‘Pandemic threw into sharp focus inequalities of life: extended holiday and workers’ struggles’: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

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January 17, 2021 3:15 AM

Their suffering had a deep impact on me. In the isolation of a badly managed lockdown in rural Goa, I drew nourishment on the bleakness and blinkered hope of our time to edit this book again, cutting out its fat, reassigning interest for the essential and the true.

I grew to know Amy Tan after she gifted copies of The Last Song of Dusk to her book club in 2004.I grew to know Amy Tan after she gifted copies of The Last Song of Dusk to her book club in 2004.

The first non-fiction work of Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, the author of The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay—shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize—couldn’t have been better-timed. Titled Loss, the book of essays is an evocative sketch of his grief over the death of his parents and a pet. Asking questions about death, memory and grief and answering them in his own words and the words and images of other writers, poets and artists, Shanghvi opens up a passage to enter and reflect on the tremendous loss and suffering in the world today. In an email interview with Faizal Khan, he talks about his work, books parenting his grief, and the pandemic. Edited excerpts:

It is mentioned early in the book that it was to come out in the spring of 2020. Did you finish writing before the pandemic broke out? How did you come to terms with the great losses and sufferings around you while dealing with the memories of your own in your first non-fiction work?
I did finish the book before the pandemic but I edited it again from February to September. The pandemic months threw into sharp focus the inequalities of life in India, where our Instagram classes chalked up lockdown as essentially an extended holiday, while millions of our workers were summarily dismissed, exiled from their homes and denied healthcare. Their suffering had a deep impact on me. In the isolation of a badly managed lockdown in rural Goa, I drew nourishment on the bleakness and blinkered hope of our time to edit this book again, cutting out its fat, reassigning interest for the essential and the true. There were so many days when I was abjectly depressed, and I thought to myself—I hope there will be another tomorrow. Re-writing Loss became my pact with tomorrow.

Rabindranath Tagore called death a ‘guest’ in Gitanjali. Your book looks at death and grief through the eyes of many writers like Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Oscar Wilde and so on. It is almost like writers can’t escape the reference at a personal level.

At every point in my life, literature has been my shield. Even after the death of my parents, books parented my grief —if I reference authors as Oscar
Wilde or poets like Emily Dickinson it is because their work was a mirror to reflect in, a sieve for the pain or a friend for my solitude. Maybe we read to remain more purposefully present before life’s uncertainties; and in reading we charge ourselves with the scholarship of those who, having suffered, prevailed.

There is a part about memory in the book that we remember differently and learn how to remember, I found particularly striking. It reminds me of how we alter memories every time we recount them. Does it make grief susceptible to manipulation?
Absolutely. Grief is susceptible to romanticising a person—in their demise, they become perfect, infallible. But love does that: it venerates what it can no longer possess. I am interested in the question that follows: what do you do with the love you feel for someone once they are no longer around? Without a map, and a destination, love turns into grief, although equally it can become aspic for memory. Remembering someone deeply but precisely is the act of keeping them alive across time and space.

It was moving to read about your conversation with American writer Amy Tan. Both of you share memories of the loss of your pets.
I grew to know Amy Tan after she gifted copies of The Last Song of Dusk to her book club in 2004. I was fresh out of college with a debut book. She was, and remains, a legend. A part of me was susceptible to criticism I received early on in my writing life — it made me not want to write. Over the last few years, Tan encouraged me — loyally and lovingly — to return to writing, to find conviction in my work, to focus only on my story. Her faith was the climate in which I restored my conviction, which ultimately brought Loss to light. This experience taught me how you can pass on your love as a form of knowledge and stamina, and Tan has done this not only for me but other artists she fostered in America. We share a bond over our love for dogs — we both have rescues, and the deaths of dogs have been spiritually transformative events in our life. A shared wound, and a love for ideas, unites our minds, I think.

“Death has a way of eliminating people who don’t recognize your sorrow.” You write about how certain friends had dropped off your screen. Isn’t it a bit harsh?
Our inability to see someone in their grief is a kind of invisibilisation not only of them but of ourselves in their eyes. I didn’t mean to suggest that I cut out the people who didn’t sympathise with me during times of loss. I mean that those who do not see me in my sorrow did not see me as I am. The moat between us came from the unrecognised thing.

Loss
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
HarperCollins
Pp 112, Rs 499

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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