This piece was written in May, in the middle of the largest and most absolute state lockdown in the world, affecting millions of poor and working-class Indians.
There is a young man who lives in the ultra-modern city of Bangalore. He works in a multinational company, and has access to most material comforts. Knowing that his offices might shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, he cuts short a holiday and returns to the metropolis. But he is all alone in the city during the lockdown.
When he falls sick, he goes to the hospital for a check-up. The tests are inconclusive, but the fever does not go away. The doctor advises the youth to check himself into the hospital so that the fever can be monitored. The youngster returns after making all the necessary arrangements, but the hospital then refuses to admit him. The reason: he is alone; he has no attendant. And hospitals do not admit patients without attendants.
The young man’s parents are in Banaras and cannot travel to Bangalore during the lockdown. His older brother too lives in Bangalore, but anticipating the lockdown, he went off to Santiniketan to be with his wife and children.
On the one hand, the lockdown has taught us that being poor is akin to belonging to another species altogether, a species that governments and the rich clearly want nothing to do with. On the other, we have heard many stories of solitude suddenly amongst the middle-class and the rich, a solitude that has come with considerable guilt.
I was alerted to this guilt-ridden solitude by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari, who has translated my novel Vaidhanik Galp into English. We were working with a freelance editor to edit the manuscript. The three of us – Bharat, the editor and myself – met over marathon video-calls amidst these circumstances, living through our lives and jobs.
I was in Santiniketan; the editor joined in from Delhi; and Bharat, from Amsterdam. Owing to the disparate time-zones and our never-ending official calls, it was rarely possible to settle on a time convenient for all of us. Sometimes we would meet at 6 am IST, when it was 3:30 am in Amsterdam; at other times, we would meet the other way around.
The editor is young, someone who tends to stay up all night. I – staring down the barrel of middle age – go to bed at eight in the evening. So one day, as we were going over the edits line by line, Bharat bhai said, “Arjun’s solitude in Vaidhanik Galp is so similar to the news coming in from all over the world these days.”
This observation took me back not to my novel’s protagonist, but works of literature in which forced solitude and solitary problems have been explored.
In Florian Zeller’s novel, The Fascination of Evil, the narrator travels to Egypt from France. He leaves his cellphone behind at home on purpose. One day he is roaming in the streets of Cairo, wanting to lose himself in the crowds in a foreign country. He craves loneliness because other people keep bothering him and getting in his way. So he is forced, time and again, to retreat into himself. But sadly, he is unable to fully live out this solitude.
The Coronavirus has manifested itself as a worldwide pandemic, and governments have announced various measures to tackle it. The lockdown in India was one of these measures that ended up becoming a disaster for the working classes. But for the middle- and upper-classes, it has been a situation not unlike the one Zeller contrives for his narrator.
For them, the uncertainty about their jobs during this gradually deteriorating period has assumed the perpetual precarity of the livelihood of street hawkers in our country. The guilt of these relatively privileged, diligent workers stuck somewhere far from their workplaces hangs like a noose around their necks. They have also had to face the onslaught of another guilt: one induced by the hardships faced by labourers and the poorer sections of society.
The restlessness and guilt permeating our lockdown-induced solitude have robbed it of its true meaning, of solitude as it is supposed to be. Whoever would have wished for such a solitude earlier – and god forbid if this holds true – would find it difficult to handle this Coronavirus-induced lockdown.
Many works explore solitude and the troubles stemming from it, or of the solitude that arises out of distress. Our folklore warns us against beseeching the gods for something, for we are not always prepared to handle what we desire. Take Kumbhakarna, for example, who ends up asking for sleep. The wish for “sleep” was, in a way, a wish for an isolation-like solitude.
One can see in middle- and upper-class joint families that the younger and middle siblings, those with majestic brothers like Ravana, are almost always sidelined. They have to make their own life at the cost of lifelong exile. How do you think Anil Ambani will be remembered in another 50–100 years?
If one is speaking about literature on guilt-ridden solitude, the first work that comes to mind is Albert Camus’s The Fall. Camus’s relevance has multiplied during this worldwide lockdown. While on the one hand his novel on fascism, The Plague, poses a significant dilemma, the allegory of The Fall blossoms like a sunflower.
Its protagonist is Jean-Baptiste Clamence, also the narrator. Without giving away the story, one can say that Clamence is telling a stranger about his life, and about how, despite being a wealthy and respected person in his city, he was stricken by such guilt that he left everything behind in France to come and live in the Netherlands in complete anonymity.
If one considers the structures and policies actually responsible for the enormous losses of lives and livelihoods during this pandemic, one can bet that those involved in devising such policies must be feeling like Clamence from The Fall. The nature of humanity suggests this. The Fall is a more insightful work for understanding the human race during a pandemic, even more so than works like The Plague or films like Contagion, I Am Legend or Snowpiercer.
If it was merely a question of solitude, wherein grappling with the big questions of a guilt-ridden life is the main concern, then one can definitely throw in Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer or WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. It’s only a coincidence that both writers have depicted the unbearable song of loneliness through the device of solitary walks in their cities. In Zeller’s The Fascination of Evil, the protagonist has to travel abroad in search of solitude, but he is still not able to find it even away from home, because the noise of the mind is another obstacle to overcome altogether.
It is not possible to talk about our time today and not mention jobs.
Thinking about people who have been wedded to their jobs – like those in sales, marketing and production whose occupations had been the foremost part of their lives, lives that consisted solely of office and work-related travel; whose homes would resemble hotels, fulfilling all their family’s needs through merely money; who only got to see their kids asleep because they had to leave early in the mornings and stay till late at night or travel away from them – leads me to smile uneasily.
A smile one might have experienced while watching or reading Waiting for Godot. Just like the main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, people wedded to their jobs are unable to figure out what to do with their time. They wait for the lockdown to be lifted, not unlike the two characters waiting for the arrival of Godot, and fight the terrifying silence of life at the same time.
The wait in this play actually sheds a unique light on today’s middle-class. Time and again Estragon peers into his empty shoes and Vladimir into his empty hat. This scene is repeated countless times throughout the play. Similarly, the middle- and upper-middle-classes keep refreshing their phones and laptops to check for new emails. Maybe there’s a message about office reopening?
This same group of people, who had demonstrated wonderful fortitude and efficiency in their jobs, have forgotten the endurance needed for life itself. They are unable to sit down and watch an entire film with their family. They used to look forward to family lunches, but now they cannot keep from endlessly scrolling through their phones at mealtimes. Those who had in the past charmed clients with their eloquence in minutes find it difficult to hold a conversation with their own children. The lockdown has brought out everyone’s inner Vladimir and Estragon, and it is making everyone wait for Godot.
Is it possible to mention solitude and not talk about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Buendia family and Colonel Aureliano Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude?
Colonel Aureliano Buendia was the first person to be born in Macondo. His loneliness is similar to that of the lockdown-wallahs, in as much as the idea behind Garcia Marquez’s magnum opus is the unceasing human search for love. Garcia Marquez explores this in detail when he writes about the twin brothers, Aureliano and Jose Arcadio Segundo, of the subsequent generation. Their solitude stems from the spouses in their lives. Aureliano is part of a cold, indifferent family.
But to understand the epochal cusp that Indians and citizens of various other countries find themselves trapped in, and the helplessness we are feeling, we must turn to VS Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. This novel is about an aspect of solitude we can feel in the superficial as well as innermost layers of our existence.
When the protagonist’s stay in England keeps getting extended, he notes how easily people who have left their homes settle into new lands. In Naipaul’s view, the endless human mass seems to barely care about anything else in the world. But is this really possible?
I must finish the story of that young man with a job, who is alone in Bangalore, whose parents are locked down in Banaras in their old age, and whose elder brother also lives in Bangalore but had left for Santiniketan right before the lockdown. Even his brother, though willing, cannot go to him during this uncertain time. Perhaps that is the reason he is writing this piece.
Translated from the Hindi by Kartikeya Jain.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.