Posted by Solanki Chakraborty
Isolocation – an anthology of poems is an archive of all the discourses during the COVID-19 pandemic that the most of us quite actively participated in. The pandemic has laid bare the immense crisis the world, especially India, was already in. Health, education, employment, among other sectors, have been adversely affected. Increase in the rates of domestic violence to that of death by suicide of those distressed – the country seems to have witnessed it all. Added to it is the tumultuous period of the lockdown that tested our patience and resilience. We saw myriad discourses setting forth in this duration: men participating in housework, impact of quarantine on various marginalised identities, arrest of anti-CAA dissenters, and many more. Isolocation, published by Ishmeet Nagpal and Nirav Mehta, who run Ratio Auream Publishers LLP, attempts to weave through the various peculiar locations the poets belong to that has isolation as its common denominator. Written throughout the month of April, the poems in ‘Isolocation’ seem to span the entirety of the (ongoing) lockdown as they successfully capture the various temperaments that we donned in this trying time.
The collection in Isolocation has been divided into four parts, indicative of the gradual shifts in our collective response to the pandemic and the consequent lockdown. The first part deals with the commencement of the lockdown and the accompanying emotions in people who found themselves confined to their homes overnight. The poets being caught off-guard, their poems are simultaneously replete with ambition, dejection, paranoia. After eventually settling down, having reconciled with the situation, began the introspective phase, covered mostly by the second part in Isolocation. The third part documents the disenchantment of the poets with the political intolerance of the government and the citizens-netizens towards dissent. Isolocation ends with the predominant quest for hope to stumble onto a future, a reminder of the pre-lockdown past, that cannot be taken for granted anymore.
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Expressions Of Solitude
True to what the title – Isolocation – indicates, there is a predominant theme of solitude running through the poems. However, the expression of solitude is not homogenous in any way. For instance, solitude has been equated with extreme anxiety that often results from living alone. “A Small Scary List” enumerates a few reasons to be paranoid, among which are “Slipping in the bathroom, banging my head on the sink and/ passing out with nobody to find me” or “Gas leaks as I sleep”. These reflect the isolation imposed by the atmosphere of panic created by the response of the media and the government to the pandemic. Take also for instance the solitude that is evoked by a vacant space that was once brimming with life and urgency. ‘Limbo’ talks about the ladies compartment of a local train which is “A daily reminder… Of freedom and oppression co-existing.” The poet reminds us about the myriad communities that we have been a part of all the while without realising. Only a sudden estrangement, such as the one thrust upon us by this lockdown, reveals this belonging and we long to return to it, now fully aware of its significance. The feeling of stranded-ness that ensues, along with the sudden absence of companionship we had taken for granted, leads to the poet’s conviction-
“I promise, I will never take the train,
Without falling to my knees,
At the sight of women smiling again.”
Exploring Our Relationship With Our Physical Self
The lockdown had many of us re-think/explore/introspect on our relationship with our bodies. Needless to say, this gets reflected in the poems of Isolocation that are replete with references to the poets’ physical response to this period. The poems lay bare the delicate threshold between ability and disability that becomes more precarious due to the lockdown as the most basic prosthetic device – a pair of glasses – is rendered inaccessible. From “New fitness regime” and “New diet plan” and “New lifestyle changes” to “not getting out of bed until its late”, our bodies have borne the brunt of both our whims and our ennui and Isolocation dwells on that. Coupled with it is the ever-present burden of gaze on anyone “who is not a man”. An interesting poem in Isolocation worth mentioning in this context is ‘Dis-tress’ where the poet not only has to convince herself of sporting an unorthodox hairstyle, but also practice indifference to the societal response to it. Only in the end, does she mention the agreeable response of her youngest child, and we come to know of her additional identity as a mother. The poem assumes more dimensions as we wonder if any of our decisions, unorthodox or not, can ever be neutral. A woman’s relationship with her body in lieu of being intimate, is heavily mediated through the legitimation she looks forward to receive from without, even if it is her own children as is the case in the above poem. However, the poems in Isolocation do not all simply lament a woman’s lack of agency on her own physical self; there are ample moments of resistance and reclamation too, take ‘Boy Talk’ and ‘Duplicity’ for instance.
Our Mother’s Gardens
A recurrent metaphor in Isolocation is the persistent spectre of our mothers. From ‘Xerox’ where the poet confesses her perplexity at having to carry out her pregnancy only for the child to be instantly recognised as its father’s replica to ‘Nomenclature’ which points at the differential treatment meted out to a man and woman after marriage. In ‘Beaming Like You’re Only Twenty’, the poet is full of awe and admiration of her mother’s courage at taking control of her health. Quite a curious poem in this regard is also ‘Differences’ that explores the differences between the poet and his mother through their individual culinary habits. It lays bare the ever-present tension, not necessarily contradictory, of both being in solidarity with and yet revolting against maternal authority. The poem reminds us of the importance of selective inheritance as well as unlearning inheritances.
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Hollowness Of Reaction
Lastly, Isolocation points at the role of the social media during the lockdown. From “keyboard warriors” to an over-abundance of information with “no memory of a source to credit it back to”, we experienced it all. Distrust, ensuing from the unveiling of capitalistic tendencies hiding behind the façade of ‘False Prophets’, makes matters worse. ‘Guy Fawkes’ is an urgent appeal to shun our status quo and work towards the prevention of crisis instead of being a “savior” to the ones affected by it.
The collection of poems sets off by attempting to synchronise the various unimaginable sufferings that people had to face in the lockdown. However, as the collection proceeds, the differences between the singularities emergent during the pandemic becomes more pronounced. What stands out in the end is the simultaneity, not the homogeneity, of suffering. Isolocation serves as an alternative measure of time as it makes sense of the long hiatus by tracing the most evident psychosomatic phases and musings of the middle class who have been confined to the ‘comfort’ of home due to the pandemic. Yet, the poems are not an exercise to escape the situation but an attempt to seek release from the pervasive melancholy; the poems find respite in release while also reminding us that:
“..true freedom will exist
Only when we no longer,
Have to recite this lament
To our unborn daughters.”