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'We aim to create a living record of a historic time'

For those who have lived through the Covid-19 pandemic, life will never be the same again. "A World On Hold" (Om Books International) brings you first person narratives by 20 writers, among them Shashi Tharoor, Vidya Balan and Nonita Kalra on what it means to those who have survived and lived to tell the tale.

"In the simplest terms, the book is an outcome of a late-night conversation between two friends who found themselves hopeless and helpless in the face of a global pandemic," the book's editors, Divita Aggarwal and Surabhi Sundaram, told IANS in a joint interview.

"Even though we both experienced different impacts of the pandemic (Divita, the industrial and economic and Surabhi, the on-ground realities), we were aligned on our motivation: to contribute to the situation, bring to focus what people were going through, and most importantly create a living record of this historic time. Where uncertainty, loss of opportunities and fear was staring at us, all we wanted to do was document this transformational period. There was a seismic shift in the psychological, social economical aspect of life and so, we decided to make sure we never forget this," they added.

As two young writers who hadn't written non-fiction before, they struggled with narrowing down on how to do justice to a topic as grave, detailed and layered as the pandemic. Hence, they decided to tell it as it was, in the raw, unfiltered voices of those who were living through it.

"The aim was not to tell our reimagination of these peoples' stories or our own experiences," they said.

The selection process of the narrators was guided by their curiosity as well as the most prominent sectors affected (the knowledge of which they gained through news, social networks, and personal anecdotes. Examples of a few unique choices are Tanyel Kazim, a higher-education practitioner based in the UK who was laid off during the pandemic. Or Sunash Sharma, who volunteered to be a part of vaccine trials. They wanted to tap into unheard, or less heard of stories which the mainstream wasn't covering but were equally important.

"Throughout, the larger aim was to have diverse voices and very nuanced narrations. For example, we wanted to have an influencer as a contributing narrator, discussing how content creation has evolved in the pandemic. Another industry we wanted to tap into was travel. So, we decided to club the two together and bring on board a travel influencer, Shivya Nath. Similarly, we wanted to hear from a working mom and cover the culinary sector. So, we brought Shilarna Vaze, a celebrity chef. The goal was to ensure that every narration is layered and relatable," Aggarwal and Sundaram explained.

They write in the Preface that "conversing about these ordeals proved more therapeutic than triggering-both for the narrators and us".

"Writing about the pandemic our approach to it, especially emotionally. It pushed us to constantly innovate. Learning about accounts such as that of frontline workers, allowed us to be more resilient and grateful. This journey helped in widening our perspective and having a more open-minded outlook towards this experience.

"When the world was still grappling with the first wave of coronavirus, we started writing this book with a clear mission: to document stories of unprecedented bravery, innovation, and emotion. Today, as we look back on the narrators we interacted with and how they have progressed over the past year, we realise their stories not only matched our expectations but also exceeded them. It is the stories of these twenty narrators and those of the entire world's population that has reminded us of exactly how much strength we carry in us.

"We not only accepted that we now live in an unrecognisable world, but also deeply felt every emotion that comes with it. Smoothly, almost instinctively, we transformed every aspect of our day-to-day life. That is a sign of unparalleled optimism. We have also learnt how to channel a similar strength to other personal and professional aspects of life. It's safe to say, we, along with everyone we know, are getting back to square one. Only this time, we are more courageous, more informed and a lot more hopeful," Aggarwal and Sundaram maintained.

Fortitude is the common thread running through the narratives in the book.

"At its very core, 'A World On Hold' is a book that celebrates having courage in pain and adversity. Stories of a flight attendant, who chose to remain anonymous, bring out the courage of flying in unprecedented times. Her narrative brings out the sense of responsibility that airline-industry workers felt. Despite multiple personal hardships, she considered it her duty to bring home Indians who were stranded abroad.

"On-the-ground reporting brings out scenes of fear and grief in hospitals. But even in this, there is a glimmer of hope, a story by an anonymous police-officer who drove women in labour, to hospitals. There was anguish and heartache everywhere. But even in the bleakest of times, there was a ray of hope, guided by courage. There were people, ordinary people like you and me, who went above and beyond to help another," the editors explained.

In-depth interviews with then Editor of Harper's Bazaar India, Nonita Kalra (currently Editor-in-Chief of TataCliq Luxury) bring out the crises faced by lifestyle publications: how does a glamorous magazine stay relevant at this juncture? How does an editor steer a team, boost morale even as a publication changes and innovates at its core? Parliamentarian and author, Shashi Tharoor offers invaluable insights into the political workings of India's response to the global pandemic. Actor Vidya Balan's story brings out the challenges faced by the Indian film industry; the multi-crore industry had to shift - almost overnight - from creating for the big screen, to adapting to OTT platforms.

Quoting Francis Bacon, they said: "Fortitude is the marshal of thought, the armor of the will, and the fort of reason."

What next? What's their next book/project on?

"We're currently conducting primary research for India's first book documenting untold stories of women in war roles. Across the armed services, women make up merely 0.5 per cent of per cent of the active-duty 1.4 million army personnel (2021) Undoubtedly, this representation is small and marginally growing -- and their stories tend to be less often told to make room for legacies left by men who have shaped the narrative of service to the country.

"To be potentially published by a national publisher and adapted into an audio-visual format by an OTT platform, 'Women In War' will detail stories of fearless women in defence who have excelled at jobs that once weren't even open to them. Their own stories, in their own words. Or of those who were with them in their final moments. The first-of-its kind non-fiction book aims to bring to you stories of astonishing fearlessness, and gets you closer than ever before to the personal bravery that Indian military women display in the line of duty," Aggarwal and Sundaram concluded.

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