more details of publications, please visit the link below:
http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/

Categories
Review

‘What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves’: The Plague by Albert Camus

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: The Plague (1947)

Author: Albert Camus

Camus’ La Peste has never been out of print. In the wake of pandemic that now sweeps the entire world, its sale has seen a surge quite unlike at any other time since its publication in 1947. What else can be a greater proof of the relevance of a work that seems to be an ageless parable of human condition.

The novel, most of which he wrote in confinement, away from his family due to his acute illness, is the story of a town suffering from bubonic plague. But this novel can also be seen as an allegory of human crisis brought about by moral contagion.

Camus belonged to a generation which was born either before or during the First World War, reached adolescence during the worldwide economic depression and turned twenty the year of Hitler’s rise to power. Next they saw the civil war in Spain, the Munich Agreements, the start of another World War in 1939, the fall of France in 1940 and four years of enemy occupation and underground struggle.

All of this, in his opinion, resulted in a human crisis where most people, disillusioned by religion or nationalism and wary of the traditional morality imposed upon them, lived in contradiction. They accepted war and violence which was given to them, which they had never wanted but from the consequences of which they could not escape. It was as if the entire generation was plagued by an indifference which led people to accept human suffering as a banal reality.

In one of his lyrical essays, The Almond Trees (1940), Camus wrote:

I do not have enough faith in reason to subscribe to a belief in progress or to any philosophy of history. But I do atleast believe that men have never ceased to grow in the knowledge of their destiny. We have not overcome our condition and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as men is to find those few first principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must stitch up what has been torn apart, render justice imaginable in a World which is so obviously unjust, make happiness meaningful for nations poisoned by the misery of this century.”

He believed in human kindness and solidarity. He believed that if in the face of a crisis people could rise and act, not out of some heroic courage expected of them, but with reason and optimism, then it would be possible to reduce human suffering.

Written in the given context, the novel quite pertinently, became a tale of a persisting contradiction and subsequent human actions in overcoming the condition.

What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

In the novel, after initially rejecting the plague, the people of Oran are forced to go into isolation and quarantine. In fact the whole city is closed down and its borders are sealed. There are people suffering from the disease, people in exile – away from their loved ones, people serving those ridden with disease and also people trying to make more money by smuggling goods. Here the depiction of illness, loneliness and separation is quite vivid – much that we can relate to as well at present?

Dr. Rieux, the one who detects the illness, assumes his responsibility and does what he must. He is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things, not out of a notion of valour but out of simple decency and a sense of moral obligation. His character personifies individual moral responsibility essential to make effective public choices in a society. At one point, he says:

When you see the suffering it brings, you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the Plague.”

Rambert, a young journalist who is exiled in Oran, tries to escape the city initially but later he realises that he shares a common fate with rest of the people and joins in serving those afflicted.

Then one fine day, the plague disappears as mysteriously as it had appeared but not without playing havoc with the lives of people. Later when the people celebrate in the streets of Oran, Dr. Rieux observes:

The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

Camus knew that even if a contagion, whether biological or moral, ends – one couldn’t be too sure of its absolute extinction. So in the absence of a clear moral lesson from this book, what is it that makes the book still relevant?

In the face of the present pandemic which lurks in the corners of our cities and stares at us from outside the windows of our isolated homes, this book not only brings to our notice the horrors such plagues can inflict but also the human will, solidarity and collective resistance that remain instrumental in overcoming such disasters. It puts our focus back where it should be – on assuming moral responsibility as individuals — on each act of kindness, on goodness which when collective not only helps combat a pandemic but also rouses our alertness lest our laxity make us miss the signs of an impending darkness. 

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

Categories
Poetry

Two Covid-19 viruses meet Albert Camus

(A Dystopian spoof on Corona and Camus)

By Ra Sh

The world was calm now. And silent.

Only the birds chirped tweeted sang cawed.

Only the animals barked mewed mooed growled.

Only the river gurgled.

Only the sky thundered.

Only the fires crackled.

Two covid-19 teenage viruses walked around the city

assessing the damage. On Route vers l’ouest, they found

mansions with cars parked in front and little gardens.

Four dogs ran out of the house dragging a well dressed

woman and a naked man. It was the posh area of the city

and in house after house dogs feasted.

On Route Vers le nord, that led to the fields, unharvested paddy

lay in the fields. That was the operational area of the rodents,

snakes and the jackals. On Route vers l’est, that led to the offices,

the road lay thick with the police, applicants, clerks, officers and

mounts of paper. The vultures landed on them and tore away

the flesh.  It was a mass of rotting flesh, blood, hair and

official communiqué.

On Route vers le sud, that led to the river, peacocks danced on

the road. From the two theatres that showed no films, super stars

grinned from posters. Weeds were slowly climbing up the

courtyards of the college and the schools. The grounds were

covered with bodies , furniture, lab instruments and aprons.

The teenage viruses reached the river and sat holding hands.

Being young, they were in love and being idealistic a tad bit

sad about the end of humans.

They then spied a human in a trench coat and trousers angling for

fish  on the bank. He smoked a pipe and chuckled while he spoke

to the fishes. The adolescent viruses approached him and asked,

“Who are you sir, how come you are in one piece when

all humans are dead all over the world?”

The man chuckled again and retorted, “I am Camus

and I wrote a novel ‘The Plague’ long back. I wrote that the city

was happy, life went on, but the plague bacillus never dies or

disappears for good. It can lie dormant for years and years

in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves and perhaps the day

would come when it roused up its rats again and sent them

into a happy city.  You are those rats now and you are the plague.”*

The Gen X viruses who could barely understand him, watched

as Camus gathered his things and made his way up stream with

fishing rods, bait and the day’s catch, whistling to himself.

Albert Camus

*From the last lines of the Albert Camus novel, The Plague.

Ra Sh is a poet based out of Kerala

First published in Countercurrents.org