By Bharati Ramachandran
It’s 3 am and sleep continues to evade me. I’ve always been a sound sleeper, dropping off into deep sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow, to wake only in the morning. I’ve been known to drift off in what most would consider sleep-defying circumstances.
I try soothing techniques: I read, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, Facebook posts, Twitter timelines. I write bad poetry. I meditate. I take a bath, gingerly moving around in the bathroom to avoid waking my three-year-old who sleeps without a care in the next room. The sound of the water hitting the side of the bucket is magnified in the silence of my home, the night silence of which has also become the day silence of the streets. A stranger’s face stares me back in the mirror. The roots of my hair are starkly grey against my skin, the roots that I’d so carefully touch up the moment they showed their true colours. My eyebrows are in their natural glory, with tributaries and distributaries that will one day cover my entire face like a neglected creeper on the wall of a broken-down bungalow, so commonplace in Cooke Town, where I live. Will I too be razed down, and built over? My skin feels parched. I drink water – first a few sips, then the whole bottle.
I’ve not stepped outside of home for 45 days now. I keep it together during the day for the most part because of the three-year-old to whom I’m the only parent. Do you know that the slice of time between the 297th and the 298th utterance of the word ‘Amma’, is long enough for a woman to have a micro-breakdown?
In between 20 such micro-breakdowns, I pull together a coherent day for my child. Reading, a lot of reading out loud. Some colouring: at first meticulous and soon after, just colours bunged in on paper. Pulling apart and putting together a jigsaw puzzle, then two, then three, then upping the challenge by mixing three puzzles together and doing them all at once. Simulating a swimming pool with a floating duck in a pink bucket in the balcony. Endless chores that get me bone tired, made unbelievably sweet and inconceivably harder by a child tugging at your arm, “Can I help with this? Can I help with that?” Managing the expectations of extended family in the form of video calls; I put some kajal on for the first few and then, as one day rolls into another in relentless tedium, abandon them altogether. Had I been alone, I might have eaten bread and eggs 17 times a week. But I push myself to disguise an omelette by pouring it out into a paddu pan, calling the fluffy yellow balls of egg and onion and tomato, egg bombs.
In between all of this, the phone beeps. Non-stop. There are people hungry, stranded. I crawl out of my exhaustion. I snatch tiny pockets of time during the day to reclaim my working self. I learn to work on the kitchen table, on the kitchen counter, sitting on a bench on the balcony while my child plays. On a good day, I’m grateful for being able to work. All the while, I worry about the future. I’m a single mother in my forties. Will there be work two months ahead? My concerns seem trivial over the hunger that faces 30 migrant families just a kilometre from my home. But what is this world that has decided that one worry is more trivial than another?
And out there, people are coping in the ways they can. Some cook, some read poetry, some learn something new, some start an online exercise programme. I’m happy they are coping; I truly am. But I also wish this felicity were granted to me, that I could lose myself in the pursuit of something and stop this double duty of working and worrying that fills my days and nights.
Five times a day I either hear or read this phrase: This is the new normal. There are people exhorting you to discover your breakthrough self during this period. No. This is not normal. This is abnormal. And if all I’ve done during this period is kept myself and my child alive, with minimum trauma, that is enough. (The little voice in my head rolls its eyes). The pressure of not having performed well in a pandemic – if it were not utterly real, it would be ludicrous.
And the phone calls keep coming. The hardest part of this lockdown is not the lack of human contact or the inability to step out. It’s the realisation that much of the human contact you have in life is transactional. You feel tears start when the odd stranger calls up just to say, how are you really doing. This question never – but never – comes from the people closest to you. Maybe they couldn’t take the truth – that you’re just about propping yourself up every day.
The staying at home in isolation is the easiest part of this gig. It’s the perpetual demands that wear you down. In the routine busy-ness of everyday life you defray some of this load. The load is so distributed in the geography of places and spaces and roles that you inhabit every day that you don’t realise it’s a load. With that geography gone, housebound with the mind and body as sole sanctuary, that load is unbearable.
As people find ways to stay connected online – I have an epiphany. Simulating the external world, without the whole bag of tools and tricks that you normally have to tolerate it, is a bad idea. The only way I can pull this together is not more connection. Far from it. I need to curl up even more inward, to come through this whole.