We are living in an unprecedented time of fear and loneliness, when the future
is veiled in uncertainty and a new vocabulary of terms like ‘self-quarantine’, ‘community spread’, ‘flattening the curve’ and ‘containment zone’ has come to define our world. At such a time, it is good to know that there is a kind of uniformity to the human condition – that we are not alone in our aloneness.
This is the kind of solidarity that The Phoenix Rises – a collection of 50 odd lockdown stories – aims to capture.
The stories are alternately poignant, absorbing and humorous. The collection begins with Jug Suraiya’s story Present Tense, about how the coronavirus effect has “thrust the present on us in all its bristling immediacy”. This is followed by stories by such accomplished personalities as Anjum Katyal, Navtej
Sarna, Lakshmi Subramanian, Jayshree Misra Tripathi and Tuktuk Ghosh. Like any anthology, some stories are more captivating than others. There are stories of mango-plucking during the lockdown, discussing the origins of
Gregorian chant with an Italian tutor, retrieving a run-away child, and what life is like on the high seas in the time of Covid-19. There is even a science-fiction love story set in 2120, full of interplanetary winds and landing shuttles.
My favourite was a story by Sohan Hatangadi called Three Lockdown Lessons.
He talks about giving up shaving during the lockdown and consequently, having to refuse to video-chat with his grandson so as not to scare him with his “worn-out bottle brush”; registering for free online seminars and feeling so bored, he would keep the app on and slink away to take a cat nap; and lifting up his glass and saying cheers over Zoom with his drinking buddies. After a while, predictably, this “cy-bar business” went out of style because they missed the real thing. Ostensibly mundane vignettes of life but compelling because they are so relatable. There was a charming simplicity to Hatangadi’s writing. And some humour goes a long way in cheering you up in these dingy times.
What I found lacking in the book was variety. The experiences described are more or less similar. There are very few fresh insights or unique voices.
Including the perspectives of a more eclectic cross-section of people might have been beneficial. Still, what the anthology proves is that we are all in this together. Life might never go back to pre-Covid times, but whether we sink or swim, it will be collectively.
As Anjum Katyal writes in her story, Close Encounters of the Corona Kind, “When the lockdown began, I thought of it as an interruption, unwelcome but necessary, and reluctantly wrote it off as a time of waiting for life to resume. Soon I realised that this was life, and that if I didn’t want days, hours and months of my remaining time on Earth to vanish into nothingness, I should start living this unexpected life as fully as possible”.
Amen to that.
The Phoenix Rises: Lockdown Chronicles
Edited by Amit Dasgupta
Published by Wisdom Tree
Price Rs 245; pages 216