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Essay: On essential reading

Hindustan Times | ByKunal Ray
May 05, 2020 12:45 PM IST

Kerala included books on its list of essentials. This is wonderful even if it is difficult to focus during the lockdown, writes Kunal Ray

I Googled the term ‘essential’ out of curiosity though I know its meaning and have used it frequently like everyone else. The word has an archaic feel, an officious smell that refuses to abate. It reeks of overuse. In a deeply poignant poem, Telephone Conversation, the poet and playwright Wole Soyinka captures a rather piquant image of the public telephone booth in London. He says it smells ‘of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak’. I somehow imagine ‘essential’ with a similar smell - rancid.

In the ongoing pandemic, some words have gained renewed momentum – ‘essential’ is one of them. If a pyramid were to be made of words, ‘essential’ would perhaps be right at the top or vying for a slot there. Our Economics teacher in school, Mr Biswas (not half as interesting as Naipaul’s Biswas) loved saying ‘essential’. I suspect he had a special affinity for the word. If an individual could be betrothed to a word, for Mr Biswas it would have been ‘essential’. I cannot divest the term from its utilitarian, economic roots in my mind owing to the history of its introduction to my life. Mr Biswas’ explanation of the ‘essential’ thus put an embargo on my imagination. Also he mentioned the word ‘need’ almost simultaneously with ‘essential’. As if one cannot do without the other. I thought ‘need’ and ‘essential’ are Siamese twins who hail from a family of words. Imagine what that family tree would look like?

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So ‘essential’ became synonymous with the economic; as if it’s not a word used to express feeling or desire; as if ‘essential’ is only about the overtly serious and the serious is invariably equated with the economic. But desires, longings, passions, dreams are essential too. They are integral to living as much as food, medicines, money, trade, international relations, and social security. The list could go on. For those aspiring to be writers, there are ‘essential’ tips floating all over digital space. Same applies for filmmakers, amongst other creative pursuits. There are essentials prescribed for the creative too.

Like many of us, I now wait my turn in long serpentine queues to buy ‘essentials’ for the house. I couldn’t help steal a furtive glance at my neighbour in the queue wondering how similar or dissimilar our ‘essentials’ were. At least I have the opportunity and means to access what I need whereas there are a vast majority who do not share my privilege or resources. The trip to procure ‘essentials’ is not a happy encounter when you come across masked faces scurrying around and maintaining social distancing in distrust of the other.

I wondered to myself if someone had conspired to make ‘gloom’ and ‘despair’ the new ‘essential’. Is there no escaping them? People find their own ways to deal with crisis amidst forced lockdown. The relatively privileged ones like me read books, watch films, chat with friends in a bid to escape the all-pervasive ennui and apprehension about the future. Amidst all this, I also read that Kerala has decided to include books in the list of essential services. This effectively means that books can be bought and home delivered like other essentials like vegetables and medicines. Several of Kerala’s leading actors ordered or bought books in bulk before the lockdown and some are doing so now that books are available for purchase. This is indeed heartwarming news. High literacy, political awareness and support of a progressive political system have aided this decision and encouraged a substantial reading culture in the state. One of their leading ministers also said – what else to do in a lockdown other than reading? So ‘essential’ has found a new claimant, a debutant of sorts – books.

Read more: Are books ‘essential’ during a pandemic? Everyone agrees in Kerala

But reading under lockdown isn’t easy or at least I haven’t found it so. I have also realized all the chatter around productivity under lockdown with increased time at hand and therefore more concentration is a big humbug. The mind refuses to function as we regularly attempt to process all that is happening around us. ‘Essential’ news dominates social media space. Keats would have said, “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains” (Ode to a Nightingale). How to read when the world around is numb? I have struggled with old and new books. Books that remained unread, author inscribed books, prized possessions but none helped. Just before the lockdown was announced, I visited a friend. I usually spend some time looking at her books every time I visit. I find the sight comforting. Though there were books waiting to be read at home, I borrowed some from her collection. In the absence of human company, I have returned to her books. I couldn’t make much progress with reading but they bear memories of a friendship. The books contain her touch. Among other things, the lockdown has made me aware about the importance of touch which I perhaps never considered ‘essential’.

The writer is a culture critic. He teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune

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