Review: 'The Town Slowly Empties' Mirrors Changing Realities of Our Modern Existence

On the pandemic and the lockdown, the book goes back and forth between our private and public affairs, the personal and the political, and tries to make sense of the self and the world that it occupies.

Inundated by the continuous waves of the (COVID-19) virus, the storm water drains of our everyday (normal) life seem clogged. Forced indoors by this series of major and minor lockdowns, many of us have been reduced to mere spectators of the world around us, a chasm of time (which we ignored before) has opened. The plague year(s), as we may soon end up calling it, has etched the rupture between the home and the world like never before.

At home, mundane, seemingly automatic acts seem to assert themselves with renewed meaning. Cooking, cleaning, reading, thinking and most importantly, doing nothing awakens us to the contradictions between work and life a privilege that excludes those for whom the pandemic has sung just chaos. But for a modern hybrid social animal, confinement between walls invigorates endless thoughts that take over, and the mind becomes the realm which allows us to travel, far and wide.

Like two sides of a coin, some people have either seemed to have reconnected with nature and themselves while others have dived deeper into the virtual realm. Along with them are border-line hybrids who seem to waltz between the two. Equally at home, while immersed in small agricultural projects on the side or swimming in the torrent of content that OTT platforms have thrown up.

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Amongst this modern chaos, we find Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee’s new book, The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown, an honest and a deep reflection on the current state of affairs unfolding before us. The book carefully uncovers the paradoxes of masks, time, memory and spices that are sprinkled carefully over all its pages. As a writer and a scholar, Manash seems like a hybrid among the hybrids. His self-disciplined exclusivity, deft selection of poems and poetic expressions that fit in seamlessly into his narration of the book say much about the pleasures of a reflective mind. In this light, The Town Slowly Empties, calls to be seen as an inter-disciplinary resource that will take earnest seekers to every corner of the literary universe.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee’s book, The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown

In a world in which industrial and market logic is becoming more pronounced, how many of us today reflect flânerie in our souls? This improvised diary reflects what the long format of writing can look like in the hybrid digital times we live in. Stitching together social media posts, striking images from classic movies, glowing metaphors from poetry, penetrating insights from literature with his pensive reflections on society and the self, the author’s day to day pit stops at the writing table capture an extraordinary and necessary reflection of contemporary history.

Adapted into a book during the early days of the lockdown 2020, the writer delicately balances his monologue (the personal, the universal and the prophetic) that this pandemic has birthed. The book’s timely ruminations urge us to take a moment to pause and reflect on our daily life and actions, our race against time and the compulsions brought upon by our contemporary lifestyle. It is a book that goes back and forth between our private and public affairs, the personal and the political, and tries to make sense of the self and the world that it occupies.

Each chapter in the book functions as a reminder of the madness of human beings brainwashed to be productive and our broken relationship with nature. The writer is most at home when he lays out the paradoxes of reason, and he pits the logic of science against the logic of art. Crying out against instrumental logic that has overwhelmed politics and religion, we find the book cherry-picking contemporary contradictions in the social and political life of the nation. Taking us beyond the technological advancement of a modern lifestyle, the book acknowledges our dependence on nature, a lesson that is harshly taught by the pandemic.

While the pandemic has brought more fear and anxiety in the lives of humans like never before, nature has been seen healing itself, taking a break from the madness we have put it through. The pollution has fairly reduced, the skies have cleared, birdsong sounds swell in the city streets, and the endless urban life noise has been silenced to a great extent.

The book’s lyrical style gives us a close encounter with not only the writer’s mental state during the pandemic but also how free-flowing and fulfilling the process of writing can be if one allows it to flow. Each chapter in the book guides us through the process of thinking, feeling and writing by introducing the everyday with much sensibility, sensuousness and careful attention. Introducing us to his every day, the writer talks about time, our relationship with food, the vegetable vendors’ muffled masked calls, the gentle sway of a Eucalyptus tree in front of his house, and the journey of masks from antiquity to the not-so-secular France of today.

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The book reminds us how masks are not just physical objects of social distancing in today’s pandemic but also symbolic of the merciless history of man towards nature and other humans. Strolling through each page, it’s evident that Manash has crafted an ode to the 20th century modernist intellectuals. An ode that flirts and feels, pauses and flits through the dense foliage that we know as the cosmopolitan desi experience. Reading this book, one is reminded of Mrs Dalloway’s walk to pick up flowers on a cold London morning and Eliot’s Wasteland that reveals the horrors of the modern man’s actions, and iconic scenes from classic films of Kiarostami and Satyajit Ray flash before us; and thereby making memories of the everyday more poignant.

It is this journey within, of an eternal every day that the book explores through the act of writing, memory entwined with the juices of savoury food and the delicate aromas of the past. The book’s relatable style of writing does what a friend tells reading Nirmal Verma does to him, introducing one to the artistic world of poetry, film, literature and philosophy all at once. In one section, we find the author’s childhood experience of stammering takes us into a discussion about the very essence of language and its politics. In another section, the moustache serves as a handlebar for Manash to ride through the futility of masculine pretensions.

The book culminates by correlating the mythical ‘Lakshman Rekha’ with Foucault’s ‘care of the self’, a move that resolves moral boundaries, its transgression and the non-caste untouchability that we exercise today with “It is better to die of touch, than to die untouched”.

The author’s integrity is seen not through the selective recollection of his childhood and youth, rather, it is seen in his consciousness of his privilege, the luxury of time to contemplate and reflect. While his daily routine is filled with rediscovered and subtly romanticised mundane chores, his focus does not shift from the stories of nightmares for migrant workers who lost their livelihood, and some of them their lives, with a sudden and unplanned lockdown, the face of the mother who travelled a thousand kilometres to drive her son back on a scooter, and the various other the unsung, invisible labour force who did not receive any aid or support to safely reach back home. The writing reminds us of our privilege, our vulnerability and our fragility as human beings and importantly, it intuitively unleashes the power of the now that the pandemic has bequeathed us with.

What we can take away from this book is the hope that perhaps this invisible virus can trigger some spiritual and ethical transformation in us. The personal experience of the author seems to suggest to us that writing holds the key. For him, writing and reflection are entwined, but to write and reflect we need to experience. The book clarifies that while our everyday can be a valid source of experience, it is only through the arts, film, literature, poetry and photography can we deepen our reflections and perspective on life. Unlike Science and its particular style of reasoning, Humanities is the lamp lighting our vision so that we see humanity once again with a new perspective.

Sonia Ghalian teaches at the department of English and cultural studies, Christ University, Bangalore. Aivinor Ams is a practising philosopher in the field of education, based out of Bangalore.