The lockdown survival guide

Published: 19 April, 2020 06:55 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

Two English translations, one of a French writer's repeated attempts to break free, and another completed in a state of detention, underline the infinite bounds of human resilience

Illustration/ Uday Mohite
Illustration/ Uday Mohite

picLitertaure can instil hope. Hope for a better tomorrow that will emerge after the national lockdown. In moments of home-bound isolation, that seem never-ending, my reading of two pieces of literature helped in understanding the creative pursuits of "bound" writers, who not just subscribed to their unfailing belief in freedom, but also utilised their detention experience to reflect on life.

I revisited the English translation of French writer Henri Charrière's record-selling Papillon at a time when the doorbell sound was unfamiliar, grocery unobtainable, and a steady stream of Coronavirus-related bad news unstoppable. Papillon was the nickname of the writer during his years in the Paris underworld. The memoir was uplifting in many ways. First, the suffering of the protagonist, wrongly convicted of murder, makes the reader assess the current personal confinement on a relative scale. Astounding are Charrière's nine failed attempts to break free from jail, his 13 years in various forms of subhuman captivity and unimaginable torment at the hands of prosecutors.

Second, the hero's survival strategies in the penal colony are lessons in human adaptability. In one dark, three-by-three metre cell, he devises a walk, which exhausts him into sleep. As he lies down, he replays episodes from the past, which give him energy for the daily grind. Later, he shoves a three-and-a-half inch metal tube up his anus, which is the only way to store paper money required after a jail break. In his final escape from the infamous Devil's Island (French Guiana), he throws himself off a cliff attached to a bag of coconuts. Slowly drifting towards the mainland, he gets the help of a Chinese man in hiding along with a pig. At one point, he takes refuge in a leper's hideout. Later, he bonds well with the native Goajiras. Papillon finally ends up in Venezuela, where again a due process of law awaits him before getting citizenship. But, so strong is the urge to break free, that his mind is tirelessly toying with a default escape plan. He needs no pep
talk or therapy; enormous reserves of inner-driven energy works in his favour.

Papillon is a survivor's Bible. It is a living testimony to the all-things-pass truth. The writer survives his prison terms and recreates them for a larger global audience in 1969, which was later rendered in 15 odd languages. It is said that many heroic escapes in the book take off from fellow prisoners' stories. But, the book exposes prison facilities across the globe. It demonstrates the arduous lives of people in penal settlements, where the lack of a communicating/responding human voice in a pitch dark cell is a sufficient guarantee for slow death, if stale food and corporeal (sexual too) assaults aren't enough for a systematic crush. One is thankful for the blow-by-blow documentation of the human condition in Papillon; it invariably instils gratitude for the normal human life we generally lead; it prompts a rethink about simple survival strategies for the current lockdown.

While Papillon deconstructs solitary confinement, particularly its worst possibilities, the other book I read is not about the detention experience. It is a translation of a world renowned work named Kural, by none else, but freedom fighter Sane Guruji (1889-1950), also a social activist, who has had a deep impact on a generation of intellectuals in Maharashtra. In his entire life, he was imprisoned eight times, as being part of diverse working class and civil disobedience movements.

In each instance he utilised detention to learn new languages, translate foreign texts and pen his own thoughts. He translated Kural when he was confined to the Trichnapalli Jail in Tamil Nadu in 1930. In fact, the translation was published in 1948, which has a short preface by Sane Guruji, which not just demonstrates the fact that the writer survived several detention stints, but his spirit remained unvanquished till the end of his life. Also, his creative pursuits stand testimony to the fact that a writer can condition his or her mind positively despite physical constraints.

Kural is a classic Tamil anthology of 1,330 couplets written by poet-philosopher Thiruvalluvar (approximately 6th Century CE); it is considered one of the greatest works on ethics and morality, but presents life truths without turning didactic. The poems appealed to Sane Guruji as pearls of wisdom and also gems of supple original expression on subjects as varied as friendship, domesticity, kinship, non-violence, gratitude, rainfall, courtship, family etc.

The couplets that are most relevant today in Kural are the ones on hope, hard work and inner energy. At one point, the poet acknowledges the fact that there are forces beyond human control. It instantly reminds you of the current apocalypse caused by the lockdown. He says that in moments of collapse, human beings have to compulsorily activate their energy buttons and wait for the tide to turn. Sane Guruji says the Tamil master (translated in world's major languages) nowhere advocates fatalism; instead, he upholds the importance of untiring efforts. In one couplet, he says, the richest person on Earth is the one who has a free flow of inner energy; nothing is more rewarding than the mental readiness to take on each unfolding moment.

The importance of a wide smile, the psychological impact of a positive mind, the long-term damage of inaction, the need to nurture a hopeful mind under come-what-may circumstances—Kural has a list of every day truths, all acknowledged but difficult to internalise, which apply universally. These truths resonated in 6th century CE, they gave energy to Sane Guruji in pre-Independence times, and today, they sustain my soul in a pandemic outbreak.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at

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