Today was more or less the same as yesterday, which in turn was the same as the day before. This is not broad brushstrokes of generalization being painted over all my days, but a mirror in which I see a messy blur. All the 106 days and 105 nights.
When all this is behind us, we will very seriously be demarcating our time as the before times and Covid times. They will be marked by clear signifiers. For me, one of the markers of Covid times will be cooking as much as I can, even sometimes unwillingly. I would love to look back at this as a time when I managed to work on some of my friendships and willfully kept unwanted ones at bay. I will remember it as a time of unforeseen kindness from some unknown people, as a time of unforgiving summer and equally harsh landlords. But by the time we get to the other side, the collective exhaustion, the mass delirium might get too much.
I have slowly become far-sick. For a place and a time, I have no inkling of. For a people I have not seen, for an era that might be behind or too far ahead of me. Far-sick for an unknown life.
In the before times, I was a peripatetic. I moved cities, left relationships and people. Now, like most of us, I feel as if I am the one left behind. All the same, the numinous quality to these days and nights does not escape me. The darkness of some still days stays with me, as does the lightness with which some nights glide by. Most other days are a cluster of gloaming moments. Earlier, I would have felt an especial agent of the greyness, but I have become tetchy. The days stretch out in their vast emptiness. And my patience, the exact opposite. I am irascible, snappy but true to the bone.
Some sleepless mornings things are in a lock jam. I feel like a rusted old gate manning some ancestral property the heirs don’t really care about.
This particular morning, I woke up yearning to revisit some of my childhood memories, perhaps in an attempt to find some optimism in these turbulent times. Pulling out my journal and sharpening my pencil, I let those good times roll on paper – my first dance at school, first fight with a classmate, the big fall that left me with a broken tooth or the painting competition that fetched me the first prize. Memories came rushing back and I jotted them in the pages of my journal as if it were just yesterday. The one where I got my elder sister into trouble for something I had done made me feel guilty for a bit but deserved a special mention.
An undeniable sense of relief engulfed me, as I unfolded these beautiful stories of the past. Honestly, during the last couple of weeks, my mental health hasn’t been faring too well. While some days are manageable, others are emotionally exhausting, triggering a sense of anxiety, frustration and irritation.
Dubai is now completely open for business and while everyone seems to be out acclimatizing to the new normal, here I am still cooped up indoors trying to find legitimate reasons to step out. With work also substantially slowing down, I’m finding it difficult to clock in even two hours of work on a daily basis.
It’s now late in the afternoon and I decide to ring up my Nani in India. A zestful woman in her 80’s, she tells me how the lockdown has ruined her otherwise healthy lifestyle by impairing her walking routine. She then goes on to whine about how the incessant rains in Mumbai over the past few days have wreaked havoc in a city grappling with its staggering COVID-19 cases.
As we speak, I see her struggling to switch to the video mode, insisting on showing off the cat shed she built for her four strays, rescued earlier this year.
Nani, an ever so benevolent, mischievous and fun loving person always manages to light up my day, while she narrates some funny incidents that took place over the last few weeks.
After an hour-long conversation we say goodbye. She looks at me with expectant eyes and says,
“It was wonderful talking to you beta, keep calling, you kids are all I have.”
I have spent the week in and out of doctors’ offices trying to figure out this eye issue. It started on Sunday with a bruise-like feeling in my eye and my eye turned all shades of pink and red. The first eye doctor said I had something that is called iritis. One thing that is odd about going to a new doctor during these times is that I have no idea what the doctor looks like under the mask. I can only see the eyes but none of the facial expressions. I had a hard time sussing out whether I could trust him because I depend a lot on the face to make these sorts of determinations. He gave me some drops and said it would be better by Wednesday. By Wednesday, I could barely see out of the eye and I started to have anxiety attacks about my vision.
Today I went to Hopkins for a second opinion. Hopkins has their act together. The doctor I saw last week didn’t even have gloves on and he would touch my eyes and put bright neon yellow drops into my eyes, then touch stuff in his office then come back to my eyes and I never saw him wipe anything down. At Hopkins, everyone working had on a face shield and the doctor who saw me had both an N95 and a regular mask on, under his face shield. He also kept changing his gloves every five minutes and wiping everything around him, including the chairs I was going to sit on, with some sort of bleach cloth. Again, I couldn’t see his full face and had to rely on his eyes for information.
This doctor spent two hours looking at my eyes. He did so many tests, over and over again. “Do you see straight lines or wavy lines?” he would ask. “Straight”, I would say. Then he repeat the exact same test and would ask the same question again. I would say the same answer. Then ten minutes later, he would do the same test. “Straight or wavy?” “Straight.”
He also did the same question and answer routine over and over again about a pain in my tailbone – “are you sure you had an X-ray?” – after I overshared about fracturing it when I was ten while roller skating and then having to sit on a donut shaped pillow for several months. He asked me so many times, that I started to question if my memory was falling away just like my vision? So I said, I was just ten years old and in my mind they X-rayed it but I may actually have forgotten. There he had it. Well, he said, it could be this genetic condition associated with arthritis that starts in your sacrum. Definitely I didn’t have pain in my sacrum. It was definitely in my tailbone at age ten and right now.
He sent me to this giant machine that read my optic nerve and my retina. He brought me back to his little office and did more tests and used different lenses and different lights. To me, it was amazing, how the human mind relates to vision. How come I can see the letter tests perfectly fine in some of those lens and lights and nothing but a giant blur in others? How is that related to my sense of memory? In the end, he said my vision would be fine in a week and not to worry.
Out of all the negative effects of this lockdown era, for me insomnia has been the worst. I thought it was just me, but now I find to my horror that my son has been affected even more.
I wake up around 2:30 am, a reaction to the unbearable heat. I’m greeted by a house ‘up in lights’. Where has this child gone? I look and there he is all snuggled up reading a book!
The mother in me yells (quietly, considering the time and the effect on my neighbours). “Go and sleep immediately! You are a growing boy. You need to sleep.” There, I burst his bubble and ruined the comfortable space he had created for himself. Realisation dawned a bit too late.
I return to my slides, trying to find ways of holding my students’ in their new virtual environment. If they get bored, all they need to do is press a button and they’re out of my class, and I wouldn’t even know it. So much has changed. I sit in my chair which seems to have grown into me, intent.
Has the world gone mad? Isn’t that party music?
“EDM”, he says.
He is stretched out on a mat in the middle of the bedroom.
“Amma, I was just doing some sit-ups!” The time is 3.30am.
I try not to laugh.
“I did try Amma, I just can’t fall asleep these days.”
Was it I who said: “Would you like some Nestomalt?
His eyes light up (while probably wondering why he wasn’t getting a whole speech). “Yes please!”
What is wrong with me?
So, I go down and get busy making Nestomalt for my 15 year-old son. From the looks of the kitchen, he’s already been here tonight. Suddenly, I begin to feel proud of him. Two nights ago he was up painting Captain America’s shield. He was being innovative. Finding ways to cope, refusing to let all this break him. I’m not sure how I would have coped at his age in a situation such as this.
Virtual classrooms with O-Level exams looming ahead and no Sinhala tuition, no more football, no face-to-face contact with his friends, people in masks reminding him of the horrors of science fiction movies, no hugging his grandparents, no walking into McDonalds to sit down and have his favourite ice-cream, no chatting with ‘next door aiya’. To add to which ‘Amma’ confiscated his phone and now it’s only rationed time on ‘her’ phone.
I hope all this ends soon and we can return to our ‘normal’ lives again. But I’m not sure I want to return to things the way they were before the lockdown. I wonder what’s going through his mind. Then I think of all his friends, the students I teach, and wonder how they are coping.
When I asked him: “How many people are up at this time of the night doing sit-ups?”
I remember having woken up with a mild headache, which went unattended as I generally avoid recourse to medicines. By mid-afternoon, however, I was compelled to pop a paracetamol in harmony with the Covid-19 protocol of medicines. But it didn’t prove effective against self inflicted cumulative stress brought on by an onslaught of webinars and gigantically enhanced screen time, an unavoidable attendant of the lockdown; more so, as after the third phase, our sarkari offices were open with reduced attendance – no public, only staff and pigeons allowed.
The headache accompanied me to the office, along with the PPE kit, as just another piece of paraphernalia.
Sitting at my office desk, all masked up with a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on the back wall —compulsory in most government offices, with a tag line to reminds one that, ‘the best way to find yourself, is by losing yourself in the service of others’. I continued to juggle a slew of message, being in charge of responding to the needs of migrant labourers, stranded as they stood in cities due to the sudden announcement of the lockdown, far away from home, without proper food or adequate means. The headache was beginning to descend to my temples and I could feel the throbbing in nerves above my ear.
But I was too caught up in mulling over how the graphic audio visuals of the migrants’ lives were being served to us through an a la carte of social media platforms, with utter disregard for the privacy of their lives, because poverty is a much bigger curse than the pandemic can ever be. The virus only kills you once, while penury bleeds you dry, bit by bit, stripping away the last vestige of dignity, throwing us naked to a virus with voracious appetite. We live in a much divided world.
And yet virus has for once, engineered a great homecoming. My headache had by now become viral and I decided to leave for home, eat, pray, sleep, pretty much like Elizabeth Gilbert’s sojourn from Italy to Bali via the Osho Ashram in Pune. Attraversiamo – let’s cross over I said and was back to the safe confines of my home, almost as if by abracadabra. But I needed to bathe and wash my clothes, before I could eat.
The household chores have descended on us, as the scaffolds that hold up our households are snatched away by the requirements of social distancing. Behind every single, successful woman, is a maid who doubles up as Ma. I miss mine- both Ma, in Mumbai and Gattu Bai ji, a few apartments away, separated by a laxman rekha drawn up by an invisible virus.
An afternoon siesta together with the pill, dulled the headache. I decided to make my tea and have it too. Between sips I gaze at the sky through the window of my study, where, every day, I watch with great interest the setting sun, and at night the moon, stars and constellations through my telescope. This isolation is not new for me, having lived alone since I first moved from a small town to a college in Delhi, got a job, and continued to live on my own, ever since. The freedom of being alone has grown on me like pepper grows on a tree, sybaritic and symbiotic.
It’s was close to dinner time and I was still trying to distract myself from the headache, as it refused to recede. I ate noodles for dinner. Sleep evaded me, insomnia laid hold. My hands were itching to paint and I gravitate towards the Buddha quite by serendipity, it becomes a befitting ritualistic oblation, for the Buddha Poornima as I painted long into the night.
I took myself for a long walk today and had another visit south of the river. The relaxation of many lockdown constraints and the contempt for government instruction since the Prime Minister’s special advisor decided he was sufficiently exceptional to make his own rules in lockdown, meant that all the parks and public spaces I visited were packed with sun worshipping picnickers, volleyball players, tennis matches, and group gatherings. I heard one young woman say to a friend as they walked into one park, “Are we social distancing? Is there any point?” I think there is still a point, but I understand the lack of compliance. We must be storing up trouble.
On the subject of trouble, many things came together in my head. My initial target was to reach Brixton, which is around 10km from my flat. There I intended to meet a friend, who has a flat just off Brixton Road, and to have her guide me around south-east London, which is not an area I know at all well. In fact, I have always felt threatened by it. In 1981, on my birthday, Brixton was ablaze and the rioting continued for some days. Railton Road was described like a war zone, as “the front line” on news reports. Today it was sunlit, very tidy and calm.
I was 17 when the Brixton Riots exploded. I am ashamed to say that loaded with white privilege and a reluctance to know anything other than what some sensationalist news reports to me, I associated Brixton with fecklessness and lawlessness, with depredation and dereliction. Despite the changing face of London over many decades, until today I had never done more than drive through it. The reason all of this has played on my mind is that the US is seeing fresh rioting after a black man, George Floyd, was murdered by a white police officer. Alas, that is far from unusual, but this was captured on film. The officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, despite his cries “I can’t breathe” and his calling out for his mother. It is sickening.
The response by the US authorities has been to raise the stakes by patrolling cities with the National Guard. Police are armed and firing rubber bullets into protests. It is more than fifty years since the Civil Rights Movement, and since the assassination of Dr. King. How can so little progress have been made in so long a time? Three years ago, I was introduced to two books that made me wake up to some of my own dormant biases about race, including my stale demonisation of Brixton and its residents. They were Natives by Akala, and Why I no Longer Talk to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Lockdown has enabled me to read Ben Judah’s excoriating analysis of London’s postcodes This is London. I recently finished Albert Woodfox’s Solitary, which updated my views on the US’s attitude to its black male population and I doubt anyone could read it without being appalled by the systemic abuse.
I am one of the more mature (in calendar years rather than mindset) of the mature students at my university. Last year, I had a black mentee. She was really bright and vivacious and described what growing up in Islington had been like for her. Today she sent me a WhatsApp message with a beautiful poem/song about George Floyd’s murder and how sadly unexceptional it was. It reviewed and name-checked multiple victims with pictures of the victims as her moving message unwound.
Lockdown is encouraging a great deal of introspection. It forces some fresh thinking. Many people are asking what they want to see post-lockdown. Before we run with ideas for how much better society can be we need to address the sores that currently hurt us. I know that when I was growing up I knew spectacularly and embarrassingly little about the treatment of African Americans in the US and their attempts at resistance and finding dignity. I was aware of riots in Brixton and Tottenham, but never asked what might be the catalysts for these desperate protests.
My views started to change when I saw the film Cry Freedom in the late ‘80’s, about the murder of black activist, Steve Biko. Although it was about apartheid era South Africa, the first scales started to fall from my eyes. I read Biko’s own writing, and ever so slightly repositioned my world view. Today, I watch the news coverage from many US cities and think about the dignity of protest rather than the property destruction. I certainly do not condone lawless behaviour but laws have to be good laws and upheld by a balanced and tolerant police force. In London, there has been a protest to support the Black Lives Matter organisation. It is getting less news coverage than the government’s decision to allow horse racing to restart.
I walked home from Brixton, I walked through Camberwell and some housing estates close to Old Kent Road. I thought of Ben Judah’s brilliant book and wondered how I would make my life work, if this was home for me and if my job prospects were low.
There are no easy answers, I know that. But if London is not to see rioting again, it needs to address some of the underlying issues of race, poverty and health and employment inequalities. I see little prospect of things improving in the US soon, because it seems to be part of Trump’s election strategy to pit voters against their own neighbours. I hope we in England do better, but today, despite the glorious weather, had a slightly ominous overtone.
I wake up to the news that riots have been raging in the night, sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, earlier in the week. My first response is horror that people are out gathering, now, when the virus will get them. But as my brain wakes up I realize this is also about the virus. The same communities who are being murdered by the police are the ones who’ve have had their jobs deemed essential and had to work through the quarantine – or completely unessential, and have been laid off to fend for themselves. Either way, the fires now raging have been a building for a long time. We knew this was coming, we just didn’t know exactly when.
Still, my neighborhood is quiet. I walk my dog down to Ventura Boulevard, where the shops are opening up. The handful of homeless men who camp out on this stretch during normal times are still here, along with a few newcomers. The music shop is open again, and Urban Outfitters – with signs urging everyone to wear masks and stand six feet apart. The Neapolitan pizza place is hosing down the tables on their patio and setting up for their first day of in-person dining.
Over the last week, we’ve seen the governor of California relax one restriction after another, for no clear reason. Cases have not gone down, benchmarks have not been met. More testing is in place, but no contract-tracing. This same state government that urged us all to stay inside in March, that saved us from the devastation that hit New York, is now washing its hands and telling us to fend for ourselves. All summer camps have been cancelled, all summer fairs and festivals, but they’re opening hair salons next week. Everyone I talk to is confused. No one knows what is ok and not ok anymore.
At home I bake scones for brunch and we eat them while watching the Space X rocket launch the first astronauts to space from US soil in nine years. We hold our breath as it ignites and rises into the sky without a hitch. It’s a moment of victory, and yet, unlike past space missions, not a moment of shared, national unity or pride. This is a private rocket, not a symbol of what we can do together, but of what one man can do with the billions of dollars he has managed to amass from our broken system.
In the afternoon, my daughter and I go out to meet a neighbor and her daughter for a masked scooter ride. This is a first, baby-step into socializing for both of our families. The girls propel themselves around the neighborhood streets for over an hour, chatting nonstop. The mother and I walk behind, catching up what we’ve been doing and not doing during quarantine. We are all energized by the human interaction, and make plans for next baby-steps, with this family that is equally wary about letting their guard down. Maybe we’ll do a sunset hike or a backyard movie together in the coming weeks.
For dinner, we get takeout from a neighborhood gastropub that has not yet opened for in-person dining. Not that we would eat there, or anywhere, yet, if we could. My husband and I have fallen into a Saturday night routine where we send the kids off to eat in front of their screens, and eat alone, as if on a date. It has worked so well that I’m starting to wonder whether we will ever go back to hiring babysitters again.
Halfway through our meal our daughter comes running in to show us a scary alert she has gotten on her phone. The rioting has gotten worse and the mayor has ordered a city-wide curfew, starting at 8pm. All those who have ventured out have an hour to get back into their houses.
Our neighborhood remains quiet through the evening. There is no sign of the uprising from our windows, but after we put the kids to bed, we turn on the TV and watch the city burn.
I violated the lockdown today. Broke quarantine, ignored the toothless warnings issued by multiple state and city governments, and got into a rental car to drive my children 360 miles across four states to rendezvous with my ex-wife at a random Ohio rest stop halfway between us. This is what a custody exchange looks like in the era of Covid-19. We wore our masks, gloves, and doused everything we encountered with copious amounts of sanitizer each time we stepped out of the car, but the trip still felt risky. It’s not my intention to endanger public health, but this exchange was essential. Normally I see my kids every month, but since the lockdown began, forcing the cancellation of any travel, I went 80 days without holding my 4-year old and 7-year old sons in my arms, which is the longest stretch of time we’ve ever been apart. I cannot spend these next two years physically absent from their lives.
It appears that I’m guilty of something akin to what Dominic Cummings did, the chief aide to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is currently being excoriated in the British press for violating the lockdown in April to relocate his family. The key difference between our cases is that Dominic Cummings tested positive for Covid-19, and his family was sick when he traveled, whereas both mine and my ex-wife’s households are healthy and have been under total isolation for months. But movement these days is still fraught with paranoia. Here in the United States, all the local “Shelter-in-Place” orders are largely unenforceable in a country where the federal government has been issuing contradictory guidance and messages for months. The only reason my ex-wife and I agreed to these trips is to sate the desperation in my children’s pleas to see me. We’ll continue doing these exchanges every other month as long as the lockdown persists, or until circumstances dictate something different. And yet, unlike in the UK, no one here will publish scathing rebukes of me, nor will my travel merit any censure, because far worse things are unfolding all around us. Cities are burning across the USA in race riots and anti-government protests, and a spirit of anarchy has filled the vacuum left where we once gave lip service to ideas like “personal accountability” and the “rule of law.” Me and my children schlepping across state lines are the least of this country’s current problems.
But this story is still just beginning. Covid-19 is laying waste to our security and stability just as it is eroding the assumptions underlying everyone’s lives across the planet. The employment opportunities I’ve been looking for to relocate closer to my kids have vanished. My ex-wife’s job is suddenly beset with uncertainty. I’ve been flying to see my children once a month, which was always a somewhat absurd proposition, but has now become a wholly untenable practice. And so it goes for all of us, cut off from the sources of our strength and identity, forced apart from our communities, watching helplessly as the businesses and families around us descend into an endless sea of red ink and unpayable bills. There is nothing about my situation, or my family’s situation, or this country’s situation that is in the least bit sustainable. And yet our elected leaders are avoiding dealing with the reckoning at hand, and are still dodging the hard questions that have arisen everywhere about how we build what comes next, and how we fix what’s so clearly broken.
As I drove through the Appalachians yesterday, through Virginia and Maryland and Pennsylvania, I was reminded of the sheer size of this country. I was on the road for 11 hours, through winding crevasses, under and over mountains, across rivers, and through breathtaking scenes of natural beauty. But this is just a tiny fraction of the USA, and on the highway, you can’t help but marvel at the fact that this country is large enough to encompass multiple realities that do not overlap at all. One reason why Covid-19 is wrecking this country is because we don’t have a singular consciousness that ties us all together, but instead are a loose amalgamation of communities who operate in entirely different worlds from each other. People have the space and freedom to believe whatever they want, and they behave accordingly. As our federal system collapses under the weight of its current incompetence, it becomes little more than a symbolic overarching structure devoid of any real impact on the local level. We then become little more than isolated individuals bearing little responsibility to each other.
What exactly does citizenship mean when the social contract is breaking? The “consent of the governed” erodes further with each passing day. It’s getting harder to see all the independent realities and cultures that exist in this country, and as our leaders foment division and we descend further into the mire of warring tribal mentalities, the task of tying these disparate threads together into a cohesive larger narrative becomes ever more difficult. The USA contains multitudes. But the center cannot hold. Madness is circulating amongst the populace in the form of conspiracy theories that have migrated from the fringes into the beating heart of Middle America. Violence is looming. I wish I knew what my place is in all this, or what I could do to try and fix it, but right now, I’m just trying to get my kids to safety.
Mile after mile after mile, I drove on, thinking that all I really know for certain is that I have to do right by the only people who really need me. Maybe if I get those relationships right, the larger ones we are all supposed to cultivate with each other will fall into place. One can dream. Or, one can simply continue plowing forward, churning towards the future, as the answers we seek recede like the horizon, over the next mountain, around the next bend, and beyond the next cresting hill.
I spotted a house lizard poised to grab a big cockroach on the stairs as I was going for my evening walk. I froze on seeing the cockroach and quietly prayed for the success of the lizard. Unfortunately, the lizard struck too early and the cockroach flew away. I abandoned the stairs and took the elevator.
For as long as I can remember, my dad has been killing cockroaches by whacking them with his slippers. He never bothers to wipe the floor or wash the sole of his slippers. He ignores the disgusting mess such an execution leaves because this insect’s blood is colorless. Meanwhile, the can of Hit insect spray sits idly beside the refrigerator.
I dislike summer. Besides the unbearable heat, these insects become very active. They disappeared for a few days last week when the cyclone hit the city. Quite a few trees have been uprooted in our housing society. A pine tree near the main gate has been restrained with ropes tied to the second-floor balcony of the building next to it. Two big Kadam trees had fallen on and broke the over groundwater pipes. On Wednesday last week, the lights went out in the evening and did not come back for 24 hours. The electric generators betrayed us when we needed them most.
The storm and its after-effects have been especially hard on our octogenarian neighbor Mrs. Sen. She was widowed a few years ago and lives alone. A maid comes daily to help with chores and stays from 10 am to 6 pm. She was by herself for a few days after the cyclone and was urgently trying to locate the electrician to restore the lights in her flat.
The Wi-Fi was restored today. The cable TV connection is still not working properly. When alone, Mrs. Sen turns to the TV to pass her time. Without cable, loneliness has been creeping up on her. She told me the evenings are especially hard. Before the lockdown, she used to go for evening walks, met other elderly women, and sometimes sat down for lengthy conversations. Sometimes her relatives visited her. Sometimes she visited them. My mother calls on her daily, and they chat over a cup of tea. At times, I see her standing behind the iron gates in front of her door and we exchange a few words.
I have had my own struggles with mental health these couple of weeks. I was feeling emotionally volatile, drained of all energy, and depressed. My therapist told me I was feeling this way due to neurochemical changes in my brain. I think these changes were exacerbated by the lockdown. I consulted a psychiatrist and have been taking medication. I am slowly getting back to feeling normal but I am afraid that I might slip back to feeling horrible again.