Day 39: On writing, workers & Arjun Sengupta

Day 39

For a fluff writer like me the only way learning happens is through iterations. I am in the seventh week of writing everyday. Writing, exercise and reading have filled up the hours of these lockdown days. There was boredom kicking in, on some days, even in doing these. I didn’t hit saturation, but a certain stasis that does not feel useful. I anticipate that these habits will now stick well on the canvas of everyday, henceforth. I am arriving at new shores of clarity about the writing process on an everyday basis. I must state this in present continuous tense. Any use of past tense would imply having arrived at all that there is to learn. Bradbury said, some days write themselves out. That happened too. During the first week of lockdown I would sit with my laptop and words flowed out. It happened intermittently in these weeks. Then there have been days which required sitting down with concentration and doing the laborious task of pieceing words together one at a time. One of the learning is about structuring a piece. I figured that in most of the material I read, the pieces were chasing a question or a set of them. At least the sort of writing that appeared in some of the newspapers and magazines  I read everyday. I  read NYT, FT, WSJ, Foregin Affairs, The Times, The Financial Express, Business Standard, The Economist, The New Yorker, Granta, online news outlets from India, occasionally watch Al-Jazeera and pick up plenty of long form from Twitter and Substack. The journal entries here fall broadly under the  summarising, reflecting, mulling over kinds. Some days they have been analytical, but often short on in-depth handling of the issue. 

As the world lives through this solitary confinement, there are probably a million such thought bubbles popping up in people’s lives. The hope is that all of these would make way for better living, conscious living. Will these changes stick? I do not know. 

The day was spent on reading labour histories from an anthology and published papers. In the evening I sat through a lecture by Jan Breman and Babu Mathew that was organized by us at the Institute of Public Policy. Babu called the sigh of thousands of workers heading home in panic as an exodus of workers. I like the sensitivity and perspective he brings to the issue. The trade unionist in him is forever hopeful. For early career researchers to be around him is like Vitamin D getting fixed in the body from sunlight. He can be that essential in the cold, sunless academic world.  We had invited Jan Breman to deliver a lecture on labour’s condition in this pandemic in India. He struck an emotive chord – in talking about workers wishing to go back home to their families. While the state has failed spectacularly, in the most essential part it has failed the family too. As a social structure that is the last refuge of a worker irrespective of class. To not be able to provide for uniting them with their families is perhaps the last straw. I sense the ache and sentiment in the newspaper reports where the workers have responded to the journalists with ‘I will not go back to the city.’  He cited George Orwell’s Wigan Pier (full text here –  and Arjun Sengupta Committee report on conditions of work and on promotion of livelihoods in the unorganized sector in India (2007).

He quietly worked away steadily on gathering hard evidence on workers, their conditions and how they live in India. The writings that he has left behind have remained frozen since 2008. With KP Kannan and G Raveendran he wrote a special article for the EPW on ‘India’s Common People: Who Are They, How Many Are They and How Do They Live?‘ –

This paper attempts to define the common people of India in terms of levels of consumption and examines their socio-economic profile in different periods of time since the early 1990s with a view to assessing how the economic growth process has impacted on their lives. The findings should worry everyone. Despite high growth, more than three-fourths of Indians are poor and vulnerable with a level of consumption not more than twice the official poverty line. This proportion of the population which can be categorised as the “common people” is much higher among certain social groups, especially for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. There is also evidence to suggest that inequality is widening between the common people and the better-off sections of society.

Not many saw it then. In 2020 even those who are not interested in knowing have it beamed to their TVs and phones. The exodus is them!

This led me to think of the research areas that institutions, at least in India, must venture into after the pandemic. We must begin by asking how can social sciences research help in fixing, healing and creating a better post-pandemic world? I would expect dozens of ethnographies of the state, of markets and of society to be written. Each one of these pillars have responded and failed in their unique ways. A part of the purpose will be served in articulation of these responses and failures, and the other being in identifying what must change. At work, I am editing a set of videos which link the idea of property to the pandemic and examine its effects during Covid-19 emergency around the world. These are researchers from over fifteen countries who have responded to our questions –  has property ownership helped in crisis as this one? Or is it ownership problematic? What kind of effects are seen during a crisis as Covid-19 on society with respect to property ownership?

During a typical day I tend to read about the latest and contemporary issues. Somewhere along, I see myself fall back to essays and novels from early  20th century writings. There is an apparent continuity of issues, conditions and challenges that humanity has faced in the past century and two of this century’s decades. I read a piece on Philip Roth’s life. His friend and author of the piece includes this quote from Roth. 

“Memories of the past,” he wrote in The Facts, “are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts.” 

The facts I write here will suffer the same fate.

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