Manas Ray


Limbo Times:
Pages from the Covid Days

ARRIVAL

Out of one dream, another dream is born:
Are you well? I mean, are you alive?
How did you know I was just this moment laying my head on your knee to sleep?
Because you woke me up when you stirred in my belly. I knew then I was your coffin.
Are you alive? Can you hear me?
(Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness)

What you are doing with your hands these days? Could one ever imagine that those  parts of us that  that earned our species definition, Homo faber, would one day become our main vulnerability? To be accurate though, it’s not the hands actually that is the problem, rather it’s touch. And that makes it a very different script—complicated and insidious at that. Alas, the caressing touch of the hand I ache for is also what carries the message of death today.

     My mind has become a trace-detector, as surfaces—of tables, chairs, doorknobs, taps—take on a new meaning in our lives. Out of the blue the topologist in all of us starts working overtime. Ever since
hand sanitizers disappeared from the market, which they did on the very first day of the lockdown along with antiseptic liquids, I have been
using a glass cleaning spray on my hands, my desktop, my keyboard,
the keys that I carry in my trouser pocket (or used to carry now that the trousers have been replaced by pajamas as I don’t venture out)
and every other object that makes up my everyday.

     I have indeed become addicted to the smallness of things. The narrowest house, the smallest shadow, the cigarette kiosk, now closed, opposite the road with barely enough room for a man to squat inside even when his legs hang out. As the virus spread from one human body to another ad infinitum, we quarantined ourselves, observing our movements every passing moment. My room has become a sealed glass box, more for seeing than inhabiting. A
heterotopia in the true sense. I have become a spectator of everything that is mine.

     *

THE ENDLESS MIDDLE: on death, loss, and grief

It was the second week of May 2020. The landline, kept in an adjacent room, rang early in the morning. People mostly call on my cell phone these days and rarely on the landline. I was sleeping. The phone must have rung for quite some time to wake me up. When I answered the call, I noticed a thudding silence at the other end. Finally, these words,  ‘Manas, it’s all over’. Pradip Bose, my senior colleague, was on the line. I tried but could not produce a word in response. We held on to the phone for a few more moments but could only share our restless silence. A year later, another friend would similarly ring up one morning to say Pradip was no more. In times of pandemic, irony is a luxury. ‘Grief ’, says the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘is a cruel kind  of education. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language, and the grasping for language.’

     Hari Vasudevan was a friend and the husband of a colleague. A  much-loved teacher and a respected scholar, he was held in unconditional  admiration in a city that does not lack cynics. Personally, news of his passing was the occasion for alchemy. The casualties of the raging pandemic so long had remained
a matter of statistics, of numbers, of something that is happening ‘out there’. All changed in that moment. 

     I am now mourning that part of me which had become the absent
person through the long years of our intercourse. Every death is utterly singular and also a reminder of our inescapable finitude.  That radical point where the singular ‘I’ is also the common ‘I’. Death is the inauguration of a void, of an aporia, that solitude shares. 

     *

     The early days of the lockdown have already acquired a nostalgic shimmer. Once the lockdown was lifted, people came out in hordes, as if released from a dark cold cave to bright sunlight. Soon the booze shops would open. Rumbustious crowds of thirsty men jostled outside the shops. Medical wisdom and stringent morality bowed to the sheer economic needs of the state. Others waited for the crowd to thin down, which it did a fortnight later. Motorbikes went past our alley with pillion riders maskless. The presiding State asking individuals, each viewed as a vector of the contagion, to sequester themselves at home in the interest of protecting the greater populace proved more and more ineffective. Is this jouissance a shift from what Danish existential psychologist Bo Jacobsen calls life anxiety to death anxiety,  from a safe-seeking and risk-minimizing way of living (and thus curtailing what life has to offer) to appreciating life in its very transitoriness? From neurotic defenses to a no less neurotic celebration?


     Ever since I retired two years back, my room is my place of refuge, a means of hanging back from life. This was a matter of choice. Now it is an existential necessity. But as days rolled by, what seemed like a medical  imperative turned into a spiritual vocation. The more I embraced the space of the room, the more I felt homesick. If the room where I live and work, and have been doing so for the past fifteen years, is not my home, where is home then? This homesickness
is perhaps the awakening to the fact of our finitude.

     *

‘WRITING IS SOLITARY’

In modern World Literature, perhaps no one is more rigorous and fastidious about living  in complete solitude than the German- language Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Solitary existence was sacred to him and he pursued it uncompromisingly. Nineteenth-century symbolic poets Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé were also great lovers of solitude. Verlaine wanted poetry
to be closer to music;  for Mallarmé pure poetry is really a type of silence. But neither was as zealous and as uncompromising about solitude as Rilke. On 3 August 1907, Rilke wrote to his friend, the countess of Solms-Laubach: ‘For weeks, except for two short interruptions, I haven’t pronounced a single word; my solitude has finally encircled me and I am inside my efforts just as the core is in the fruit.’ The scattered totality of the world distracts the writer; there is
nowhere to shelter but in the language itself.

NOT YET

Over the past year, I have learned to inoculate myself against the now mostly-corporatized media. Old films and songs do keep me company, but what gives me the most joy is being with the few plants I have on my terrace and watching children inventing newer means to keep themselves engaged. I have realized that plants and trees are truthsayers. When I sit next to my dopati (balsam) plant, which invariably has a flower or two of delicate colours for me on its head, and ask whether this or that is going to happen, I have noticed it comes up with the right answer every time by nodding its head this way or that—a gesture I initially mistook as being caused by the gentle flow of breeze. The only time it offers no answer is when I ask about the present crisis and its end.

*

How I long for a place where after walking a mile and more, one meets up with a river, its banks unkempt, neither trim and tidy nor an orchard of plastics. Patient reader, you might have by now fathomed the secret to this state of restlessness, of a longing for an undefined ‘faroffness’. They are the harpings of death, which is not an umbrella or a wallet that one may or may not remember, but part of the great rhythm of the universe in which we abide.

     To cite Valéry, a work is never complete, never abandoned either.

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