Writing toward a dark hope: The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha

In the nearly three years since the first reports of a novel coronavirus emerged from China, this new SARS variant has caused illness, death and division across the globe. Seems the stuff of speculative fiction is not as interesting to live in as it is to imagine in a novel or film. So, while the early months of the pandemic inspired a flood of lock down essays and memoirs (I was editing for a magazine at the time and it seemed endless), the topic has been one that often has to be raised cautiously as so many are simply determined to move on, content to accept a certain level of weekly death and disability as a price society has to be prepared to pay. However, as the virus continues to circulate, fill hospitals and kill, its greatest weapon seems to be its ability to deepen hostilities and inequities within communities and around the world.

Yet, if I hit a point of poetic saturation in the first year of Covid, I now find myself curious to see how this global phenomenon is being responded to at this point, more than two years in. Thus, The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha, newly released by Seagull Books, immediately caught my attention. Subtitled Reflections on the Pandemic through Photography, Performance and Public Culture, this is not a journal, a memoir or a clinical analysis, rather it is an extraordinarily thoughtful meditation on the depiction of illness, death and displacement, the expression of loss and grief, and the possible positive potential of the pandemic experience for the future. As a writer, cultural critic and dramaturg based in Kolkata, India, he does not concern himself with the details of the virus itself, epidemiology or the ongoing debates around vaccines. Instead he is interested in offering a personal response to “the turbulent state of a world that seems to have gone awry.” What sets this essay apart, then, are the questions Bharucha is led to ask and the resources he draws on in his exploration—he turns to photography, theatre, literature, dance and critical thought.

India famously reacted to the initial spread of Covid 19 in 2020 with a strict three month lock down that within hours had those with homes and some security retreating indoors, and forcing vast numbers of migrant workers to try to find a way back to their home villages across a country that had suddenly shut down. However, for Bharucha and his country, it is the second wave between April and October 2021, that struck as a harsh and heart-breaking demonstration of the ferocity of the disease which they had mistakenly fancied they had survived relatively unscathed. This book engages with four realities emerging from the crisis of this brutal wave of illness: death, grief, mourning and extinction.

The first section, “Photography in the Pandemic,” is primarily concerned with death. A number of communities and countries around the world experienced exceptionally high levels of infection and death in the early months of the pandemic, but much of it happened out of the sight of the general public. Streets were emptied and ICUs were closed to visitors, rendering the suffering invisible. Families said good-bye to loved ones over the internet. Refrigerated trucks backed up to hospitals were received as an abstracted image, and even expansive burial sites tended to blur with any number of other tragedies of nature or war. But the photographs coming out of India somehow seemed more real, more difficult to excuse as “fake.” Bharucha focuses on three striking, widely seen photographs: the image of two men sharing a bed in a public hospital, the tops of two oxygen cylinders just visible in the foreground; a photo of a man fleeing a cremation ground that looks more like a hellish scene of destruction than a place of funeral ritual; and a drone shot of bodies covered in saffron cloth lying on the shore of the Ganga, the final resting place of those too poor to afford cremation. The discussion of these iconic images calls on Barthes and Debord, contrasts the ordered depiction of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak in Bombay and considers the question of ownership. Today corporations and media houses own and control the distribution of the depictions of war, famine and disease, but their human truth cannot be forgotten:

[W]e cannot deny that these images, many of them too searing in their impact to be witnessed in a dispassionate mode, represent real events. One may question their mode of representation and capitulations to sensationalism and voyeurism, but, at a purely empirical level, the two men lying in a hospital bed, the man running through a cremation ground, and even the most extreme image of dead bodies on the banks of the Ganga were not fictions.”

This first part also looks back to the great displacement of the first wave with an examination of the depiction of families making the long journeys home and the way these internal migrations were recorded and presented.

The second section of The Second Wave, “No Time to Mourn,” opens with a discussion of the interrelationship between grief and mourning, and an acknowledgement of the disruption of the critical ritual practices associated with death and dying. This was, of course, a widely experienced phenomenon, but in Hindu and Islamic traditions  a physical connection with the body of the deceased is vitally important. Hospital death, fear of infection and the intense pressure on cremation and burial services left survivors unable to mourn and articulate their grief. Here again we see the power of photography with the inclusion of the image of Rampukar Pandit, a migrant worker making his way home from Delhi, learning that his infant son has died. Clutching his cellphone, his expression is one of absolute despair and it is impossible to look at him without feeling his pain. This single photograph speaks to the extraordinary grief and loss that, because grief is so often private, seems to have been scrubbed from so much of the discourse around the pandemic that aims to minimize its impact in many communities. But how can grief be expressed publicly in a meaningful way? Bharucha turns to several Euro/American efforts to capture grief though performance art before turning to literary and dramatic representations from Indian writers and artists. Helpfully, throughout this essay, he tries to chose material that can be readily accessed, in whole or in part, online. As well, detailed footnotes and an extensive bibliography catalogues the academic, dramatic and related resources that he references.

It is with the final section, “Endings / Beginnings,” that The Second Wave moves beyond any pandemic themed essays I’ve encountered to date. Bharucha writes with passion and a cautious but hopeful optimism, as he explores how  we might live after the pandemic, fully aware that an ending is, at the time of writing, still elusive and wanting to avoid the hopeless despair that the “seemingly endless postponement of ‘the end’” can fuel.

Instead, what comes to mind is ‘dark hope’, which is how Sanskritist and peace activist David Shulman has characterized the larger context of struggling for peace on the West Bank. It is this hope that shadows my reflections on the interstice between endings and beginnings which is the subject of this chapter.

He begins his analysis with the theatrical concept of “exit” and a discussion of the darkness and destruction at the end of the Mahabharata. He wonders what moment of time we might be entering, with the consideration of two possible modalities that could contribute to the shaping of a fatal end in our times—genocide and extinction—drawing on ancient and modern imagery and sources. The darkness is easy to imagine, given the record of human history on this planet, so where does the hope lie?

Bharucha proposes that within the possibility of destruction the possibility of rebirth or reinvention may be found. From here he embarks on a wide-ranging discussion, a sort of thinking out loud, that takes into account in his own Zoroastrian identity, then moves to the ethics of waiting with a look at Samuel Beckett’s most famous play and Gandhi’s message of restraint, admitting that waiting is not going to be an acceptable response to many who are tired of waiting and staying put. But, if the pandemic, which has most certainly arisen from an animal host, has taught us anything, he argues, it is “how intimately the animal world intersects with our own.” So the question then becomes one of how to inhabit the planet moving forward. Bharucha proposes that an answer might be found in an enhanced bodily awareness—stillness, movement and breath—explored in the context of dance, theatre, yoga, freediving and critical thought.

There is, of course, much more to this thoughtful book than I can begin to touch on in this review. It is ultimately a very personal journey tinged with sorrow, anger and a commitment to making sense of a global pandemic that has carved two years or more out of our “normal” existences, cost countless lives and left many more with serious lingering effects. The attention breath and breathlessness that closes out the essay is especially poignant in light of the rush for ventilators in the early stages of the pandemic and the scenes of lineups and desperate calls for oxygen canisters so ubiquitous as the second wave struck India. But a loss of breath is not strictly a feature of earlier variants, even if ICUs are not filled to capacity so much at this time. Talking to my thirty year-old daughter tonight, several weeks after her recovery from Covid, she admitted that her lungs are just not the same in a way she has never experienced before, and hers was not an unusually difficult bout. Those struggling with Long Covid are even more aware of how easily movement and breath can become strained, leaving them stranded on the cusp of an uncertain ending and an undefined beginning.

The Second Wave by Rustom Bharucha is published by Seagull Books.

Memory is a record book of errors: The Town Slowly Empties by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

We take the everyday for granted. The history of the everyday, as Gandhi said, is never written. We don’t write the history of harmony. We write of history with a capital H. The history of strife. The history of the everyday is the history of a time that exists in the blurry lines between memory and forgetting. The days we remember are the days of events, personal, social or political.

It seems such a long time ago that the world slipped into lockdown as a strange, invisible threat began to spread causing illness and death. Where I am in Canada, our first lockdown was the strictest even if it was considerably less severe than in many places. Dramatic charts were hauled out, ominous predictions were made and the outside world suddenly seemed to become a dangerous place. Yet, the feared explosion of cases never materialized except in nursing homes and long term care. We slipped out of confinement into a summer of somewhat reduced freedoms but plenty of elbow room. The consensus: the lockdown was extreme and unnecessary. Of course, it’s impossible to convince a skeptic of the success of a measure by the absence of the thing you set out to prevent.

So we became our own control group. Winter brought a second wave and only when cases and deaths started to rise exponentially were some restrictions brought back. Protestors took to the streets to decry their loss of freedom in the name of an imaginary illness that, even if it existed, was primarily taking only the oldest and weakest among us. Nothing but the flu.

Now as Spring slowly settles in, we are into a third wave, fuelled by variants, striking a much younger cohort and rapidly expanding. The government is responding with weak-kneed measures—even less intense than the last round—figuring we will vaccinate our way out while ICU beds fill up with the sickest group of Covid patients yet. Yes, perhaps fewer of them will die. But anyone who arrives with a serious condition that would normally warrant an ICU bed will have to be weighed for worth, for likelihood of survival, against some young, otherwise healthy Covid patient presently gasping for breath. And people will die who would not have died otherwise. How serious are things? Today the case rate in my city was more than twice that of India.

India. A country that has come to mean a lot to me these past few years is presently on fire—metaphorically and factually. It is painful to watch, heartbreaking to think of. Here in the West, even when things are bad and resources are stretched beyond reason, illness and death is sanitized, hidden behind closed doors, underestimated, forgotten.

All of this is but a long, yet timely, introduction to my review of The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Indian poet and writer Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee. This has proved a very difficult book to write about. In fact, as the present crisis in India began to escalate, I found it increasingly difficult to read. Not that it isn’t good. It is a most wonderful, personal engagement with the early weeks of the sudden, strict lockdown imposed on India last March. Exactly a year ago as I was reading. At first there was a definite sense of déjà vu, but soon the altered routines, unexpected observations, and thoughtful reflections began to feel, quaint, otherworldly, against the horrific backdrop of the second wave now battering the country. Yet, the current state of affairs should in no way undermine the merit of this chronicle of adjustment to the limitations and possibilities of mandated isolation. In truth, it makes it all the more relevant.

The Town Slowly Empties—the title comes from Albert Camus’ The Plague—unfolds as a series of journal entries beginning on Monday, March 23, just after a complete lockdown has been declared in Delhi. Within days the entire nation will follow suit with only four hours’ notice. The daily reflections continue until April 14, the end of the first phase of restrictions. Each day’s record is a melange of domestic activity, pandemic progress reporting, political and social contextualizing, philosophical musing, and the sifting of memories, all woven together with  literary references, film commentary and a passion for food. Lockdown life offers an uncanny blend of the exceptional and the ordinary. Something frightening is lurking close at hand, just outside the door where the streets have grown quiet, while inside time has expanded, leaving even more empty space to fill, more anxious thoughts to fill it, especially supercharged in those early days.

We have become watchmen, standing guard at ourselves, at our shadows. We terrorize ourselves with caution. We become extremely careful about what we touch, and if we touch, we immediately wash our hands with soap for at least twenty seconds. We are mindful of the merest hint of a sore throat, or rising temperature. We also have the time now to watch others, and not just the human species. We carry the virus in our heads, in our sleep, and some with intense paranoia, perhaps even in their dreams. Fear is our only mode of retaliation. We are brave, we fear bravely. We cannot laugh at ourselves. The absurdity of survival must be taken seriously.

For Bhattacharjee these extra hours afforded by lockdown are measured out in poetry, prose and film. A host of writers and filmmakers become his companions, offering illustrations, examples and inspiration as the days roll by. Along the way he calls upon TS Eliot, Rimbaud, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fernando Pessoa, Kafka, Agha Shahid Ali, Zbigniew Herbert, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray and many others, engaging with their ideas and imagery. This is, then, far more than a record of news reports, readings and recipes, though there is a clear sense of the quotidian routine—waking late, securing provisions, morning tea, making lunch. Each day brings new circumstances, spectacles, and tragedies to process: face masks, Zoom meetings, lost lives translated into statistics, hungry migrant workers desperate to get home. The daily act of processing such experiences through writing opens avenues for the past to enter the stream of the present. Thus, this journal also becomes a memoir and a meditation on memory.

As the days pass into record and reflection, Bhattacharjee will recall moments of his childhood in Assam, his college years, his courtship with his partner, and his pathway to a love of cooking. But the memories he visits are as often collective as they are personal, of mutually shared experiences, or times captured in historical and literary record. For we live not only in our own pasts, but through the lives of others. Under the shadow of Covid-19, we look for meaning not only in pandemics and plagues, but also in disaster. One of the most interesting entries—and now eerily prescient given how the second wave is currently devastating India—moves through film and literature, from Chernobyl to Bhopal, tracing a landscape of disaster in the words of two writers formed in their wake—Svetlana Alexievich and poet Jayanta Mahapatra. Both chronicle the pain and destruction of scientific catastrophe as written on the body and the spirit. Both speak to the necessity of remembering. But how?

Science has no memory. Memory has no science. Science is an idea of progress without memory. Memory is a shelter. Memory looks for shelter. When a scientific experiment goes wrong, it affects nature. The sky, the sunlight, and even the silence turn toxic.

Covid-19 presents a complex interaction between nature, science and society. It is an event that has been anticipated for years, but the degree of disaster experienced reflects lack of planning and uneven response. Vaccines are welcome, if they can be produced and obtained, but the refusal of politicians and people to listen to the scientific advice they do not like—to wear masks, maintain distance, lockdown when needed—has led to unnecessary illness and loss of life around the world. What documentarian or poet will be the one to bring science and memory together to bear witness to this pandemic? For now, we can only meet the moment.

Today many people are starting to imagine a day when the pandemic finally recedes in the rear view mirror. Others are still fighting. Until the world is vaccinated, Covid will still be with us. It may always be with us. With this in mind, Bhattacharajee’s book is both uncomfortable and comfortably nostalgic. There was a sense of global unity to those early days. Yet there is much more within these pages. Reading The Town Slowly Empties is akin to spending time in the company of an intelligent, poetic friend—the sort of person who always has an interesting story to tell, a poem to quote, a book or movie to recommend. To that end, this friend has been sure to leave you, his reader, with a select bibliography, a filmography and extensive notes. You are not left empty handed.

The early months of the pandemic generated a flood of “Lockdown Diaries.” 3:AM, the magazine I was editing for last year, ran such a series as did many other venues.  A friend of mine in Bangalore dutifully maintained a daily record, with an eye to economics and social policy among other topics. He has picked up the thread again; at last count it was Day #415. Plague-themed literature also experienced a revival. For a while it seemed as if it was all too much. This warm and thoughtful work reminds me that there cannot be enough. Lest we forget. This experience will look different in a few years’ time, but already our world and our way of being in it has been altered in ways we could not have imagined when we first retreated into our homes in what sometimes feels like another lifetime.

The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, featuring a foreword by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Headpress.