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The poets of the pandemic

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on April 10, 2020 Published on April 10, 2020

Odd muse: Poets are fascinated by the pathology of disease   -  REUTERS

Writers understandably feel the need to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, but does the world really need yet another virus-themed poem?

When the novel coronavirus first came for the human race, the writer bragged with rich nonchalance: “I was always a solitary creature, trapped in the yellow light of my desk lamp, with no real need for human company.” The most social of writers claimed to be the most astute introverts. “My life is one big lockdown,” joked the writer.

As the threat came closer, I felt I should read up on the subject. With books not being delivered, I was forced to download the dreaded e-book. From Gina Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it (1999), I learnt that virus or no virus, what humans need more than anything is the soothing power of stories. Kolata writes, “When the plague came, on those chilly days of autumn, some said it was a terrible new weapon of war. The plague germs were inserted into aspirin made by the German drug company Bayer. Take an aspirin for a headache and the germs will creep through your body. Then your fate is sealed.”

As far as writers are concerned, we are, at present, in the third phase of the lockdown. In this highly infectious stage, writers have turned to churning out Covid-19 poetry. A rash of poems has appeared in newspapers and on websites. Baba Sehgal, as expected, was first off the block. But now I worry this is an Indian epidemic, with a high likelihood of ballooning into a global pandemic.

I appeal to literary authorities to take immediate measures to bring this under control. Unless these poems are quarantined with immediate effect, I’m afraid bad literature will kill us before the virus does. I know the situation is dire: This morning, a novel coronavirus poem turned up on a WhatsApp group that I’m part of.

Those cranking out Corona poetry should keep in mind that the 1918 influenza pandemic wiped out all members of Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s family. He didn’t write any poems in response. The only time he did so was when the sole surviving member, his daughter Saroj, died much later of other causes. It was then that he wrote Saroj Smriti.

I understand that poets can be fascinated by the pathology of disease. But then why weren’t the novel coronavirus poets writing about cancer, AIDS, cholera, small pox, SARS, nipah, zika, dengue and chikungunya? Dengue took out my dentist last year; I resisted the temptation to convert ashes to rhyme.

It’s possible that the novel coronavirus will take most of us out in the next two to three years that it takes to develop a vaccine. The writers and readers who survive it are looking at a bleak future, which some are already labelling post-Coronial literature.

The readers’ insatiable appetite for all things Corona will lead to an exaggerated sense of this demand among publishers, which will, in turn, lead to over-saturation of the market. From novels and non-fiction to grief memoirs, poetry and self-help, the new coronavirus will wipe out all other themes from writing, both popular and serious.

It’s a sign of things to come that just last week, Peter May’s novel Lockdown, about a pandemic that begins in London, and rejected in 2005, belatedly found a publisher in the shadow of changed world circumstances (and demand). May, a former journalist, had written the novel when bird flu was supposed to be the next big thing.

Lockdown was rejected by publishers for being “extremely unrealistic and unreasonable”, further proving that editors are as clueless about literature as they are about contagious diseases. This is why I always advise young writers to write at least one nuclear holocaust novel and keep it in atomic cloud storage. When it happens, you will be ready. It will happen. It’s a safe bet. As some lunatic presses the detonate button, the writer will only have to press ‘send’.

Thinking about writing in the time of the novel coronavirus, I’ve also found myself returning to the 1997 filmAs Good As It Gets. Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, the successful writer of romantic novels. Nicholson’s character suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, which means he spends much of his time running to basins, washing his hands feverishly for 20 seconds, and sidestepping strangers in public places.

It’s funny how fiction often turns out stranger than life and vice versa. May’s novel was deemed unrealistic until it became our shared reality. We secretly giggled at misanthropic Udall until we all found ourselves turning into Udall overnight, every single one of us.

I marvel at Udall. To be able to stand at the basin for 20 seconds multiple times a day and still be able to write those bestsellers — I find that hard to do. About eight seconds into my new ritual of prolonged hand rubbing, I feel I’m losing the thread of the sentence I was writing and find myself sprinting to my desk to finish it, soapsuds still dripping from my palms, Corona be damned.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BLink

 

Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park & the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on April 10, 2020

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