A pandemic, the world has learned at a great cost, is a sickness on a jet plane. A sickness for our times in more senses than we can bear to think about, a sickness gifted by the elite to the poor, from the airports all the way to the shanties and the villages.
When I was asked to write on university literary communities caught in the pandemic, my first thought was how the illness has transformed our bodies and minds – and our behaviour when we gather to talk and interact. And of course, the space where we do so.
Oddly enough, my mind immediately floated to an intriguing document shared with me by the organiser of an online lecture I did this August for a college in Delhi, “The Invention of Creative Writing.” This was the transcript of chat messages shared by members of the audience present. It made me realise anew how a webinar flouted the unities of place and time.
First, it had audience from everywhere, from Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh to Manipur, Mussoorie, Hong Kong, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and several other Indian states, far beyond the concentration of people from Delhi. Then there was the way the event was archived. The talk was recorded, yes, as offline lectures are also sometimes recorded and made available online. That was only expected here, but what was also additionally archived was the cluster of comments, hellos, even jokes – such as the private chat comment sent to the organiser recalling “crimes” committed as hostel buddies a couple of decades ago! Now we had these too, and stored forever!
The webinar culture has altered the meaning of two things: a gathering, and the archive. A gathering of people and the archiving of work are important for many communities – as anyone who participates in literary festivals and bookshop events online these days knows equally well. But it is especially important in colleges and universities, which are what I call permanent-transient communities. They are permanent institutions with a significant transient population. That’s a professorial predicament – we age amidst an ageless people – new students keep replacing the older ones who leave.
To an extent, the literature class goes on uninterrupted. I’m teaching an introductory class to a large group of first-year students this semester – a mandatory general education course called “Literature and the World.” These are unfortunate newcomers whose first experience of college is the now infamous zoomester. But I’m struck by the lively movement in the chat boxes. Comments pile up, sometimes just “!” marks in a queue based on which I call on them to talk, and talk they do, strangely a lot more than what we usually see in a real-life classroom with freshers.
The virtual nature of the space, or perhaps the comfort of their home study table seems to liberate them. There is the occasional struggle to get them to turn on their cameras – “When you switch your cameras off,” one professor reportedly said, “You turn me off,” before realising the gaffe – but that’s a battle for another day!
The end of distance
On my part, I’ve become savvier with the whiteboard on zoom screenshare, which salvages my atrocious handwriting when I scribble on a physical whiteboard in a physical class. I hold office hours on Google Hangout; there are no days when I’m not on “campus,” as there is no campus anymore. A few of the lectures are zoomed from Massachusetts by Anjali Prabhu, professor at Wellesley College, the institution which is collaborating with Ashoka on this course.
Writers whose work is discussed join our online classroom: Manjul Bajaj spoke to us from Gurgaon; I hope to hide her presence till our back-and-forth on her stories, but her zoom-square shows up on the screen and students are just a little more shy during their presentation – the author is dead, long live the author! Arundhathi Subramanium is scheduled to join us next month – from where? Madras, Bombay, New York? Does it really matter?
Literature – perhaps the humanities and imaginative social sciences in general – seem to work okay online; the lab sciences are a different ball game altogether. But while life in Sonepat may not seem like something to really miss, the students miss each other, late nights at the dhaba, gossip in the canteen, and, I’m sure, more sensory forms of mutual interaction.
The sensory calls for a time-space unity. I need to be where you are, and the presence has to be tangible, with voice and sight (if not more) intersecting without the aid of technology. When you are forced to give that up, you gain the right over something else – communicating with those who were never part of your time-space unity.
As I write this from my home in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, someone in Hauz Khas is suddenly no different from someone in South Africa’s Cape Town, making some allowance for time-zones. Generally, we have an active calendar of events with visiting writers and speakers, book-talks, workshops, collaborations with publishers, but the roster tends to be limited to whoever is passing through/based in the Delhi-NCR area.
That equation’s now delightfully messed up! The university’s student literary society organises a conversation with Zoë Wicomb, the South-African writer based in Scotland, and nowhere during that vigorous conversation does she look sleep-deprived.
This feels like the perfect time to launch the website for a transnational movement of literary activism, an initiative spearheaded by our colleague, Amit Chaudhuri.We just managed to sneak in the physical edition of the 5th symposium on this artistic-intellectual movement at the India International Centre in February, shortly before all life came to a standstill. Literaryactivism.com was fittingly launched this September in a panel zoomcussion, involving Charles Bernstein, Dayanita Singh, Simon During, Dubravka Ugrešić and Chaudhuri, who joined, respectively, from the Philadelphia, Delhi, Berlin, Amsterdam and Calcutta.
What news elsewhere? I asked my student research assistant Diya Isha, who’s been “attending” college from her home in Kerala and doing a cartload of things for the college newspaper, The Edict. Diya reaches out to various college literary societies, and WhatsApp, the 21st century’s force of nature, emerges as king once again!
Vaishnavi Balakrishnan from the Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences told her about the “not-so-active WhatsApp group” for their literary club, which suddenly had to open its doors to the student body of the entire college on popular demand as they started to conduct events online, including “story-writing, poetry writing-haiku, article writing, TV series and movies quiz...an inter-college debate in English and Tamil.”
As lives started to be confined with the onset of the pandemic, they were “overwhelmed by the response” as they quickly became flooded with entries. Clearly, like students in my zoomester class, a lot of people feel more free in participating events online than in physical space.
Kaustuv Bakshi, who teaches gender and sexuality studies in the English department at Jadavpur University, described an active culture of community lectures by different professors organised by the Arts Faculty Students’ Union (AFSU), which are streamed on different social media platforms that opens up the events far beyond JU students.
“For example,” he said, “I delivered a talk on “Queer Lives in Quarantine”, while my other colleagues spoke on subjects as diverse as Mental Health Issues during the Pandemic to Wittgenstein and his Language Games under the series, entitled, Beyond the Classroom.” Kaustuv has been particularly attentive to the challenges faced by sexual minorities under the pandemic, a subject on which he has spoken online for a range of higher education institutions across the nation.
Indeed, many have realised the closure of physical space as the opening up of wider spaces of another kind. “This is also an opportunity,” said Kritika Dixit, who works with Lady Shri Ram College’s print and blog magazine. She sees the option of expanding beyond college-centric events to reflect on their location within a larger national and international community. However, at the same time, she said that “it’s also in our isolation that we hope to bring people together and keep the spirit of the college alive.”
Some institutions were already structured as virtual communities even before the world tilted us in that direction. Just as Sal Khan emerges as the real Bhaijaan of home-learning for children worldwide, Indira Gandhi National Open University, which has done similar things for adults in India, steps on its act. Nandini Sahu, Professor and Director, School of Foreign Languages at IGNOU pointed out that “there are lakhs of viewers and downloads every single day” from their Gyankosh and IGNOU Mobile Apps. “And our SWAYAM and SWAYAMPRABHA channels,” she added, referring to IGNOU’s TV and radio initiatives, “and our Gyandarshan and Gyanvani channels became much more popular during the pandemic.”
Crises of both destructive and transformative kinds – they come together more often than we realise – have periodically created technologies and modes of social belonging that have initiated radically new forms and literary communities. The cumulative effects of the 18th century European Enlightenment, the acceleration of capitalism, print culture and the rise of the middle-class caused orality and performance to make space for printed and bound forms like the novel. During another period of simultaneous crisis and transformation in the 20th century - during the crucial years between the two World Wars, the philosopher Walter Benjamin had wondered if the new methods of mechanical reproduction, such as photography and cinema, would come to devalue the original aura of an artistic work.
I feel what we are experiencing now is no less consequential. Our sense of community has been scrambled and realigned irreversibly. As a widely shared article by Nicholas Christakis in The Economist predicts, “we have a long and sorrowful way to go.” But as it slowly tapers off and life returns to normal in baby steps, the meaning of socio-cultural belonging and a literary education would have shifted.
In his philosophical treatise, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Friedrich Schiller had argued that art is central to the development of the individual and society. While Schiller had placed his argument in the historical context of the French Revolution, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has refashioned Schiller’s formulations in a more contemporary context, in her provocatively titled book, An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization. Now we have a dystopian medical twist to this aesthetic education, one which has clipped our (airplane) and recharged (online) wings at the same time. It is bound to perpetually alter out sense of literary community, nation, and the world.
Saikat Majumdar, Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University, is the author of several books, including the novels The Firebird and The Scent of God. He can be found here on Twitter. @
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.