Quarantined Words: Reflections by Suranjana Choudhury

“The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don’t know you are looking for….”

Rebecca Solnit


These thoughts came to me when we experienced a temporary shutdown of internet connection last December in many parts of India’s northeast. I live in Shillong, a hill station that has lovely pine trees and wonderful clouds. When this shutdown happened I was sitting at home waiting for the internet to come back. The words that were meant to be sent through whatsapp, mails, facebook etc remained stranded due to this unexpected prohibition. I was reading Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day during those days and I could connect with the mood of isolation evoked in the novel.

Many people were stranded too in different places. There was a sense of fright and insecurity everywhere in the region. I came to know about two incidents that happened with people I knew- the family of my domestic help and the cab driver who used to drive me to the airport whenever I needed to travel. I talk about them here.

The idea of being isolated, stranded has been haunting me for a long time. I write about these people to reflect on human endeavors to connect and communicate. I started noting my responses to the incidents and these jottings have spilled over to my thoughts about the global situation, especially because we are experiencing different forms of shutdown and isolation now.  

Words, remembered and forgotten :

Words have their own itinerary. The words that I had sent through whatsapp, messenger and emails were address bound, but somewhere along the way, they were left stranded. These were composed, arranged words in the form of responses or questions awaiting answers. The questions that are serious and important turn unimportant in the course of a few days. New questions emerge and draw our attention, we forget the old ones. I have been thinking about words that have been written at different points of time and place and their various destinations ever since internet stopped working at my place. The destinations have been suddenly suspended from accessibility. We believe we own our ways, and then, suddenly our ways and routes disown us without even asking us. I have never thought of the matter in quite this way all these years; but unrest, violence, curfew, internet shutdown prompt me to think along such lines. Poets, philosophers have told us often that air, water, clouds, rains do not cease moving when some humans fight against each other. One would not dare to resist the firmness and steadiness of their movements; they are mercifully free from all kinds of shutdowns. Does it mean that movement, or rather say, pace-defined, destination-bound movement cause problems? I was rereading Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and was struck by what Mr. Cardinal had to say on this to Mr. Stevens, “I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if the Almighty had created us all as-well-as sort of plants. You know, firmly embedded in the soil. Then none of this rot about wars and boundaries would have come up in the first place.” I remember Sumana Roy’s reflections on becoming a tree in her book “How I Became a Tree”. After all, movements also involve crossing of boundaries. How do words cross boundaries as they move around?

When Lucky and Shivam went with their papa to see his work, they knew they’d be coming back home in the evening. The other half of the family was busy minding their work near home like any other day. Papa and his kids were stranded after a mob came and destroyed shops, cars, bikes and whatever that could not run away from them. Their names could be different elsewhere in another time. Everywhere names decide who must be scared and who must scare. Oftentimes people are differently circumstanced because of their names. The papa was confused, his regular route could bring him only danger. So, he took his kids and led them towards a shorter route. These unformed roads are like the broken branches of a tree, they remain unclaimed, guardian-less. Such secondary roads have lives of their own. People occasionally take these roads. Lucky’s papa, in his attempt to protect his children, chose one of these roads and reached his sister’s house. They walked in great haste disregarding the crooked edges of stones that hurt these three pairs of feet at times. Such walks can make hair turn grey unexpectedly fast. The wound on the skin or breathlessness caused by such unprepared speed was less menacing than the tremors of the mind. We live amidst different kinds of fear, the sources are many; there lies fear of diseases, depths of darkness, fear of knowing more than what we want to know. We accept these fears as we’d accept cloudy skies on torturous cold mornings. To an indefinable sense of insecurity must be attributed his decision to walk this previously unexplored path. They found a temporary shelter. The temporariness of their refuge continued beyond what they expected. Peace seemed to belong to the past, people thought so, forgetting that unsettling past was also an immediate present for many. We often reflect compulsively if our past had been far happier than our own times.

Ali Bhaiya narrated to me what had happened to him in his city; how a scary night unfolded before him. The horrors of that night made him drive his vehicle from one corner of the city to another, seeking refuge and safety. As he drove towards his home, he grew increasingly aware of trails of smoke travelling upwards onto the sky. Bhaiya hadn’t realised till that day that smoke could follow such swift and unorthodox paths. He also took note of the colour of smoke, it was an odd mix of grey and black. It looked diseased. He tried looking for shadows of big vehicles, shadows are reassuring, and they create illusions. He tried hiding behind those bigger vehicles. He felt feverish; the warmth of his body was trying to cope up with the flames outside. He wanted rain- big, fat raindrops to usher in some cold. As I listened to him, I remembered some fleeting images of my past- street uproars, neighbourhoods in flames, alert nights-one narration reaffirms the presence of the other, the one that we think never existed. We forget to give it the attention that it warrants, and then night like this reappears and reminds us of its character to repeat itself. Ali Bhaiyya saved his car because he discovered safer roads and reached home.

Do words have homes too?

Suranjana Choudhury teaches literature at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her essays and reviews have been published in different journals and magazines including Scroll.in, The Wire, Biblio, The Statesman, Café Dissensus, Humanities Underground, Coldnoon Travel Poetics and Elsewhere. She may be contacted at suranjanaz@gmail.com 

4 thoughts on “Quarantined Words: Reflections by Suranjana Choudhury

  1. It was so calming and down to earth usually some essays are quite professional difficult to understand their meanings and conclusions but your essay has so many things which I could not have thought .


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