Memoir Books

In search of certainties: Review of ‘The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture during Lockdown’ by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

This seems like a good time to read Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee’s book, The Town Slowly Empties, as the pandemic-related events of 2020 seem to repeat themselves in 2021, only in a scarier form. Bhattacharjee’s memoir harks back to the beginning of 2020, when life as we knew it suddenly changed.

Written in the form of a journal, it begins on March 23, the day the national lockdown started, and continues until April 14, when the lockdown was extended till May. The intimate and the unanticipated frame Bhattacharjee’s reflections. When life is “reduced to a few rooms” and our bodies “forced into confinement”, the mind becomes “free to soar.” As the machinery of life in capitalism comes to a halt, the sounds of industry and automation give way to the chirping of birds. Pollution levels reduce drastically. Lockdown, Bhattacharjee writes, “returned us to our lost childhood... to birds... to ourselves.”

Then new concerns take over. He notes that “when death becomes a statistic, morality turns utilitarian.” Few must suffer for the well-being of many. Unsurprisingly, the ‘few’ are the poor and the underprivileged, who start walking to their homes in rural India in search of a simple certainty — food and shelter.

The migrant is a recurring figure here — their spirit broods over the text. Sometimes they are the author’s acquaintances, like Jerry and Melvin, who work in restaurants he frequents. Sometimes they are strangers — like Bhole Kumar, one among the many construction workers who walked from Delhi to Meerut “fleeing not the virus, but the lockdown”; or Razia Begum, a government schoolteacher from Telangana who rode over 14,00 km to bring her son home from another town.

At times, it is the author himself — a “refugee from erstwhile East Bengal”, a “foreigner” in Assam, an outsider by temperament, preferring to meet people “only in memory.” To understand the deeper intricacies of this self, Bhattacharjee turns to literature, cinema and music. Through a series of learned reflections — whether on writers like Chaucer, Montaigne, Shakespeare, or on contemporary filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Jafar Panahi, Ritesh Batra — Bhattacharjee displays the fragments of his own self while narrating in tandem the story of our collective self as a fragmented nation, still unable to cure the wounds of caste, communalism and poverty rooted in our past.

It is these intellectual musings that form the ethical core of this pandemic memoir. In Bhattacharjee’s hands, the record of the initial lockdown days becomes a compelling account of the “intimate paradoxes” of a country and its people.

The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture during Lockdown; Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, Copper Coin, ₹399

The reviewer is a researcher and writer.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 2:23:43 AM |

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