Reading The Pandemic: A Journey of Personal and Collective Healing

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Three years after the initial announcement about the onset of the pandemic, in early May 2023, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was no longer a global health emergency. As we hesitantly emerge from this devastating period of world history, how do we begin to process it as a whole? At this moment in time, it is challenging to devise an objective, bird’s eye view that connects all the dots. That is a task set for future historians and researchers. However, for now, it might be useful for us to look back and reflect on the time in order to start and heal from the scars that it has inflicted. 

The pandemic was undoubtedly a traumatic event that upended our assumptions about the conduct of our personal,  social, and professional lives, forcing us to create and learn new ways of living. These cracks of unfamiliarity became the areas of exploration for artists and writers, making COVID-19  the fountainhead for an emerging genre of literature all over the world. On one hand, turning tragedy into art so soon can feel like a vulgar act. Yet, literature is also an integrative force that can stimulate a meaning-making process. In this case, it explores seemingly impossible questions about how we waded through these turbulent times – How did we react – individually and collectively? How did we deal with such immeasurable loss and tragedy, and remain human through it?  It is not possible to digest all of it together. The following round-up of Indian books captures it in parts and pieces, scrutinizing life during the pandemic in its different stages from a variety of vantage points across society. 


Essential Items: And Other Tales From A Land in Lockdown by Udayan Mukherjee (October 2020)

The phrase ‘essential items’ had become infamous during the pandemic lockdowns, referring to the basic amenities and foodstuff needed for survival – the only things for which we could step out. The book also is a snapshot of the diverse, but essential experiences of individuals from different financial and cultural backgrounds during the lockdown period. From the dwindling business of funeral workers, the plight of domestic workers and migrants flocking back to their villages, the increased dependency of the elderly population, to the locked-in experience of the affluent, the book explores the possibilities of how uniquely the pandemic affected us, and how we responded to it. In the process, it raises questions and conundrums of morality and social responsibility that arise in times of complete chaos, when the lines between right and wrong become blurred and unidentifiable.  

The Blind Matriarch by Namita Gokhale (September 2021)

The Blind Matriarch is an interconnected story of a nation and a family in crisis, grappling with the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. It zooms in and out between the individual and collective lives of joint family members, capturing the transformation that fosters under complete lockdown. At the centre, holding them all together,  is Matangi-Ma, the eponymous Blind Matriarch,  who is at once the object of her family’s ignorance and love, and also their source of strength. As the pandemic rages on, the past and the present become one, hope becomes riddled with fear and helplessness, fault lines become palpable, and death looms large. Simultaneously, the book is an ode to the formidable and compassionate human spirit that drives us through such times. As Matangi-Ma recites throughout the novel – “Saubhagya na harr din sota hai..Dekho aage kya hota hai” Good fortune does not always slumber.. Let’s see what comes next. 

A Time Outside This Time by Amitava Kumar (ocober 2021)

Amitav Kumar employs his narrator, a journalist at an artist’s retreat, to be the spokesperson for his semi-critical commentary about fake news, using actual news reportage about world events, and references to psychological studies that explain collective behaviour. The first chapter of the book assuredly summarizes what the entire book is about – “I tell them that my novel is based on an untrue story. In fact, it is based on the many untrue stories that surround us and threaten to destroy us”. It is in this context that the novel also converses with the pandemic, through the introspective reflections and observations of the protagonist about its portrayal in the news media. Amidst the larger narrative about Trump’s fake news era, the novel is interspersed with references to the absurd speculations, controversies, and blame games that characterized the onset of the pandemic. It is helpful to look back at this moment in time to reflect upon the state of news consumption today, wherein fact has become fiction.

Homebound by Puja Chagoiwala (November 2021)

The lockdown in India was imposed suddenly and with brutal severity, leaving many migrant labourers stranded in cities, far from their homes. It forced them to travel hundreds of kilometers on foot, braving the April heat, fearsome authorities, a new virus, and hunger and sickness. Homebound chronicles this migration through the voice of a young girl, Meher, and in the process captures the aspirations, motivations, and insecurities of the migrant population in India. Based on interviews with migrants and their families, lawyers, NGOs, and police officers, this fictional epistolary account recovers the botched-up narrative constructed by mainstream media in covering this migration. But ultimately, it is a commentary on the cracks and structural faults of our systems which creates such injustices in the first place. 

Reading these books retrospectively, armed with the information of having lived through this period, can be both a validating and a triggering experience. Yet, there is some clarity that you can gain from the way these experiences have been placed within well-tied narratives with confident observations. This clarity possesses the potential of segueing into acceptance and healing in the long term. For future generations, these books can serve as a record of history written in real-time, forming an invaluable source and archive for the study of this moment, locally and globally. 

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Written by Sumira Grover

Sumira Grover holds an undergraduate degree in History from Lady Shri Ram College For Women, University of Delhi. She is passionate about creative writing and has interned across various organisations as a content writer. She wants to combine her academic interests and creative writing to write about issues of family dynamics, gender roles, and the psychological impact of the cultural and political world.