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How many times in a day do you say “when this is over, I’ll…?” How many plans have you put on hold since the pandemic zapped the world like a lightning bolt? Suspended in this strange in-between world, we have slipped into an in-between state-of-mind. The pandemic, sweeping over the globe in waves, has turned us all into residents of a shape-shifting world. We are in limbo in this home of ours. We make plans and unmake them. We dream of travelling the world. We remember how easy it used to be and wonder if we will ever get back to hopping on a plane without being swaddled in protective gear, weighed down by a tonne of dread. Every morning, we wake to a world whose contours confound us, unclear about how this will turn out, unsure what the future will bring.
Some days the whole thing feels like a dream. Sometimes it feels like we are freefalling, sent on a surreal trip that is designed to test our endurance. Reeling from the shock of it, we grasp at straws. Trying not to spin out of control, we ground ourselves by following the advice of medical professionals, poring over WHO guidelines, tuning into Dr Fauci’s reliable corona virus taskforce briefings…
The pandemic has made most of us become acutely aware of life’s fragility. Because death is no longer an abstraction hovering in the wings, because we are forced to see sickness and suffering and loss up close, everything seems charged with meaning in this in-between world. Paradoxically, everything seems pointless in this in-between state, every pursuit a pipe dream, every ambition a seed without a chance to sprout. As hospitals overflow with the sick, as grief and mourning grind us down, as we fret about the health of friends and family and hang our hopes on a vaccine that is in the works, how do we find the courage to hope and plan and dream? How do we make art? How do we write books? Rooted in the shifting sands of the present, buffeted by the winds of uncertainty, how do we sustain our creative selves and conjure up a future in which our words and songs matter?
The creators of some popular tv shows and sitcoms have responded by looking our new reality in the eye. They follow the motto: ‘the only way to get over it is to get through it.’ So, the latest season of the charged medical drama Grey’s Anatomy features face masks, temperature checks, and a band of exhausted healthcare workers. The Good Doctor zooms in on the harrowing choices doctors and nurses are forced to make as hospital beds fill up with the Covid-infected. Patients, away from friends and family, are shown fighting their own lonely battles.
It’s not just the medical dramas. The emotional toll of quarantine, the rigours of social distancing and isolation, the tightrope walk retail workers have to pull off at work every day, the challenges of juggling parenting, work and home-schooling, the glory, humour, and horrors of Zoom meetings, the questions that haunt both adults and children in this ‘new normal’ are all thrown into the mix in shows such as This is Us, Blackish, and Superstore.
In Naya, a village in West Bengal, India, a group of patachitra (traditional scroll) artists have set out to paint striking, intricately detailed scrolls to capture the essence of our in-between existence. In some of these scrolls, the corona virus looms – a fierce monster with a hungry mouth. Others show a beast with a giant head and muscled arms stalking a terrified populace. Shades of fear, anxiety, grief, and glimmers of hope and human resilience animate these vivid scrolls. Different artists, interpreting reality differently through their creations, shine a light on our collective experience in the time of the pandemic.
Then there is the recent slew of dystopian fiction – set in the near future – that could possibly have been inspired by the disruption of our familiar rhythms. Don DeLillo’s The Silence, Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, and Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest published within a few months of each other in 2020 are all set in an ‘arrested world.’ Technology – computers, phones, networks of commerce and travel – breaks down in these fictional worlds. Consequently, society breaks down. The world is thrown into a state of total upheaval, chaos kicks in, and the characters are left grappling with the unfamiliar. Perhaps catharsis for writers lies in creating such dystopias; and catharsis for readers in being drawn into their chaotic hearts. Dystopian fiction has stepped into the breach – a classic case of art offering us a chance to purge our emotions. The demons these fictional worlds unleash seem to have the power to tame the demons we wrestle with in our lives these days.