Creativity in the time of a lockdown as a period of ‘antizest’

Sayantan Ghosh | Updated on July 11, 2020

ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images

As many experience a swell of creative flow during the lockdown, some others feel a numbing exhaustion

* I have been mostly riding the unproductivity wave ever since this voluntary house arrest began

* Let us call this phase in our lives an antizest

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of my house after almost 40 days was a pair of young lovers. They stood next to a parked motorcycle, not discreetly in a corner like we are used to seeing in a morally uptight country like ours. Their masks half undone, they stared longingly into each other’s eyes. I went to a bookstore later — they had just started opening doors in Delhi again — and picked up a book I had been meaning to read for quite some time. It’s on memory, and what we remember and what disappears. And about those who cannot forget. It was that day when I saw flowers after weeks, when I once again inhaled the scent of unaffordable petrol and diesel soaked in the unmistakable stench of this city which I have come to call home. A Zomato delivery guy arrived with my favourite dumplings and I devoured them with my hands which now permanently smell of ethyl alcohol.

But the only memory which didn’t leave me as I went through my day was the sight of those faceless lovers. Not the book, not the dumplings, not the flowers or the car horns, but the image of two lovers in the face of this uncertain year, perhaps attempting to foresee the unknowable future ahead.

When one thinks about the adversities thousands of people had to face since the beginning of this lockdown — that too for bare necessities — every story of personal suffering of people like us who possess the safety net of privilege and financial security seems futile. It’s also true that countless tales of resilience have emerged from all corners — from phone conversations with parents, from the annals of the internet, or from bumping into a neighbour while waiting in a serpentine queue in front of a local grocery store.

And, yet, I have been mostly riding the unproductivity wave ever since this voluntary house arrest began. Even as things slowly open up, perhaps prematurely, too, life in the outside world has become both more purposeful and impuissant.

I have received the occasional comfort from tweets by strangers who have also expressed their inability to read or write or learn new skills. This is different from schadenfreude, though, since there’s no pleasure to be derived here. Only a short-lived sense of consolation, that one is not alone in this circle of constant failures. A friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in months called to say he couldn’t stop looking at the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker every few hours and felt helpless knowing that it was possibly causing him irreversible damage. I wasn’t able to offer any helpful suggestion to him and felt embarrassed at my ineptitude. When he hung up, I sent him two cat videos — including one (which, admittedly, I had seen more than 20 times that day) in which a kitten tastes ice cream for the first time and completely loses its mind. After two hours, he replied with a single smiling emoticon — the saddest text I’ve exhanged in a long time.

How are we to make sense of our hearts when we can’t make any sense of the world outside our window and, that too, all so suddenly? We are a generation raised on targets and goals, but the empty office spaces and football stadiums and cinema theatres that we once so freely inhabited have thrown many of us into a state of limbo that has spiralled beyond our control. But it’s okay. It’s okay if you’re not being productive, it’s okay if you’re not creating, it’s okay if you’re not using this time ‘wisely’, it’s okay if you’re just being... surviving, surrendering, reflecting. It is okay, it is okay... it is really okay. Because this isn’t a vacation or a writer’s retreat, and we are not all right, no matter what we tell ourselves. One day last month I threw a book on the floor in frustration and anger, almost damaging its spine in the process. Even five months ago I would have never excused myself for an act as unhinged as that. But what this pandemic has taught a lot of us is that we must become kinder, not just to the world but to ourselves. So today I ask for forgiveness from that book; it knows who it is. And I forgive myself.

Lebanese-American writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written about Umberto Eco’s library, which contains over 30,000 books, in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, hailed as a modern classic. He argues that books don’t exist in a private library to boost one’s ego, and that the unread books on a shelf are, in fact, more valuable than the read ones. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there,” he writes. This collection of unread titles, he called an antilibrary.

Let us call this phase in our lives an antizest. Of course, this isn’t meant for those who have found comfort and sanctuary in their choice of activity during this period. But for those of us who have struggled to cope, who have involuntarily peeled away all the layers of our own past in solitude and silently grieved, wrestled with our minds alone or made it insufferable for our partners often — it’s time to close the book and keep it away (not throw, never throw) and wait for it to find us again. A person’s story isn’t carved in stone. With the chisel and hammer built from our memories, experiences, sorrow and guilt, we slowly chip away until it takes the shape of something. Something that doesn’t need a name.

Sayantan Ghosh is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on July 10, 2020

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor