The title gets you right away. These are pandemic stories, eight essays on pandemic-related themes. They start with the discovery of the importance of maids, how the internet helped, of Maa and healing the mother-daughter relationship in a way thanks to the lockdown, the concept of beauty and appearances, masks real and virtual, depression and mental health, Chinese incursions and the mantra to get rid of Corona (Go Corona Go). I was left wondering why Shweta had not written more. But then she said she felt she was done and this was a first and was quite happy to let it go out into the world as it is and that's as good a reason as any. They are a delightful bunch of stories that help us look at that period of the pandemic and the lockdown with a smile on our face.
So 'Baai Mere' is about the various emotions Shweta felt after cheering Modi's lockdown and how her life slowly became a baai-less reality. She describes how she got down to sweeping, cooking, cleaning and pretty much didn't like the experience as I gathered. (I cannot forget her upma making bit for some reason.) In 'When the Internet is Life Bro' she shares how, with nowhere to run, she was forced to browse the internet more than before. Suddenly she changes tone from her irreverent and self-deprecating humour and thoughts on Gen X and selfies to sharing Insta handles of people she follows @Ericapackard, @Alaya.F, @fayedsouza and @jameelajamilofficial and writes so well about them that you instantly feel like checking them out, especially the last-named.
The one about her mother 'Maa ka Phone Aya' was funny, reflective and drew me fully into a mother-daughter relationship - honest, loving and touched with the right balance of emotion. The dynamic, successful, realtor mother who made a local rowdy sheeter change his career and begin an honest life, one who is an achiever in every sense of the word, and the daughter who is not too concerned with pushing things unless she wants to, but who always feels she should match up a bit. The call at 10 am from the mother during the lockdown days and the normal enquiries, and Shweta's helplessness at not matching up and then making peace between the tiger mom and dino daughter in the end. Very nice. 'Hello Beautiful' is about the world she lives in where being beautiful is a big thing, where parties are about showing off jewels and clothes, and how after lockdown, the absence of beauty parlours transformed her into Kroor Singh, a character she met in a 90s serial called Chandrakanta. She takes off lustily on how the mirror se dar lagta hai from Dabangg, about exercise costumes and their rather high expectations and low self-esteem they leave one with, this and that. Delightful.
'Masked' is about the masks we had to wear thanks to the virus and she connects Jim Carrey's mask, to the masks we wear normally and how we can finally be ourselves behind these masks where we can hide our mistakes. Shweta touches the subject of depression and mental health in 'The Great Depression' and she leaves us with the optimistic thought that it is, in the end, about picking ourselves up, not about falling. Shweta went slightly political with 'Hindi Chini Bye Bye' and is pretty clear that the Chinese have to be left alone - that we have to make the transition from bhai bhai to bye bye - and bid goodbye to for more reasons than one - can't trust them. She rues the fact that we can't beat them in cricket as we do Pakistan and we can do little more than ban Tik Tok but she ends with An emphatic Jai Hind. And we can sense that she has come to the end when she begins her last article titled 'Go Corona Go' where she ponders about life during Corona and after, through the song Bhaag DK Bose and explains why it makes sense to understand certain things only by living in the storm.
My first thought after reading the slim 90 odd page e-book was that she should have written more. There is something in the way she writes, a freshness to her voice, a sharp sense of humour, a twist in mood as she ponders over something deeply philosophical, an honest beat as she ponders over something and the ease with which she switches tone and topic. The book is eminently readable. Shweta writes credibly and convincingly, makes you laugh, think and ponder. Above all, the one quality that stood out for me, is her capacity to leave vivid impressions of the world she draws you into; images that don't stay. This is a wonderful trait and not many writers have that. Without a doubt, Shweta will write more and more, and I hope she finds a Part II in the pandemic that inspires her to write her second and then, hopefully without a pandemic, a third, and more. It's a sparkling debut and wishing Shweta lots and lots of success with her writing, and more importantly, lots and lots of satisfaction and joy.