Lockdown and loneliness: Lessons from literature

Lockdown, Loneliness, Literature
Loneliness is a basic human trait and it has been captured in literature in different languages through the ages | Image - iStock

“All great and precious are lonely,” so said popular writer John Steinbeck, who has written novels on economic problems of rural labour and even won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.

While isolation in times of the coronavirus pandemic is a necessity now for the sake of health and life, for some, it is like traveling in uncharted waters. Some find it difficult, some get depressed while others turn it into a sabbatical to learn new things.

Being alone is not new for homo sapiens. It is eternal. Humans though capable of thinking rationally, have always wandered separately before he became a social animal.

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Every human being, at some point of time, could have experienced or embraced loneliness or been alone. Because loneliness is related to existence.

This has been recorded in words. From the Sangam age poems of Tamil Nadu to the greatest works of literature in different languages, loneliness has played a vital role in defining the human character at difficult times.

According to Amelia S Worsley, assistant professor of English, Amherst College in the US, the words “loneliness” and “lonely” started appearing in writing rarely around the 17th century.

“John Milton’s 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost features one of the first lonely characters in all of British literature: Satan. On his journey to the garden of Eden to tempt Eve, Satan treads “lonely steps” out of hell. But Milton isn’t writing about Satan’s feelings; instead, he’s emphasising that he’s crossing into the ultimate wilderness, a space between hell and Eden where no angel has previously ventured,” she wrote in The Conversation.

Suffering in love, alone

Well, that could be the English experience but in Tamil, the Sangam texts — which are classified as ‘agam’ (inside, or love) and ‘puram’ (outside, or war) — almost always dealt with loneliness in the songs of ‘agam’.

For example, song 131 from Kurunthogai, translated by AK Ramanujan, harps on the distant lover, from a point of loneliness.

Her arms have the beauty
Of a gently moving bamboo
Her eyes are full of peace
She is far away
Her place is not easy to reach

My heart is frantic with haste
A plowman with a single ox
On land all wet
And ready for seed

Reading Sangam texts such as Kurunthogai and Akanaanooru (both a collection of poetic works from Sangam age) in the time of coronavirus quarantine will, in all likelihood, make you long more for your partner. But if you are going through a breakup, these poems could worsen your heartache and make you pine for your sweetheart even more.

Sometimes loneliness brings compassion. When there is no way to escape from loneliness, it makes you accept things as they are. You start looking at things around you more attentively. That’s what Najeeb Muhammed in Benyamin’s Malayalam novel Aadujeevitham (Goat Days) does.

Seeking a better life than the one he is leading in Kerala, Najeeb travels to a Gulf country to work. He is picked up by a rich Arab animal farm owner who asks him to look after his goat farm. Not knowing the language, doing back-breaking work and being abused by the owner, Najeeb leads a solitary life with goats in the desert. Though he was hesitant initially, later he adopts the shepherd life. He starts loving the goats, and this hits a peak when he has sex with a goat one night.

“I ate wheat with salt. I slept in the masara with the goats. By then I had indeed become a goat,” writes Benyamin in the novel.

Humour in loneliness

Being alone needn’t always be lonely, that is, if one knows how to find some fun in the most isolated of times. Here, another Malayalam author Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer may help, as most of his stories deal with loneliness in a self-deprecating way.

“Take his short story Janmadinam (Birthday). It speaks about a writer who struggles to feed himself on his birthday. But nowhere in the story does he try to showcase his loneliness as a suffering. He makes it fun-filled with self-deprecation,” says poet Sankararamasubramanian.

Renowned Urdu writer Sadat Hasan Manto too approached loneliness in a similar manner. His short story Kingdom’s End talks about a man who develops a relationship with a woman over telephone. The one-line dialogues linking two remote people strike a chord with people with its wry humour.

Try this line, for instance:

“How are you living it up?”

“Well, there’s this book I have. The last pages are missing, but I’ve read it twenty times. One day, when I can lay my hand on the missing pages, I will finally know what end the two lovers met.”

T Arul Ezhilan, a journalist and short filmmaker who adapted this short story into a short film, says that only great men who have a stature equal to Manto or Basheer can handle loneliness in such comical ways.

“The loneliness found in the stories of Basheer or Manto can never make the characters in the stories wallow in sorrow. The characters handle their loneliness satirically,” he says. According to him, for people of India, loneliness is natural.

“People are being isolated based on their caste and religion. Take women of this country. They are all isolated whenever they have periods. So there are some of the reasons why Indians have accepted being isolated and in quarantine without much complaining,” Ezhilan claims.

Loneliness as fear

While most Indian literature portrays loneliness as a sorrowful element, certain Western proses have given it an outlook of fear. The best examples are Frankenstein and The Metamorphosis.

Frankenstein is about a monster created by a scientist Victor Frankenstein. Alienated by his hideous physical appearance, the monster asks the scientist to make a female creature like him so that he can find company and alleviate his suffering, which the scientist initially agrees to, but later goes back on the promise, causing an attack by the monster that leaves the scientist’s loved ones dead.

Seek “happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition”, the last words of the scientist as he sets out in search of the monster to avenge his loved ones, captures the essence of true loneliness of human beings.

Interestingly, Mary Shelley wrote this novel when she along with her husband and friends were spending time by a seashore. When there was a power failure one night, they all started telling ghost stories to while away time. And that was when she got the inspiration to pen the novel.

“I expected this reception,” said the demon. “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things?”

The same hate described by the monster is also the reason why Gregor Samsa, a salesman-turned-insect in Kafka’s Metamorphosis is alienated.

“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself,” says Samsa at one point.

The people who are now in isolation and quarantine and depressed could feel the same, since this alienation has happened suddenly.

Loneliness as meditative experience

For some, being in solitude is a meditative exercise. That is how Peter Matthiessen recounts his experience in the The Snow Leopard, in which he goes in search of a snow leopard in the Himalayas along with his friend and naturalist George Schaller. He shares his experience of Buddhism and how the wanderings in the mountains takes him into a spiritual exploration.

Though not a work of fiction, The Snow Leopard can literally give you the chills from the icy wind of the Himalayas besides the gasping of the author when he traverses the mountains — bringing out the attention to details, which itself is a meditative experience amidst the loneliness in the mountains that is spread across the book and makes a reader yearn for such an experience.

In Papillon too, author Henri Charrière takes his journey from incarceration to escape on a meditative note, especially during his solitary confinement in prison which is part of the life sentence for a crime not committed by him.

In his 3×3 metre cell, Papillon tries to keep him busy instead of sitting idle. He walks back and forth till he is tired. Then he sits and starts to think about his past. This way, he becomes strong both physically and mentally.

For those complaining about staying at home and making qualms about being in quarantine now, Papillon could be uplifting and hopeful, especially in a line that people would realise once the lockdown is lifted: “The important thing was that we were alive.”

Loneliness as a form of protest

In the times of coronavirus, underlining two other novels is inevitable. Albert Camus’ The Plague and Jose Saramago’s Blindness deals with a pandemic-like situation and how quarantine turns into a form of protest — a protest against capitalism and against an epidemic.

How the town of Oran affected by bubonic plague responds makes the plot of The Plague while Blindness talks about how an epidemic of blindness affects an unnamed city and its aftermath.

According to translator G Kuppusamy, both the novels deal with how humanity is questioned during isolation and quarantine.

“Particularly the novel Blindness questions and criticises capitalism. Saramago beautifully explains how without humanity the public distribution system goes backward,” he said.

There goes a dialogue in The Plague, particularly in Part Two of the novel, where the town gets sealed off. It succinctly summarises the condition we are now living in.

“There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”

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