24, March, Chennai, India

By Sowmiya Ashok

A little past 6am, as if I knew he had arrived, I checked my phone to find a video of him intensely chewing his fingers. Into a scary world, my brand-new nephew had landed and there he was focused on his index finger. I watched the video a few times over, then turned around and fell asleep again. He was miles away in a hospital in Cardiff, and I was in my Chennai apartment lying on a pink bedsheet I had washed only the day before. I thought fondly of picking him up and cuddling him.

I spent the morning slowly driving baby cockroaches out of drawers, dusting my collection of National Geographic magazines, and realising that the renovations I had made to my parents’ apartment were ‘too modern’ for its own good. Where would I to store all those vessels that will eventually arrive in a truck from Delhi when this lockdown lets up? Will the truck even arrive?

It was my third day back in my hometown after years of not living here, and I was stuck indoors, alone, for at least the next eleven days. I had surveyed the space to find four good spots for me to read my book this morning and it was only a quarter to ten. There I was excited to delve into the true story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian internment.

The night before I had found a baby picture of my niece that I had propped up next to our fledgling collection of photos. For this permanently long- distance family, maybe I could use this time to put some photos up on the walls? Make this home even if we are all in and out of here? I lugged a very heavy suitcase filled with my mother’s sarees and hauled it up on to a cupboard. “Are you crazy?” my mother shouted at me over the phone.

Our conversations over two decades had been over the phone. This lockdown was no different. But it took away the choice to fly at short notice to be near each other, to welcome the arrival of this little fellow into our lives.

My mother phoned back to say the building association’s secretary had called to ask her about me. “Had I arrived from the US?” Was I, hmm…infected? One of the residents in the building had enquired about me, she said.  I texted a friend about the incident. She replied: “This is going to be the new normal for the next 18 months at least.”

I went back to worrying about the casuarina scaffolding jutting into my bedroom window, that lone mosquito that kept me up the previous night and that squirrel that was playing daredevil by hanging off the window ledge. I used bubble wrap, a cloth and lots of old DHL tape to keep him out. He eyed me from a branch.

I thought about beginning work on my first story as a freelancer but felt crippled by laziness. In another reality, I would have taken a bus to Stanley Medical Hospital and interviewed the families of all the patients. My skills as a spot reporter were useless at this point. I just sat and stared out the window.

I thought about my daily evening walks at the Jahanpanah Forest in Delhi, the old Bengali Uncle I used to pass, who spoke loudly to compensate for his lack of hearing. I thought about playing badminton with my flatmate, watching the TikTok boys dance hip-hop.

After curfew was declared at 6pm in my state of Tamil Nadu, I collected the garbage and walked downstairs to throw it into the giant bin. One of my neighbours was taking a brisk walk around the building. She saw me, panicked and ran home.

I came back home to the child upstairs running up and down like he did all afternoon. The little feet on the concrete going thud, thud till I shouted vaguely at a spot on the ceiling. “ARGH! Stop it!” I read more about Chinese-Indian lives as I ate the dhal I had cooked.

At 8.10pm, I was panicking, I didn’t have a single vegetable in my refrigerator. The Prime Minister had announced a country-wide lockdown for 21 days. I wore a mask and walked out to the end of the street. I passed by three men who all gave me vacant stares. Everything was dead, quiet, dark. I phoned my cousin and asked him to drop some veggies off for me. I texted friends saying I was struggling a bit, living alone. “I’d be happy to see a tomato right now,” I joked.

Half an hour later, my cousin dropped off a yellow saree cloth bag filled with assorted vegetables at my front door. He rang the bell and stood some steps away wearing his bike helmet. “Take care,” he said in Tamil.

I walked into my kitchen to wash the vegetables thoroughly. Instead I sat on my kitchen floor and bawled my eyes out. I noticed a baby cockroach making its way into a drawer. I got back on to my feet, washed the tomatoes and put them away. I was indeed happy to see a tomato.