13 May, 2021 – Bangalore, India

By Pritika Rao

I wake up late again this morning. I don’t touch my phone for a few minutes. Then I reach for it, willingly walking into an ocean of emotions.

I have a multi-step check-in routine.  I check on friends who have COVID, then friends of friends, then exhale the worry that this list has expanded so rapidly, then make a list of ways I can help by sending food, making phone calls or donations.  Then I retreat and sit quietly with these overwhelming feelings. I feel like a swimmer, unfit for these rough waters, but with no escape. When I’m braver, I’ll venture into the larger circle of news – bodies washing up on river shores, black markets for medicines and oxygen, bed scams and fingers pointed in all directions.

I work with unexpected efficiency today. We finish a class for little children whose parents have been affected by COVID-19. A sweet-spirited little girl is too tired to dance and asks for permission to sit down. It breaks my heart. Everything is like holding a paper whose edges are burning. It feels like we are living at the center of that paper and that sooner or later, ‘ashes, ashes, we’ll all fall down.’

After evening coffee, I help my parents-in-law stream a funeral on the TV in the hall. They know this 75-year-old lady well. ‘Her face looks peaceful’, my mother-in-law says. ‘It does,’ I agree. Which is more than we can say for the faces that are gathered around her coffin, frowning at the sun, beads of sweat gathered on their foreheads. My parents-in-law are squinting too, trying to identify people who are masked and whose bodies are covered in blue tarpaulin. Someone’s mask has slipped down their nose a little – I feel the urge to tell them, protect them somehow. I think, given the circumstances, they may not appreciate the intervention.

I think of danger and risk – how when you love someone, these things don’t matter. And how the same is true when you are ignorant or indifferent. Your perception of risk is different in these cases but is your behavior then brave or foolhardy? My head hurts. Maybe it’s the screen time. Or the caffeine. Or just a sign of the times.

It’s raining outside so we order some hot samosas. As I eat one, I swipe through Instagram stories and an influencer tells us how many weeks later, she still cannot taste her food. As I chew my samosa, I feel selfish, as if I have stolen this from her. Like I don’t deserve the privilege of this moment.

My whole body feels a bit weary. I check my temperature. My throat does feel a bit scratchy. I couldn’t have caught it – I haven’t gone anywhere. And yet I check my oxygen levels. A healthy 98. My heart rate is 88 – a bit too high, my father in law remarks. I think of everyone on the frontlines, volunteers procuring oxygen, beds, conducting tests – do they have a few seconds to monitor their health, wonder about their own symptoms?

My phone buzzes and I scan it for messages. You have to be quick on Whatsapp groups these days. If you take too long to congratulate someone on their healing or their job or a meal they’ve made, you will miss the moment. Because soon sad news will splinter the group like a grenade.

I worry about everyone I have ever loved – old friends I haven’t heard from, schoolteachers, my ex-boyfriend, his family. I worry for those I will love one day in the future – my nephews, nieces, the babies that my friends are carrying in their wombs, the children I will carry into this world one day. What would I say to them if I could?

Later at night, I take a spoonful of Chyawanprash and go to bed. I ordered a box of chamomile tea that I’ve started taking to help me sleep. It doesn’t help at all and tastes like I imagine stale flower pot water might. Reading helps and transports me far away to Sligo, engrossed in the love of two young adults, chanelling my yearning for travel and the aching in my heart. Then I sink a little deeper under the blanket, say my prayers and feel my breathing settle to a slower pace. Quickly, before the phone beeps or I hear another ambulance wail, I catch whatever sleep I can.