_First published in the Saturday Standard in May 2020. _
Odd dilemmas of the kind that humankind is going through today call up the memory of Franz Kafka. The 20th century Bohemian writer was an outstanding novelist and a master of the short story. He had the rare masterly of bringing fantasy so awfully close to reality.
Reading Kafka can be so painfully real that you want to break for a walk, even when the offering is only a short story. Yet he will leave you wondering whether his agonizing fantasy does not, after all, reflect universal and timeless painful realities. Take the case of the short story titled ‘Metamorphosis’ as a mirror of universal times.
Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he has transformed into a giant insect. He is unable to get out of bed, to go to work. He works as a salesman and is his family’s sole bread winner. The rest of his family are his parents and his sister, Grete. They try to talk to him behind his closed bedroom door, but they only hear meaningless sounds from him.
The next day the giant insect manages, somehow, to open the door. His family is horrified to see the ugly giant arthropod. His parents stay away from him. His sister shoves food at him from a distance. She is far too frightened to get close. She discovers that he eats his food only when it is rotten.
The insect man finally gives up hope on recovering his original form. He adjusts to crawling on the floor, on the walls and on the ceiling. His sister helps to move stuff from his room. This should give him more space to crawl. His room, nonetheless, falls into neglect. It’s filthy and smelly.
Gregor, the insect man, becomes tedious to everybody. One day, he overhears his tired family talking about ‘killing it.’ They think that they should ‘kill it.’ He is the ‘it.’ They have, meanwhile, thrown objects at ‘it,’ with some of them getting lodged in its insect body. They begin rotting there.
It is a very sorry state of affairs. The insect ‘decides’ to starve itself to death. After its death, the relieved family takes a joyride on a tram, to experience a sense of relief from the recent agonies. After this holiday, the family moves to a small apartment, to cut down on rent and incidentals. They also discover that their daughter has transformed into a very beautiful young lady. They think it is time to find her a husband.
Yes, this is Franz Kafka, who published this story in 1915. There are two transformations here. There is that of Gregor Samsa, the insect man. Then there is his sister’s transformation. The reader encounters the first one right at the start of the story and travels with it to the very end.
The second transformation is only recognized at the end of the story. The man transforms for the worse, while his sister transforms for the better. At the end of the man’s transformational experience, he is disposed of as bad rubbish. At the end of his sister’s transformation she is ready to start a new life.
Kafka, the storyteller, does not own the second transformation. We only see the young lady’s beauty through her family’s eyes. It is unlike Gregor’s whose report we get straight from Kafka. What should these transformations mean to us, in this season of the new coronavirus? What metamorphoses are taking place in our lives? Will your family want to ‘marry you off,’ or to ‘kill it’?
We have encountered the bizarre stories of covid-19 recovered patients who have been shunned by their families. You return from quarantine expecting your family to be happy that one of them is back. Instead you meet hostility. Where did we lose it? It cannot just be about contemporary society.
Consider that Kafka told this story 115 years ago. In a different narrative, titled The Trial, he told of a man – Mr. K – who was arrested and put on trial for an unknown offence. A year later, the case had not begun. Yet, those who arrested him returned on this anniversary, to take him away. To kill him. And he agreed.
Nobody wants to downplay this coronavirus thing. If we make mistakes about it, they should be on the side of caution. Yet, are we going through Kafkaesque times? Science tells us of what it calls the sympathetic nervous system. It is a system that triggers off the instincts of flight-or-fight.
When you sense danger, you will mostly run away (take flight), or fight. You could also simply freeze. If flight or fight is a reflex action (it does not require thinking), it is also possible that whether you will run away or fight can also be a factor of training. You are conditioned to run away, or to fight.
Apart from fighting the virus, the biggest fight before us today is fighting fear. The fear of being tested, fear of recovered victims and fear of families that have lost a relative to the bug. Sudden arrivals in villages, by strangers draped in white skins and white masks (with apologies to Franz Fanon), and burials and departures within ten minutes only add to the element of fright.
Yes, this corona thing is bad, perhaps extremely bad. If we continue to behave normally, we have heard, it will treat us most abnormally. Yet those who are paid to think for the country have their work cut out for them. They must devise less frightful and yet safe ways of living and dealing with this virus. For, make no mistake, this thing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. How will it transform us?