After weeks of oppressive summer heat and fires, the morning is overcast and cool. The main drag through my neighborhood is strangely quiet this morning, as I walk my dog. The homeless men who had been increasing in numbers over the last few weeks have all, somehow, gone missing. I worry that they’ve been rounded up.
After some at-home yoga with my husband I throw my bike in the back of the car and head out to explore another one of LA’s bike paths. This has become my Saturday routine, and I’m grateful to live in such an outdoor-facing city. For all the complaints people have about LA’s sprawl, the expanse of the city includes great swaths of nature. There is much about this set-up to appreciate during Covid-times.
Today I drive to Culver City and take the Ballona Creek path to Marina del Rey. The creek itself is a paved canal, much like those you see all over the city, engineered to keep rainwater flowing to the ocean and ensure the city never floods. The path is relatively empty, and the waterfowl still recognize the creek, somehow, as natural, so it is a beautiful ride, in its own way. There is a strong headwind as I head towards the ocean.
It’s been a week: historic wildfires, a hurricane, and another Black man gunned down by the police – all set to the backdrop of a dictator’s pageant on TV. In my own life, things have gotten harder too, albeit incrementally. After a summer of no rules, my kids are grumpily back to online school, adjusting to new teachers and schedules. At work, we’re struggling in remote formation, and everyone is on edge. Four of my recent new hires gave notice this week. And then, of course, there is the election, coming closer every day, and my life tilting in the balance along with the fate of an entire nation.
As I approach the coast, the creek path merges with the beach path and is suddenly more crowded, filled with life. Angelenos are out on jet-skis and sailboats, skateboards and bikes, obediently wearing their masks even though virus numbers have gotten much better over the last few weeks. As a whole, it seems we learned our lesson in July, and know that the only way we’ll ever get back inside schools, gyms, offices or theatres is to cover our faces. For today, we comply, and are grateful that the heat has broken and it is once again beautiful outside.
I stop at the end of the marina and drink some water before turning around. The wind behind me, it’s smooth sailing back to my car.
We’ve run away to the forest again. Months before the first case of the new coronavirus surfaced in Wu Han, we took over the management of a friend’s house, just outside a strip of reserve forest. When we could, we did weeks of small repairs around the house, preparing it to rent to travellers – it sits just an hour away from the airport, a perfect first or last stop on a holiday, we thought. It was here, in March, that we were finishing the last repairs when we heard of the first case of local Covid-19 transmission in Sri Lanka. We shopped for vegetables and essentials on the way home, deciding it was time to lock down (a laughably meagre shop for the two full months of strict lockdown enforced a week later).
Needless to say, we cannot now rent out the house as planned, given the airport is closed and we are concerned not to introduce any risk to the village. So, for now, we have connected the house to the internet so we can work in it, and we’re using it ourselves. It takes us away from the tension of how one does and doesn’t unlock in a city, allows our son to play outdoors all day long and we hope will be a place where we spend less money. We both work freelance: as assignments finish, new ones don’t now arrive and three streams of our income – dependent on how much is cricket is played and there being visitors to Sri Lanka – have dried up altogether.
The night before we packed to come here – for three to six weeks, the longest period yet – I made two moves towards a new state of life. I took the leather handbag I haven’t used since March and refilled it. A strange time to do it, en route to a forest, but I had finally to admit to myself that the temporary cloth bag I was using, the one I usually take to protests, now with only my keys, wallet, mask and sanitiser in it, was no longer adequate to my reality. It looked limp and needed a wash.
The other thing I did was to use one of the small containers of parboiled beans and carrots, I’d frozen back in March along with others of curried okra, when we thought we were running out of vegetables, and before produce trucks had begun to supply our neighbourhoods under police curfew. We decided then that we’d freeze small containers of what we had left so that each would be just enough to prolong the presence of vegetables in the diet of the toddler, if we ran out altogether. We never needed them but we never used them either – so to defrost one now felt like I was saying that time had passed. The truth is we never lacked for what we expected most immediately to lack – in our own lives the costs of this pandemic have so far been more to our collective than personal reality, and also to our states of mind.
Almost two weeks ago already, we went to the polls. When Parliament was dissolved at the time of Sri Lanka’s first Covid encounter and elections scheduled for June, we were angry – how could it be safe to hold elections? Then as we proceeded under executive and military rule, with no legislature to hold them accountable, we began to feel that elections were essential. Besides one couldn’t really declare it unsafe – a combination of surveillance, iron control and a working public health system had apparently kept us extraordinarily safe from the spread of Covid-19, as compared to almost anyone in the world. Our fears began to deepen in different ways; they were not primarily fears of illness.
We planned to be early to the polling station – our rationale was to decrease our chances of having to go into quarantine if an elector in the same ward was later discovered to have voted while Covid-positive. We are also keen voters and, in this case, perhaps the more so for knowing our vote would not really touch the overall result. Instead we drew comfort from conviction and the solidarity of voting as an extended family bloc. It is usually a habit to take our son Kavan to the ‘voting place’ with us, we’ve done so at every previous election in his life. This time, for Covid reasons, we did not. We checked with my brother – he wasn’t taking Kavan’s cousins either. Instead, we joined my parents who were in the queue just ahead of us, all of us masked and clutching our own pens. Indeed Covid-protocols at the polling station seemed exemplary, huge bottles of sanitiser and taps at entrance and exit, officials behind screens, clear directions of how to dispose of ones polling card oneself etc. Where previously an election officer clutched the little finger of ones left hand, to paint the nail in purple indelible ink – a long held practice in South Asia against voter fraud – now she did it with a brush and bottle, never touching.
We waved to neighbours as we exited and to the policeman who had paid my parents a daily visit during and long after their quarantine in March, after they’d returned to Sri Lanka on the last flight from Bangladesh before our airport closed. Then, still rueful we hadn’t taken the children with us this time, we went home and asked if they’d like us to drive them back by the ‘voting place’ so they could see it that way, at least. Our son and our youngest niece said they would. So we returned there in time to see my brother emerge from the polling station, in turn.
Kusal and I had made a plan to work after voting – this time results would not be counted overnight but the next day (again to simplify the Covid-protocols) so we decided we should not sit around and anxiously waste the day (as we felt we had done the two previous). But in fact the day went rather differently. All the voters in our larger family are registered to the house my grandparents built, so there we gathered for breakfast and drifted into a long lunch. It had all the suspension of a Christmas day, but a simpler joy; a far greater need to enjoy the suspension while it lasted.
It’s been five months now but I still don’t know how to navigate life. Today, I step out for a walk with friends after being cloistered at home for a few days, restless and a little unwell. There’s an unusually large crowd gathered at the park at 6.30 am for a running event.
We pick up groceries on our way back. I’ve always enjoyed grocery shopping and now there’s a renewed pleasure in it. Today, we are the first customers at a freshly stocked supermarket. The first item in my basket is a fistful of fresh coriander leaves; garnishing for curries, a chutney for the week, salad staple.
We’ve been taking precautions even as we go out for work, for errands, to meet people, to vote. Our family hasn’t mustered up the resolve to go out of Colombo yet. Certain members of the family would be considered high-risk for the virus and this knowledge hovers over everything we do. How do you maintain the right balance between being cautious and continuing to live your life in a pandemic?
In many ways, it feels as though COVID-19 has tuned up the muffled ambient uncertainty, which has always hummed in the background of our lives, into a high pitched frequency we can’t brush aside. The last time I fully felt the weight of this was during my father’s illness a few years ago, when his life hung in the balance. There is that feeling of disorientation when your constants are yanked away and you are forced to reroute priorities, pause and then learn how to yield to the realization that perhaps, perhaps we were never really in control in the first place.
When I get home, I shower and head to the kitchen to do some food prep for the next week. The coriander leaves are so fresh, it seems a pity to have them wilt even for a day in the fridge. I check Facebook and Facebook memories informs me that I had shared a quote on this day last year: ‘there are years that ask questions and years that answer’.
I hew the coriander stalks and leaves into uneven clumps and add them to the grinder. I know what kind of year this is.
It feels odd writing to the Lockdown Journal when we feel so much less locked down, but a few treats over the past couple of weeks made me think about what London feels like now. We are coming to the end, we are told, of the heat-wave. Temperatures have been in the thirties for a few days and the atmosphere is humid. There is nothing ‘new normal’ about these weather conditions, but what I have been thinking about is how London has adopted a ‘post lockdown’ modus operandi.
A fellow university student, with me at Birkbeck, got her results and was lamenting that she will not have a graduation ceremony. Given she achieved a First, I felt for her. But completing her degree seemed to be very much a ‘post-virus thing’, not the ‘pre-virus thing’ she started. Neither she, nor I, are naïve enough to think we are definitely ‘post-virus’, but we note how the city is changing.
The country has ‘local lockdowns’, and has today been reminded that things are anything but normal nationally, by the attempt to grade A-level students for the exams that they were not able to sit. Young people’s futures are being disrupted by an algorithm, and a Big Brother approach, presuming favouritism and bias in the judgment of the teachers that actually taught these students. Almost 40% of results were downgraded from teacher predictions. The hapless Education Secretary has suggested that the government wants to avoid youngsters getting recruited for jobs for which they may not be qualified and for which they will not be able to develop the necessary ability. Yes, this country is the home of irony.
We have just revealed a shocking second quarter economic contraction, which tells us about the depth of this recession. What we cannot know is what its duration is going to be, but it will be complicated by Brexit at the end of this year. The prevalence and progress of the coronavirus will be fundamental to its duration, so it is unhelpful that the government is attempting to reclassify our death statistics, to paint itself in a better light. This dishonesty, allied to a diversionary media campaign focused on the plight of some luckless migrants putting their lives at risk in the English Channel, gives little confidence in our leadership. How many of today’s A-level school leavers will be voting Conservative in the next election?
The revival of the economy depends on activity and on both people and cash moving around the economy. And that is what I have noted feels like ‘post-lockdown London’. The highlight of my day and of the past few weeks was the opportunity this morning to book some theatre tickets. I shall be going next month to The Bridge Theatre where the seating capacity has been adapted for the audience to safely enjoy a performance and not to put anyone’s health at risk. Just seeing some theatre would be great but the thought that I shall see one of my all–time favourites, Kristen Scott Thomas, has made my joy all the greater.
This is not the first of my new experiences in recent days. Tonight, I am joining my daughter and her boyfriend at a wine bar near Elephant & Castle. We have a pre-booked time slot, and have a few criteria we need to meet, but this ‘normality’ will be very welcome. The proprietor of the bar business personally delivered a case of wines to me in early lockdown, as he strove to keep his business alive. I am delighted to be spending some money with him now — I suspect his business is under acute pressure.
Last night, I walked from my Wapping home to Primrose Hill to meet a friend. We walked to the hilltop to view London. In its heat haze appearance, and with many people in the park, things felt ‘normal’. If one could not hear London’s beating heart, it was obvious that it was beating. We walked back towards Camden and decided to chance an open door at a small bistro-restaurant. Could we have a table for two? To my surprise, we could, if we could return the table after 75 minutes.
Not only did we have a lovely meal and a bottle of an amazing English rose wine, but the wine was subsidised by the Chancellor’s scheme to revive the hospitality industry. Temped as I am to applaud his scheme and imagination, I am still troubled by relatively wealthy consumers, like me, having our meals subsidised, when food bank demand is hitting new peaks and the economy has shrunk by a fifth. I cannot deny, though, that I enjoyed how ‘normal’ the evening felt.
One conversation was about holidays and international travel. My friend’s ex-husband had been working overseas until recently, and her business takes her to the Far East and to North America. We both noted the number of our friends who had managed to get away for an overseas holiday this month. I have friends returning from Spain, Poland, Lithuania and from France. The rhythm of life has clearly been affected, but less so general lifestyles.
In the past fortnight, businesses like gyms have been able to reopen. I was able to meet my yoga teacher for the first 1:1 session since the early spring. Her normal studio is deemed too small to meet HSE (Health and Safely Executive) criteria so we now have a better space to work in, with a few interruptions for cleaning mats and surfaces. The gym itself, which is large and spread over three floors, is clearly under tremendous cash pressure. Although memberships, which were suspended, are now operating again, helping cash flow, I suspect that is more than absorbed by cleaning costs. There were more cleaning staff than clients present at each of my two visits.
The other ‘new normal’ is the routine of supermarket shopping. I had become used to having to queue to enter. This was during the period before mandatory mask-wearing. Now, everyone is politely masked up, but the queues are a distant memory. I have become quickly used to the change in circumstance – I think I would probably be irritated now if I could not just stroll in at my convenience. In a few months’ time, perhaps I will feel the same about a Primrose Hill restaurant, rather than being joyfully surprised that we could eat there without having booked. Here’s to the new normality in the autumn.
Months down the line, the pandemic continues to bite. In the UK, it feels like it nibbled at us for weeks in the early stages then swallowed greedy mouthfuls as it took hold. Not fully content, it is now coming back for seconds.
Today, we found out that my husband is highly likely to lose his job. After four months of being furloughed, and a very real sense of uncertainty hanging over us, his company has decided they have no option but to reduce their workforce.
My husband’s post is one of those affected. He has been the sole earner for our family since our daughter was born just over three years ago. If he is unsuccessful in securing one of the remaining posts with his current company and is subsequently unable to find another job, then I may have to return to work earlier than we planned.
The fact this may become a reality makes my heart and mind race. I will lose another two years of looking after our daughter full-time. While being a stay-at-home Mum has without a doubt been my toughest “job” to date (the hours are shocking, the pay and breaks are non-existent and my boss is very demanding), it has also been the most rewarding thing I have ever done. If it comes to an end sooner than expected, I will be heartbroken.
I try to reassure my husband that we will be okay, that we have options if the worst happens and neither of us can get jobs. He feels the pressure of providing financially for our family. In turn, I feel the pressure of possibly no longer being able to provide our daughter with the same time, care and attention that she is so used to. Meanwhile, she has no idea of the uncertainty swirling around her. Her only concern is whether she can “…please have one more bounce on the trampoline…” before she has to go inside and get ready for bed.
I live across from Grand Central Market. On this summer afternoon, harsh light bounces off the concrete, the asphalt and the weary greens. From my studio window, I haven’t seen the Angels Flight ride for some time now. The slanted gondola that went up and down Bunker Hill, usually carrying a handful of selfie-capturing tourists on their twenty-five-cent journey to no-where, is latched and padlocked.
I think of my first visit to Grand Central Market, nearly 20 years ago, on a photographic field trip. I enter the rabbit hole willingly, recapturing the shadows along the long-lost hallways, past the fish stalls that sold whole Bonitos, fish heads and guts by the pound, now long gone. Fishtails jutting out of cardboard boxes, dented mangoes, blemished papayas, I step forward slowly, cranking the film through my Pentax ME. I wonder whatever happened to that camera. I step over the mountain of day-old bread and now I am walking on a wet beach in Negombo, Sri Lanka, a fishing hamlet north of Colombo. I walk past a row of fishing huts and stop in front of a silhouetted child under a cajan roof. There, I retake my first photograph.
Lal Hegoda went through my stack of thirty-six postcard size black and white prints and fished out that photo of the child. In that slightly underexposed photograph, the insipid light filters through the cajan roof barely illuminating her chintz frock and her tiny hands. Lal showed the print to the class that Saturday and got his darkroom tech to print me an enlargement. I long for that print now. Did I lose it somewhere along my life, while traveling through curfew to catch a plane in 1983, or chasing after a wailing red light that carried my wife on her last journey?
I have sat by this window for several months now, while the world is slowly dying. Social distancing couldn’t latch me like the Angels Flight. In front of me, on my computer screen, my world appears in 23,122 photographs, two unpublished novels, and a folder of poems.
I emerge from the rabbit hole and start revising a strand of a poem.
You no longer notice the tarred-out road signs
you get to where you got to go.
The sea lulls you
to see only what you need to see.
I leave the window to boil water. I am hungry for a cup of dark tea.
During the two and a half month total lockdown, I had got used to waking up to a silent city. I woke up to the sound of birds and came to love the natural sounds – of whooshing winds, falling rain, and murmuring leaves. The first day the traffic started back on the roads was an assault on my senses.
Recently, my state government announced two days of total lockdown every week to curb the rising cases of the coronavirus. Yesterday was one of those days this week. Today I woke up to the annoying sound of the traffic – noisy car engines, blaring horns, and tire screeches – again. I now look forward to the locked-down days. I wish I could go out and observe the quiet city. I have never seen Kolkata in this avatar. All available past and present accounts I’ve read, describe it as a bustling metropolis teeming with people in every square inch of the space.
The inside of our flat is a very different story. Be it an open day or a total locked down day, there is hardly ever any silence. When we – me, my parents and sister – are not arguing among ourselves, there is the noise from Netflix, music on the radio, or YouTube. Sometimes, especially on the locked-down days, I want to go out for some quiet. I make do with some time to myself on the terrace. I have never before paid attention to the varieties of birds around me. Now I do. In the evening, I see flocks of birds flying home in an almost V-shaped formation. They fly too high for me to tell what kind of birds they are.
Towards the end of June and in July, things were starting to feel normal again. I was visiting my neighbour’s cocker spaniel named Ajoli (meaning an innocent girl in the Assamese language). I was also visiting their granddaughter Hiya who lives about 10 minutes away again. Holding four-year-old Hiya or giving Ajoli belly rubs felt therapeutic to me. When I visited Hiya after two-and-a-half months of total lockdown, she had forgotten who I was – Puja Mashi (mother’s sister). Ajoli barked at me continuously for some time when I tried to pet her, till she calmed down and finally recognized me. She turned on her back, baring her belly, asking me to rub it.
There have been a few positive cases in my housing society in the last few weeks. Everyone is on their toes again. I can no longer visit Hiya or Ajoli. I make do with petting Miu Miu, a stray cat. Sometimes, I sit on the edge of the empty field with overgrown grass. The children no longer play cricket or football. In the early morning, some adults jog or exercise around it. If Miu is around, I tap my thighs, urging him to climb up into my lap. He sits there and purrs while I scratch his head, chin, and back. In this strange world, I have come to love the little pleasures.
You break one routine for another. So out with waking and eating and sleeping at all or no hours of the day, and in with restarting something like a routine and trying not to forget the mask and creeping down submerged streets still waking from an unbidden, alien shock.
There are new things to get used to. People at a skittish distance and sweat beads congregating on the nose. But less obvious are the parts of the old routine which have vanished. Like the lunchtime buth kades from before, which have all shut down, along the outer edges of Wellawatta and into Pamanakada. If the window fronts aren’t barred with tables and chairs, they are marked out with To Lease signs.
Now that they are gone, I suppose it is romanticising to recall them, even if I point out how uncomfortable they were at midday, packed and alive and slowly steaming. The struggle to place an order, the small terror of getting it wrong and being too anxious to change it back. But there were also the un-remarked, lilting negotiations over time. Trying to build enough familiarity so that your order is remembered. Slowly bartering down the ratio of rice to curries. Relationships that existed only in what was packed and read into parcels of carbohydrates and assorted spiced vegetables, their price increasing in 10 rupee increments every few months. By which point you wouldn’t consider finding a new kade.
For the owners of the buth kades, those momentary kindnesses and lapses in profit margins have now been wiped out wholesale. Without access to even the meagre capital the government is doling out to ‘small businesses’ or ‘entrepreneurs’, the shock was fatal for most of them. In the economy that rises from all this, buth kades do not really exist. In the many lines pored over on The Recovery, there are none spared for them. It never felt possible that the uncles holding the hovering spoons could be vanished so easily.
In their place instead are those outfits—less kade and more industrial business—that can dispense rice packets hygienically, in uniform cardboard boxes ready-made for Uber Eats and PickMe dispensation. Less haggling for time and deliberating how and when you can force yourself into a gap to make an order. More deliveries of uniform, far more expensive, lunches that feel and taste safe.
This is maybe what we wanted all along. Perhaps it is a relief to beat away the spectre of too much rice and not enough curry. But you wish back for a second those old anxieties and the brief, salted glimpses of the lives that sustained them. An extra fried chilli and a curt smile.