By Sekhar Banerjee
I look at the robust Neem tree opposite my balcony. It has nowhere to go in this season of contagion and hand wash. I don’t have anywhere to go as well. We exchange glances throughout the day, as if, we have come to realize that we are, after all, neighbours. Not recognising each other is also a contagion. However, I don’t think it will recognize me if I go out and stand beneath its shadow, unmasked.
Now we all look almost similar, I presume, in this season of masks in different sizes, shapes, and colours which, though, also epitomize the social strata ranging from scientific to classy to penurious. I have never seen how the grocery man, my neighbours, the newspaper delivery boy, my family members, and the vegetable man look in masks before being quarantined. Now only our perspectives determine who we actually are.
It is almost always hot and humid in Calcutta. The Empire abhorred and loved the city. We also abhor and love the city. But it is not too hot and humid this year as it used to be. A breeze comes from the Hooghly River throughout the day like an air conditioner on fan mode. When did it come for the last time? Was it, possibly, when the insouciant people in the three small hamlets on the banks of the Hooghly breathed it for the last time as Job Charnock, the controversial chief agent of East India Company, was busy converting it into a British trading post as early as 1690? I sigh at the Neem tree which is now sporting its, at least, a dozen shades of green.
But, how can you even sigh fully with your mask tightly secured on your face? Is it a homework for tracing our footsteps back to the Roman Saturnalia festivals when the roles were often reversed and a slave was provisionally accorded the status of the royalty before being killed after the festival was over? Do our respective roles in society get reversed to a degree as we are invited to this festival of morbidity?
Now that our finite knowledge is faced with something vast and macabre beyond humankind’s accumulated knowledge and understanding of a fledging situation, we are, I guess, waiting uneasily for an inconstant conclusion in this narrative of pestilence. Is it a Kafkaesque catharsis in the making when our masks become our faces?
However, I think, we have started to learn how to breathe internally with our mask on as we have learnt how to talk internally about such issues like migratory workers, housemaids, safe distance, cough and fever, job cuts, daily wages, savings and distant relationships. We have also learnt how to watch television at odd hours, count the dead like a secret black ritual, post our old evocative photographs on Facebook, manage consecutive mobile chargers, behave like a copybook family and, finally, we have learnt how to disinfect our hands like the much clichéd Lady Macbeth.
But our hands still smell of fear. Fear of door knobs, newspapers, milk packets, vegetables, fear of contagion and the fear of being singled out with a proclamation – ‘If any Person shall have visited any Man known to be infected of the Plague, or entered willingly into any known infected House, being not allowed: The House wherein he inhabiteth shall be shut up’ – with the word ‘house’ in capital.
But it is not too hot in Calcutta even though we are almost in the middle of April. Is it going to be the cruellest month? Did T.S. Eliot, just a century ago, think the same terrifying thoughts when he caught Spanish Flu in London and wrote The Waste Land subsequently? Did Franz Kafka and D.H. Lawrence think the same thoughts when they caught the Flu and recovered?
Roads are empty. No chimneys, either in Barrackpore or in Howrah, are bellowing smoke or fume anywhere. The tanneries in the China Town are sleeping with hoards of skinned hides on them. The suspended particles in the air have left the antiseptic scene for a better season of smog in Calcutta. The hand-pulled rickshaws rest on the blind alleys of Burrabazar with their heads bent, as if, to search for an answer in the vortex of a shifting reality.
Crows, with their collective memory of the Bengal Famine, have ultimately reclaimed the overhead tram wires and the underbelly of the flyovers of Calcutta. Pigeons cannot retain memories for long. They make circles in the empty blue sky over old north Calcutta. The creepers and the shrubs at the dividers, and the young municipal trees on the road islands and the rotaries have started to reach out to such highs, lows and distances which are still unknown to them. Like us.
Could this be Dante’s Hell that we are passing through with the virus lurking within our convoluted minds persistently? Or else, if so, how can hell be so lovingly familiar and beautiful?
Calcutta, a worn out late seventeenth century city of many hyphens fitted with fresh implants on its flanks, has finally come to a halt.
Calcutta’s grease, dirt and smoke, its tiny and huge antiquated machine parts – factories, tanneries, Victoria Memorial-Howrah Bridge-National Museum, its Eden Gardens-Park Street, its colonial buildings and yellow taxis, its shopping malls and universities, its China Town and Coffee house, its Rabindra Sangeet and Babu Ghat, its group theatres and auditoria, its tea joints and adda, its daily passenger spewing railway stations, and its long political processions have ground to a standstill after three hundred thirty years of its existence. Every day I try to grasp it and I fail to grasp it. The continuity of a city is now finally broken. Will everything – the old world order, our priorities or our lives – remain the same when we ultimately emerge from this dark labyrinth of malady? Will we all emerge?
Can literature be of any solace now? Curiosity is also a contagion, like reading and forgetting. I browse through books and the net and consult the pestilence literature. I sit with Defoe’s HF, Camus’ Dr Bernard Rieux, Saramago’s Ophthalmologist. They don’t say anything besides being prophetic in the end, as though, our feet have finally stuck in the reality of the antiseptic mud and we are desperately trying to touch the past like a borrowed book already returned to the library. Is it better to read Boccaccio instead and escape to a villa by the side of the sea to tell and listen to stories of our own choosing – good or bad, like watching and recommending movies on Netflix?
I look at the Neem tree again. It seems happy with its emerald green foliage and squirrels and birds and ants and its tiny white autumnal flowers. Does it have any concern over such words like spikes, racism, PDS, plasma transfusion, GDP growth rate, mass burial, staggered lockdown, xenophobia, supply chain, isolation, and Zoom party? It seems that it does not have any fear to ponder over and hands to wash. It is busy, with its whole being, drawing innumerable designs on its shadow. Unmindful like a painter at work. For its neighbour.
Sekhar Banerjee is a bilingual writer. He has four collections of poems and a monograph on an Indo-Nepal border tribe to his credit.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.