Book Review | Wuhan Diary: Thoughts under lockdown

By: |
June 14, 2020 5:45 AM

With rare insights into the minds of people of Wuhan, even a dull diary becomes an informative source of what transpired at the epicentre of the virus

A file photo of people lining up for medical workers to take swabs for the coronavirus test at a factory in Wuhan, China (AP)

In the past 75 days, my only contact with the outside world has been my window. Thankfully, amid the two large buildings there is an alley that lets me get a glimpse of the main road. The first few days of the lockdown, I could count the number of cars. However, as the city is now opening, it’s been challenging to keep track of vehicles or people. But my contact with the outside world is still limited to video calls from office and chats with friends.

However, one relief is that thanks to social media and mainstream news, I know more about the virus and can take precautions.

India contracted coronavirus much later than other countries. While cases have certainly piled up since, as a proportion of the population, India still seems insulated. But I cannot begin to fathom what would have run through the minds of people in Wuhan who were facing a situation they knew little about. More importantly, where the government was not forthcoming about the situation, and there is a continuing gag order on social media.

One reason why Fang Fang’s Weibo account created so much stir was that it ran contrary to the government narrative. The 65-year-old described the city when the government had placed a Chinese wall (no pun intended) on the news. The residents were locked inside the town till the government was confident the virus would not spread. Fang Fang does provide a narrative, although limited, to the ordeal faced by its people. The book Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City is a collection of Fang Fang’s Weibo blogs starting January 20. She details her daily life, the struggle with isolation and the problem with authorities still trying to get ahead of the virus. Wuhan sounds like a deserted ghost town, from a Hollywood classic after the destruction of a civilisation. The reason for Fang Fang’s account attracting so much media attention was that after Li Weinlang—the first to report the infection who later had to recant under pressure—Fang Fang was one of the few to oppose the government.

Besides, more than her detailed accounts, it has been her words that have rallied people behind her. “One speck of dust from an entire era may not seem like much, but when it falls on your head it’s like a mountain crashing on you,” has become one of the most oft-repeated stanzas from her blogs.

Besides, accounts from Wuhan, which are rare, Wuhan Diary does not have much to offer. The account cannot do justice to the gravity of the situation, and something seems to be lost in translation. The author has a set writing style, which is repeated throughout her blogs. Because these were blog posts compiled together, there is rarely any connect or flow in writing. It’s a diary, and it becomes tedious to read after a while. There is no depth in emotion, and the author fails to connect with you at all points of time.

She is just detailing her life and thoughts and life of people around her. But, on occasions, it does give a glimpse of the psychological impact that the author must be going through. Many years ago, I remember reading Invictus, a Victorian-era poem by William Ernest Henley. Henley had to undergo an amputation owing to tuberculosis, after which he had to go through another procedure. Accounts show that Henley must have written Invictus while recovering at the infirmary. Although the poem has since become an anthem for struggle amidst adversity, one can imagine the plight of Henley while writing those words.

“Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods maybe
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.”

Some words get etched in your thought. Over the last 80 days or so, I have not heard of any friend succumbing to coronavirus or a family member being affected by it. However, I have heard stories of people dying. There are accounts of people dying on the streets, and the image of that child trying to wake his mother on the platform may haunt us all. The only takeaway from this rather dull, but informative read would be that line, which has become famous for reasons I can fully understand and empathise with. “One speck of dust…”

Book details

Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City
Fang Fang; translated by Michael Berry
HarperCollins
Pp 328, Rs 833

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