Writing wasn’t easy, at least to begin with. For me, concentration rather than motivation, was an issue. I felt disturbed. It wasn’t a state of mind conducive to creative writing and I had apprehensions about embarking on any project,” tells Udayan Mukherjee as his book Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown was recently launched by Bloomsbury India.
According to the author who was a television news anchor for two decades covering financial news, before quitting it in 2013, “the prospect of staring at empty days due to the pandemic ahead seemed frightening. Then the stories sucked me in and provided a kind of refuge, which I was glad to accept. It was an immersion, as well as a distraction from the horror unfolding around us.”
The book brings together a range of narratives describing struggles faced by domestic helps, migrants, funeral workers among others due to the pandemic. Could you tell us how you begin writing these?
A chance telephone conversation with a cook at my resort in Munsiyari on the inconvenience faced by tourists stranded there planted the germ of an idea in my head. The actual writing of Essential Items began around the first week of April, 10 days into the lockdown.
While it was a time of great anxiety and fear about one’s own safety and that of loved ones, the scale of the misery unleashed by the sudden lockdown had me thinking about the plight of those in a less fortunate, or privilege d , position. I couldn’t get it out of my head, nor was I able to concentrate on anything else. Yet I wasn’t sure at all if it was a good idea to set about creating fictional worlds based on an unfolding crisis, as it would entail blurring the lines between immediate reality and fiction. Then, one day, I put some words down on paper, about a British climber stuck in a Himalayan border town and from that point, there was no looking back.
This short story collection chronicles the accounts of those living on the margins and moves on to the upper-class society where we read about a party in the lockdown, among other themes. How challenging was it to conjure up such different perspectives?
It was precisely this challenge of examining the havoc unleashed by the pandemic through a different lens in each story that appealed to me. The stories are not about Covid or the lockdown, but about ordinary people from various social and economic strata, and how they were affected by the circumstances forced upon them.
How were elderly couples dealing with their loneliness or contemplations of mortality? How did shifting realities at the bottom end of the job market affect power equations in families which lived hand to mouth? Would wealthier people respond to this crisis with compassion and generosity? Would the pandemic make people even more inward looking or would it open their eyes to the travails of others, whose contribution to their comfortable existence they may have taken for granted?
As I grappled with such questions, characters slowly began to form in my head, each so unique in their particular setting that the only option was to present them as a collection of stories.
This is for the first time you have brought out a collection of short stories. Could you reflect on the exercise?
Having written two novels (Dark Circles – 2018 and A Death in the Himalayas – 2019) before this, I did consider a novel to begin with. Not least, because the entire publishing eco-system tends to favour novels over short stories. I disagree with this ‘caste system’. Equally, the themes, situations and characters that I wanted to work with were so diverse that it would have come across as utterly contrived had I tried to somehow force-fit them into a novel. It was a delightful experience, as a writer, to work in the shorter format, though no less challenging. They were written in solidarity, in expression of the welling of empathy I experienced in that period, and if readers can identify with that and share some of my empathy, I will feel grateful.
According to you, what is the future of the literature born out of this pandemic?
I think we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg. A deluge of pandemic-inspired art, of every form, is waiting to arrive – perhaps next year. It is bound to be the case, as life is the well from which art springs. This is the biggest crisis the world has faced for many generations and it should not surprise us to see its reflection in the creative space. The great wars, or famines, or acts of terrorism have all inspired art, though of varying quality. Some writers will respond immediately, others will wait for the dust to settle and then look back from a different perspective. Some will seek to document for posterity, others may scrutinise whether we as a species redeemed ourselves or fell short? That is the role of art, to hold a mirror up to the human soul.
You have spent close to around two decades on TV. Looking at the present state of TV journalism in India, with a growing aversion from viewers towards news, owing to the spread of fake news and presentation style, do you think there is a way to salvage its dipping reputation?
Every country deserves the media it gets. You speak of a growing aversion, but if these television channels were not popular and delivering eyeballs and revenues, why would their owners insist on persevering along this path? The unpalatable truth may be that as a people, a majority of us actually want salacious entertainment in the garb of news. Media barons and editors are only shrewd enough to recognise that. So, rather than criticising these channels and their anchors, which they roundly deserve, we should also turn the lens on ourselves – what we have become as a society. Unfortunately, I see things getting only worse, not better. My own refuge is the Ostrich syndrome, and of course, there is always fiction.
Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown by Udayan Mukherjee
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Price: Rs 499