There’s a racket outside; I emerge, much like the Mole, from a cloud of foamy detergent and assorted dusters, to investigate. Sparrows, which have reappeared in the city’s suddenly blue skies after an indefinite sabbatical, chirrup or cheep or make whatever rhythmic sound they do, on the branches of a mulberry tree. There are other noisemakers: an invisible koel bewails the terrible acoustics that surround her with her own high-pitched transmission. Crows caw, predictably, and bees buzz over giant dahlias.
Spring has arrived, or has been around for a while, its crazed rituals performed daily. Insolent season, uncaring of the Covid -19 virus, and the disruption it has caused in human affairs. It barely notices me, and until now, when I have finally thrown open the French windows of my room, I barely noticed it. I have been busy, like so many of us, scrubbing, cleaning, and disinfecting every surface touched by human hands. Like the Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 anthropomorphic adventure, The Wind in the Willows, I long to scamper through lanes canopied with bougainvillea. But unlike the Mole, who will soon embark upon a thrilling journey that involves rowing a boat across a river with a new friend, the Water Rat, I must return indoors, and remain faithful to the current lockdown across the country.
The Wind in the Willows stands in a desolate corner of my bookshelf, together with a stack of books that belongs to an unfashionable era in my life — those early years of anglophone curricula and prescribed reading. I notice that Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is also there, squeezed between Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I could have my own little adventure, right here, slumped across my bookshelves. I could, in an instant, become Kimball O’Hara from Kipling’s 1901 classic — that orphaned “Little Friend of all the World”, that loveable chela of a Tibetan lama, who accompanies him in his quest for the mythical River of the Arrow. Or, I could travel on the steamer Mongolia, on my way to Bombay via the Suez Canal, with Phileas Fogg and his valet, Passepartout, in Verne’s breathless novel, originally published in French in 1872. I could choose to get tossed around on the Mongolia, or I could run away to the Yorkshire moors, with Catherine Earnshaw and her Byronic, gypsy-cur of a companion, Heathcliff, through Brontë’s 1847 gothic tale of fierce love and revenge.
The possibilities of escaping the confines of my room, or indeed my city, during a lockdown are endless: via boats and steamships, trains, sail-powered sledges, barouche-landaus, gigs, and two-wheeled chaises, which take one through the rough waters or dark alleys of adventure, intrigue, and romance. Why, then, do so many of the “What to read during a pandemic” lists recommend, quite unimaginatively, that 1947 existential ramble by Albert Camus, The Plague? Who wants to read about disease, or be reminded of one’s mortality, during a pandemic?
There’s another favourite of the list makers: Love in the Time of Cholera.
Those who have actually read Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece, first published in English in 1988, will know that the novel is more about the pestilence of love than about actual pestilence, although one does get a whiff of carbolic acid or a glimpse of the sick and dying in Adventist Hospital.
But my shelves whisper other Marquezian delights, and I reach for his 2002 memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, in which he travels to his grandparents’ old house in Aracataca, with his mother: “The only way to get to Aracataca from Barranquilla was by dilapidated motor launch through a narrow channel excavated by slave labor during colonial times…”
I must climb aboard the motor launch. But I mustn’t stop at Aracataca, the Colombian town that inspired fictive Macondo. I must find other dusty towns and unknown cities. Perhaps catching the Orient Express — the preferred mode of transport of Lady Chatterley, and Hercule Poirot — might hasten my escape.
The writer is the author of Stillborn Season, a novel set amidst the massacre of Sikhs in 1984