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The story of the storytellers: How writers are coping with Covid-19 and the lockdown

From their favourite coffee shop being shut to the lack of research material, the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has changed how writers work.

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It has been almost four months since the novel coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a pandemic, and countries around the world, including India, went into lockdown. With many working from home and with nowhere to go play, it is the arts that we have turned to for comfort, entertainment and sometimes, just the feeling of another presence in the house. The books we read and the movies, TV and web shows we watch have been our saviours in lockdown.

But what about the people who write them? Has this giant pause button on life helped them creatively or has it led to writer’s block and a loss of productivity? Are they mining this unprecedented experience for material to write about or are they actively staying away from it in order to escape the fear?

ThePrint spoke to a number of authors, screenwriters and editors to find out how the lockdown has affected their process and what stories they have in store for us.

Lack of freedom, disruption in rituals

Ideas of freedom and oppression are frequent themes in Bangladeshi-Swedish author Taslima Nasreen’s work.  But the lockdown hasn’t had a gagging effect on her. After all, she is no stranger to house arrest, which she has called “solitary confinement”, given that she has been living in exile in New Delhi since 1994, after the publication of her book Lajja led to fatwas calling for her death.

Nasreen also feels that lockdown affected men much more than women. “If anyone’s feeling any restlessness, it must be the men,” she tells ThePrint. Partly because men are more used to going out, and partly because, as she says, “this is the one time women have chosen to stay at home for our safety, not because men asked us to.”

A woman’s place is in the home, goes the regressive saying, and that is probably why they are far more accustomed to the idea of staying at home, while men are chafing at the restrictions. “Women have always lived in a kind of a lockdown,” Nasreen says, recalling how when she chose to step out of the house to meet her friends, she was deemed to be a “bad girl”.

Mumbai-based writer Shiv Tandan, who has written and directed several plays including A Fistful of Rupees (2019), and is the Founder of Castiko, a problem-solving company for artists, is certainly feeling the chains, metaphorically speaking. He describes himself as the cliched “working out of a café” kind of a writer and dearly misses writing in one. “Working out of different cafés every day, sipping on coffee while enjoying different views — it just gets my creative juices flowing.”

Writers often seem like they work on their own time and at their own pace, so a disrupted routine wouldn’t affect them the way it would someone who works in an office. They can write anywhere, people believe. Em and the Big Hoom author Jerry Pinto, for example, has been able to write while standing in a crowded local bus or sitting on the very edge of the seat in a local train in Mumbai. But for many, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Many are extremely particular about their routines and deadlines, be it a daily word count to hit or what time to eat their meals. Still others have found that the lack of availability of their favourite coffee has thrown their mornings off.

And for others, there are more practical concerns such as going out to find stories and research material.

Also read: Do-it-yourself quarantine movies are here. And Netflix’s Home Stories is leading the way

The importance of going out

Not everything is found a click away. Thorough research requires going through volumes of books and papers. And all these resources are not always available on the internet. For researchers and non-fiction writers, then, the stay-at-home orders meant they had no access to the resources they needed to do their homework, so their projects got stalled.

Elizabeth Kuruvilla, Executive Editor, Ebury Publishing and Vintage Publishing, Penguin Random House India, says, “visiting libraries, conducting interviews or travelling outside of their cities, have practically come to a grinding halt. If this is frustrating, the fact that they can’t plan ahead either is even more so.”

And for some, the lack of meeting new people, discovering new places and living through new experiences has led to a mental wall. Aanchal Malhotra, an oral historian and author of Remnants of a Separation: The History of The Partition Through Material Memory, tells ThePrint that being out and about is extremely crucial to her work. “I really miss being out in the field, interviewing and recording people’s stories. I miss their voice. Field research, it is one of the few things that continually inspires to write more.”

Also read: Coronavirus has transformed how scientific research findings are communicated

Mental and emotional impact of lockdown

It’s not just how the lockdown has affected one personally, but also the things one reads and hears about how the country is handling the pandemic, the migrant workers’ crisis, the inadequate testing and more. It is mentally and emotionally debilitating to live in fear and that, too, has an effect on one’s writing, especially because writers often depend on what they observe around them.

Screenwriter Atika Chouhan, who has written films like Margarita with a Straw (2014) and Chhapaak (2020), experienced writer’s block at the start of lockdown. “People outside my door were dying in hordes,” she says, “and it seemed obscene and sociopathic to continue to remain ‘productive’ amid the clamour of hunger and death.”

Manasi Subramaniam, Executive Editor & Head of Literary Rights, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, says among the writers she’s interacted of late, she’s noticed “a cathartic release of pent-up creativity on the one hand as well as well as the inevitable jitteriness of this moment on the other.”

And then, of course, there is the worry about employment and the crashing economy. The Hindi film industry, for example, has been severely affected by the lockdown with losses running into more than Rs 1,000 crore. But Chohan is betting on Bollywood’s robust nature and hopes production will soon resume. This hope has helped her get back to her writing desk. “The deadlines and work have hinged my otherwise shapeless days,” she tells ThePrint. “The world soon might get cancelled so as long as I can write, I must.”

Nasreen notes that some of the most profound literature was written out of jails and prisons and other situations of distress. “People have written masterpieces when they didn’t have access to food, you can have writer’s block even when things are completely fine and hunky dory.”

Writing about the pandemic

Given that the Covid-19 pandemic is the kind of thing no one currently alive has experienced before, of course, it is itself an event that is rich in story potential. People have already started creating work around it. Bollywood filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma’s Coronavirus is probably the first of the many movies based on the pandemic we’ll see in the future.

Authors and poets are already racing to complete works around the pandemic and publishers seem to be snapping it up. “Writers have sought to explore the themes of social behaviour, romance, connection with nature, relationships and depression through their stories or novels,” Prasun Chatterjee, Editorial Director at Pan Macmillan tells ThePrint.

Some books are being published on a crash schedule, written in as little time as six weeks. “Singing in the Dark, an international anthology of poetry edited by K. Satchidanandan and Nishi Chawla, which we will publish soon, reflects the very mood of these uncertain times,” Kuruvilla says.

Penguin already has some books ready to hit the stands. “As part of the Rethinking India series, we have just released Reviving Jobs: An Agenda for Growth, edited by Professor Santosh Mehrotra. This timely volume, with essays by domain experts, examines the gravity of the situation and offers solutions to deal with the enormous job challenge India faces,” Kuruvilla says.

In the same series, We The People: Establishing Rights and Deepening Democracy, will be released in August. Edited by Nikhil Dey, Aruna Roy and Rakshita Swamy, it looks at the process of establishing and strengthening the economic, cultural and social rights of ordinary Indians. “Several of the contributors felt compelled to directly address the multiple challenges posed by Covid-19, whether it involved healthcare or economic rights or those of the marginalised communities,” the editor at Penguin Random House adds.

While Harper-Collins India has a free-to-download illustrated children’s book by Axel Scheffler to inform young readers about the virus and the necessary preventative measures, Kushal Menghrajani, Director, Experience Co, is curating an anthology of stories on pandemic experiences by writers from all over the world. “I’ve received 41 entries from 11 countries so far. it’s quite exciting to see behaviour patterns and emotional transformations in people through everyday experiences that we used to take for granted.”

Tandan, though, has a different take. He wishes stories of these times would be told after much-needed introspection has been done. He says, “This has been a traumatic experience for everyone. I think people will take some time to process, internalise and then write about it. Hopefully the artists of the world will help us process what we’ve just experienced, not just replicate it on screen or stage.”

Also read: Journalism in the time of corona: This is the biggest story of our lives


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