News

Imagining The Pandemic: My Engagement With Popular Culture In A World Turned Upside Down

It felt strange, looking at a political crisis of literal pandemic proportions through light-hearted jabs. I often found myself wondering if the picture I had painted of the world in crisis was true- both globally and within the microcosm of communities directly associated with me. It felt even more bizarre to be told that I was living through a moment of immense historicity.

By Swadha Bharpilania

It was the summer of 2013. I remember sitting before a TV screen, during one of my regular sessions of flipping through cable channels, looking for a movie addled with superheroes and surreal feats, in the realm of the extraordinary. My luck, however, had outrun my appetite for fiction and I had to settle on a movie that seemed, on that particular evening, a little too sombre for my taste. Mildly disappointed, my 16-year-old self set herself up for a viewing of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion

It was the summer of 2013. I remember sitting before a TV screen, during one of my regular sessions of flipping through cable channels, looking for a movie addled with superheroes and surreal feats, in the realm of the extraordinary. My luck, however, had outrun my appetite for fiction and I had to settle on a movie that seemed, on that particular evening, a little too sombre for my taste. Mildly disappointed, my 16-year-old self set herself up for a viewing of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion

In 2020, I look back, in wonder, on my disbelief at the apparent grayness of that world.

As someone who consumes the news of the world and formulates her thoughts on it within the vistas of history and popular culture, my imagination of what is ongoing is essentially a myriad portrait of data, theories, studies, academic opinion, movies, the performing arts, and, unsurprisingly, memes. It was, hence, fitting that I saw the pandemic through windows of humour, political satire, and visual commentary garnished with the facts of grim reality – whenever the news media actually chose to show it to me. 

Sardonic tweets, cinema focused on the reality of living in a zombie apocalypse, and talk shows which used TikTok videos to speak of a government’s poor handling of the COVID crisis in its earliest stages (read Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) hence shaped my understanding of this strange world that was slowly beginning to settle into this new state of flux. 

Living in India, this tryst with popular culture and its ramifications on enabling a generation to imagine the pandemic was perhaps most pronounced when it came to the political situation in my own country. In what has been simultaneously called an ill-thought out and well-timed lockdown, India was slow to enter the highest peak of the pandemic. Perspectives on how the country was dealing with the world turned upside down were sinusoidal at best and my consumption of the same was similarly topsy-turvy. 

Exhausted by what some political sensibilities would call ‘propaganda’ on prime-time television, I instead enjoyed, given my own background and biases, pictorial representations of the Mughal Emperor Babur asking a mandir (temple)-thirsty government to pay attention to the larger issues at hand. The plight of migrant labourers having to walk back to their villages in a country of continental proportions, evoked the strongest response in me when I could sew the anger at the failures of the system into the fabric of satirical YouTube videos. My government was choosing to look the other way on a collapsing healthcare system in favour of unnecessarily ostentatious architectural projects. All of this, and more, I consumed from the vial of an evolving potion of popular culture- scented with the swirly feeling of the surreal.

It felt strange, looking at a political crisis of literal pandemic proportions through light-hearted jabs. I often found myself wondering if the picture I had painted of the world in crisis was true- both globally and within the microcosm of communities directly associated with me. It felt even more bizarre to be told that I was living through a moment of immense historicity. 

Despite having studied the intricacies of historical processes and events through the course of my undergraduate studies, I found it odd to think that I was part of a historical event. This was especially because my privilege afforded me the opportunity to live a life of inertia when everything around me highlighted that the acceleration of this age would be remembered for decades to come. In all this, the strangest was the fact that I would remember this time as historical as well; but all this, while living through it in comparatively mundane ways.

My engagement with the current was even more surreal when it came to conspiracy theories. Surely, something as larger than life as a pandemic could not be attributed to simplistic ideas of science and biology – as the indomitable John Oliver suggests is the basic idea behind said theories. These in their magnanimous absurdities, hence made my imagination of the pandemic even more coloured. Whether it came to Bill Gates’ self-serving interest in the global health crisis or the virus spreading capacities of 5G towers, COVID-19 served up delicacies of the human imagination that would put Dali’s work to shame. 

In India too, the pandemic was met with theories about the all-encompassing benefits of drinking cow urine, the healing mathematics of turning off all lights for nine minutes at precisely nine o’clock on the 9th of April, and above all the covert resistance to the virus that was embodied in the very public destruction of electronics manufactured by Chinese interests.

During my time as an undergraduate student of history, I learnt of the ‘imagined communities’ of nations formulated through channels of print capitalism in the works of Benedict Anderson. Now, I was imagining a pandemic through channels of the indomitable strains of popular culture. It was precisely this that made an already bizarre situation even more anomalous. An event that will shape global events for years to come – understood and realized through seemingly trivial mediums. 

In a world that believes in being vigorously connected, the ever-evolving body of internet and media culture, both beyond and within international borders, was turning the same wheel as the world in this all-encompassing crisis. As the strange enabled the stranger, my thoughts on the way thoughts have evolved over the course of the better part of this year seemed like both the right and wrong kind of dream-like. 

It is also striking, in my opinion, that one of the first parallels drawn at the start of the COVID-19 crisis was with the Spanish Flu pandemic of the 20th century – back when the world turned upside down too – with both disease and war and never righted itself back to the parameters of the pre-pandemic era. Did the surreal of the time ever dissipate? Or did it simply dissolve into reality? 

Today, amidst conversations of a new normal- the hypnagogic aspects of this historical moment linger. Is this momentary? Or will this upside-down settle and become what is right or in other words- what is normal? Perhaps, the answer to this question will also become more tangible for the likes of me through popular culture. In a changed world still connected by technology, being ‘alone together’ as Sherry Turkle calls it, is a living, breathing, and changing entity in itself. This, in many ways, is perhaps the haze that surrounds the bridge between the real and the surreal. 

In this ambit of imagination and the unusual, I can then turn to my 16-year-old self and tell her to pay very close attention to Soderbergh’s movie. Despite not being the exciting bizarre of superhero movies, it was the reality that the world was to experience very soon- in immensely surreal ways. 


This article was first released in the the Fall 2020 print issue of The Graduate Press, titled the “SURREAL / SURRÉALISTE” issue. Download the Fall 2020 print edition here.

0 comments on “Imagining The Pandemic: My Engagement With Popular Culture In A World Turned Upside Down

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: