A Journal of the Plague Year is situated in a city that is forced to change, and reveal itself. Defoe details this drastic transformation of this city he once was familiar with by describing stories of people who now have to contend with the socio-economic structures that were never built to sustain them. This reminded me of an interview with Abhishek Majumdar that was published in the Indian Express: Pandemic made me realise Bengaluru is a labour camp with a few apartments: Abhishek Majumdar
Abhishek, who is also my playwriting professor, has lived and worked in Bangalore for a good part of his adult life. Through his involvement in relief work (to provide food to communities who couldn’t afford/access any food due to the pandemic), he now explores and interacts with a city that was designed to “swallow” certain communities, who are forced to become visible now under the strain of the pandemic.
Indian Express: He cannot recognise a familiar city. It is pricked with hidden holes; people it had swallowed are being disgorged from its bowels and the cracks are showing up in its gleaming construction. “On my regular route — my house to the office or to my daughter’s school — you can hardly see a slum or a labour camp. This says something about how cities are built. It has taken a pandemic for me to be certain that, if we have a view from the sky, Bengaluru is essentially a labour camp with a few apartments. The picture I had was quite the opposite,” he adds.
I was very moved by these questions about the city that Defoe and Abhishek raise, about the massive structural inequalities built into the city, and how a disease might expose and exacerbate those.
Defoe: Surely never city, at least of this bulk and magnitude, was taken in a condition so perfectly unprepared for such a dreadful visitation, whether I am to speak of the civil preparations or religious. They were, indeed, as if they had had no warning, no expectation, no apprehensions, and consequently the least provision imaginable was made for it in a public way. For example, the Lord Mayor and sheriffs had made no provision as magistrates for the regulations which were to be observed. They had gone into no measures for relief of the poor. The citizens had no public magazines or storehouses for corn or meal for the subsistence of the poor, which if they had provided themselves, as in such cases is done abroad, many miserable families who were now reduced to the utmost distress would have been relieved, and that in a better manner than now could be done.
Earlier this summer, Abhishek also wrote a play called Salt for the ‘Urgent Drama’ programme of Folkteatern Goteboerg, Sweden, about a family in a slum in Bangalore struggling with hunger. Abhishek reveals through this short narrative how a sense of nationalism is prioritised over actually providing resources to those who need them – providing food to those whose daily incomes have been taken away. The poor have to bear the force of the pandemic even though, as Abhishek writes, they weren’t the ones who first introduced the diseases into their cities.
Abhishek: For the last 45 days or so, I have been involved in a food relief initiative in our city of Bangalore. Millions of workers have gone completely out of work and they are receiving very little support from the government in terms of food and essentials. Consequently, hunger is as much an epidemic as the virus is a pandemic. Also, the virus has been brought into the country by the rich. It came through people who would have flown to other countries, but its harshest price is being paid by the poor.
Lastly, I would just like to quickly mention this conversation with Abhishek, Anurupa Roy and Shahid Nadeem. They talk about how their experience of the city has drastically changed, and about theater’s role in activist/social/relief work (now that theaters themselves are closed).
Thanks so much for this! I didnt’ know Abhishek had been working on this material. I’ll reach out to him to see if it’s possible to incorporate in future versions of the course. I’m also struck by two things here: the city as an organic entity, and one that has structural injustices built into its very material forms/urban plans. This is a great topic for us to take up.