The month of meh
May, associated with vacations and mangoes, wore an apocalyptic colour this year. A recall of summer joys toppled by a pandemic
Madhav Deshmukh sits pensive in his bedroom balcony at Akola. Not the Vidarbha heat, but the fact that he cannot be in Srinagar, his second home, is troubling him. For the last 25 years, he has taken immense pride in "showing India's heaven" to tourists and also in being a Maharashtrian with a strong connect with the border state. In May this year, he was to take his 212th Kashmir tour, not to forget the Amarnath-Kedarnath yatras he was looking forward to.
"Tour operators such as myself live off magical Kashmir, which ranks among the topmost vacation choices. For years, we have told fellow Indians 'don't go to Switzerland as you have one in India'. Today, no destination is open, and I have to make peace with the balcony view," Deshmukh jokes. His loss of business and the deeper loss of connect with Kashmir cloud his summer. Likewise, most Indians feel robbed of the May joys of travel—be it family excursions, jungle safaris or annual sojourns to grandparents' homes.
The lockdown has restricted mobility in a month that has been traditionally clubbed with outdoor train/bus travel. Before Shining India took to Croatia and Laos, LTA-governed families were adept with railway wait lists, sleeper berth politics, window seat thrills and allied acronymic experiences (RAC, PNR, 3AC). Advance booking of rail tickets was pursued passionately and it continues to tickle many households. The Marathi song Zhukuzhukuzhukuzhuku Aagin Gaadi brings alive train journeys in which families created life-shaping memories. Having grown up in the India of the seventies, I am privy to the pleasure of the epic packing of suitcases one month before the annual exam.
Critic-author Dr Ramesh Warkhede, who has studied children's literature as a discipline, says train journeys (Mamachya Gavala Jauya magic) run as a common theme in many literary streams in India. "Be it the writings of Chi Vi Joshi, Ruskin Bond, Bha Ra Bhagwat or other regional litterateurs, Indians tend to glamourise the tropical summer in children's tales. The community connect in May-June months recurs in many hues." He feels the month of May is also perceived in popular literature as a facilitating bridge between rural and urban India. Children's travel to rural wilderness is a favourite backdrop.
The month has also been a month free from school/college exam tedium, a time to do away with a structured routine. Tier two and three cities in India add new layers to the summer break because of their space quotient, as against crowded metros. But, the May vacation is a unifying emotion. It is characterised by hobby classes, theatre workshops, personality development activities (Playtime At Prithvi!), swimming, sports pursuits, trekking, not to forget extra coaching for the tenth. The reigning sentiment in May facilitates merriment. The current lockdown, therefore, plays with the assumed May fun. This year, some exams have been ruled out, some loom large over July-August, which disturbs the cyclical rhythm of the academic journey, denying a sense of closure to the year.
The pandemic has impacted the outdoors and altered the indoors as well. May was a month for mango eating; the fruit's sun-dried forms being an industry in its own merit. But no longer so, as the fear of spread of the Corona virus has dictated the choice of seasonal fruits. The WhatsApp university has enough warnings against mango, melon, and banana consumption. Also, you don't need doctors for dietary guidance when the online yoga tutor or neighbourhood chemist share ready theories on the Coronavirus's contamination potential. They can guide you into washing each fruit with chlorine. That's why mangoes, which are anyways unaffordable, now are accompanied by microbiology-epidemiology insights along with a good dose of fear-suspense-uncertainty.
To drink or not to drink, is also the dilemma this May. Usually, colas, golas, aam panha take precedence. Tricycle trolleys selling lollies tinkle their presence in housing colonies. But this year, the fear of the Coronavirus (the virus dies in higher temperatures and humidity) has discouraged people from consuming cool beverages. Why invite a cold during a pandemic?
Indoor dynamic has been distinct. Life gravitates towards FB watch parties, zoom conferences, online concerts, and digital content available on private video streaming services, especially if you are not content with a Ramayana TV version shot in the last century.
Is it just coincidence that actor Kareena Kapoor Khan's Instagram account opened in March? Where else, but on Twitter and Insta does a star-studded film industry express itself? Last May saw 16 Bollywood releases—Chhota Bheem, PM Narendra Modi etc. With screenings (and shoots) rendered impossible this year, one has to make do with Sonam Kapoor's Insta-peek into her palatial home. Or Karan Johar's 'live' chat with Sri Sri Ravishankar.
Mumbai's theatre, despite being perennially resource-crunched, usually gears up for lively May-June shows. Summer workshops (Waman Kende, Raell Padamsee) and children's plays bring variety to the palette. But this May, no productions were mounted, especially in the Marathi theatre circuit, which runs on the fuel of enthusiasts who proudly occupy the backstage. A joke is doing the rounds in experimental theatre circles: if a play audience, which is anyways sparse, is compelled to practice distant seating, performers will need telescopes to notice a presence.
This May, a significant number of theatre persons have gone online to keep their art relevant. Theatre director Sunil Shanbag shared his journey on #InstaLive. Institutions like Royal Opera House and NCPA have opened their 'virtual' showcase. The month of May has triggered considerable brainstorming and soul searching in theatre groups, which aim to remain afloat in the post-COVID-19 world. It is said that theatre, of all the performing arts, will be the first to be compelled to change its stripes. We can look and support, as it changes.
Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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