I CAN HEAR THE church bells ring on Sunday morning though the pews must be empty of parishioners. A polished wooden coffin lay on the floor of a hospital waiting room the other day and I couldn’t look away. It reminded me of how the soon-to-be destroyed Pierre in Luis Buñuel’s film Belle de Jour comes upon an empty wheelchair and is suddenly transfixed. The next day I read a report about the shortage of coffins in the state. I am annoyed by the relentless traffic on this road outside my mother’s apartment but now, in the days that stretch to weeks of Covid curfew, in the long gaps between one car and the next, I hear the sirens. And we’re short of ambulances too. What happened to the ambulances bought with the MLA schemes, asks the Shillong Times. The schoolgirl upstairs practices her piano scales. I must have run into her a couple of times on my annual visits to town over the years but I can’t remember her face. In the central courtyard, bare-limbed teenage boys yell in disappointment at missed catches and whoop at successful ones. Soon enough a notice goes around: games are no longer allowed in the central courtyard. Jacaranda flowers of soft lavender brought down by rain strewn undisturbed on roads when I walk to the post office. Strung up on the rails outside is a poster. “What Does the Bible Say About Corona Virus?” It is the end of days apparently, a presaging of the Second Coming. Among the quotes, this: “In Many Places People Will Starve to Death and Suffer Terrible Diseases. All Sorts of Frightening Things Will be Seen in the Sky (Luke 21:11).” Some believe the vaccine will imprint the sign of the devil on them. Others say this rumour has floated here over the internet from the furthest fringes of American conservatism. Everyone is sure of the right and the wrong to this, and the tone taken by those on the side of order and reason feels as overbearing as the murmurings driven by superstition are trite.
I look through my brother’s collection of old textbooks (Mathematics Can be Fun, Physics for Everyone),translated from Russian, that he would get as a child from every book fair that came to town through the 1980s, while I always sought out the novels and the folktales. Science to me was seriousness in a Russian accent—something poorly understood but comforting in its certainties, later embodied in the shaggy-haired, kindly figure of Dr Yash Pal explaining weekly on Doordarshan why rotis fluff up and how earthworms function. One feels exposed for harbouring that romantic view because now—as reports come in that the virus is probably a lab leak—the conclusion is that the genie is out of the bottle and with it science seems to have lost its soothingly avuncular tone. “Flush with our early successes against them, we concluded that microbes were no competition for our big human brains. We were wrong,” says a National Geographic article I come across from 20 years ago. This was just waiting to happen, declared the scientists at the turn of the century, given the way the world was changing—expansion of populations, explosion of cities without proper sanitation, growing proximity of humans to animals, and climate change. One looks for a language that can measure up to this feeling of muted panic in the face of the dominoes collapsing but it’s hard to find that language in the din––the haranguing medical experts, the pedantic political analysts, the plaintive wails of the suffering.
A van from the health department goes around every day emitting ‘Hum Honge Kamyab’ on crackly loop and then ‘We Shall Overcome’ sung soul style in an American accent. People continue to die. The paper starts printing a black box with a picture of a lit candle in it, the names and ages of the state’s dead listed in white. Elsewhere in the country, women have made a goddess of the virus and try to appease her with offerings of flowers and sweets—the feared thing must be resisted but, equally, that ancient instinct to propitiate the powerful. I remember writing to a friend in California last year: the smallpox is worshipped here so it’s only a matter of time before this new thing joins the pantheon. I can hear a school teacher take roll call every morning with her online students but I can’t tell if she’s in the flat to the right or left. Speakers and mikes set up and a man in a white shirt and dark tie makes a speech in the central courtyard one evening. Don’t be afraid of Covid, he thunders. There is hope, there is always hope. He spent 22 days in hospital last year out of which he was in the ICU for 11. “I am a follower of Jesus Christ and in the Holy Bible it is written do not worry about anything. Instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. Then you will get peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.”
I stay quiet, I don’t know what to say. I discover an escapist streak in myself, a terrible urge to turn away from the faith-mongers, the doctors, the op-ed writers, to find the defining experience of this plague somewhere else, in something else. Political explanations are everywhere, as oppressive as the prime minister’s bearded portrait on hoardings across town, urging people to get the vaccine, and there it is again, on the website where one registers for it. There is no getting away from that face. Aggrieved and grieving citizens say it should also be on the death certificates—of those who have died for lack of medicines, lack of oxygen, lack of a hospital bed.
I walk in circles in the courtyard at twilight, consider the fat dahlias and riotously pink petunias that someone has been tending, that have grown regardless of the death in the air. The diurnal rhythm, the daily noticing and neglecting, the breath in and out, the waking and sleeping, hope and despair, hunger and satedness have never appeared more brilliant and less significant, the abstractions of politics never felt this gigantic and remote, and never has religion seemed so weak a palliative.
A friend suggests reading JM Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year and in it I find, at last, disaster recast in the imagination of an artist, that is, seen conceptually and not just in material terms. “Two parties who embark on a game of chess implicitly agree to play by the rules. But in the game we play against the viruses there is no such founding convention. It is not inconceivable that one day a virus will make the equivalent of a conceptual leap and, instead of playing the game, will begin to play the game of game-playing, that is to say, will begin to reform the rules to suit its own desire.” And here too an understanding of how, in dark times, to evade politics. Talking of our often self-willed submission to those in power, Coetzee says, “The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.”
Through the door of my bedroom that opens out into the balcony I keep hearing distant announcements on a loudspeaker, and every week or fortnight the rules for what is allowed and what isn’t are tweaked so that in no time we are lost in this grim forest of regulations. Those undecipherable, recorded voices issuing orders in the dark remind me of a scene out of some tacky, pretend future—Blade Runner perhaps. I dream of the man in the white shirt and dark tie shouting down at me from his window for some inadvertent violation. Trawling a market for fruit, I find myself looking into the eyes of a tall soldier in fatigues standing guard with a rifle, and then see that where there was shoving, spitting, cursing, honking chaos, there is a neat line outside a grocery store, breathing space on the street. Some want to help, some want to whip the rest of us into line, some are good Samaritans who cannot help also being whippers. Men posing as officials and often drunk have in certain neighbourhoods been caning people who linger in the streets after dusk. “Self-appointed vigilantes” lament the papers. We have as a nation always been partial to bureaucratese, ever ready to credit any directive dressed in gobbledygook, all reports that smack of officiousness. And so these are the glory days of the petty babu in all of us. The local government launches a “behaviour change management” app—for us to spy on ourselves as we go about our disease-stricken lives and for them to spy on us. Good manners are owed not to common decency but depend on what is “Covid appropriate”, plain and simple habits are gone and SOPs enforced in their place, none are old and grey and full of sleep but many are “senior citizens”, and there are no ordinary drunks any more.
We have as a nation always been partial to bureaucratese, ever ready to credit any directive dressed in gobbledygook, all reports that smack of officiousness. And so these are the glory days of the petty babu in all of us
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A singer friend sends across a video he has made of a hymn I used to love from school. Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works thy hands have made. I hum it, without conviction, for days. Yet another preacher urges belief. I remain a shepherd even from my hospital bed, he writes in an editorial, a wounded shepherd. Please pray and please vaccinate prayerfully. I try but end up thinking of two images from the opposite ends of belief, as it were. There are the lines, in Robin Ngangom’s translation, from Thangjam Ibopishak’s poem addressing Christ: “When a scientific expedition has converted/ The globe into a gadget/ What are you demonstrating, / Asleep and hanging on a cross?” And there is the Christ in Dostoevsky’s tale about the Grand Inquisitor, who tells the messiah: you are putting impossibly high demands on people, they cannot handle the freedom you are giving them. Every morning and evening the sky above the courtyard is hectic with low-flying swifts. Or are they swallows? The post office has been shut down, so have the banks. And those who live from day to day and hand to mouth live ever more intimately now with the possibility of having nothing to eat. No bureaucratic word for hunger. In June, several thousand bags of rice meant for public distribution across the state are found in someone’s godown being repackaged for private sale. My silence conceals a shame—of belonging to a class whose well-fed concerns have never seemed this spectral. Over the idiom of our literature, the conceits of our art, has always hung a shadow—the secret knowledge of how the other half lives. And now, as this shadow turns its blackest, every expression seems like self-justification and every lament seems like patronising.
LOOKING AT THE swallows or swifts, I imagine the poem of the day—a silent apostrophe addressed to oneself. The asceticism of saying nothing over the gross indulgence of talking at a time when only clichés and pieties remain. News comes in that Adam Zagajewski has passed away, just when I was halfway through his Another Beauty, that incredible work not of history and poetry (or politics and literature) seen separately but an almost forgotten, almost secret, conjunction: history-poetry, the historian-poet. It takes me time to consign the beloved words of his name to the past tense, to believe that the person who wrote about sometimes envying the dead poets is one now one himself. I search out that poem and find that it too speaks of inner emigration – how the theoreticians claim “poetry is fundamentally impossible,/ a poem is a hall where faces dissolve/ in a golden haze of spotlights, where the fierce/rumblings of an angry mob drown out/ defenseless single voices./ So what then? Fine words perish quickly,/ ordinary words rarely persuade./ All the evidence suggests silentium/ claims only a handful of adherents.”
The theoreticians spurn poetry; the reactionaries shout down the poets. In summer, as hundreds of corpses are dumped in the Ganges because the cremation grounds are out of space or because the relatives of the dead cannot afford the expensive cremation rites, Parul Khakkar writes a poem in Gujarati on the unclothed emperor theme that quickly becomes the subject of facile controversy. In Salil Tripathi’s translation it says, “O King, in your Ram-Rajya, I see bodies flow in the Ganges/ O King, your attire sparkles as you shine and glow and blaze/ O King, this entire city has at last seen your real face/Show your guts, no ifs and buts,/ Come out and shout and say it loud,/ ‘The naked King is lame and weak.’”
To blurt out in crude indignation or to say nothing? I head to the airport and find the security folks wielding batons, rapping them sharply on the floor if someone steps out of line or pulls down their masks. ‘Silentium’, I discover, is the name of a poem by the 19th century Russian Fyodor Tyutchev, a contemporary of Pushkin and someone who was both passionately nationalist and deeply philosophical, a combination it’s difficult to imagine obtaining today. And yet the thrill of hearing it said in a poet’s voice: “Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal/ the way you dream, the things you feel… .”