About ten months ago, in November 2019, my debut novel Paper Moon was published by HarperCollins India, and the world was a happy place.
Sure, there was the situation in Kashmir, where Article 370 of the Indian Constitution had been revoked in August 2019, throwing the beleaguered citizens of the region into a state of abject uncertainty. And just a few days before I found myself on a stage at Tata Literature Live at Title Waves bookshop in Bandra, Mumbai, unwrapping my freshly minted book, the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgment had paved the way for a Ram Mandir where the Babri Masjid had once stood.
It was happy, I say in retrospect, because the sledgehammer of the CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019] was still to hit Indian democracy on its head, even as the horrors of an unprecedented pandemic waited in the wings. 2019 has the dubious distinction of appearing to be a Golden Age – a wishful idea that a quick fact-check will instantly disabuse.
But let us, for the sake of this little idyll, indulge the fantasy.
There I stood, on a sparkling stage, beaming back at an audience made up of family, friends and the owner of my favourite pub interspersed with readers and writers unknown to me. If I wasn’t squeamish about making grand statements, I’d go so far as to say I’d found my tribe.
“There was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling. And I ... I remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then.” These words from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours capture the curious case of debut novelists, caught in a Kafkaesque year. Not only did the CAA protests rightfully dominate public discourse in the dark aftermath of the attacks on liberal universities, they took over the mind space of people who cared, across the social spectrum.
Yes, I attended my share of literary events, but the citizens’ movement to repeal an unjust act took precedence in my life. As twenty-twenty made its much-awaited appearance, the virus first detected in Wuhan began to take on ominous proportions. Paper Moon, meanwhile, had – much to my surprise – begun to take on a life of its own.
A Facebook veteran, I had never considered opening an Instagram account until my first book came out; those heavily filtered photos and insufferably trailing hashtags had always been a deterrent. Now, my nascent account had become a carrier of happy news related to my book. As the Bombay winter (yes, it’s a thing) gave in to the summer impulse, India was facing a catastrophe. I was charmed to receive the Best Debut prize at the inaugural AutHer awards, jointly given by The Times of India and JK Paper, just in the nick of time. By the time I returned home from the cheerful ceremony with an undercurrent of tension, India was under lockdown. And the migrant crisis was developing into a national shame.
Six months later, that winter of literary promise seems like a memory of a mythical era.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Books have equally been the pandemic’s casualty and reward. As retail outlets shut their doors, publishers, authors and booksellers heaved a collective sigh of despair; first-time authors, I attest, accounted for the most heart-rending moans. Online sales and e-books, however, offered a glimmer of hope. And social media quickly began to buzz with live literary chats on topics ranging from forgotten histories to fantastical journeys.
Since that day in November, when Paper Moon made its first public appearance, I’ve written about the joys of writing a debut novel and the solace that art provides in trying times. I’ve apologised for poor connectivity on Insta Lives and recorded awkward videos listing my favourite pandemic reads. Sealed off from the outside world, I sought refuge in books, even as I received a steady stream of responses of similarly isolated readers. Paper Moon, a book I wrote to lift my own spirits at a miserable time on the personal front, was engaging and comforting a wide range of readers.
It is still somewhat of a surprise to me that a story loosely inspired by my experience as a bookseller, and filled with ideas, events and people that captured my youthful imagination, should speak to absolute strangers in such an intimate way. At a time when optimism and cheer are in short supply, the book has managed to connect with readers who are beset by the difficulties posed by the pandemic, and suffering – like myself – from the pains of social isolation.
“Does it really matter what I write?” is the big question facing fiction writers at this turbulent time in history. With Covid-19 cases spiking in India, the economic situation raising serious alarm, and the social environment poisoned by noxious political agendas peddled through depraved media outlets, things have never looked worse in my lifetime. But I firmly believe that civilizations heal through art. And within this vast and glorious realm, the pleasures and consolations that a well-crafted novel provides are still unparalleled. The novel has been pronounced dead for years now. But that is not what my experience this last year tells me.
I’ve received warm reviews from young women, who have connected with Paper Moon’s Fiza – her understated emotions and liberal sensibilities. I’ve been thrilled to receive feedback from their mothers, telling me they’ve connected with the character of the fiercely independent Noor. Some readers have written in to register their support for the persistent Dhruv; others have expressed their weakness for the poetic Iqbal. And Ismail, the coconut seller – my favourite character – has endeared himself to readers with his honest appeal.
I do occasionally receive well-intentioned advice on how I could’ve directed the lives of my characters and the focus of the book better, and I receive it humbly. In a year of alienation and distancing, these heartfelt words have reached out through the void, and for that I am immensely grateful.
Every calamity throws up its own survival skills. For me, books have unsurprisingly been the shield against the relentless assaults of the past year. In another two months, Paper Moon will have completed its first journey around the sun. Looking back, I’m pleased that my debut novel, which was released at the cusp of a global crisis, speaks the language of love and hope. Literary fiction invariably explores the darkness and inconsistencies of life. Now, more than ever, we need to remember that it can also offer a much-needed space for lightness and laughter.
(Rehana Munir is an independent writer based in Mumbai. Her debut novel Paper Moon was published by HarperCollins India in November 2019.)