How will literature grapple with 2020?
We’re aware of the impact of coronavirus on our language. Not only have new words been coined but the use of older ones has proliferated almost beyond belief. Perhaps this is why the Oxford English Dictionary has not identified the word of the year for 2020. As Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of product, says: “What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change.”
For the dictionary, it’s not new words like covidiots (and we all know who they are), blursday (how the days of the week blend together), and doomscrolling (a frightening pastime we’ve all partaken of) but the fact that once-obscure public-health terms have become extremely well-known that’s of real significance. We all understand the sentence: “In ‘lockdown’ we ‘social-distanced’ and tried to ‘flatten the curve’.”
Indeed, coronavirus, coined in 1968, became one of the most popular words of 2020. Pandemic was used 57,000% more than last year.
The question I could not answer was when would literature reflect what’s happened to language? I assumed it would take a while. After all, novelists need to reflect before they can write. Caught in a lockdown, separated from family and friends and anxious about the life that’s seemingly lost, is hardly the optimal moment to translate this reality into stories or novels. But I was wrong.
Udayan Mukherjee’s collection of short stories is perhaps the first attempt to capture in literature what the wretched virus has done to our lives. Called Essential Items, the book comprises 10 stories about the virus’s impact on people as different as the Doms in Kashi, British college students trekking in the Himalayas, old age pensioners trapped in their flats in Mumbai, migrant labour returning home and the well-heeled confined to their gated communities.
In painting the lives of these people, the stories are not exceptional. It’s what you’d expect. But it’s the twist in the tale as you reach the end that shakes you. It shows how the virus can create situations where misunderstandings can change the way we feel.
My favourite is the title story. Tucked into the middle of the book, it’s the tale of an elderly couple, Meera and Roshan, unable to leave their Mumbai apartment and dependent upon home delivery companies until Priti, a young volunteer with Helping Hand, comes into their lives. She’s reliable, efficient, cheerful and understanding. Not surprisingly, Meera becomes fond of her and starts baking cookies and cakes as gifts each time she calls.
Now I don’t want to give the story away but let me hint at the twist that turns a pleasing account into a distressing reflection. An act of kindness, seen through different eyes, becomes proof of insincerity. And because one never asks the obvious question that could clarify the situation, a misunderstanding is accepted as fact. A flourishing friendship is nipped in the bud.
In this story, at least, you get the feeling the virus has won. It hasn’t taken any lives but it has affected them. Will they ever be the same again? Even when a vaccine is available, will we revert to the people we were?
The amazing thing is this collection comes from an author who’s only recently become a novelist. For two decades before this, he was managing editor of the business channel CNBC and perhaps the best known television authority on the stock market. Yet, the transition from Sensex to sensibility has been swift and easy. His muse was clearly lurking, waiting to be set free.
I know we’ll soon have a plethora of books on the virus. Long after we’ve got it out of our lives, it will continue to play on our imagination. The virus might have wrought destruction in our lives, but it’s bound to feed our creativity. Yet some of the telling images from Mukherjee’s collection will stay with me even when more profound books have pushed this one into the background. That’s the advantage of being first.