Title: Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown Author: Udayan Mukherjee Publisher: Bloomsbury India ISBN: 978-9390252213
Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories
So, this had to happen. Sooner or later. This is the second collection of short stories based around the lockdown, that I have read in the last seven months or so. And more such books will be published. There will be what will be called “Pandemic Literature” or “Covid Literature” and such and maybe some of it will be really good, but there will be some which will also not be very good. Essential Items by Udayan Mukherjee is a collection of stories falls in the former category.
It isn’t easy to relive the period of lockdown through these stories, I thought to myself as I picked up this collection. And once I thought that, I checked my privilege. I had everything – access to all of it – the Internet, food, shelter, running water, electricity, medicines, and emotional stability as well – to a very large extent. What had the lockdown taken from me, beside my freedom for a couple of months? What had it really taken from me when compared to the migrants, the poor, the displaced, and the ones who even lost their jobs? This pandemic was easy on me, and people like me. We, the privileged. And these stories hold a mirror to our society – touching on all the themes and people during the lockdown.
Stories of common people, and then not so common. How soon is it to start telling these stories of living in a time that was unheard of, unimaginable even? Is it too early? Maybe literature is the only way to make our peace with the times we are living in. Or any form of art for that matter. These stories will make you relate hard with what we have lived and seen others go through.
An elderly couple relies on a social worker for their essential items, and a moment of kindness turns it around on its head. A mountain climber strikes an unlikely friendship with a seven-year old boy in the hills, as the world is in lockdown. A domestic worker is grappling at straws with the situation at her home. Migrant workers travelling the distance, funeral workers trying to find some way of making money, an elderly man trying to make sense of his walking routine that has now abruptly ended, and many such lives in the pandemic that are brought to fore in this surreal and very sensitive collection of stories.
Udayan Mukherjee’s writing is stellar. He takes the ordinary, with a lot of dialogue, and makes it relevant to each reader, whether the experience is lived or not. We are truly all in it together, and yet each going through it differently, which is the core essence of these stories. His writing shines, bringing empathy to fore, with every turn of the page. We never thought we would be witness to something so singularly devastating in our lifetime, and yet here we are, and it is writers such as Mukherjee who know it best how to give words to what we feel.
Essential Items is the story of us, and yet not so. It is the story of people whose lives we will never care to know more about. Whose lives will sadly always be on the periphery of things, while we are cocooned and nestled safe. Essential Items is also an eye-opener to how it is, and what it shouldn’t be. Read it. Like I said, there will be more lockdown and Corona literature coming our way.