The taro clump had grown. Municipal workers hadn’t been coming during the more-than-three months of lockdown, and poor folk foraged the taro and carried it away. No one thought I would don a lungi to squat and cut the taro too.
Our neighbours know we run a bookstore and publishing house on College Street. They could never imagine that, like the poor folk, I too would get down to cutting away the taro! They took a look at me and went back indoors. The expression on their faces suggested that we would become outcastes by the evening. No one would call on us. No one would speak to us. As if cutting the taro was a matter of shame for our neighbourhood! Be that as it may, I had begun the task…
I saw some people go to work on their bicycles and rickshaw-vans. Many more had either lost their jobs or could not go back to work. Their lives had come to a standstill. Some went out to hawk vegetables, fish and whatever else was exempted, masks on their faces, holding the scales inexpertly. I heard them calling out all day. As they saw me cut the taro stems, they watched silently, and passed me by, as if I were a stranger.
Our publishing house had been shut for the last three months. The lockdown continued. So did the curfew. I had never imagined something this terrifying. If leaving one’s house was forbidden, surely it meant that Covid-19 was really dangerous.
At first, I thought, well, it’s just a matter of a few days! I’ll open my store after that. But the coronavirus began to spread. And the lockdown went on endlessly. It was a lockdown of our livelihoods, too. Sales were down to zero. All my savings were exhausted. When things turned desperate, I began to borrow money from friends. Anxiety crept into me. Fear loomed ahead. Would termites be eating away at the books? My brain stopped working. I am 65, and couldn’t disregard the government’s advisory against stepping out.
Then, after a long time, I finally got permission to open the store for a limited duration every day. Even the lights in the shopping malls were turned off after 4 pm. We began to open for two days a week. My son attended the store. But what about the buyers? There were no bus or tram services, nor was the metro running.
‘What was there to be ashamed of?’
The virus continued to advance, breaking each previous day’s record. It entered Boipara, or the books district of College Street. The shopkeeper downstairs died. One of his employees was in intensive care. I grew even more scared, yet my son continued going to the store. Perhaps there’d be a thousand rupees worth of sales? After all, how much more could I borrow in these times that were hard for all?
My son and his wife have a seven-month-old daughter. What if he went out to sell books and returned with the virus? Could any father be at peace after knowingly endangering his son’s life? I spent my days with this anxiety. How long can I continue like this?
When I was a boy, my family faced immeasurable hardships. Ma would take me to a wooded clump, carrying a basket, a spade and a sickle. We went to forage for muddy wild tubers, taro stems, spinach and fuelwood. We would return in the evenings, Ma carrying the wild spinach and vines in the crook of her arm. We prepared a ghonto made with spinach, vines and taro stems and ate it with rice the next day. When the thick-grained rice was mixed with the ground leaves and the taro ghonto, your fingers turned green.
I remembered those days as I cut the taro stems in my neighbourhood. If I cooked it like Ma used to, my fingers would turn green again. Poor folk ate the same food all their lives. Were those days coming back again? In truth, my family was in a similar situation now. That’s why I squatted in front of the large round leaves of the taro clump outside my house.
What was was there to be ashamed of? Snip! Snip! I cut off a stem and put it aside on the road. Other neighbours stared at me and shook their heads before going back inside. Shearing the leaves, I laid down the stems and began thinking about shrimps. No shrimp-seller had come by this morning. I had only heard vendors of lote and other small fish cry out.
My friend Subol-da’s son, from Puronopara, was passing by. He stopped and asked me, “Why is there a swelling under your eyes, uncle? You look strange with that beard. I hope you’re keeping well.”
“Has it swollen a lot?”
“Yes, as if there’s fluid accumulated there. It doesn’t look good. Do you have a cough?”
I sat on the weeds beside the drain.
“Go and see a good doctor once the lockdown is over!”
The boy went away. I had not looked at myself in a long time. After taking a bath, I hurriedly ran a comb over my head and brought my hair to some semblance of order. I wasn’t going anywhere after all! Looking at the mirror, I saw the bulges under my eyes. The boy was right. They did look swollen! Was it some blood disorder? Or something to do with the kidneys? One can’t really make out one’s appearance. Only others can do that for you. Subol’s son had given me one more thing to worry about.
‘The news instilled terror in us’
All of us associated with our publishing house commuted to work by train. Amal-da, the compositor, lives in Singur, Howrah district, forty-five minutes away. The same Singur where Tata Motors was supposed to build their factory but didn’t. I was most worried about Amit, who goes around delivering books. He is a skinny, poor boy. He lives nearly twenty minutes away. If he got infected, he’d have no immunity to fight the deadly virus. And with the bus fares being what they are now, any medical expenses would wipe out his salary.
It was the same with two or three other low-waged workers who come from afar. With the safety of their families in mind, I asked them not to come and to stay at home until things return to normal. As long as I’m able to, I’ll pay half their salaries.
As the days went by, the news instilled terror in us. I stepped away from the television after a point. There were proofs lying with three proof-readers. Six books were ready for production. But that required Amal-da. And what could be done even if he turned up for work? Should I be printing books and tying my money down during this uncertain period? I didn’t know what to do!
Yet, how logical is it to remain in a state of halt? I wonder about this most of the time. I discuss it with friends. I have faith this difficult time will end eventually. Why not wait it out with that faith? I have told my authors to wait for the lockdown to end. They listened to me, but I am not sure they are too happy about it. Many of them want to see their printed books.
Thanks to Unicode, some writing has been coming in by email of late, but that has not made the compositor redundant, since most authors still submit handwritten manuscripts. Many such compositors still work in Boipara, as do itinerant proof-readers and bookstore workers. All these people have been jobless during the lockdown. A large number of them come from the suburbs of Kolkata or nearby villages. But without customers, daily life has been suspended. The entire industry seems to be behind bars.
Some publishers like us have reopened. The binding house has been pushing us to collect our finished books. I have asked them to wait for a few days. Because the moment I collect the books, I’ll be handed a bill that must be cleared. How will I be able to do that? I feel like I’m selling wares on the street while the wheels of my rickshaw are stuck in knee-deep slime. There is rheum in my eyes, and everything looks gloomy.
‘A large sum of money’
In the midst of all this comes came Amphan. The meteorology department had been issuing warnings for almost a week. The cyclone was going to strike coastal Bengal with all its fury. Safety alerts were issued for North and South 24-Parganas, coastal Bengal and Kolkata and its adjoining areas. Anxiety about the cyclone made people temporarily forget about the lockdown.
The attention shifted from the coronavirus to the poor living in mud houses and pavement shanties since they were most susceptible to Amphan. Pavement booksellers in Boipara were expected to safeguard their respective shops. Many of them did that, but many didn’t. Perhaps they didn’t have enough books in stock. Or maybe they told themselves, why violate the lockdown to secure some second-hand books?
Knee-deep water has been the fate of Boipara every monsoon. This time, the rains were heavier due to Amphan. Several organisations have come forward and offered relief. Donations have come in from abroad as well. Many booksellers have submitted evidence of their losses: soggy books that had floated away in grimy street water.
From what I hear, it’s quite a large sum of money. I saw the names of two neighbouring booksellers on the relief list of one such effort. But I suffered no loss on account of Amphan, so how did other booksellers in my building suffer losses? Was there no scrutiny? I’m astonished.
Since the money has come, it must be disbursed. But to whom? To which booksellers? But booksellers anyway have to pay back the publishers, who have sold them the books on credit. Even business-minded publishers have started organising relief efforts – in the name of relief in these hard times, is there an imperceptible, but nonetheless real, business afoot too?
After the janata curfew, and the identification of hotspots and designation of areas under red and orange zones, booksellers were finally exempted. But only about 50 percent of booksellers and publishers are open regularly now. About 30 percent are open twice or thrice a week. The rest only come to check whether termites or other vermin are destroying their stock.
It is a bad time for arts and culture. When I think about it, I realise nothing is in our control.
People have been talking about countless tales of starvation. Perhaps some of them relate to the workers of Boipara, the ones who cannot come to work and don’t get paid because of that. Don’t the low-waged workers who work at the press, at the bindery, or as porters and drivers deserve financial assistance? Are they not part of the industry?
Despite all of this, I consider my difficulties to be entirely my own. If this situation continues, maybe we too will have to share proof of our losses and stand on the street and cry for help. Since our publishing house has earned some amount of fame, I do have some reservations about doing that. But I’ll set them aside if it comes to it! I’ll stand in line to collect a packet of rice, dal and potatoes the way I’ve been shamed in my neighbourhood for cutting taro. Is it time for us to petition the organisations sending donations to Boipara?
If I stand in line with my petition, will my publisher-neighbours be staring at me and whispering among themselves? If they meet me, will they talk to me? Or will they merely say from afar, there goes the lockdown crook!
Translated by V Ramaswamy
Adhir Biswas (b. 1955) arrived in India as a refugee in 1967 and completed his schooling and graduation in Calcutta. His four-part Deshbhager Smriti (Memories of Partition) was published in 2005. Allahr Jomite Paa (Setting Foot on Allah’s Soil), the first of Biswas’ four-part memoir of a refugee childhood, was awarded the Suprobha Majumdar Memorial Prize by the Bangla Academy in 2014. It was followed by the books Udbastu Ponjika (A Refugee Almanac), Chalo India! (Let’s Go to India!) and Gorchumuk (A Sip of the Maidan). His four-volume collection of stories, novellas and novels for young readers, Udojahaj (The Aeroplane), was awarded the Vidyasagar Memorial Prize by the Bangla Academy in 2017. Biswas is the Editor of the Bengali publishing house Gangchil.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.