How will literature grapple with 2020?

By Karan Thapar

Nov 29, 2020

New Delhi: 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 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 percent 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 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 Udayan’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.


‘Stories unite us’: Jaipur Literature Festival to take place from Feb 1 to 5

New Delhi: The 17th edition of Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2024 will take place from February 1 to 5 at Hotel Clarks Amer, Jaipur. The upcoming edition of the festival...

Timeless at 90: Why Asha Bhosle will forever be in the ‘G5 of Hindi Film Music’

Mumbai: Singer Asha Bhosle, who carved out her own independent niche and ruled the roost over the world of music, turns a ripe old 90 on Friday, and notwithstanding a...

Manipur violence against women a matter of shame, says Arif Mohd Khan

New Delhi: Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan on Friday described the Manipur violence against women as  a matter of shame, and said the culprits should not be spared. " Incidents...

King Charles, Camilla award ‘Elephant Whisperers’ director, Indian wildlife conservationists

London: Kings Charles III and Queen Camilla presented the prestigious Mark Shand Award and the Tara Award to Oscar-winning filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves and a wildlife conservation group from India, at...

‘The Kerala Story’: After row, 32,000 missing women changed to 3

Thiruvananthapuram: Amid the raging controversy over the upcoming film 'The Kerala Story', the producers of the film on Tuesday changed the text of the introduction to the film in its...

British-Indian Meera Syal to be awarded BAFTA TV fellowship

London: Award-winning British-Indian playwright and actor Meera Syal will be presented with a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) fellowship, the highest accolade bestowed upon an individual in...

Naipaul’s celebrated biographer Patrick French passes away at 57

New Delhi: Patrick French, the biographer of Sir Vidia Naipaul and Francis Younghusband, and Dean of the School of Art and Sciences at Ahmedabad University, passed away on Thursday in...

Oscars 2023: Michelle Yeoh breaks glass ceiling for Asian actresses with her win

Los Angeles: Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh has become the first Asian actress to walk home with the Best Actress honour at the 95th Academy Awards. Yeoh was awarded for her...

Oscars 2023: ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ picks 7 titles including Best Picture

Los Angeles:'Everything Everywhere All at Once' was named best picture at the 95th Academy Awards, capping off an improbable awards season run by winning the movie business's highest honour. The...

Oscars 2023: ‘Naatu Naatu’ once again beats Rihanna, Lady Gaga; wins Best Original Song

Los Angeles: 'Naatu Naatu' picturised on Ram Charan and NTR Jr from the film 'RRR' made India proud again as it won the Best Original Song at the 95th Academy...

‘Bheed’ deals with wider issues of privilege and deprivation, says Dia Mirza

Mumbai: Actress Dia Mirza, who stars in 'Bheed', said that the story of the film is much about wider issues of privilege and deprivation, power and powerlessness, humanity and inhumanity,...

Mir Taqi ‘Mir’, 300 years on: The startlingly modern pioneer of Urdu ghazal

Whenever lyricists of Bollywood or Lollywood seemed stuck for the beginning of a song, they could always turn to Mir. One of his most famous ghazals "Patta patta boota boota...

Read Previous

The Awards Inc. at crossroads!

Read Next

Chinese Defence Minister arrives in Nepal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By :