Keeping Creativity Alive Even Amidst Crises – An Excerpt From The Yellow Book by Amitava Kumar

They Came Like Swallows



I don’t particularly care for the drawing on the facing page. I didn’t draw it from life, from any specific observation. Instead, it is a work of imagination, provoked by a reading of William Maxwell’s heartbreaking 1937 novel, *They Came Like Swallows*. The title comes from a poem by W.B. Yeats, ‘Coole Park, 1929’. I was reading the novel in August 2021 as a part of an online reading group. Maxwell was writing about the flu pandemic of 1918—his own mother had died from it. This death, which occurred in Maxwell’s early childhood, haunted his life and so much of what he wrote.



My reading of the novel was haunted by something else: the Covid-19 pandemic that had abated by then but was by no means over. A few months earlier, in March, my elderly father had received his first dose of the vaccine in India. And a bit later, I got my first dose too. However, the second wave of Covid in India, particularly during the months of March and April 2021, had been utterly devastating. I didn’t know of anyone whose family hadn’t been affected; my own family members had suffered deaths. Why did my paintings about what was happening in India seem closer to me, somehow more real, even though they too were often painted from my imagination? It might be because of the intimacy of history: I was living through this pandemic and only reading about the pandemic of 1918 from a huge distance in time. But there’s also another reason. All the drawings I made in response to the news from India were driven by sorrow and rage. The reports said that the metal in the crematoriums would sometimes melt from the fires burning; that relatives were often unable to even participate in any ritual of farewell; that the Ganga upstream from Patna was choked with bodies and the poor, unable to afford cremations, were burying their dead on the riverbank.



I painted in order to feel less helpless. And hiding in this despair was an even greater fear: that those in power, who had organized election rallies and religious gatherings and helped spread the virus were, in the future, going to spin this story of loss into a victory song. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh warned that those talking of shortages of oxygen cylinders would be arrested. So I made an abstract painting called *Too Many Hurried Goodbyes*. This was on 25 April 2021 when I got news of the death of an uncle in Bhagalpur from Covid. When I was quite young, I would watch him swim across the broad breadth of the Ganga, his body becoming tiny in the distance, and then swimming back, making that impossible return to being life-sized again.



Such devastation, so much grief. So many million dead worldwide, and hundreds of thousands dead in India. The staggering effects of this global catastrophe will be felt for a very long time; in fact, its real and far-reaching consequences, not just on our health and our psyches but also on the health of economic systems as well as systems of governance, will perhaps not be entirely clear to us for years. In the meantime, we must marvel at the fact that we have survived.


Where the state failed, our neighbours helped. Our families and friends. Doctors and nurses. One night on TV I heard a historian say that authoritarian leaders in power lie all the time. These leaders will claim that it is their opponents and journalists instead who lie. Soon people don’t know what to believe. They think there is no truth out there in the real world, and then the game is over. Democracy is dead. Such prognostications during the pandemic only heightened other anxieties already present like viruses in the air.


What kept my sanity intact, and what helped keep at bay the overwhelming feeling of helplessness, was the ability to write and draw. I was keeping a record of all that was ugly and also all that I found beautiful.



You Must Believe in Spring


The title for this section comes from an album by the jazz great Bill Evans. I had started doing drawings of plants and trees on the Hampstead Heath in London when I came across the Evans album on YouTube. The title spoke to me at different levels. It evoked for me the magnificent work of David Hockney during the lockdown. While sheltering in place in Normandy, Hockney had documented the arrival of spring, painting on his iPad the flowering lilies, refulgent greens and fruit trees bursting into bloom. (See Hockney’s book *Spring Cannot Be Cancelled*.) One commentator had described Hockney’s recent work as demonstrating ‘the liberating power of creativity’. I was interested in that idea of creativity, particularly because the pandemic had forced me to think, on a personal and social level, of how to respond with imagination when confronted with a crisis. The title of the Evans album also spoke to my own experiences in the new city. I had come to London with students from my college in the winter of 2021-22 for a study-abroad semester. I was living with my wife and son in a small flat near the Hampstead Tube station. Before I had arrived in England a few weeks earlier, amidst the Omicron scare, I hadn’t even been sure that my students would be able to join me. Yet here we were, wearing masks when we travelled on the London Underground, but coming out on the street to walk to museums and places along the Thames. The uncertain days of winter were soon going to turn to spring. For a few days, my wife and I would look out of the window in our stairwell, and point out to each other, just beyond the sewer pipes, a pink rose blooming on a bush. And then, two weeks later, the bush was suddenly heavy with blossoms.



Excerpted with permission from The Yellow Book by Amitava Kumar

Publishing/ HarperCollins (2023)

You can buy your copy here.



Amitava Kumar is the author of several books of fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in Granta, the New York Times, Harper’s, and several other publications. He has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and is currently a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Library. His novel Immigrant, Montana was on the Best of the Year lists at the New Yorker, the New York Times, and  Barack Obama’s list of favourite books of 2018. His 2021 novel A Time Outside This Time was described by the New Yorker as a ‘shimmering assault on the Zeitgeist’. The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal, published by HarperCollins in 2022, met with a very positive response from readers and critics alike. My Beloved Life, his latest novel, will be out soon. Kumar is professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York.