The art of writing elegies during a pandemic

Zoha Jan
July 10, 2020

This is the time of death and the time of life. The pessimist experts say that life will never be the same again, while the optimist experts say life will begin under a new sun again...

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

This is the time of death and the time of life. The pessimist experts say that life will never be the same again, while the optimist experts say life will begin under a new sun again. As for me, I am struggling with finding in this liminal state between life and death, the old normal and the new normal that lies somewhere out there towards the horizon. When I say this is the time of life and death, I mean it literally. There’s always news of death of at least two people in my circle every day and UNICEF reports almost 5 billion will be born 9 months after the lockdown. While some close friends hesitate to arrange funerals to be attended by a few fearless ones, some other close friends are arranging their weddings or welcoming their new born babies. It is the best of times and worst of times indeed. You would think my concerns would be centered on something as grand or as terrible as life and death, but the thing that concerns me the most in this transitional state to God knows what is how to write a perfect elegy and a congratulatory message. Now, don’t get me wrong here, we all need to look at the brighter side to survive.

Elegies are generally known as the heartfelt notes for remembering those who leave us behind in the world to survive without them. But, currently they are serving as coffee table talk. Besides, we are all at our personal coffee tables and we talk through the keys that I am stroking right now. How do you stroke someone’s heart-cords through stroking the keyboard? To say or not to say, that is the question. Words are all we have, and for once I do not mean this metaphorically to alleviate the status of what I do for a living. For once, I mean it as the truth of existence. For once, I am running out of words.

Draw the shape of the void they left behind, lie in there and say what it feels like to breathe in a world in which you cannot take them for granted anymore. Say all the great things they managed to achieve in the world, and also say the things that they had achieved had this world been a little kinder. Now dwell in the void that they left behind, arrange the words that you just uttered; is it enough? I hoped not. When you talk about loss of love and life, it is never enough. Anything you say will only widen the gap between you and the person you are trying to comfort. Take their hand, metaphorically of course, let them feel at home with your virtual touch of a keyboard. Let them know you are there. Enough. Another vibration, another obituary. Obituaries are so easy to write because the editor mostly does not have the memories of the person they are writing about. They don’t count the last breaths of the person’s death they announce. Everything seems so trivial, when you are not at the receiving end.

Death is a part of life, you would say, until it comes knocking at your door, dragging a loved one away. Life becomes a series of deaths then, and death, the start of life in another world at another time. Life then only exists in a space between you and the one you lost, and they always seem too far when you reach out. There’s so much you could do to remember them and nothing you could do to let yourself exist in their memories.

Everything takes the shape of their container, while words are only contained in the abstract notions of pain, suffering, and grief. Elegies have no shape either, they are contained in the void left behind. But how do you contain that void when you are unable to comprehend its shape? Elegiac poetry has always been prominent in our literary history. The Dehlvi poets were known for infusing the personal and political in their captivating Urdu verse, lamenting on the death of an era and the people around them, be it their physical death or the spiritual one. The current times also reverberate the physical death of masses due to the pandemic as well as the spiritual death of the bystanders and the end of an era.

So do we lament the end of an era or anticipate the beginning of a new unknown era? Do we lament the death of the people who left us behind or celebrate their life and take their vision forward? The elegist is faced with more questions than conclusions and there is no way they are going to provide answers for the passive receivers. Upon failing on receiving any satisfactory answers from my fellow writers, I resort to the universe, which echoes Ghalib’s couplet:

“Maqdoor ho toh khaak se poochhoon ke ae laeem

Tu ne vo ganj-haaye gira-maaya kya kiye

(If I were given the power, I would ask the Earth, ‘O miser!

What have you done to those precious treasures [that were buried in you?’)

And once again, I am reminded that words are all we have. We harbour words when all else is lost.

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