Thursday 26 November 2020

Essential items and Other Tales from a Land in Lockdown - Stories from the pandemic

My plan for September had been to spend the whole month in India. For obvious reasons I wasn't able to go and instead traveled vicariously through the pages of contemporary works of fiction by Indian writers. This proved to be a journey of discovery made from my armchair and through the pages of some great books by, amongst others, Deepa Anappara,  Megha Majumdar and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Most recently I have been reading Essential Items and Other Tales from a Land in Lockdown by Udayan Mukherjee. This collection of ten short stories, all of which take place during the Covid crisis, describes the lockdown experiences of different levels of society but with common themes running though them.

Perhaps the strongest of these themes is that of the outsider. Some are literal outsiders, such as those that live in the street outside the gated communities of the better off, dependant on and waiting for acts of charity in order to survive. And there other, more surprising outsiders, such as the one in a group of wealthy young professionals, whose anger at the virtual signalling charitable work of his friends boils over during a forbidden drinks party. But the most moving and striking example of the outsider, is dealt with in the penultimate tale - Homecoming. When India's lockdown was announced at just four hours notice, millions of internal migrant workers began desperate attempts to reach their home areas rather than being stranded without work or funds in the larger cities. As transport ground to a halt amidst frantic scenes at bus and train terminals, many of these workers began to walk hundreds of miles in order to get home. The un-named narrator of Homecoming tells the story of his return from Gujarat to his village in Uttarakhand. Seemingly cheated of his savings being held "for safekeeping" by his boss, he finds himself, together with many other returnees, held in a camp, separated from the locals to prevent the spread of infection and then forced to stand in line under the watchful eye of baton wielding police, three feet apart from his companions, whilst waiting to be loaded on to a special train. The combination of camps and trains is chilling for historical reasons but equally disturbing is the cold and suspicious welcome some received on reaching their villages, where the locals perhaps rightfully so, were fearful of the virus having been brought from the city to their homes.

Other stories in the collection show a more positive approach to the outsider and the power of the occasional kindness of strangers. In Shelter from The Storm, another group of migrant workers passing through Kolkata get caught in a storm (that really did take place) and sit outside the gates of a formerly wealthy family. Hoping for assistance they are met with a surprising response, whilst in Border Town, a stranded traveller is taken in by an elderly man and his grandson, despite opposition from their neighbours. 

Other stories demonstrate the author's skills in capturing the less public impact of the lockdown on a variety of lives. His characters include an older woman who may or may not have dementia, two funeral workers in Varanasi, worried at the prospect of catching the virus from the bodies they are paid to cremate and the women who clean the houses of the wealthy who one by one were asked not to come to work in case they brought the infection with them and who then worry about their ability to survive without work. The stories are firmly set in India and relate to Indian themes and society but the issues they tackle are universal and will be familiar to readers almost everywhere.

The author was born in Kolkata and previously worked in TV, covering the financial markets. He is also the author of two previous novels. As with several of the books I have enjoyed this year, I came across a review for Essential Items on which is not only a news site but also contains extensive coverage of India's arts scene including specialist sections on books and cinema. Try something different - have look!