Udayan Mukherjee's Essential Items captures glimpses from the pandemic, unsettlingly blurring fact-fiction divide
The stories in Udayan Mukherjee's new book poignantly reflect and honour the prevailing precariousness of our lives, as they continue to unfold while we vie to reach the finishing line, much like his characters.
If you asked me, I would say there is a certain impudence in fictionalising stories from the pandemic already, even before the 'work in progress' signboards have been lifted from our lives. But here we are, peering into the fates of 10 unsuspecting strangers whose worlds have been upended much like ours, and they are just as keen on attaining some closure...any form of closure. And that is precisely where we meet Udayan Mukherjee's characters in Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown — his third fictional outing after last year's A Death in the Himalayas (2019).
There are doms (an ancient Hindu community of men overseeing cremations), old couples in high-rises, young couples in forlorn villages, middle-aged couples in urban shanties next to single-malt-guzzling-at-pandemic-dinner-parties couples in uptown suburbs, estranged friends, mothers and sons, emperors past their primes, and even a wide-eyed white man stranded in the Himalayas. Well, you cannot blame a veteran journalist for wanting to cover fair ground while chronicling the most devastating fortuity of the century, and he does so in simple and unvarnished prose that often borders on journalistic, but that is okay. And that is the thing with this anthology — it is 'okay', which, at this point in our lives, is perhaps the best bargain we could settle for.
The title of the book almost immediately took me back to my Chicken Soup for the Soul-reading years, when I would curl up with one after a particularly long day to tune out the din and indulge in some low-investment, feel-good anecdotage. It wasn't mind-bending literature aching to be critically analysed, and it never claimed to be. The stories revelled in their familiarity, little comforts and heartbreaks, especially on days when all you craved for was your pillow and comforter to make you feel — yes, you guessed it — okay. Not happy, not super kicked about being alive, but just A-OK — a steep ask on most days in 2020. And it is this 'okayness' that Mukherjee owns and lives up to in his stories that are barely remarkable in their revelations, but promising in nailing the pathos shrouding our current 'everydayness', or the excess of it.
It is also this unassuming quality that redeems the book of its guilt of wanting to please its readers with horrors that have been splattered across our news headlines every day. How do we, then, learn to appreciate realities that have vexed us through the year, as innocuous fiction? None of these characters seem alien — we have read about them, we know them — and yet, here we are, relieved that perhaps 8 out of the 10 times in the book, we are not them. As depraved as it may sound, it is true, and boy aren't we glad it is. One can see how the writer's journalistic encounters may have urged him to zoom into the lives of people on different levels of the socio economic pyramid. He humanises and demystifies them by assigning names and faces to the statistics, thereby making their experiences more palatable, if not tangible.
The book opens with a story of doms — or harbingers of death in the subcontinent's popular imagination — who until now had believed their jobs to be recession-proof. It takes one through their threadbare existence cradled delicately at the brink of society, life and death, as they gather the scraps and outwit the living and the dead for survival.
"Fewer people are dying too. So many of the bodies we get here are road and rail accident victims, all that has become zero. Even murders…" — says a dom while bargaining over the price for carrying out the last rites of a person who died in lockdown in a stranger city, away from their family. It isn't their unscrupulous duplicity that leaves you rattled — there is hardly any novelty there — but the uncertainty in death that does. It reminds us that we would perhaps be wiser off not taking even death for granted — a transgression we are culpable of.
The tale also alerted me to my seeming moral corruption on feeling unnerved at the thought of fewer deaths by homicide and accidents as part of this new "normal" (a phrase I have learned to loathe while being compelled to overuse owing to its peculiarly dubious exactness). It split my conscience into a binary, where I found myself siding with a past riddled with run-of-the-mill manslaughter and accidents — even when I should've been ecstatic on learning that I now stand a mathematically lesser chance of suffering a violent death — which, un-ironically, is the "normal" we are accustomed to. In an ideal world, vanquishing the virus would be a metaphor for purging humanity of its evil, but we all know how that's going.
In another story titled 'Shelter from the Storm', a decadent rajbari (mansion) in the old part of Kolkata is recovering from the blows of a murderous cyclone amid the lockdown. We see this crumbling, yet luxuriantly feudal universe through the eyes of the family's man Friday, whose voice is conspicuously apologetic for being the unlikely narrator of his benefactors' story. The narrative feels a little too contrived, as opposed to the rest that flow with more candour and ease. Mukherjee fails his reliable objectivity this one time. Here, the generosity of the babus towards the marooned migrant labourers milling at their gates for shelter seems performative. The twin crises take a backseat, as the spotlight shifts to focus on the shameless privileges of the rich upper caste. The idea may have been to juxtapose the jarring disparities between the worlds on either side of the gates, but it reads more like an embellished PR piece on the charitable deeds of a business dynasty. It uncharacteristically misses the mark by a handsome margin.
I, however, forgive the writer on this one count, as he chooses to leave his stories appropriately unfinished, often ending them with cliffhangers. It poignantly reflects and honours the prevailing precariousness of our lives, as they continue to unfold while we vie to reach the finishing line, much like the characters. This not only heightens the quotient of 'relatability' in the stories, but also makes them oddly riveting, as you ruminate over where these people might be today. You find yourself hoping that they have seen better days, much like you hope for the same for yourself. Soon after, you squirm in your seat as you catch yourself wondering if these were 'stories' after all. And that, I believe, is Mukherjee's biggest accomplishment.
Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown has been published by Bloomsbury
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