Journals of the plague year: The books of 2021 straddle two worlds, pre- and post-pandemic

As the unreal became real, fiction responded by meticulously documenting the present, excavating the past for answers, and imagining new possibilities for the future

December 24, 2021 01:04 pm | Updated 01:08 pm IST

Surreal view as a young woman student stand on the top of a huge pile of books holding a spyglass looking far at horizon. Adventure concept, as airplane and hot air balloon fly out of the magic book. LR and SM

Surreal view as a young woman student stand on the top of a huge pile of books holding a spyglass looking far at horizon. Adventure concept, as airplane and hot air balloon fly out of the magic book. LR and SM

Strewn across the sun-baked flood plains of Egypt are ancient marble pillars, scoured and discoloured. These are Nilometers, the world’s oldest continually functioning scientific instruments. They have stood by the Nile, marking the rise and fall of that great river, since the time of the pharaohs. Today we have a river of words to mark our civilisation, for despite the omnipresence of screens, the written word still counts for something. We may still discern a pattern in this flood of pages.

The books that came out this year might very well be those giving us the last clear glimpse of the pre-pandemic era. Assuming an average writing time of 18-24 months for a novel, most books released through 2021 would have had their inception in 2019-20 and so straddle two worlds, pre- and post-pandemic. They depict a now-vanished age, when time still moved in a linear fashion, followed by an age when time collapsed on itself.

Human impact

Manasi Subramaniam, executive editor at Penguin Press, says that Namita Gokhale’s The Blind Matriarch brought home the human impact of the pandemic. “Books have a way of helping people come to terms with the world around them, and we hope that even in a fraught year like 2021, we’ve risen to that challenge,” she says. Udayan Mitra, executive publisher at HarperCollins, saw a keen interest in “books that focus on the intricacies of human relationships” this year. For instance, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Last Queen , Anindita Ghose’s The Illuminated , Shivani Sibal’s Equations , and Sonal Kohli’s The House Next to the Factory .

The year saw a noticeable demand for books capturing the zeitgeist, and Mitra points out that speculative fiction has trended, with some striking books in that genre. Sci-fi might be a realistic rendering of the unreal, but the unreal is now the new normal, and that has the genre working overtime. Lawyer-novelist Gautam Bhatia’s The Horizon adds to the story he told in his debut novel, The Wall , which is set in an enclosed, circular city-state called Sumer, the ultimate gated community. The struggle continues between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who wish to see the wall breached.

Incidentally, 2021 marks the hundredth anniversary of the word, ‘robot’, which Karel Čapek used for the first time in his debut play, RUR or Rossum’s Universal Robots , about a race of artificial workers who overthrow their masters. We can see how the angry robots of Čapek have evolved into the gentle “Artificial Friend” Klara in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun . Klara isn’t superhuman. Designed to provide friendship to a lonely child, she is kindly, easily scared, and mortal. Klara speaks to us in her vulnerability.

Fly away

Bestselling author Antony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land also sees a literary novel embracing and modifying sci-fi tropes such as starships and virtual reality. It has multiple storylines — a medieval city on the verge of falling, contemporary America racked by tensions, a spaceship bearing the last humans fleeing a dying planet — but they all convey a sense of things coming to an end. The same note is heard in the second volume of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, where, in one of the stories, the protagonist has an epiphany: “there was no shelter, no safety in an unravelling world”. Editor Tarun K. Saint says these stories depict the “ongoing crises” of South Asia as reflected in fiction. One response, of course, is to reach for the escape hatch and read yourself out of this moment, something that sci-fi is uniquely equipped to perform.

Like sci-fi, another genre that asks us to stretch our imagination is horror. After being stuck for ages in dusty attics with ghosts of Victorian writers like M.R. James, Indian horror is slowly maturing, as proved by books like Venita Coelho’s Dark Tales: Ghost Stories from India or Dakhma by K. Hari Kumar. In these books, it is human misdeeds that are ghoulish, unleashing consequences that reverberate down the generations. As Coelho says, reading horror is to “work an exorcism ritual for our own ghosts and the demons of the world.” It’s therapeutic to read horror confined by the page when the last two years have been about a profound loss of control.

The past is a haunting spectre in all the books that won top honours this year. In Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Promise , a white family tries to come to terms with South Africa’s racist history; International Booker winner David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black tells the story of a Senegalese soldier fighting with the French army during World War I who finds himself trapped in the moment his best friend, a soldier in the same regiment, died before his eyes.

And, of course, the biggest gong, the Nobel Prize for Literature, went to Abdulrazak Gurnah, originally from Zanzibar, whose work is dominated by mass upheavals, with people fleeing their homelands and seeking shelter elsewhere. In Gurnah’s literary universe, everything is shifting — memories, names, identities — reflecting what we saw all around us this year.

Translations rule

In keeping with this world in flux, translations continue to be the rage. The JCB Prize for fiction, one of the most coveted among India’s literary prizes, was shared by M. Mukundan and translators Fathima E.V. and Nandakumar K. for the novel, Delhi: A Soliloquy. Chiki Sarkar, co-founder of Juggernaut Books, which brought out Gyan Chaturvedi’s Alipura in an acclaimed translation by Salim Yusufji, says they were proud to publish the famous novel. Though Juggernaut’s list is dominated by non-fiction, they plan to have “a small, high-quality fiction list which will be largely translations,” says Sarkar.

Trisha De Niyogi, COO and director at Niyogi Books, says, “As a publisher with an emphasis on translation, we turned our attention to folktales and folklores from languages not listed in the eight schedule. We published Voices from the Lost Horizon (by Anvita Abbi), where we have the genesis stories, folktales, and folk songs of the Great Andamanese people. You can actually listen to the folk songs as sung by the tribal artists, as the book has QR codes taking you to the audio-visual recordings.”

Voices from the Lost Horizon is a haunting book, as spine-tingling as stumbling upon the ruins of a lost civilisation, for the Great Andamanese people are everyday losing their language and the stories inscribed in it. Shortly after passing on the tales, the main storyteller died. Says Abbi, “In death, he carried away with him the knowledge and memories of an entire race.”

Books, those fragile objects made of brittle pages, are ultimately our last weapon in the war against mortality. And, contrary to the overwhelming fear about the demise of physical books, they are here to stay. As bookshops opened worldwide after the lockdowns, people again sought out that warm, paper-scented corner safe from the buffetings of the world.

Just as future archaeologists will find layers of discarded masks and know of ‘before’ and ‘after’ worlds, this is the last year before the pandemic will permanently write itself into our literary records. But there will also probably be intense growth and experimentation in the arts and sciences, a flush of post-traumatic creativity. A Renaissance to a Black Death, a Roaring 20s to a Spanish flu.

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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