Written two years ago, during the first three weeks of lockdown, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee’s book is still as relevant and readable. Even as it encapsulates the disarray of a deeply (also freshly) distressing time, the spirit of the book is ultimately uplifting.
The diary-entry narrative traces its way through the streets of Delhi, Kolkata and Assam, markets, parks, universities, apartments, into windows, through doors, on and off of autorickshaws, flitting like a hummingbird or an insect continuously changing directions. Such spontaneity and flow is not due to a short attention-span but rather because each direction holds something to be uncovered, to be seen, and the writer is so hungry, he wants to uncover and see it all.
Absence, then, becomes the open space wherein thought, culture, and experience coalesce through personal, political, moral, and imaginative realms. The middle-class and upper middle-class thinkers, forced into a kind of hibernation from the “transitory passion…of modern existence”, ought to see such “reflection” as an “ethical necessity”.
Woven within the pages is an abundance of literary allusions to the likes of T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire and Albert Camus. His references, however, are not just limited to writers — favourite filmmakers (Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa), political/philosophical thinkers (B.R. Ambedkar, Hannah Arendt, Descartes, Aurelius) crop up throughout the book.
We find the author finding reflections of the self in the mirror of literature and cinema. Not only is he an admirer of these artists but he also makes his place amidst them. Primarily a writer, Bhattacharjee has clearly taken after his favourite predecessors — his prose carries Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s appreciation for beauty, Octavio Paz’s sense of aphoristic abstractions, Fernando Pessoa’s sense of fragmented reality, Franz Kafka’s worldview, and Milan Kundera’s narratorial authority.
Grounding all of these intellectual ruminations is food. The act of cooking provides a sense of comfort amidst the displacement and death wreaked by COVID-19.
“I cooked mutton for dinner. Richa helped with cutting the vegetables. I kept the recipe simple. I felt all meals under lockdown should be made light, in contrast to the heaviness of our solitude.”
Simple descriptions of buying groceries, preparing meals, chopping, simmering, tasting, become the touchstones of home and hope. Bhattacharjee’s voice is so unique and powerful that you can’t help but feel you have found a companion in these pages. The collective pronoun comes to his aid:
“We’re cooking to keep our hands busy, cutting our own hair, and standing in our closets staring at the clothes we once wore as if they are from a former life.”
In one instance, the author questions a man selling fish about why he is there before the market opens. When the vendor has no answer (for who had any real answers in those early days?) Bhattacharjee proclaims that the man is there because, “I had to buy fish from you. It was ordained.” Such subtle joy and humour lends cadence to the author’s voice.
Suffused in its lightness, however, are the naked social observations delineating class and the migrant experience. Although there is a heartwarming quality to many of the personal interactions he has with autowallahs and street vendors, he does not fail to add the necessary political dimensions at play in such social scenarios. He recalls how the PM “implored the nation to forget” that an outside world exists and “in a rare gesture… folded his hands”. The oscillating and uneasy times demand extraordinary resolutions. Bhattacharjee is dismayed by the duplicitousness of such theatrical political humility.
The book moves swiftly between stillness and movement, heaviness and lightness, past and present, literature and life. Often, he himself seems to be wading in the waters of passing time to search for something lost in the waves. A sense of fresh nostalgia is always rising to the surface. He meditates on his hometown, the garden in his childhood home, how “we are children of a ruined garden…of the memory of forests”. What was once intrinsic to the self becomes the other. Even Jawahalal Nehru University, where he spent nine years, “started growing unfamiliar”. Such disillusionment, though springing from anecdote, is universal in its essence, especially during the lockdown.
Insights on memory, history, past, modernisation and how it ruins our connection with the place, its people, its nature abound. His voice is well-rooted in history. Everything he says, at its heart, is a reminder of how narrative — history, fiction, poetry — is the only vaccination against forgetfulness; to remember is essential to not repeat concentration camps, wars, genocides. One of my favourite passages of the book encapsulates poetry, politics, the pandemic, and philosophy:
“Behind every confession of the truth lies another facade. The face is also a facade. The post-lockdown world of masks along with social distancing will be paradoxical. Eyes are the windows to trust. But eyes that you trust (for distrust) are part of a face. You trust the whole face of the person. If the face is masked, the eyes are masked too. There is a range of poetic literature on the eroticism of the veil…The medical or health mask is not erotic, but utilitarian. It obstructs the sensuous visibility of someone’s face. Even if a face is a facade, it is an open facade. A mask will close it to the world. A mask worn in public will turn people into aliens and intensify alienation. The irony of our times: it is now necessary (even compulsory) to mask yourself, to be an alien to keep yourself and others safe.”
For Bhattacharjee, as for many of us, language and poetry are perhaps the only solace for such inherited loss. This is the running theme of the book: diary writing as wound and as therapy.
Karan Kapoor is a poet based in New Delhi. A recent winner of the Red Wheelbarrow Prize, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Plume Poetry, The Indian Quarterly, The Bombay Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find him at: https://www.karankapoor.co.in/
Featured image: A monkey crosses the road near the Presidential Palace during a 14-hour long curfew to limit the spreading of COVID-19, New Delhi, India, March 22, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis