[Headpress Books; 2021]
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee begins this journal-book, The Town Slowly Empties, on March 23rd 2020 in his apartment in New Delhi. I read it on January 23rd 2021 in my apartment in New Orleans barely 10 months later and already the book seems like it was written a lifetime ago, and made more precious because of it. Manash is a poet, a writer, and a political scholar, who grew up in the eastern state of Assam in India, in a Hindu Bengali household, and now lives in Delhi. On his social media pages, he describes himself as: Writer, Refugee, and Cook. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed Manash’s poetry, his essays, his articles, and his previous book, Looking for the Nation. But it’s in The Town Slowly Empties, his third book, where he brings together the different parts of himself — the cultural, the geographical, the political, the culinary, and the personal — and then puts words to paper with the craftsmanship of a poet. Maybe it is this wholeness that makes it such a compelling read.
Every day from March 23rd to April 14th, Manash writes and records this strange moment in our history, he records what he sees and hears, and also what he thinks, what he reminisces, what he watches, what he reads and what he cooks. So these 170 pages become not only a real-time witness to early Pandemic months in India, but also a window into the literary and nostalgic landscape of the narrator’s mind. Each day is a new entry, and each entry a new chapter, each chapter like a small opening into the narrator’s stream of consciousness — here an anecdote from the author’s childhood, there the masala crackling in his pot, here again a verse from a poem, an afternoon during his college years, there again a dazzling frame from a movie, and then back again to the numbing headlines in the newspaper. But this back and forth doesn’t seem jarring. Page after page, we open and close the curtains on the same window, and each time we see something different, and we the reader then close the curtain, the book, and try to complete the scene in our head. In The Town Slowly Empties, the writer reveals himself and lays bare his vulnerabilities (or at least some of them), and in doing so ropes in the reader; we recognize ourselves in him, and it is this exchange of revelation and recognition between the narrator and the reader that holds together the different leaps of scenes, visuals, and words in the book.
Take the April 7th entry. When pulling open the door of his wardrobe, the narrator opened the “closet to his past.” As he moved through the summer and winter outfits of this past, his childhood played out in front of him “like a film that someone had suddenly switched on for you.” Watching this film, Manash tells us that he used to stammer as a child and how that difficulty in his speech helped his writing. This revelation tugs at the reader, as each of us remembers our own literal or metaphorical stammering from our childhood. From here, he takes us on a journey into the words of Constantine Cavafy, the 20th century Greek poet who also used to stammer and whose poem offered Manash hope many years later. And from Cavafy, we walk with Manash into his university where he finds a practical solution to his stammering. He could have left us here, and it would have been an inspiring story of a writer learning to wring out words with ease. But true to the spirit of the entire book, Manash takes us instead to K. Satchidanandan’s poem “Stammer” which, according to him, reaches the heart of the matter: “Stammer is the silence that falls between the word and its meaning.” Reading this line, I immediately pause. How can you not? This little book is full of such pauses. Equipped with a rich supply of words, images, and stories, Manash throws new light on everything he sees and thinks about, and then hands the torch to us, the readers, so that we can then throw our own light, and reflect in our own ways. “Love is a stammering of language,” Manash says, after reading K. Satchidanandan’s poem. Isn’t the pandemic also a kind of stammering of this world? A silence that fell between the world and its meaning?
The book collects and holds the hours and days of stillness that 2020 gave us . . . or at least gave some of us. Stillness, as we enter 2021, already feels elusive, unnatural even. Reading the book, we remember again the quiet moments we had all steeped in last year, we remember the strangeness of observing the first masks in public, the first reorganizing of our world, the emptying of parks and marketplaces, and also the uplifting moments we had spent enjoying the birds and our spice cabinets, calling our friends and family on Zoom. Some of those moments continue, but they no longer seem strange, they have lost their novelty, and as businesses and workplaces adjust to the reality of remote work and remote capitalism, they have found new ways to keep us on our toes. So when Manash sips his tea on his terrace, we, the reader, also feel the warmth of the sun on our back. The book makes us slow down again and match our pace with his, to the pace of early pandemic days.
The book moves seamlessly between the domestic ordinariness inside Manash’s apartment to the tragedy unfolding outside — the emptying of the streets around him and the havoc taking place in the lives of thousands in India and the world. Sometimes the tragedy he speaks of in his book is from the pre-pandemic past, as his mind leaps across space and time. In the chapter titled, “Chernobyl, Bhopal and the Gospel of Reason: Sunday, April 5,” the author tells us how the Chernobyl disaster found a “humane leader” in Gorbachev and “a great writer in Svetlana Alexievich.” Then drawing connections closer to home, he tells us about how similarly, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy found a poet in Jayanta Mahapatra.
The Town Slowly Empties is filled with references to poets, authors, directors, and other literary figures across geography and time periods, and like a curator, Manash draws connections between them. Take the April 7th entry again. His friend shares a story by the Hindi writer, Agyeya (pen name of S.H. Vatsyayan), with him — in this story, a tyrannical inspector in a jail in Punjab begins to lose his power over the prisoners when one of them convinces him to curl down his moustache, an act that emasculates him. Contemplating on how power often rests on such fragile symbols, Manash shares a poem by Osip Mandelstam called “The Stalin Epigram,” which has this evocative line: “the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip.” This line, the author tells us, cost Mandelstam his life. From this terrifying image and anecdote, Manash moves to a lighter literary reference to the moustache. He shares a poem written by Sukumar Ray and translated by Satyajit Ray, about a man who woke up one day and claimed to have misplaced his moustache. The poem was written in the nonsensical verse style that Sukumar Ray was famous for. Within the span of three pages, the reader is drawn in by the tip of a moustache and taken across three different literary references, written in three different languages, witnessing three different socio-political climates. I began the book to read about the Pandemic in Delhi, and ended it arms full of new literary bodies and works to find and devour, from the movies of Kiarostami to the lesser-known works of Satyajit Ray, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague, books by Pessoa and Kundera, snippets from the works of Marquez, Nirala, Tagore, and many more.
The book is evidently written by an ardent lover of literature and films. Manash shares accounts of stunning visuals from movies he has been watching like Kiarostami’s 24 Frames which, he tells us, “is a fascinating conversation between photography and cinema.” He imbues his everyday and his memories through the passionate light of literature. When he tells us about summer holidays from his childhood, childish games with a friend take on deep erotic meanings: “We played hide-and-seek and catch-me-if-you-can. Flirtatious names for games designed for children. We were also on the swing, where ‘with every lunge of the swing,’ I experienced the lunging pits of feeling, just like in A.K. Ramanujan’s poem, ‘Looking for a Cousin on the Swing.’ Since then, I looked for her in every swing.” Will I ever be able to see a swing as simply a swing again?
Manash doesn’t always use literature as a mediator for new meanings to different occurrences. In the chapter, “Copper Coins and Abstract Shit: Sunday, March 29,” he tells us how by avoiding work at a full-time job, he has “kept clear of the calculating (and calculative) hands of the capitalist clock.” But by doing so, he sometimes found a wall between him and those who would claim to be busy when he sought their company. “I paid the price of not being busy, in a busy world,” he says. But he goes further and tries to identify the power differential between those who are busy and those who are not: “I am busy. This declaration grants an existential superiority to the person uttering it . . . she excuses herself, leaving you to deal with your desire alone. You fall outside the sphere of productive time. You feel like an animal living the bare life of someone who is free.” As someone who lives with one foot inside and one outside the capitalist clock, I thought a long time over this passage. I often send “I am busy” texts to get out of company. I do it both because I am busy, and as a way to fiercely guard my time. Do I feel “existentially superior” when I do this? What if I am busy doing something that will not be considered “productive” in the strictly monetary sense? I don’t have answers to these questions, but this book is full of these little luminous nuggets that the readers will chew on for a long time after reading it.
It is difficult to categorize this book, though I understand the need to specify genres and sub-genres in the publishing world. Of course, this book is about the pandemic and will join other fiction and non-fiction books written during this time offering its own niche perspective to the socio-economic, political, and health crises and terrors that this pandemic brought. It is also a book about Delhi and for any person who has loved-hated this city, the book offers specific little moments that you immediately recognize with delight. For instance, when the narrator reminisces of the time an auto driver offered him a free ride back home in return for a song, and he sat in an empty auto riding through night-time Delhi singing Kishore Kumar, it is the closest I have felt to Delhi in more than a year that I have been away from the city. The narrator’s love for the city is never stated explicitly, but is often an underlying current in his everyday observation or his past recollections. But more than anything else, The Town Slowly Empties is ultimately a writer’s diary, and offers a glimpse into the life of a writer in all its wholesome banality and will join the ranks of other autobiographical and literary diaries of writers. Since it is a journal written with the intention of publication (unlike say Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, which was published after her demise), this is a diary that is carefully crafted by the author, resulting in a combination of raw memoir-like prose along with a curatorial eye to selecting and organizing the material to make an illuminating read that draws in the reader, keeps them engaged, and then releases them gently in the end.
Saheli Khastagir is a painter, writer, and development professional from India, based in New Orleans. Her recent work has appeared in Current Affairs, Prairie Fire, The Globe Post, Guftugu, Economic and Political Weekly, The Alipore Post, Nether Quarterly and other publications and anthologies. You can find her creative experiments on her website: www.sahelikhastagir.com.