Winter solstice. Concealed in a cloud, Jupiter and Saturn kiss unseen. With 78 million lives interrupted by a speck of RNA gone rogue, Earth is a grisly planet. Even in an appalling year, because life is more than srushti pushti nashti, bookwards we leaned, inevitably reading more about pandemics. Words, words, words—but you’ve heard that one before.
Mark Honigsbaum, with nine examples of pestilence, paints the 20th as The Pandemic Century. Armed with germ theory and antibiotics we swaggered while new pathogens spilt past species barriers. “The only thing that is certain is that there will be new pandemics and new plagues,” he guarantees.
Slavoj Zizek begins Pandemic! thus: “In proposing how to tackle the crisis we must all become philosophers.” Daunted? Don’t be. Zizek writes from the crypt, dead philosophers queue up for deft DIY tutorials. I enjoyed his many portraits of the post-Covid, possibly post-human world. [Think Revelations with the juicy bits expurgated.] If he makes the possibilities of Elon Musk’s Neuralink and the new universal Singularity feel terrifyingly close, it’s because we’re more than halfway there.
Everything Must Change! contains essays and conversations from, mostly, sane thinkers. It reminded me of Heinrich Bünting’s Clover Leaf Map of 1581 that put Jerusalem at the centre of the world. Appalling cartography, yes, but an accurate representation of 16th-century European ethos. Nothing has changed. Writing from the New Jerusalem of 2020, they do acknowledge that in other continents and other cultures Covid might be more than a toilet paper crisis.
Economist Chinmay Tumbe in The Age of Pandemics says our narratives gloss over pandemics past. The flight and plight of internal migrants in the wake of Covid is undeniable proof that we have learnt nothing from history.
Finally, the book I was waiting for, the official India narrative for 2020: Till We Win by Drs Chandrakant Lahariya, Gagandeep Kang and Randeep Guleria. It highlights the contribution of heroes who never made the news.
If you, like me, read Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary earlier this year, Life Behind Masks by Sonali Acharjee makes an interesting contrapunct. “Dhruv and Avantika met over a bag of frozen plasma…,” begins a love story.
In Lawrence Wright’s The End of October, the epidemiologist-hero performs an emergency caesarian section by severing “the cartilage that held the pubic bone together”, “rudely pulling aside the liver and reaching into the body cavity”. This cringe-worthy literary gaffe misinforms even as it informs—a perfect metaphor for pandemic narratives.
Fiction alone can offer legroom for the soul. Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is great psychotherapy, but I find a slice of cake more therapeutic.
There is no place as bright as a book where reader and writer shine in syzygy. Through this long dark night of the soul, where else would one want to be?
Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed write together as Kalpish Ratna. Their latest book is A Crown of Thorns: The Coronavirus & Us