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Lockdown literature: misery is precisely designed

Now that hope is around the corner with the efficiency rates of various vaccines reading like the cut-off marks of our students looking for college admissions (94 percent, 95 percent), let us throw our minds back. What adjustments were we forced to make in the old normal?

Here’s a glimpse: “The writer learns how not to write. The actor not to act. The painter how never to see her studio, and so on. The artists without children are delighted by all the free time, for a time, until time itself begins to take on an accusatory look, a judgemental cast, because the fact is it is hard to fill all this time sufficiently, given the sufferings of others…

“The single human , in the city apartment thinks: I have never known such loneliness. The married human, in the country place with partner and children, dreams of isolation within isolation…

“The widower enters a second widowhood. The pensioner an early twilight. Everybody learns the irrelevance of these matters next to ‘real suffering.’ ”

These lines are from Zadie Smith’s Intimations, a slim volume of six essays, a significant contribution to lockdown literature. “The misery,” she writes, “is very precisely designed, and different for each person…”

A few months, a year, maybe two of the trifecta, mask-wearing, social distancing and hand washing remain before the all-clear can be blown. Will those of us who look back then suffer survivor’s guilt?

Smith’s book was written at the end of May, when the worst was yet to come, and the realisation that “filling time” and “work” might be the same thing had just occurred to her. And the possibility that we might not get our old life back had not yet done so.

The intensely personal essays from one of our finest writers, with their anxiety and uncertainty, reflect the anxiety and uncertainty of our period. “…I am not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it,” writes Smith who takes strength from this. That is not a sentence she would have written even a year ago. The pandemic has forced her – like the rest of us – to look afresh at herself and her connections with those around her (in ‘debts and lessons’, she expresses gratitude to her heroes from her parents to Muhammad Ali, Tracy Chapman and others).

Gratitude is another thread – for her luck in being who she is, for those around, for keeping the virus at a distance. There is generosity here, a tenderness, and an awareness in the 82 pages, of both the big picture and the small details.

We exist between two normals, the old and the new. So what happens when the vaccines arrive?

“Death comes to all,” writes Zadie Smith, “but in America it has long been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder.” As in America, so too in India.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2020 3:30:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/lockdown-literature-misery-is-precisely-designed/article33153542.ece

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