The book cover: Covid’s Metamorphosis, by Manju Jaidka and Nilak Datta.(Courtesy: Manju Jaidka and Nilak Datta)
The book cover: Covid’s Metamorphosis, by Manju Jaidka and Nilak Datta.(Courtesy: Manju Jaidka and Nilak Datta)

Roundabout: How the cookie crumbles yet again in Covid times

City writer-academic Manju Jaidka co-edits a book of stories with Nilak Datta that touches upon people’s personal, psychological and political response to the pandemic
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | By Nirupama Dutt
UPDATED ON SEP 26, 2020 09:01 PM IST

The mind plays games all the time but the mind games that happened to the inhabitants of planet earth when a little virus believed to be resting quietly in the ugly little creature called a bat, somehow exploded in the open. Now this was not something the 21st century humans surrounded by gadgets were ready for.

Of course, the people of this century loved gadgets more than anything else and in social gatherings one found people glued to their phones even as they sat together in a common parlour once in a while. Also, people had stopped visiting homes of friends, relatives and neighbours in the last quarter of the past century when the television found a place of pride in almost every home. Then came the home theatre and it all settled down to that little phone always in hand and always at one’s command.

This is how a young man found himself in November 2019 traversing between heaven and hell: “Location: Celestial Parlour Place: Heaven Time: Immemorial HE is a very fine host with impeccable social etiquette. Both of us are enjoying a rich, full-bodied Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a delightful Bordeaux Red from the Garden of Paradise in the Medoc region of France, in a classy Baccarat Crystal Red Wine stemmed glassware. I tell you, this chap GOD, is a fellow of charming taste and enchanting pedigree. It was a chilled evening in November 2019, dusk was setting in after the sun had played its share of hide-n-seek”. This is how Pratip Majumdar’s story, The Cookie Crumbled Yet Again, began.

However, there is no peace for him there as the phone, we will leave out the brand and its merger etcetera, keeps ringing.

The caller is none other than Satan, made by God, and addressed in holy books with so many names as Lucifer Leviathan, Apollyon and Devil. Thus between Heaven and hell travels this telling story which is a part of a collection of tales of these times that we are living through, co-edited by city writer and academic Manju Jaidka and Nilak Datta: Covid Metamorphosis. It is indeed an engaging volume which has been lauded by critics as a brilliantly edited world of writing across continents, genres, economic strata as the writers explore the inner and outer worlds.

Manju Jaidka. (Sourced)
Manju Jaidka. (Sourced)

The editors Jaidka and Datta, taking the cue from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an 8 AD Latin narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid, bring us the Covid Metamorphosis, capturing vignettes from human life as the world changes almost overnight. They say: “As the global pandemic surges and brings us to our knees, old enmities are forgotten and stale friendships are reforged as we struggle to cope with the changing world of work, life, and leisure. Such a scenario has inspired the present collection of stories.”

Call me Rahman by Mahesh Sharma is indeed a gratifying story of a young man, Rohan, pursuing his English Honours in Hyderabad. He has to abruptly leave the city to go home and is trying to make sense of the strange new corona times and with his idiosyncratic young mind plays word games in his mind: “Covid, avoid… Covid, Ovid…; Corona, daro na..., maro na, karo na…”

A Hindu Marwari, he is a little uncomfortable in the 3rd Class Sleeper with no reservation and so many Muslims around. He is hesitant to accept a woman’s offer for the top birth as her son Rahman could not come. Compelled by circumstance he takes the berth, only to be told by Fatima Bibi that her son could not travel as Corona snatched him away: And in his head words dance again: “Rahman… Mahmaan… Rohan… Rahman!”

When the train reaches his destination, Rohan sees his friend waving out to him and calling him “Rohan…Rohan”! And Rohan replies, “Call me Rahman!” as he starts the game in his mind of associating words: “ Rahman… Insaan… Hindustan.” Enthusiastically he yells, “Main Rahman hoon, Main Insaan hoon, kyuki me bhi Hindustan hoon… Main Rahman hoon.”

Jaidka herself pens a poignant story on the worst tragedies that we have witnessed in the exodus of the migrant labour on foot in the Lockdown times. Called How May Miles to Lakhimpur, the story weaves its way with the labourers walking home following the railway line. Little Asha walks exhausted with her parents Parvati and Shankar, holding her rag doll: “The rag doll, limp and sodden with grime and sweat, certainly seemed to give up the ghost. “She’s going to die,” repeated the three-year-old and the words fell on Shankar like the blow of a hammer. There was an ominous ring about them. “Don’t worry, beta, we’ll get you another pretty doll, better than this.”

The next day we all saw a blurred picture of the rag doll and a few rotis scattered on the railway line in the newspapers!

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