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Amit Dasgupta: ‘I told myself why not capture the times?'

What did you do in the lockdown?

Civil Society Reviews

Published: Nov. 23, 2020
Updated: Nov. 28, 2020

The lockdown forced people to retreat into their homes and lead a different life, a life of social isolation and virtual reality. Suddenly gone was the daily grind of work and meetings and long hours spent in traffic. For many it was replaced by a more languid, lonely existence with time to fulfil long-cherished aspirations or mundane tasks. 

What did people really do with time on their hands? Amit Dasgupta, for one, brought out a book, the first on the lockdown in India. The Phoenix Rises: Lockdown Chronicles is a slim volume of short, anecdotal and reflective accounts written by journalists, writers, teachers, civil servants, artistes and others. They take us into their shuttered lives and tell us as much as they are ready to reveal. 

One picks up the book bracing for tedium. But the writers surprise us with distinct and well-crafted accounts — is this all them or Dasgupta the enthusiastic locked-down editor at work, one wonders. Their writings don’t overlap and each chapter is different.

“We put the book together in just six weeks, first as an e-book and then, as demand grew, we published a print edition, three weeks later,” says Dasgupta, a former diplomat and now  country director of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia.

He, too, closed his office and remained in long-distance communication with his colleagues.  Excitement at not commuting to work dissipated quickly. He tried to cheer up colleagues by advising them to call up people at random and ask them how they were. Dasgupta then decided to do that himself. He was surprised at the reactions he got. “Somebody said he was learning painting and someone said he was relearning maths to teach his kids,” recalls Dasgupta. “I found these multiple reactions interesting.”

“Everyone talked about the pandemic. I told myself why don’t we capture the times, the emotions, the trials and tribulations? Why don’t we share those thoughts. After some time attitudes to the pandemic will change. Already there is pandemic fatigue, a devil-may-care attitude,” says Dasgupta.

Each chapter is lucid so it’s not so easy to pick one over the other. Jug Suraiya, famed for his gentle self-deprecating humour, writes a cool intro and a piece, “Present Tense”, on  discovering the joys of using a neglected terrace by his bedroom after 24 years. Nikita Bathla writes on the crisis in the public health system. A doctor, she calmly followed the trajectory of the coronavirus and then found herself in the hubbub of the frontlines fighting this invisible enemy.

Randhir Khare writes a lyrical piece on a day in his life of solitude and stoicism. Jayshree Misra Tripathi describes how her delight at finally having time on her hands turned to misery as weeks went by and she got more and more lonely.  

Sumit Mullick’s humorous piece, “Sympathy for the Devil”, is  delightful. He spent his time getting to know viruses, fell in love with the malevolent coronavirus which he then proceeded to study minutely. There are other pieces which caught one's attention: Amrita Narayanan’s vegetable hunt in Goa, Sohan Hattangadi on growing a beard and web narcissism, Navtej Sarna on death and dignity and Supriya Newal’s poetry.

This isn’t, as Dasgupta says, a comprehensive tome of the pandemic era. It isn’t about the agony of migrant workers as they trooped out of cities. Or of hospitals, doctors and brave health workers, the warriors of the coronavirus pandemic. Or of shuttered businesses and the vulnerable elderly. This is about people like us, the English-speaking middle-class, who found their routine lives upended by the pandemic.

“So there is this incompleteness in the book,” says Dasgupta. “But though we are in different boats, we are in the same storm,” he reasons, philosophically. 

“Anjum (Katyal, a contributor) sees the pandemic as an interruption but I see it as a disruption. The new normal, post-pandemic, is going to be very different from the world we knew. It will be a tech-driven world and industry will say it’s because of health and safety reasons. But I wonder, what will the new workplaces look like? Will social divides become sharper? Or will  it be a kinder world?” Many more books on the pandemic are likely to crowd bookshelves but read this one for truly recollecting those strange days.  

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