There is perhaps nothing more personal than the act of writing a journal. It is, after all, one of the few forms of without that don’t carry consequences, where one is not only vivacious and intensely humane but also honest about oneself and the world. But journals can also be something more: texts that offer relief not only to the one writing them but also to those reading the entries.
That is quintessentially what Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee’s work, A Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown, does. Written over three weeks during the early days of the lockdown, from the confines of his apartment in New Delhi, Bhattacharjee offers us insight not only about the pandemic and our condition, but also our relationship with the world we live in.
“[For] us who are a little guilty of the luxury – however stifling – of home and not yet saved from restless anxieties,” he writes in the preface, “Nature is Elsewhere”, “reflection is an ethical necessity”. What follows in the book is precisely that: reflections on life and culture. From March 23, 2020 – the day Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown – to April 14, 2020, we follow Bhattacharjee as he tries to make sense of the pandemic.
Reading it a year later, one rediscovers one’s fears, relives the days spent staring outside the windows, once again hears the emptiness of the world that had finally come to a much-needed halt, a world that allowed us time to reflect and remember what makes us human.
Bhattacharjee’s ledger not only touches on our condition during the pandemic but also reminds us of the pleasures of simple things like cooking. “I cooked mutton for dinner. Richa helped with cutting the vegetables. I kept the recipe simple. I felt all meals under lockdown should be made light, in contrast to the heaviness of our solitude”.
It is in these moments that the best of this work emerges. More often than not we start the day with Bhattacharjee as he sips his tea, listening to the chirping of the birds, talking to the eucalyptus tree that casts a shadow on his balcony. “You can talk to trees in the oldest sense of communication,” he writes, “it is like talking to a grandfather, who does not speak, but simply listens to you, with his grey, flowing beard, eyes closed,” before quoting the Finnish poet Paavo Haavikko:
So, be seated under the tree and listen to it,
Exchange pleasantries, talk to it.
“My library is an archive of longings,” the American writer Susan Sontag had once said. Bhattacharjee’s journal of life under pandemic, in essence, is quite similar. In the book, he takes the reader on a journey into his private world, which is not only filled with memories and anecdotes but also with references to the art and culture that has shaped his understanding of the world.
Throughout the book, he turns to auteurs and literary giants such as Abbas Kiarostami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Akira Kurosawa, WG Sebald, Satyajit Ray, and Fernando Pessoa, to name a few. A section on masks is perhaps the best example of this. His meditation on the origins of the word “mask”, its association with Roman Classical theatre (where it was understood as persona), and its “transition from a real object to a metaphor” leads him to Ingmar Bergmann’s seminal film Persona, Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, and eventually to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil before he finally returns to himself and writes:
“The post-lockdown world of masks along with social distancing will be paradoxical. Eyes are the window to trust. But eyes that you trust (or distrust) are part of a face. You trust the whole face of a person. If the face is masked the eyes are masked too... the irony of our times: It is now necessary (even compulsory) to mask yourself, to be alien to keep yourself and others safe”.
Being a poet, Bhattacharjee isn’t shy with references to other poets and their works. He lets their verses make sense of the reality around him. As April, the “cruellest month”, approaches, he turns to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, a poem not only “about a land ravaged by war, but also by a pandemic” and notes that “Our April is also perhaps the cruellest month in more than a century...We have limped backwards toward Eliot’s poem”.
In the foreword, Sasha Dugdale aptly writes that the “reach of Manash’s allusions and his cultural touchstones make the book feel like a point in a network of cultures, a republic of letters and films and politics.” Bhattacharjee navigates and shifts between cultures, mediums, and themes with pure ease, offering the readers a piece of his self that is both, deeply personal and political at the same time.
Migration of memory
Right after the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, thousands of migrant workers, in a state of distress, fearing hunger, started fleeing from the cities. In an entry from Friday, March 24, Bhattacharjee scrutinises the government’s approach: “It was mad to have a single decision for two classes that lived by completely different economies…For the migrant workers, home was far away and essentials nowhere in sight. They were fleeing not the virus, but the lockdown. They heard of the virus. But starvation was a more urgent concern.”
The concern with memory is also at the heart of Bhattacharjee’s book. “The mysterious fears and isolation of a pandemic can trigger memory,” he writes in the preface, “You are most intensely drawn to the life you lived, in the face of uncertainty and danger”. Stuck in the confines of his apartment, without any friends to meet, or places to go to, the past is a place that Bhattacharjee is forced to revisit, often gnomically. “I was pulled back in time to recapitulate my ties with childhood, places visited in another era, to half-forgotten streets and people, like images from an old film.”
In doing so, he inadvertently revisits the past of the subcontinent, important events that have shaped history like the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 – an event after which he says that he “had no interest in India’s postcolonial history” – but also reminds us of a different, more forgiving era when people “did not tolerate difference” but were “attracted to difference” which added “flavour to the efforts of love and the quarrels of friendships”. At times Bhattacharjee attempts to reason with the past, and on other days, he simply reminisces, but he never fails to offer a more meaningful, more humane approach at a time when the world needs it the most.
Written with cadence and rhythm, Bhattacharjee’s journal is not only an account of the onset of the pandemic and the things it set into motion but a meditative work which focuses on the pleasure of quotidian activities. At the end, his pensive reflections, filled with kaleidoscopic imagery and philosophical aphorisms, remind us not only of our innate vulnerabilities and frailties, but more importantly of our resilience, vivacity and the power of memory.
A Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, Copper Coin.