Lockdown Diaries: Wise words in a fraught time by Manjula Narayan
For a few days after the lockdown was announced I wondered what to do with myself. I’m not a “breaking news” journalist, I don’t chase sensational stories and gain meaning from being at the centre of action. I edit the books page, seeking out honest reviewers. Members, usually, of a secret republic of introverts, book reviewers, the ones who don’t want to use the space to wrangle publishing contracts or do favours for influential friends and swing miracle entries into prestigious writing residencies, are a rare species. The Indian English literary ecosystem is teeming with graspers and get-ahead artists who will write glowing reviews, replete with complex sentences stuffed with polysyllabic words, even of third rate novels by revered authors. That is the norm. I try to coax reviews from those who are above these temptations.
In the pre-covid world I also hosted a weekly video show. The musician and activist TM Krishna was the last one I interviewed on Books & Authors. I shook his hand. I remember this because my mother, who lives in Kerala, called to reprimand me about it. I rolled my eyes and murmured that the programme had been shot a week before, a distant epoch in virus time. Besides, corona wasn’t going to travel all the way up north, to the capital, to Delhi, to upper middle class types like us, the anointed ones. OK, I didn’t say that out loud; I thought it. Amma snorted like she could hear my thoughts. I changed the subject. At this point, the nation-wide lockdown hadn’t yet been announced, everyone was still trooping in to work, hanging around malls, going out in big happy groups for lunch, and meeting up on weekends for drinks at the local ahatta – Gurugramese for BYOB joints attached to liquor shops. Like every other day, the cook came in, as did the maid, the dog walker, the car wash boy, and on Sundays, the itinerant gardener too. Life was good.
Then the era of voluntary house arrest began. I went to office one last time to get loaded up with the right Work-From-Home technology. The place was deserted except for a few of the news guys, spread out across the floor, and the tech fellows. “Isn’t this terrible? I mean don’t you feel strange with the office so empty?” I ask the whiz working on my laptop. “I tell you this is how it should be. It’s perfect without people!” he chuckled. Truly, there are many varieties of introverted misanthropes in the world and the tech nerds are even more far gone than the book geeks. On the drive home, I see the silent columns of migrant workers, plumbers, carpenters, office boys, waiters, small shopkeepers, chaatwallahs heading home to UP and Bihar, the men with their belongings in their backpacks, the women with children on their hips. “You should have shot a video on your cellphone; spoken to them, asked them how they intend to do this!” my husband said. We have been married 23 years. Not for the first time, I think he would have been better off with a less reticent wife.
I set about commissioning the Lockdown Diaries. It was a worthwhile project; to have published authors write about their experience. It was supposed to run through what was left of the initial 21-day lockdown. But I couldn’t get those stoic marchers out of my head. One day, at dawn, I see two couples, construction workers, leaving for their gaon. “900km paidal chalenge (We will walk 900km to our village),” one of the men, wiry and grey haired, said cheerfully from across the street. I looked at the security guard at the lane gate; his face mirrored my shock. So when the notice from Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch calling for people with cars to help supply rations to working class neighbourhoods in distress popped up on Facebook, I volunteered. Mohammadpur, Basai, Anjana Complex, Chakkarpur, Nathupur, Sarhol, Kanhai, Manesar. I’ve seen neighbourhoods I didn’t know existed a month ago. The eerie thrumming of hunger panic hangs over these localities. Many here are self employed, plying authorickshaws, running small businesses, feeding their kids and putting them through school on their earnings; many are on the verge of starvation. Volunteers do what they can.
While transporting bags of rations meant for one group, I am approached by a hungry ragpicker. I have to drive away. Another time, a cycle rickshaw man impersonates someone else to get his bag of food. I don’t have the heart to grab it back. The original recipient will have to wait. The next day, he turns up with three neighbours and they all beg, one of them abjectly folding her hands. She has four children to feed. An Oriya man, perhaps an office boy, meets me at the deserted Guru Dronacharya station – it’s the best place to avoid being rushed by desperate crowds. He tells me his two-year-old daughter has just been discharged from hospital and is severely underweight. What do we feed her, he wonders. I look into his crazed eyes and remember how I felt when my younger son was admitted to hospital with pneumonia as an infant. The terror. Maintenance workers in the complex where I live take to ringing the doorbell asking for help. Among them are Ramesh and Brijlal, who fixed the plumbing and did odd jobs for us. They hadn’t eaten properly for four days. GNEM supplies bags containing rice, daal, atta, oil, sometimes potatoes to those who ask. In some areas, in collaboration with gurudwaras and schools, cooked food is served. I am filled with admiration for the other volunteers, and I feel, for the first time, that I am doing something meaningful, something real, something outside my solipsistic existence. It is not enough, of course. The problem is huge and it is intensifying even as we look at an extended lockdown.
Overwhelmed by my neuroses, I fall ill. Not with covid; there’s little chance of that considering one of the group’s cardinal instructions is to strictly maintain social distancing and abandon deliveries the moment a crowd appears to be gathering – repeated every day in texts from Rahul Roy, one of the members of GNEM. I’m like the woman in the Bible that Jesus healed, the one with the relentless issue of blood. “It’s stress. YOU NEED COMPLETE BED REST,” Dr Joyeeta Basu, our general physician, who treated my sons through various illnesses, shouted in a text. I take to my bed. I have realized many things about myself during this difficult time, during hours that have been filled with cleaning and occasionally cooking, editing and uploading, and volunteering. I have realized that I am an emotional wimp.
But editing Lockdown Diaries anchored me through the last 29 days. The writers who contributed – this is the last one in the series - brought fresh perspectives to this shared experience, and offered readers ideas on ways to approach the fallouts, intellectual, social, emotional, and professional, of this isolation to contain covid-19. In the end, in a difficult time, these essays underlined the power and worth of, and the great need for, honest words, for genuine writing.
Manjula Narayan is the National Books Editor, Hindustan Times