The COVID-19 pandemic has become a part of our lives. Since early 2020 to today, we now have collective memories of struggle and patience, of hardships and trauma, among others. We have reached the final quarter of 2021, and one wonders if this is the end of it. Vaccination drives in India have yet to achieve their full potential amidst new variants of the virus. But many have assumed that we are on a slow path to recovery.
In March 2021, the second gigantic wave of COVID-19 hit various states in India. The capital, Delhi, was among the worst affected. I had been living alone for multiple reasons, but suddenly it seemed like a bad idea when the lockdown was imposed again.
As much as I was careful in my privileged cocoon of a flat in North Delhi, I was anxious and couldn’t sleep at night. I checked the news every alternate day as an essential step towards holding onto my sanity. It was then that I got hold of a book by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee which was written during the first phase of lockdown in Delhi.
The overwhelming hue of the blue cover of The Town Slowly Empties – which encompasses a series of 21 reflective, short essays chronicling the slow passage of time during the first lockdown – was inviting. The account paints an original picture of the unusual condition; a precise drawing of a personal timeline induced by the forced isolation, and a sharp critique of society and politics prevalent in the city of Delhi, and India at large.
We get a wholesome account of an individual’s history that is subtly woven around the history of the nation. Coming from a Hindu Bengali household from Assam (where he was declared a “foreigner” since childhood), Bhattacharjee offers the insight of a self-aware metropolitan with a migrant’s perspective. The writer offers the reader a myriad of reflections crafted in the reality of paradoxes heightened by this dystopian time. The paradoxes of the state of lockdown reveal a public and yet private experience: nature being discarded, yet the only possible solace; fear of death and the obsession with immortality, Delhi enjoying clean air after decades and people roaming streets gloomily while donning masks. The tragedy of the pandemic has dug deeper claws than what meets the eye and yet it gives the privilege of insight to those who can afford it.
The writer makes profound observations from life’s minute details – the “pure expression” of a dog’s grief and how memory is signified by a bird that flies and sits on an electricity wire. We notice society dissolving into nature, and vice versa, in the prose. Bhattacharjee recalls memories with friends, family, and strangers alike. The strangeness of a father with a keen eye for flowers, a woman neighbour who loves smoking and plants, and a far-away friend who sends recipes of cocktails, remind you of similar people you may know in your life.
Manash writes: “Memory is a shelter. Memory looks for shelter.” The reader finds many such instances where the narrative crisscrosses between memory and the present, taking you to a time beyond the pandemic. The book offers us a vivid picture of Delhi, the writer’s daily life, cuisines and detailed recipes with culinary anecdotes; heartfelt conversations with strangers, friends, and family. There is a gracefully composed tone in the writing, yet it also overflows with a sense of freedom.
We get to know the hairdresser, Mazhar, for his lively chats on politics and Bhattacharjee is reminded of Akbar, his childhood barber in Assam. The lockdown becomes a state where we hunt for shelter in memory, news on the internet, and life in sensory experiences that sustain us inside our homes. The descriptions of childhood days and campus stories are endearing. From the love letters of youth, the relative simplicity of childhood, to musical auto rides full of conversations, we encounter a colourful memoir that surprises the reader at each turn.
Memories often speak to the present, just as the present time can echo previous eras and their tragedies. As the prime minister implores the nation to not step out of their homes, it is an invitation, Bhattacharjee writes, to “forget the footsteps of freedom”. The reader is made to realise what is at stake in the new regime of life.
The fragmentary ruminations stir up feelings and thoughts that you may have forgotten and ignored. We meet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, T.S. Eliot, Octavio Paz, García Márquez, Fernando Pessoa and many others, through the pages. The writer connects his own experiences with philosophers, artists, poets and filmmakers, who have reflected on society, isolation, beauty, and several other aspects of life.
The digressions in the form of humour and nostalgia offer a welcome change. The writer acknowledges “the privilege of feeling guilty” associated with a limited section of people belonging to the upper class. We are able to get a wide landscape of gloom, but take resort into little patches of comfort.
The journal informs the reader of the political events taking place around us, as well as the daily struggles of different sections of people. The book demonstrates how the miseries of the poor and the working class during the lockdown are overwhelmingly drastic compared to the privileged. The inadequate efficiency of the government is also a subject in these reflections, and how the state fails especially in these times of crisis. The reader gets space to think and reflect quietly on these issues. The writer calls the act of reflection an “ethical necessity” in this historic moment of frenzy.
The finely crafted prose in this thoughtful book has a way of holding up the big picture in the small details. Bhattacharjee gives you some harsh facts, but also the wisdom of acceptance. Holding strong resemblances to the Romantics, he doesn’t hesitate to criticise the modern era consumed by texts over letters, Zoom calls over real meetings, and yet helplessly he also accepts the perks of these developments with a pinch of salt. The era of technology has reduced love to an abbreviation. The writer finds his own respite, remembering the grass at Purana Qila.
The book does not merely indulge in the inner meanderings of the mind. It shows us how language heals, including the writer himself. These journal entries are a brave act of patience; the act of compiling a period of waiting for something that is unknown. Without being preachy, this pandemic-lockdown journal teaches the reader to be a little more self-aware by understanding the true nature of happiness and beauty, paying attention to the little moments that go unnoticed.
A hybrid text that gives a wide and deep glimpse of the lockdown, The Town Slowly Empties fills you up on many aspects of life beyond the pandemic.
Priyanka Sahu is a writer from Delhi, with a Masters in English literature.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty