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These short stories are an exploration of mortality during the pandemic

Udayan Mukherjee  

“I shudder to think how those four months of lockdown would have passed had I not immersed myself in this project,” laughs Udayan Mukherjee, over phone from Mumbai.

The author and journalist talks about how lockdown had taken over people’s consciousness to the point where most could not even concentrate, and many experienced frustration, anxiety and anger.

Udayan, instead of caving in to these emotions opted to channel them and pen a book: Essential Items and Other Tales From a Land in Lockdown, which launched on October 18. The book is a collection of 10 fictional short stories about different people’s lives during the pandemic: in the mountains, Kolkata, Mumbai, etcetera.

“A novel did not make sense and would have been more limiting, because when you write a novel for many months you basically dip down into creating a fabric which will hold true for the telling of the story over a long period of time,” he says, adding, “In Essential Items..., each story is different from the other. Also, this was my first time writing short stories, so I was intensely getting into the heads of people for 10 or 12 days and weaning myself off, then getting into a completely different socio-economic setup for the next story. And for the reader, they may have to re-invest some emotional energy.”


Being a market analyst in the media space, addressing how the lockdown affects different groups of people — the elderly, migrants, millennials — was central to Udayan as a writer, and ultimately these stories offer perspective to readers who may not see much of the personal traumas incited by the pandemic.

The string upon which the short stories are based on is the theme of mortality, particularly prominent in stories such as ‘A Life Or Death Situation’, ‘Border Town’, ‘Essential Items’, ‘Old Friend’ and ‘The Stroll’. “The notion of mortality creeps into different stories in different ways,” he says. One such story ‘The Stroll’ follows an elderly man on a walk through a park after many months of lockdown. He comes across his favourite jamun tree and looks around for the fruit, then realises he may not have as many jamun seasons ahead of him.

Cover of ‘Essential Items and Other Tales from a Land in Lockdown’ by Udayan Mukherjee

Cover of ‘Essential Items and Other Tales from a Land in Lockdown’ by Udayan Mukherjee   | Photo Credit: Bloomsbury India

In ‘Essential Items’, an elderly woman with an ailing husband tries to make friends with a delivery girl, but the younger girl has no time to indulge the woman.

The stories also get political. ‘A Life Or Death Situation’ is about daily wage workers in Varanasi, and is also “a commentary on the caste system”, adds Udayan, as many people felt trapped in the lockdown because “such is the rigidity of casteist India that economic mobility is not very fluid”. One of the characters comments how a jolt like the pandemic can shake a person out of their rock, and it falls on the ingenuity, entrepreneurship and resourcefulness of educated people and how they make do in such a situation.

‘The Party’, meanwhile, is an observation of upper-middle class people at a party with ‘first world problems’, a much-needed wild card in the mix of deeply disconcerting narratives.

Udayan remarks he was mindful of the order of stories within Essential Items. The flow of one story into the next does take the reader on an emotional rollercoaster, but not one that is too jarring or confusing.

“I was conscious of how they surprise the reader to an extent, and that they are not lulled into thinking ‘these stories are all the same, with just changed characters’. I wanted to experiment with a little bit of shock value, which drives home the point that people are intrinsically different and the challenges that arise during this time are of a different scale and nature of difficulty but not lesser,” he adds.

Ultimately, Udayan wants people to come out of this lockdown, having read Essential Items, feeling more aware of the outer-world and to “just get out of the selfish cocoon in which we have trapped ourselves”.

‘Essential Items and Other Tales From a Land in Lockdown’ (Bloomsbury) is available for ₹499 across major retailers and e-tailers.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2020 7:25:10 AM |

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