I have a vague sense of the world as it was before the lockdown started. There was the day when the schools closed; the day the college was shut. There was a voluntary curfew and the official one when we were ordered to be off the streets. It all seems a lifetime away.
I have lost track of how many Sundays ago it began. Or how long it will go on. Or even whether it is Monday or Friday today. My hours are loose and ill-defined. I may sleep mid-morning or be up at midnight. All that anchored me to the rhythms and demands of the world outside these four walls has come loose.
The irony of having so much time at hand to do all the things I thought I’d do if I had the time is this—when time is no more a fistful of sand escaping my grasp but a stagnant puddle pooling at my feet—I want to escape time itself.
I want to ask in KL Saigal’s morose tone: what is time anymore? Yesterday seems same as the day before. Tomorrow is an endlessness I can’t comprehend now.
Make a timetable and stick to it, someone on Facebook says.
Of course, I do. But within a couple of days it begins getting unstuck.
Unstuck, free-floating days, with hours and minutes like quashed fruit fallen off the tree of time. A melting of all the clocks and schedules. A wafting in an undefined timelessness, where familiar horrors mix with new ones to form more virulent strains.
When people talk of how long it will go on, my eyes glaze. As they do at the never-ending COVID-19 admonitions and projections and strategies. If I try to educate myself, I get exhausted. Sometimes I try to pretend there is no COVID, but that makes my concentration no better. I am bad at pretending. But I have become uncharacteristically obedient. I do it all.
Wear masks. Wash hands. Stand apart. Keep hands off my face. Keep hands off everything. I exclude dogs from this definition though. And every evening I shake hands, pat backs and scratch ears of all the strays I meet.
Don’t go out except for groceries. Shower and change after getting home from the Mother Dairy. Make sure to stock grocery for two weeks—or a month—or until mid-May?
Enough: so there is no need to shop when you get the virus, someone says.
Spring may have been supplanted by summer, but the season of normalized paranoia seems unending.
I probably already have the virus—take temperature.
Wash hands. Moisturise. Clap for all who are cleaning, policing, nursing, fighting it out. Be grateful. Stock medicines. Relax. Be Positive. Exercise. Listen to Music.
I would go crazy if not for the dogs.
Remember, it’s not about you, someone says sharply. I know.
Check in with loved ones. Reach out for help. Wash hands. Check Twitter for the latest news. Check news for what Twitter may have missed. Check Facebook. Look at yet another graph that explains exponential growth.
Meet on Team-mate at 10 and hear disembodied faces floating on the monitor speaking at one another. Do or do not join them: how does it matter?
And yet a feeling of nothing happening is simultaneous with the equally strong feeling of unprecedented change happening. There is tragedy and horror. The circus of religious scapegoating and astrological pipe-dreaming and conflicting theories on everything. From symptoms and testing to what the future holds. I check official body counts and infection numbers and the unofficial hunger and joblessness figures every morning. People have birthdays. And weddings get postponed. The due date for the pregnant lady in N4 is sometime next week; someone’s knee surgery, someone else’s root-canal is wait-listed. Life moves forward slowly even as it’s being brought to a standstill.
Listen: we are living the unreal.
We are all lost together in this bamboo thicket whose edges we cannot possibly see. The college or the office or the club or the library—every place our several selves could belong to— are gone in one swoop and might never be the same again. The pandemic will not just be statistics. It will wreck people we know and care about—our loved ones, our friends and neighbours. It will destroy our society and healthcare and economy which were already wrecked to begin with.
Overnight we were hurled from a bustling, alive, frenetic world run by checklists and schedules where we were in love with our busy-ness; into this other fear-fringed, silent, timeless world.
Without fierce intentionality now, in reaching out to others—neither advisories, nor screens, nor books nor conversation—free WhatsApp junk will sustain us.
There is no easy way to move forward through all of this except moving. Sometimes peace—if not happiness comes from working in the dead of night. Or, from watching night melt into a grey dawn. Sometimes from staying away from virulent debates. Or from giving myself extraordinary permission to call people out of the blue just to say hi again.
From seeing hope in moonlight, a couplet, a flower, the smile of a child. From letting my heart mourn and grieve for the disintegrating world around me instead of saying all is well and let’s be positive. I will listen to the stories in the dead eyes of those we middle-class people steal eyes from. I will keep saying hello to every dog and wave at every human—for how do you smile through a mask?
Because this silence gets eerie if all of us don’t make it less eerie.
If we are in a great dissolution of the known world, let us sidestep hate, let us meet it in a chorus of love.
(The writer is a civil servant under training in the National Defence College, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)