The Lockdown Diaries: Biswanath Ghosh, author of Aimless in Banaras
The first in a series of personal essays by different authors on being locked down
Had the lockdown been announced a week earlier, I would’ve found myself stranded in Varanasi — or Banaras, as I like to call it. I use the word stranded — something I would never use for Banaras — because the thought of being held up there, when its ghats and temples are out of bounds for the public, is far from cheerful.
I was in Banaras to release my latest book — about Banaras. A launch there was hardly going to boost its popularity or sales, but I still held an event at a cosy bookshop overlooking the Ganga for purely sentimental reasons. Barely days before the event, schools and colleges had begun to shut and people were postponing plans that involved travel, but a lockdown wasn’t on the horizon.
“Why don’t you postpone your launch,” I was advised my many, including the gentleman who was supposed to be the ‘chief speaker’ at the Banaras event. But planes were flying, trains were running, people were moving around, then why shouldn’t I go. Moreover, I’d popped the Banaras antibiotic during the writing of the book.
This antibiotic is the acceptance of two facts about life that Banaras reminds you of time and again: anyone who is born has to die; and no one knows when one is going to die. They both mean the same thing: it is pointless to fear death. If Covid19 was going to kill me, it would even if I locked myself up in a glass cage at home in Kolkata. So I took the leap of faith; by not doing so I would have let my own book down.
Within 48 hours of the event the ghats of Banaras were forcibly emptied. And within a week, West Bengal shut down. And then, a day after Bengal was shut, the entire country was placed under a lock down. The streets fell silent; the sky too went silent as planes were grounded.
Today, sitting in the silence — as if night time in a hill station — I marvel at my luck. Had I decided to postpone the event, it would have never taken place at all. This is what I tell myself each time I want to feel good in these dark times. Most of the time, though, I wonder: what next. Rather, what now?
No one seems to know. But there is one thing we all know: that mankind has never been so helpless. A minute organism invisible to the naked eyes has brought the world to its knees, infecting rulers and subjects, all the sophisticated weapons built to fight wars proving to be useless. On the personal level, things we took for granted until the other day now count as impossible: ordering books on Amazon, shopping in the mall, meeting a friend for coffee, making appointment with the GP.
Amid this glut of impossibilities, there are terrifying possibilities. The most terrifying of them: what if your parent, who lives in another city, happens to die? The lockdown will prevent you from travelling for the funeral. Not just that: how many neighbours would be brave enough to form a funeral procession? Such a bad time: not only to live but even die.
On the plus side, we have plenty of time. I have six Mont Blanc fountains that I hardly get to put to paper. I also have expensive leather-bound notebooks and notepads sitting on my desk. Pens and stationery are the only things I splurge on. Now I am putting them to use. Each day I am composing one poem in Hindi, on Banaras. The idea is to have a compilation of 21 poems at the end of the lockdown. I have already thought of the title, which wasn’t difficult: Ikkees Kavitayen.
I am dispensing similar advice to friends as well. The other day, one who writes well but cooks even better was whining about life under the lockdown. I asked her to compile a list of 21 dishes she’s good at. Food, fitness and self-help — these are ideas that always sell.
But just as I am done writing for the day, I instinctively reach for my phone and that’s when gloom strikes all over again. Nearly 1,000 dead in Italy on a single day. Over 100 test positive in India on a single day. And so forth. Then the countless warnings and dos and don’ts on WhatsApp and Facebook. I begin to feel I am living behind a wall that’s blocking the view of the future. Even in good times, no one knows what the future holds, but one has an image in mind — a rosy image — that one works towards. But when a virus that doesn’t spare even heads of states is on the loose, it is difficult to picture a future.
Then I receive a forward that makes me smile. The image shows a small boy walking with a horse through the woods. “I can’t see a way through,” says the boy. “Can you see your next step?” asks the horse. “Yes,” replies the boy. “Just take that,” says the horse.
The philosophy suddenly sounds very familiar. Didn’t I write something similar while describing Banarasis in my book? I look it up and find the relevant passage: “The people of Banaras—and I mean those living by the river—are one of the happiest people on earth. Unhurried and unworried, living and letting live, helping themselves to a small dose of bhang, or cannabis, every evening to celebrate the extension of their existence on this planet by one more day, they come across as sages who have answers to life’s square puzzles. After a few days in the city, it is not difficult to see why they are the way they are.”
Why are they the way they are? That’s because they see pyres burning all the time. They understand — better than others — that death is uncertain, and it can come any day. Therefore they take each day as it comes. To take each day as it comes — the Banaras antibiotic — that’s the need of the hour.
Bishwanath Ghosh is the author of five books, including the recently-published Aimless in Banaras.