In the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, as most of the world went into lockdown mode, essayist Sloane Crosley hurled a couple of hard questions at the writing community in an article for The New York Times. “But what happens when every writer on the planet starts taking notes on the same subject?” she wondered in "Someday, We’ll Look Back on All of This and Write a Novel". “Will we all hand in our book reports simultaneously, a year from now?” These questions were most likely rhetorical, as neither writers not publishers waited for as long to come up with an assortment of fictional and non-fictional reports on the pandemic.
Journalist-turned-writer Udayan Mukherjee is among the latter. His recently published third book, Essential Items, is a collection of short fiction inspired by the pandemic, one that thankfully passes the litmus test of our current fatigue with anything related to the pandemic. In spite of its morbid theme, Essential Items is as a beautifully crafted set of observations on the state of the nation during the difficult months of the lockdown in India.
Mukherjee, with his years of media experience, has harvested the news cycle to find his fictional anchors. From lower-caste doms at a crematorium on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi to migrant workers who set out on foot for their villages from India’s urban centres under lockdown, the stories cover a wide arc of experiences and social realities. But under Mukherjee’s compassionate gaze, these figures do not appear like cardboard characters drawn out of news reports. Rather, they present themselves as fully imagined individuals, shaped by their dreams and desires like any other, struggling to stay afloat through isolation, job loss and the looming threat of disease.
A theme-led collection like Essential Items poses obvious challenges for the writer, most of the all the slippery slope of tokenism. There is also the risk of overfamiliarity—the writer’s empathy for his characters must ideally co-exist with the knowledge that he can never fully “know” what their lives are really like. Mukherjee maintains this delicate balance in all the stories, whether he delves into the inner lives of an elderly couple stranded at home and dependent on volunteers delivering essential items, or into the mind of an orphan boy in a small border town, who becomes attached to a foreigner seeking refuge with his family through the days of the lockdown. With Mukherjee as our guide through the emotional landscapes of these strangers, some of us may be prompted to notice people around us with fresh eyes, and question the choices we have made ourselves to get through the pandemic.
Even while describing the less savoury moments of the lockdown, Mukherjee tends to reserve his judgment. In a chilling story called “The Stroll”, an elderly, reclusive and well-off writer is attacked by a pair of goons as he is taking his morning constitutional in South Bombay, after having stayed indoors for days. If the ending comes with a jolt of shock and anger, it also makes us—English-speaking comfortable elite readers—think of the privilege “people like us” have to be kind and forgiving, simply because the loss of a few thousand rupees in a daylight robbery don’t matter make a difference to our material reality.
A similar conundrum is laid out in “The Party”, in which a group of uber-rich neighbours in a posh residential society debate over their obligation to help starving migrant workers and the right amount of money to spend on them. The matter of money and privilege is revived again in “Shelter from the Storm”, albeit with an ironic twist, where 160 displaced workers end up at a derelict palace of an erstwhile zamindar in Bengal, seeking refuge from the lockdown and the fury of presumably Cyclone Amphan.
Mukherjee’s narrative mosaics, made out of scraps of real events and imagined realities, are the building blocks to a larger social truth that perhaps only fiction can convey. In his stories, quarantined couples squabble and get on each other’s nerves, a man rings a once-prosperous friend after many years during the height of the economic loss engendered by the pandemic. An elderly woman, suffering from dementia, inadvertently gets her son to end his affair with a colleague, while a migrant labourer is shunned by his neighbours and childhood associates when he finally gets back home in the mountains after an arduous journey back from the city where he was employed. If these slices of life seem ordinary and well-worn to our jaded eyes, seen from Mukherjee’s perspective, they are laden with inscrutable drama and moral upheavals, which we have probably chosen to suppress or ignore in our own lives.