Short Stories Books

Reality bites: Review of Udayan Mukherjee’s ‘Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown’

Home truths: Labourers in Guntur on their way home to Bengal during the lockdown.   | Photo Credit: Vijaya Kumar

The title might cause you to expect a collection of inspirational stories about people coming together to fight adversity during these trying times. But the 10 stories here are nothing like that: Udayan Mukherjee’s sketches are a stark portrayal of life in lockdown India. He manages to strike a fine balance between a variety of emotions, characters, and cultures.

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A matter of life and dearth

In the first story, ‘A Life or Death Situation’, two corpse-bearers discuss their imminent unemployment on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. As they contemplate the end of their profession, Shibu asks Kallu, ‘“But, here everyone knows us as doms, what else can we do, Kallu?’” Kallu replies, “‘You have answered your own question. It cannot be here, then. Didn’t you have an uncle in Gorakhpur? Best if you can leave the state, though, where our shadows can’t follow us.”’ Even the pandemic — a matter of life and death — cannot erase entrenched caste lines.

Reality bites: Review of Udayan Mukherjee’s ‘Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown’

In ‘Holidays’, Mukherjee gives us a policeman who yells at Achala emerging from a chawl and waves a friendly greeting to a passing jogger. If these stories portray our best and worst selves, the titular story catches us in our most fragile moment. It’s quite a revelation to read this story featuring two locked-up oldies, a delivery volunteer, and an unexpected bout of pettiness from the unlikeliest of sources.

In a touching story, ‘Homecoming’, a migrant’s illusions about city life are shattered by the lockdown. The dispensable nature of his city-based work makes him question his definition of home. Mukherjee leaves us with a haunting image of contentment: “After the meal, I sat in the sun with Sonu and Titli and asked them what they had been up to while I was gone. They chattered away; I didn’t register half the things they said, but the singsong lilt of their voices soothed my ears. Gauri sat with a vessel of rice, sifting it for pieces of stone. There wasn’t much to do, from what I could see; she just wanted to sit close to me and the kids.”

Instagram gallery

Essential Items feels like a well-curated Instagram gallery at times: as you scroll through the pictures, some look suspiciously prettier. Which is my quibble with ‘Border Town’ and ‘The Party’ — both seem conveniently filtered. The latter, especially, reads like an attempt to distil an online comment section into a story, with all the usual suspects — privilege, taxes, charity, guilt — coming up in predictable order.

What sets Essential Items apart is its unabashed Indianness — the stories are as real as the motorcyclist who puts on his helmet only when he spots a cop. Using the pandemic as a litmus test, Mukherjee shows us the lines crisscrossing our society, with some lines, like those of caste and class, remaining strong even in the face of death, and some blurring all too easily.

Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown; Udayan Mukherjee, Bloomsbury India, ₹499

The reviewer is a freelance writer and illustrator.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 5:13:37 PM |

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