A descent into darkness

Parvati Sharma | Updated on April 03, 2020

Exodus: Thousands of migrant workers, who don’t have water to drink, let alone wash their hands, are walking back home   -  BIBEK CHETTRI

The hardest and yet the most necessary thing to do — at this point in history — is to imagine that tomorrow would be better

When my parents separated, my father went through our bookshelves and took every single PG Wodehouse novel with him. People deal with anxiety in different ways, but Wodehouse featured in more than one of those photos of the stacks of books people have posted online, the books they plan to read in isolation. I was reminded of that scene, of Bertie and Jeeves flying off the shelves like hand-sanitiser, and I realised that I haven’t bought a book by Wodehouse my entire adult life — except a collection of quotations that I gave my father.

I wonder, anyway, if the people with those stacks are reading anything except their Twitter feeds. I’m not. If the Empress of Blandings walked into my bedroom, I don’t think I’d look up from my phone. The last book I got through was an Asterix comic, that too with difficulty, over the near-constant ache in my gut. Reading is no longer doing what reading has always done for me — allowing for a complete and actively absorbed pleasure.

I cannot read, but things I’ve read keep popping into my head. The metaphor of the compass from a favourite poem, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, written by John Donne to comfort his wife when he had to travel away from her. Their love makes them one, he says; if they are two, then it is “As stiff twin compasses are two”, the two feet joined, though one is fixed and the other roams. “Such wilt thou be to me, who must, / Like th’ other foot, obliquely run; / Thy firmness makes my circle just, / And makes me end where I begun.”

But where will we end up? Another image of dust and leaves swirling upon an empty street, a staple of dystopian fiction — I saw it with a shock of disbelief when I went to my local market yesterday, driving slowly to avoid the sleeping dogs, imagining them turn feral. A scene from The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck’s angry, heart-rending account of migrant labour travelling across the country in search of work: A family stops at a diner, a father walks in with two small boys, and asks the waitress to cut him 10 cents’ worth from a 15-cent loaf of bread. He takes out his wallet, “heavy with silver and with greasy bills”, and tries to explain his parsimony. “‘May soun’ funny to be so tight,’ he apologised. ‘We got a thousan’ miles to go, an’ we don’ know if we’ll make it.’” His two boys are staring at sweets. Their father can’t help himself, he splurges another penny on two sticks of peppermint. “The boys expelled their held breath softly.”

There are uncounted thousands of migrant workers walking home across north India — they don’t have water to drink, let alone wash their hands. A report by the Centre for Policy Research, published on March 26, talks of a ‘crisis of hunger’ unfolding among Delhi’s marginalised, poor, and violence-hit communities. “Shelters across the city have reported higher numbers than they usually deal with, resulting in shortages and fights over food.”

Another scene from hell: Neil Gaiman tells it in his Sandman series, a fabulous epic about the Dream King Morpheus. Morpheus battles a demon called Chronozon. Each takes on increasingly abstract entities — Chronozon begins with “I am a dire wolf, prey-stalking, lethal prowler”; Sandman counters, “I am a hunter, horse-mounted, wolf-stabbing” — until, in the end, Chronozon roars, “I am anti-life, the Beast of Judgement. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds... of everything!” A beat, and Morpheus replies: “I am hope.”

But hope is also “that thing with feathers”, as Emily Dickinson wrote, liable to fall from the sky or die beneath a bush. On March 26, there was news of a young man in West Bengal, beaten by the police when he went out to buy milk. Afterwards, he died; and it wasn’t a virus that killed him. It wasn’t a virus that was controlled, for that matter, by orders to break the art at Shaheen Bagh, to whitewash the beautiful painted walls of Jamia Millia Islamia University. The policemen with their sticks, the men with their buckets of white paint, they may or may not know what they are doing, nor why; but what they symbolise — the sickness of violence upon the weak, the spiteful itch to erase dissent — is all-too-clearly understood.

Some months ago, when the anti-CAA protests began, I discovered that my bedroom, not far from Jamia university, has a direct acoustic link to its protest site. Every day, ripples of Azadi would stream through my window, and every time I wondered what kind of day it would be when they stopped. Sometimes, I felt a little hope; often, I felt the twinge in my gut that is my constant companion now.

And now there is silence, save the confused chirrup of birds, as if they, too, were holding their breath.

Parvati Sharma   -  BLink


Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal

Published on April 03, 2020

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