Delhi has moved from social distancing and curfew to lockdown over the last one week. As classes remain suspended, I sit at home in my isolated bubble, trying to read patterns in broken bits of facts and figures. Every assessment of Coronavirus’ impact involves adding spiraling figures to the stewpot of statistics. What worth these abstractions are for all the kabadiwallas, the autowallahs, nariyal-pani and ice-cream sellers who have packed up? Just so many ways to get wiped out!
The city wears a tranquil, vigilant calm. Her usual urgencies and irritations have been replaced by new obsessions. The suddenly wide-looking roads are abuzz with the sound of birds chirping instead of the normal honking-revving-cussing. There is no rush hour anymore. For the first time, I note how the slant light of late afternoon brings a sun-dappled loveliness to the nondescript brick shack near the building gate. At the grocery, I pick up the last bread loaf and the last flour sack. Even the beggars thronging the crossings have gone. What do people, who live on daily wage, go back to? What are their choices? Starvation and suicide or death by Corona? Random statistics float in my mind. 26,000 Indian workers returning from Gulf will be quarantined in Mumbai. What if there is an outbreak among the quarantined? Can a single, straight line encompass it all — the spring blooms and jobless workers head home; the fears gained and lives lost; riots and viruses; the foreboding of empty factories and fields, the beguiling peace of a cloud-fluffed, warm spring day?
When I come back, all the handwashing videos I never open silently admonish me — much like Sister Rosalind, my class IX teacher, who would not say anything, only narrow her eyes and twirl the wooden ruler in her palms each time I failed to meet her standards of decorum —and I rub soap extra scrupulously to wash impending death off my hands.
At first, the isolation feels welcome. To be like an island is to be safe from all the contrariness and misunderstandings of the world. I revel in the surfeit of time to write, to read lingeringly, get in shape. I begin with optimism, followed by indulgence and complacency and I am halted in tracks by rising disquiet—the response that mirrors the typical pandemic-control response. Isolation spins its own cocoon. It shelters, it suffocates. I sit unproductively at the keyboard. Everything is under lockdown and I have an intense desire to eat chaat at Haldiram’s. I spend two hours admiring my day’s output of four lines on the futility of isolation:
“Isolation in India is a mirage. This whole building, the entire complex, this corner of southwest Delhi, the whole city is connected to me. A thousand insistent bustles creep upon me from under the gaps in the door, through the window screens, through the valiantly glass-fronted, rubber sealed, fenesta barrier. No matter how apart I try holding myself, I am inevitably connected to the heaves and sighs, the humming music, the din and clamor of the world in constant ferment outside my window. The dust raised by all the dances and lamentations of this city gets in my hair, forms a skin on my skin. Is barricading possible? Even now, the smoky flavors of paturi fish waft in from a downstairs flat. From somewhere, Jagjit Singh’s silken incandescence rides the airwaves. “Zulmat-kade mein mere… shabe-gham ka josh hai (In this house of darkness, in this night of grief, so much of fervor)”. Aloofness is so un-Indian. Every solitude becomes inclusive — tinged with the pungency of mustard oil and pathos of Mirza Ghalib! The smells and sounds here have a way of jumping across not just balconies but centuries.”
Segregate, distance, quarantine, contain, detain has been the theme song of 2020. The year began with raging protests against CAA-NRC, against the project to name, number, count and define the otherness of all those who thought they were Indians first. The virus metaphor cropped frequently in the national discourse. The virus of communalism has infected the body politic, the liberals said, wringing hands. Not they — others— are the infection was the reply. We shouted ourselves hoarse on the streets, exchanged insults, lost sanity.
The coming of Corona sounds similar while being essentially different.
The refrain is the same, but the need for isolation—for a sanitized lebensraum, is no more a shrill, self-righteous demand triggered by an imagined moral panic. It is triggered by the tangible panic of a pandemic. In both cases, the sheer impossibility of the proposed segregation stares back at the State apparatus.
The Vasant Vihar coolie camp is a posh slum. Less than 2 km from my home, it is crammed with over five thousand teetering shacks painted bright yellow, candy pink, parrot green and shocking blue visible above the cheerfully grim stone walls surrounding it. A jumble of outdoor water pumps, community toilets, washing hung by the roadside, Swiggy-Zomato two-wheelers, door-to-door trash-collecting carts keeps spilling on to the road. The isolation of middle-class still needs camps like this packed in an area less than a football field to service it. How can you contain and sanitize so much chaos, such messiness of living?
No matter how many borders are being shut, Coronvirus is emphatic proof that borders, walls, fences notwithstanding, we are one world, one humanity. The spiky Ccoronavirus burrowing its way across borders, bloating its single devouring heart is a nightmare we are all together in. The smug divisions of race, nationality and ethnicity, economic status and political separation, foster such illusions of grandiosity and superiority! Yet all can be brought to knees by a single virus that lacks all discrimination. Equality is not just a meaningless detritus of liberal ideology. It is the stark reality of the pandemic.
The Coronavirus operates exactly like a deadly mob – lethal, but silent, inward-looking and far more efficient. The more we try to control and contain it, we end up controlling and containing ourselves—the virus becomes us. Every time I see mask-wearing middle-class mamis at the mother-dairy scowl suspiciously at some non-mask wearing worker, I wonder why is it that the hygiene-conscious, socially distanced, ultra-sanitized developed world got it first? The virus seems to love irony.
As it sweeps through, it will keep on exposing how hollow our myths about ourselves are.
(The writer is a civil servant under training in the National Defence College, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)