It was a bright humid day in April, and people had stopped looking at clocks because time is the greatest illusion during lockdown, when the first proposal entered my inbox. There are many things the pandemic has taken from us, but one of the first things to leave me was my ability to read. There’s no shame in admitting that despite having trained myself for the past seven years to be able to read come hell or high water, I wasn’t able to get through a single page of a book without succumbing to the restlessness I, like a billion other Indians, was feeling inside.
To free my heart of this guilt I did what most self-respecting people with a WiFi connection would do in 2020 – I went on Twitter and checked if I was the only one feeling this way. And when I saw that Chris from Staten Island also couldn’t concentrate on mastering the subtle art of not giving a hoot as prescribed in the bestselling self-help book which he was reading and actually started giving a hoot, I felt at ease.
With restored dignity and wavering attention, I clicked on the unread message in my mail box. The subject line read: A Covid Love Story. I could sense TS Eliot’s ghost standing next to me in a PPE suit, whispering in my ear — “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.”
Don’t get me wrong: there’s absolutely zero harm in finding love amid a global health crisis. But even Albert Camus waited almost a hundred years before deep diving into the cholera epidemic of 1849 in La Peste, translated as The Plague – a masterful allegorical work which informs us how our species was doomed from the start, sprinkling its end with some hope perhaps to satisfy his morbid sense of humour.
Novels that are being written
We are still bang in the middle of a full-blown global pandemic and I have already received (or heard about): the stuck-in-a-house-with-a-partner-I-don’t-love-anymore novel; the lovers-stuck-in-different-continents-wanking-off-on-Zoom-calls novel; and the falling-in-love-with-the-middle-aged-neighbour-you-always-thought-was-a-closet-sociopath-but-now-trust-because-you-don’t-want-to-die-alone-in-a-lower-income-group-DDA-flat novel. The depth of the human mind’s dark abyss is truly inestimable when all you leave it with is unlimited internet and free time.
The dread gets further intensified when one sits down to think about all the possibilities that now lie ahead. Every publishing professional in this country will tell you within five minutes of meeting them how inspirational books outsell everything else in this country. And right now, when both online and offline book sales have hit rock bottom and advances paid to authors are also bound to be lower than usual (which is really saying something), every commissioning editor in town, including yours truly, is going to be on the lookout for an instant bestseller in the coming months.
That is, only if things start looking moderately positive by then. And once you open that can of worms, there will be no stopping self-proclaimed motivational speakers – with at least one TEDx appearance to adorn their resumes – from coming up with their own versions of lifeaftercoronavirus magnum opuses.
But the only way this new subgenre will capture my interest is if something as opulently titled as How to Kiss with Your Eyes: Because You Can’t Kiss with Your Mouth while Wearing a Mask gets published.(On a side note, why are there so many stock photos on the internet of people kissing wearing face masks?)
Unfortunately all I have encountered so far are diary entries of artists, authors, and even content creators (sniggers), trying to survive the lockdown staring out of the French-style windows of their apartments, often overlooking a lush garden, while sipping on chamomile tea. But there’s a line every editor must draw, and with a heavy heart I have decided to draw it right here. Because as the prophet had reminded us in Tropic Thunder: “You never go full re**rd!”
Novels that I wish were being written
And if there’s a god then now is the time to give proof of their existence – by reassuring us that after the pandemic we won’t have to weather a storm of privileged, upper caste, sanitised, conscience-protecting accounts of the migrant worker experience during the nationwide lockdown. But it won’t be surprising if multiple bildungsromans are already being planned depicting their plights, some of which will no doubt see the light of day when they are launched at the India International Centre in Delhi, followed by high tea.
Disenfranchisement has a price, but you won’t have to pay for it when you order these books on your smartphone. That’s being taken care of by the hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, minus the social capital obviously, who are struggling to get home on the numerous highways of this country.
Historically it has been observed, whether during the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s in the United States or the Ebola virus outbreak that ravaged West Africa and parts of the US, the UK, Spain and Italy between 2013 and 2016, that escapist books tend to do well once the world manages to regain some sense of normalcy. “Escape” is a beautiful word, an idea enormous in scope that is meant to offer much-needed flights of fancy to the aggrieved. Romance novel sales have often peaked just after a country has suffered unimaginable losses, both material and emotional.
Today considered one of the greatest novels ever written, The Great Gatsby, in fact flopped when it was published in 1925 and vanished into obscurity soon after. But five years after F Scott Fitzgerald’s death free copies of the novel, among other books, were shipped by America’s publishers to troops stationed overseas during the Second World War — who perhaps in an effort to forget the horrors of their lives and also to kill boredom — immersed themselves in this cautionary tale of extravagant parties, free-flowing champagne and glorified heartbreaks set in the Roaring Twenties. They tore through the book, passed it around, and created a classic.
Anyone for romances (and dystopias)?
The great romantic novels that I’ll be looking out for will be one which is set in a pre-coronavirus realm, among long walks in overcrowded holiday towns or university campuses in Tier-II cities, which recreate the gloveless, maskless dreamscape we had and lost, and took for granted. Either that, or one which takes me far into the future where humanoids are born with masks sewed to their skin, and the means of interaction have altered permanently.
I also hope someone has been carefully documenting the journey which journalist Barkha Dutt undertook almost three months ago, reporting from the road, telling real stories of real people who are on the frontline of this great battle against not just a deadly disease, but hunger, hopelessness and the apathy of a political system which has long stopped caring. I hope and pray that the voices of the thousands of doctors, nurses and hospital staff who have risked their lives taking inconceivable risks every day since the virus originated, find their way to the pages of a book. To record history is to record time, and even if one tries it’s going to be impossible to find a more authentic memory keeper of this episode in human existence than in the lives lived by the medical workers of the world today.
The reinvention of the dystopian novel will also be keenly awaited by the publishing industry, since we have already entered a life resembling a somewhat redefined-civilisation dystopia. A Rear Window-esque Hitchcockian mystery in which someone has to solve a murder without leaving the confines of their home could also be an idea for a novel which both engages and reflects a post-Covid world with genuineness.
But these are just a few thoughts from a brain tired of doing dishes. Writing excites, writing surprises, writing often jolts an editor out of limbo exposing existing anachronisms and compels them to push boundaries. If the lockdown novels happen, let us hope they happen in a way which makes people feel less alone.
But rush jobs are abundant in literature and waiting can be rewarding. Voltaire famously wrote, “We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.” Maybe now is the time to live, notice and make notes. Writing about this time can happen when the time is right. And how will we know when the time is right, you ask? A trending Twitter thread will tell us, of course.
Sayantan Ghosh is Senior Commissioning Editor at Simon and Schuster India.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.