This pandemic has been an apocalyptic event, a sort of a revelation. But because it is also so heady and turbulent, one doesn’t automatically register what has been glimpsed. To that end, I think it’s important for the literary world to initiate lines of conversation that will be crucial in the days to come. That’s my attempt in this piece.
In doing so, I have in mind, as well, the idea of aatmanirbharta which the Prime Minister has recently offered up. Although it has been spoken of in relation to economic production (where its implications are both obvious and potentially dubious), I suggest that our fields – of writing and publishing stories – have a much more natural and necessary need for it.
The pandemic has reminded us of this in two ways. First, it has shown up the limitations of banal “problem-solving” mentalities that lack a grasp of narrative. Second, even more devastatingly, it has revealed the costs of mimicry. Let us ponder these theses, one at a time.
A narrative of war
Many of us will have been fortunate to avoid the worst inflictions of this time, in terms of health and livelihood. But the long slog has darkened everyone’s mental horizons, in ways that are palpable, even if difficult to articulate. Of course, this is due to the pandemic itself, but it is even more tied to the narrativisation of it. I suggest that we have all been subjected to a quality of story-telling, in these times of sickness, that is so under-nourished and hollow as to extract a heavy toll, in human terms. And so it must be critiqued.
This storytelling originated with those more technologically advanced nations that first faced the brunt of the virus, and who set the tone for the rest of the world. From the outset, then, all of humanity was plunged into a “war” against the Coronavirus. The goal was to “flatten the curve” and protect health-care systems while preserving the economy from collapse. Ever since, we have had months of technocratic maneouvres, exercises in data-management, and statistical analysis, presented as a non-stop spectacle.
It is probable that such a response to a situation of illness would have been unimaginable through most of human history. Consider its attributes. It is macho, a celebration of belligerence (towards a non-conscious microbe). It is abstracted, speaking in terms of cut-and-dried constructs, rather than uncertain realities. It is bureaucratic, in its crooning over self-fashioned systems. It is gamified, playing with statistics (cases, deaths, mortality rates) as though one were engaged in a sporting contest.
These have been the leitmotifs of this discourse. No wonder they pall, because they obscure and distort (instead of waiting upon) all those human themes that ought to have been really central to this story. These include: compassion toward the suffering; humility in the face of uncertainty; attentiveness to the various needs of homo sapiens (not the non-existent homo economicus); and a proper respect for sickness and death, which are so much a part of the human condition. We have barely been able to experience these things, and often only in passing, with indecency, akin to the tossing of a body into a mass grave.
All this is shocking, but not surprising. In the late 1970s, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote: “...sickness and death are becoming purely technological problems to be handled by the appropriate institution. These basic human things are thus pushed to the margins, not just so far as our deliberate thoughts about them are concerned, but socially, structurally. They cease to be physical and metaphysical problems which must be borne together in a communion of life, and become instead technical tasks, technically handled by technical people.”
Meanwhile, “on television, death is presented as a thrilling spectacle tailor-made for alleviating the general boredom of life...Death is rendered banal...so object-like, so ordinary, that no remnant of the metaphysical question is left within it...But the price for this...is very high...When human sickness and dying are reduced to the level of technological activity, so is man himself.”
Moreover, such a dehumanised and reality-denying discourse also lacks internal coherence; it deals, inevitably, in lies. So along with the painful machismo, we have had to endure mendacity; the cherry-picking and manipulation of numbers and figures for the airing of false boasts. As we daily experience this, the more un-breathable becomes the atmosphere of daily life.
The human face of suffering
Such has been the storytelling, or the narrativisation, of the pandemic. But as much as one might wish to blame those technologically advanced countries who have propagated it, one must also grant that they are more vulnerable to being deceived by it. It is nonsense to imagine that one can reduce sickness to a technological problem, but it may appear less nonsensical in a milieu already drunk on technological triumphs.
India has had no such excuse. That a country with such diversity, poverty, desperation, and internal displacement merely mimicked this discourse, and moreover (as a mimic does) pointedly stressed its key notes, revealed to us how sorely we lack this most necessary aatmanirbharta of the mind.
However, we have also paid the price for it. It was not at all by design, but at least the story of India’s epidemic did have a human face; a suffering face. And those essential themes which were capable of being obscured in other societies, were shockingly plain here: the overriding fact of human vulnerability, and the overwhelming human need for home and family.
Now, what does all this imply, for those of us who are professionally committed to storytelling in India, and especially for those who work with fiction, which directly treats one’s imagination of persons and reality? To begin with, it reveals a collective failure, on our part, to have promoted original thought in our society.
At the same time, it also reminds us of the dominance of “Bollywoodised” storytelling, which is quick to substitute thought with slogans, reality with melodrama, and confidence with plagiarism. Clearly, Bollywood’s loud, cheer-leading voices continue to anaesthesise India’s collective consciousness.
Most of all, it means we have come to a critical pass. It was always false to pretend that, just because some of us have done well for ourselves, we have managed to create any kind of quality national discourse. But to continue in that pretence, after what has happened, and the sights we have seen, would be to double down on an insensitivity to truth that borders on the psychopathic.
So Indian writers and publishers have a duty to perform, the first of which is to accept their responsibility. Thereafter, we must surely free ourselves from the adulation of Western literary establishments, having witnessed their extreme susceptibility to ideological moulds of thought (the technocratic imagination being a case in point). In the same vein, it is essential to strengthen our critical energies in general (more reviews, fewer blurbs), and particularly with regard to the scourge of Bollywoodisation that preys upon us.
Meanwhile, the universal, human perspective which the pandemic has gestured towards ought not to be ignored by us. That such a perspective (nurtured and understood) should inform the storytelling of individual writers, in whatever be their areas of interest, seems to me the call of the times. (The call is as to perspective, but specific areas will stand out for specific writers, as demanding attention – for instance, the imperative of healthcare, education, and basic human services; the struggles, including the anomie, of the working-class in Indian cities; the question of national identity in the face of inter-state border controls; metaphysical and religious questions and so on).
In this connection, I would like to make a note of the recent open letter issued by a group of Indian authors, activists and academics, calling for the dignified treatment of the bodies of Covid-19 victims. In the past, whether fairly or unfairly, open letters by such groups were quickly politicised. Not in this case, for which we must thank the transcendence which the pandemic has opened up to us.
Stop the mimicking
Being aatmanirbhar conveys not only the idea of self-reliance, but also of being a light to others. In a paradoxical way, Indian writing may now be better placed than ever before to accomplish this. The pandemic, I have argued, has revealed the hollowness of a technocratic world-view. But to break decisively from that enchantment is more difficult for those who are more truly in its grip (the technologically advanced societies), and relatively straightforward for those who have, to a great extent, only been mimicking them.
Moreover, richer nations are more likely to (superficially) weather the blows of this experience, and therefore may be less inclined to heed its transformative teachings. But we in India have seen the shame of 2020. All we need to do now is accept the evidence of our eyes. To do this, while putting away calculations of personal gain, will allow us not only to enter but also to lead a new era of letters; one of radical truthfulness and empathy. But it can only happen at the cost of our pride – all those cliques by which we may have maintained our hierarchical power, and all those flatteries by which we may have built our worldly reputations.
Aditya Sudarshan is a novelist and manager of the Writing Centre at FLAME University, Pune.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.