Two doms, sitting on a funeral ghat in Varanasi, mull over the effect of a pandemic on the business of death.
“Fewer people are dying too. So many of the bodies we get here are road and rail accident victims, all that has become zero. Even murders…”
The owner of a small courier company delivers bad news to his employee.
“The PM says don’t fire employees, but how not to? For him, it’s a nice thing to say on TV, the cheques have to come from us, no? All this is fine for the Tatas and Birlas, not minnows like us.”
A migrant worker dreams of returning home.
“First, I will have a bath, then eat a mound of rice and sleep for two days on a proper bed, After that, we will see.”
These could be pieces of reportage from an India grappling with a lockdown. But they are not plucked from the headlines. They are characters in Essential Items, Udayan Mukherjee’s new book of short stories from a “land in lockdown”. Some of us practised making the perfect Dalgona coffee during lockdown. Mukherjee, who eschews all social media, even a smartphone, wrote stories and the book is already out in print.
“I think I started writing on the 1st of April or maybe it was the last day of March,” said Mukherjee during an interaction hosted by Mumbai’s Kitab Khana bookstore. He said he started writing because he found it difficult to focus on anything else. He thought that he could at least write one short story. That led to another and then another, and became a “consuming project” as he wrote “flat out” for many hours every day for four months straight. Looking back, he said, “Actually now I shudder to think what I would have done had I not been writing over those three or four months.”
Mukherjee had quite a following among market watchers in India from his days as the managing editor of CNBC news. Then he left that to pursue a different kind of vocation. “I had 20 years of television behind me and I was completely and utterly tired of it,” he said. “It gave me no joy to speak about stocks and bonds on television every morning. It had given me financial security and I was happy to walk out of it and do something else with my life. It’s one life at the end of the day.”
Now he owns resorts in the Himalayas and has turned to writing fiction, which, he said, felt “audacious” because it was something he had never done before. He hasn’t done too badly. Essential Items is his third book, after the novels Dark Circles and A Death in the Himalayas. Dark Circles was about a family coping with secrets, depression and repressed memories. A Death in the Himalayas introduced Neville Wadia, a detective trying to solve a murder of an author/activist in an idyllic mountain hamlet. While contemporary issues like land grabs and tensions between development and conservation show up in that novel, Essential Items is a different beast altogether. The issues that its characters grapple with are not just current, they are still raw.
Reality and fiction
“I know people would say come on, what is this guy doing,” admitted Mukherjee. “He is composing stories on subjects which are in the newspapers every day.” There was a real possibility of being overtaken by events. “Where did reality end and where did fiction begin? That line was very blurred in my head but it was also something which made it very interesting for me.”
But while there is clear overlap with news, Mukherjee is clear it’s not reportage. He said if he was interested in doing that he could have documented 10 days of a migrant worker’s journey home. “I don’t have the skills for that,” he confessed.
He writes about returning migrants as well, but from a different angle. In the story “Homecoming”, a migrant worker returns to his village in the mountains and finds it is no longer as welcoming a refuge as he had imagined it to be. The Nanda Devi is still golden in the setting sun, but now he is an object of suspicion among the people who were once his neighbours and friends, an outsider potentially bringing a virus into their midst. Mukherjee is interested in the effect this has on the psyche of the returnee and those around him.
In other stories a foreign tourist stranded in a mountain village strikes up an odd tender friendship with a little boy, a retired English professor with mental issues brought back from her care home by her son because of the lockdown ruffles their domestic dynamic in unexpected ways. All this is very much the realm of fiction.
‘Not about the lockdown’
“The book is not about the pandemic. The book is not about the lockdown. It is about people and what was going on in their heads at that time,” said Mukherjee. In fact, though the lockdown looms like a “monstrous” villain whose effects turn people’s lives upside down, the virus itself barely makes an appearance in the book.
But writing the book hammered home the brutal reality of the lockdown for Mukherjee. “I think all of us, including me, were probably not paying enough attention to the kind of havoc it wreaked on a very wide spread of people whom we are not familiar with and not very sympathetic to,” he said.
Mukherjee remembers going out for a walk near his home in Mumbai and realising how badly the lives of vegetable and fruit sellers were upended with no lifeline extended to them, an encounter that finds an unsettling echo in the story “The Stroll”. It made him wonder what was happening to people for whom there was “no mobility in the job market to do anything else”, like the doms in the burning ghats.
An image came to his head and stuck with him, even though it did not make it into the book.
“Imagine a tree where around dusk crows come in flocks. The image I had was that the tree was on fire. Normally the crows would just fly away to the next tree. But what if the crows’ feet were tied to the tree? They cannot fly anywhere else.”
That anger is palpable when he speaks, but the closest the book comes to being a critique of the actual execution of the lockdown is in a story about well-heeled haves at a party discussing what they should do about the have-nots over gin and tonics and Blue Label whisky. The three-times mark-up their bootlegger is charging is a real life problem for them.
In comparison, the migrant trudging across India is a television problem. “It’s tough even for us,” says one party guest. “Not as bad as the poor migrants or labourers, but that was never our life anyway. We cannot suddenly start using that as a benchmark for ourselves, can we?”
As he tried to place himself in the heads of these multiple characters, Mukherjee said he was surprised by “the dignity with which people conducted themselves in the face of extreme difficulties. I would have been far angrier if I was in their shoes.” He thinks we have still not comprehended the real scars the lockdown is leaving on us. We are counting pocketbook losses but have no way yet to quantify its emotional havoc, something that will persist long after any vaccine arrives.
That is the world Essential Items ventures into, a book in many ways about the interior lives of a very public lockdown.