In early April, after spending more than two weeks at home, I stepped out for the first time. Not for groceries, or essential commodities, but just so I could drive. Against all warnings, I took the car keys and drove around Panchkula, the city I had grown up in.
It was eerie. The streets were bereft of all people, all shutters were down, there was no commotion – it felt like a long, drawn-out passage from Station Eleven, or the opening scene of Vanilla Sky. I drove to a friend’s house and called her once I was outside. She waved at me from her balcony and we spoke on the phone, the masks muffling our voices – it was all very new at the time.
Each day, everything I couldn’t do any longer reminded me of Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense”, which calls for resistance despite all the sorrows of the world. Each day I spent inside, or thought of what the world was like before the pandemic, Gilbert would give me a nudge. It was a part of the poem – perhaps the most memorable lines – that convinced me to pick up the keys:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
In all the years of reading poetry, this was perhaps the first time I acted, did something after reading a poem. Usually, that’s not the case. Poetry, especially in destitute times like these, doesn’t necessarily provide answers (I’d say it does the opposite), or force one to get up and act. When I read Emily Dickinson’s couplet – “In this short Life that only lasts an hour / How much – how little – is within our power”, or a line from Jojo Harjo’s poem – “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating / of the last sweet bite”, it doesn’t solve anything.
A poem is simply a place that I feel I can enter, I can stay, and leave once another poem replaces it in my memory. However, sometimes, poetry can be more than that.
‘For a week only...And then –’
In early March, I had come back to meet my parents, blissfully unaware of all that was going to come. A few days after my arrival, the lockdown was put in place. We’d anticipated it and were prepared. However, what we didn’t know at the time was how much uncertainty it would bring along with itself. I, like most writers I interacted with during the first few weeks, thought of it as a retreat. I had a manuscript due in June and spent most of my days writing and rewriting.
Soon, months had passed. I submitted the manuscript and celebrated that night. In pre-pandemic times, I would have kept myself busy with other things, but a day after I finished the book, I was struck by a feeling of emptiness that I wasn’t prepared for. There was nothing to do, no friends to meet, nowhere to go. So I did what my brother had been doing for months: I played FIFA all day, binge-watched shows on Netflix, and finished The Last of Us II. But the thought of returning to Delhi, the city I called home, kept coming back to me.
I kept thinking of the coffee sitting on a shelf at my apartment in Delhi, slowly losing its flavor, or how dusty my apartment would be when I finally returned, and all the people I wouldn’t see for months. I complained each time I was forced to drink Nescafe and thought of all the evenings I’d spent at Devan’s, of all the times I made an excuse to not meet a friend, all the gigs I didn’t go to, the people I didn’t meet before coming home.
Weeks passed and one evening, I spoke to a friend. Before the lockdown, we’d planned to meet once I was back in Delhi. We laughed and he quoted CP Cavafy’s “The Afternoon Sun”:
...One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only...And then –
that week became forever.
I kept paying rent for three months, hoping to return. But by the end of June, the situation had become clearer. I had to give up my apartment. “There’s no point in keeping it,” my parents said to me. And so, I drove to Delhi with my flatmate, packed all that we’d amassed over the last four years – my books, the coffee jar, our dead plants, and my underwear. As we sat in the living room, we wondered if we could pack that wall that I had painted, or the view from the room.
“How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?” – Cavafy comes back to me at strange times. We said goodbye to our landlady and left at sundown. We’d given up the house and now it was time to give up the city. We ate the sandwiches which my mother had packed for us in silence. I remember the uneasiness in the car, the uncertainty on her face. We didn’t know when we’d return. We still don’t know. As I write this and remember my apartment, months later, it is Cavafy again: “Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, / you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world”.
I returned and unpacked. I sorted out my books, found a place for the coffee jar, threw away the dead plants, and stacked my underwear in a drawer. It was then that I realised my favourite coffee mug was missing. For almost three years, there hadn’t been a day when I didn’t use it, wash it, keep it back in its place. It’s always the small things, these objects that get to you.
And so I mourned for all that I had lost. I complained for weeks, and then, one day – after revisiting Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” – I stopped. Perhaps poetry doesn’t change anything, but the least it does is offer some consolation:
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
With time, one tends to forget objects, become familiar with them not being around. As I write this, three months after I vacated my apartment, it feels like a distant memory. Perhaps it isn’t uncanny that a moment feels like an eternity, or that time has stretched out. Although I have to admit that I’ve lost track of the days of the week. “If all time is eternally present, / All time is unredeemable” – I still trust TS Eliot, although some things have changed.
Growing up, my mother would often quote the opening stanza of The Waste Land. In April, as spring arrived, she would recite the lines – it had turned into a tradition. However, this time around, when April arrived, it was different. There were no lilies that she could put in a vase, and so she recited a different stanza:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street.
“It could be any city at the moment”, she said to me, “Bombay, New York, Milan,” before informing me that most of the poem was written in 1918 when Eliot and his wife Vivienne were recovering from the Spanish Flu. It was only natural that Eliot, who spoke so much of death, had something to say about the last pandemic of this severity. Neither of us, sitting in our living room, had thought that this would undo so many.
‘A million are dead’
In India, for thousands of people – the government has no data so I don’t know how many – the experience of this pandemic was very different. Unlike most of us, they didn’t have the luxury of sitting at home, reading poems written a century ago. Each night, I’d watch reports about all those who walked hundreds of miles to be home. The images were devastating. It was an exodus that I hadn’t expected to witness.
On social media, some argued why migrant labourers should stay where they were. Articles in business magazines said that if they didn’t return, it would put sectors of the Indian economy at risk. Another talked about the impact this crisis would have on corporations. But like so many others, while thousands were still walking home, we simply watched. In Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky shows us the mirror:
We are sitting in the audience, still. Silence, like the bullet that’s missed us, spins –
One evening, while watching a report, my grandmother – who had come to the plains leaving her house in Himachal Pradesh, uncertain as to when she’d return – said that the photographs of the migrant labourers walking home reminded her of the Partition, and the 1971 war. My grandmother, who was only a young girl in 1945, told me how “they departed, leaving their sewing machines with us – they were too heavy to carry all the way to Pakistan. We all cried as we waved back at them. They never returned”.
It happened again in 1971, during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Watching videos of the migrant labourers trudging hundreds of kilometers, I, who had only read and heard of the events my grandmother spoke of, was reminded of Allen Ginsberg’s “Jessore Road”:
Millions of souls nineteen seventy one
Homeless on Jessore Road under grey sun
A million are dead, the million who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan
And on other occasions, in their words I heard echoes of Mahmoud Darwish:
Earth is pressing against us, trapping us in the final passage.
To pass through, we pull off our limbs.
Earth is squeezing us. If only we were its wheat, we might die and yet live.
But soon, the reports stopped coming in. There was another disaster, another distraction. I started looking for new recipes, tried new ways of working out, and reading books that I’d left unfinished. But some days, I would wonder what happened to all those people, if they had reached home, and I’d be reminded by Yannis Ritsos that “The men sit on the stones / pare their nails. The others died. We forgot them.”
A little warmer
Those who can, forget. But there are others who cannot. For the most part, the deaths all over the globe were just numbers on the screen, rising each day – most of us were indifferent and it was nothing more than a point of conversation and speculation. But it all changed for me, a few weeks ago, when a friend’s mother passed away after she had tested positive for COVID-19. I’d never met her, and honestly, I hadn’t been in contact with him for a long time. But the news of her death and his post on Facebook made everything palpable.
There is a term for what I experienced: vicarious bereavement. A thanatologist called Therese A Rando defines it as “the experience of loss and consequent grief and mourning that occurs following the deaths of others not personally known by the mourner”. After I heard of her death, suddenly, everything changed. His grief, like that of all the people around the globe who had lost someone because of Covid-19, suddenly became real.
But the world continued. Even today, the deaths are mentioned casually in conversations, always in passing, as if they are a matter of fact. Each time it happens, I think of her. It’s strange. I can only compare this feeling and this strangeness to one moment in history – the death of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
Apollinaire had been sent home to Paris in 1916, after receiving a shrapnel wound during the First World War. On November 9, 1918, he contracted the Spanish flu. As he lay in bed the streets of Paris were filled with chants of “A bas Guillaume!” (Down with Guillaume). People on the streets sensed the war coming to an end and were calling for the downfall of the German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II (Wilhelm was known as Guillaume in French). In his room, Apollinaire smiled, and died the same day.
The First World War ended on the day of his funeral and Blaise Cendrars, a fellow poet, recounted the day of his burial: “men and women with arms waving, [were] singing, dancing, kissing, shouting deliriously...It was fantastic, Paris [was] celebrating. Apollinaire lost. I was full of melancholy. It was absurd.” Poems and poets don’t do much, but sometimes, they leave a mark on you.
One might ask, “what do poems do in times like these?” I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. I know that poetry can’t cure us of this infection, but I believe that we’ll need more than a vaccine to heal us. I remember when Kitty O’Meara’s poem “And People Stayed Home” went viral on the internet. People from all around the globe shared it – it resonated with everyone.
It didn’t do much, nothing changed, but there was a visceral reaction to the poem globally. I can only think of a passage from Sadia Khatri’s essay, “The Rupturing of the Clocks” in Dawn, which I read in April at a time when, like so many others, I felt no urge to read poetry. The passage has stayed with me ever since. Each time I ask myself, “What’s the point of reading poems in these destitute times?”, I think of this passage which I’ll leave you with.
“There’s a children’s story by Leo Lionni about a little mouse called Frederick that I love. While other mice gather grain and pine nuts for the winter months, Frederick spends his time daydreaming, gathering colours and words. He’s berated for not helping out; what the mice really need are pine nuts, not poems. Frederick doesn’t care and does his thing. Winter comes and lasts longer than usual, and the mice run out of food. They couldn’t have planned for this. Cold and unhappy, they turn to Frederick now that there is nothing left to do, and the poet-mouse emerges with his poems, ready to share. The mice listen and sigh and stand corrected – poetry isn’t what they thought they needed – it doesn’t solve anyone’s hunger, but they can’t deny they all feel a little warmer.”
Manan Kapoor’s biography of Agha Shahid Ali is forthcoming from Penguin Random House. His debut novel, The Lamentations of a Sombre Sky, was a finalist for the Yuva Sahitya Akademi Puraskar 2017.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.
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