By Anandi Mishra
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.
By Mrudvi Bakshi
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.”
“Love you, Nani,” I say.
By Sunila Galappatti
I am restless, dissipated, finally feeling confined. Suddenly it feels too much to live and eat and work and play in the same room. To some degree, we did it before lockdown too, but it feels different now. I suddenly find I can’t concentrate on work when my husband and son are negotiating a jigsaw or reading a story or arguing behind me. Then I find it hard in turn to think of activities for my son when my husband takes his allocated hours at the computer. I wouldn’t dream of complaining about these things.
I haven’t carried a handbag since March. I don’t really need to – I rarely go anywhere on my own anymore. My husband and I go shopping once a week between 10 and 12 on Friday morning while our son is with his grandmother. We go masked and armed with sanitiser and that slightly pressed feeling we have when out in public now, anxious, hot and trying not to touch the itchy cotton stretched across our faces. If we run out of something midweek, we don’t replace it. Because of a stray vulnerability I am especially shielded – I go out less than my husband does, I also don’t drive. Our son who might need it most, goes out least of all.
If we’re up early enough and enthusiastically enough, we walk in the park while it’s empty. The three year old wears a mask only as an accessory, not to be left out. We can afford to let him pull it on and off, hallmarks of bad mask practice, only because the risk of infection is evidently low in Sri Lanka at the moment. We go to visit another part of our family, we have been to the houses of three sets of friends. Tonight we counted – since the middle of May when the lockdown eased in our ‘high-risk’ part of Sri Lanka, we’ve been to 17 different places including a supermarket, a market, a pharmacy, three ATMs, two parks, the edge of a forest and the ocean. We started with the ocean and took a few weeks to succumb to the supermarket. It seems like a lot of places when we count them on our fingers but who would have imagined previously we could trace two months of movement on our fingers or even remember at all. We now live on tiny planet confined to its axis, the horizon a measured two metres away.
Last night, while Kusal was working I talked to two friends on the phone, something I’ve rarely done in recent years. It reminded me of the way we talked to friends on the phone when we were young – trying to make sense of the life we found around us.
The first friend I spoke to was in London, we have known each other since we were 18. She rang already laughing, after reading a disgruntled text message I’d sent. We compared notes and narrowed it down to a sense of abandon we are missing from life as we knew it before. ‘It isn’t even that I would necessarily want to be in muddy field at a music festival,’ she said, ‘I’m just conscious that I may never do anything like that again’. I said ‘I just wish I could do something unplanned – nowadays I go out for purpose, I never sidetrack into something else.’ We have learnt a lot about contentment of late but lost some exuberance.
The next friend I spoke to lives just twenty minutes’ across the city. We talked about the feeling that people have made it through lockdown and emerged into trouble. So many people we know have fallen and broken bones since the end of lockdown. We know the worst of everything is yet to come but some part of these last months – the uncertainty, grief and anger in them – is already coming home to roost.
This morning at the supermarket, Kusal and I bumped into several people we know (this is not unusual in Colombo). But we were all awkward – happy to see each other but what do we talk of now? Our easiest conversation was with a woman we barely know – whom we’d seen almost every day through lockdown because our children befriended each other playing on the empty street outside our houses. I felt faintly compelled to explain our embarrassingly heaped trolleys – that this particular morning we were re-stocking dry goods to prepare for a second lockdown should it come. But then I glanced at our friends’ trollies and they didn’t look all that different.
I have nothing to complain of but I’m conscious of losing focus. During the lockdown we had a gentleness, we always ate with our child, we spent quiet times playing board games with him, we cycled in our deserted streets, we looked after each other, we were all present. We felt closer to the rest of the world then than we do now – conscious it was there, quieted. Now we feel the distance, the world is peopled and noisy but at arm’s length. We often wonder where a day has got to, our parenting is at its lowest ebb, we shout at our child, he rages back. There is no stillness to be found in the house though we search and search for it.
By Havaca Ganguly
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.
By Pasan Jayasinghe
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.
By the Editor
The first entry in this journal was written about 15 March 2020 – today 22 June 2020 is day 100. For many of us it is a day spent at least approximately unlocked as well as at least approximately uncertain.
As many of us return to working beyond our homes, as our governments talk of re-starting ‘the economy’, as we are overtaken by new and pressing matters in our politics and our personal lives, as case numbers fall and sometimes rise again, as changes bite, entries to this journal also slow. This is natural and we don’t resist it.
But we will keep the door open – for those who wish to reflect, read and write here through the coming year. For it is really now that we will begin to learn the detail of how this pandemic has and has not changed us and the way we live on Earth.
Please keep writing in, please keep reading and please keep bringing other people to this meeting place.
By Ivana MacKinnon
London is no longer a place where anything seems to make any sense. What rules are we living under – who knows now? Some people are still sheltering in place, others are having picnics that look more like wrestling matches, and Primark re-opening seems to be the thing the whole country has been waiting for. Things seem to be getting better, but at the most gradual rate imaginable – and the looming threat of the economy is starting to bite. Last night, I accidentally read the news just before sleeping and slept badly. It didn’t help that I read the news and then went on Twitter to read the opinions. Which were, as always, like looking into the Sarlaac. This country is so angry, and we are about to have a hot, hot summer.
Today we drove to a river just outside London to meet my sister-in-law and her family and go wild swimming. Apparently the small bank there has been overrun by London people since lockdown and now the locals mutter darkly about “The London Beach” – but it was overcast when we arrived, so we were the only people there. We spread out our socially distanced blankets to sit on, which means taking up what seems like four times as much space as we would have, and got out the paddle board we’d just bought as a way to make open water near London more appealing. I realised quickly that I hate paddle boarding, but the water was amazing. We ate our picnic, more relaxed about sharing grapes than we have been previously, and I noticed that after three months of no one touching anyone, people seem to be slipping – someone touching a toddler’s head; hands touching when passing things. They all fire electric signals in my brain like someone has drawn round the place of touch with a huge flourescent marker pen. Over the last few days, everyone’s perception seems to have shifted, like there is something in the air, into a feeling that things have to start relaxing and people have to start living again – I don’t know if it’s that people quite simply want to enjoy the summer; or feel the rates are so far down they can chill; or are always three days ahead of the government guidance; or have decided all the vulnerable people can just stay in their houses for time; or are just at the end of their tether. But it feels like we are all hooked up to one enormous brain in some way, and that brain has let some of its walls down so everyone else has too.
On Friday I’d cycled into Stoke Newington to have a pint bought take-away from a pub. The queue at the pub, the open shops, the park – everything was like a festival. I’ve never seen it so full, mainly of people in their 20s – and since our area is still cautious, I hyperventilated for the first half hour, completely freaked out. But maybe, quite simply, all the 20 year olds are just going to get it and have antibodies and then quietly take over — and maybe that will shake the world up in a good way. It could certainly go some way to solving our diversity problem in the film industry by Corona-smashing the glass ceilings.
I realised halfway through our wild swim that we were right down the road from a friend who had moved out of London, so on the way home we dropped in to say hi to her and drank half a bottle of white wine in the sun as I realised I had completely sunburned my face. And, again, it felt almost normal.
At home we realised our fridge wasn’t working and had to decant everything into an ice box. Now it feels like we are on a camping holiday in our own house. Maybe that’s what the summer will be. It might not be so bad.
By Rachel Smyth
Today has been a tough day. I’m typing this on my phone, crouched in the darkness of my bedroom, while my daughter sleeps. I know I should be sleeping too and will regret the missed sleep in the morning. But I want to do something for myself today – and so, I write.
It hasn’t been an exceptional day today, so I’m not really sure why it’s been so hard. My husband has been ill for a few days and is pretty much out of action following a minor operation yesterday. All the household chores and childcare have fallen to me. This was normal pre-lockdown. However since my husband was furloughed in April, these responsibilities have been somewhat more equally divided.
I am, maybe unfairly, resentful that my husband can rest when he needs to and can recuperate when he’s ill. Since my daughter was born, this has been impossible for me. I’ve had to carry on through an unplanned c-section, countless colds (an unwanted perk of playgroups), several bouts of mastitis, a particularly delightful episode of norovirus and other illnesses. The extra practical, physical and mental load can be exhausting. When you combine it with the fact that my daughter rarely naps anymore, the days can feel long and there’s little opportunity for any respite.
I’ve definitely taken my frustrations out on my daughter today by being more impatient with her than usual. I feel bad for it and for not being able to give her enough of my time and attention the past few days. I’ve promised her that I will do better tomorrow. Told her that Mummy is tired and I’m sorry. Although she’s only just turned 3, she seems to understand and gives me a big hug. Mother guilt is very much present and real today.
Tomorrow is Father’s Day. I am meeting my parents and siblings in the morning for a “socially distant” get together. The never-ending lockdown in England and our ever-increasing death count are equally depressing and infuriating. I’m angry at how useless our government has been through the whole pandemic so far and their apparent lack of accountability. Everyone talks of moving towards a ‘new normal’ but for now, I just feel stuck in a weird limbo with no end in sight.
The weather has been terrible here the past week. It’s made it much more difficult to escape the confines of our house for some much-needed fresh air and a change of scenery. After days of grey skies and rain, we have warmer weather coming again. I can’t wait for the sunshine.
By Sauliha Yaseen
I am remembering the evacuation flight from Dhaka six weeks ago.
As the flight took off, I was overwhelmed by a strange fatigue already, like a premature jetlag setting in. This flight was special, an evacuation flight specially arranged to ferry students from COVID-19-hit Bangladesh to COVID-19-hit Kashmir.
We had reached the airport in the wee hours of the humid morning of 8 May, 2020. The airport was bereft of people, engulfed in a strange silence, something with which we have recently become acquainted. The only flight that was going to depart was ours. People in masks and gloves stood at a distance, wary of each other. The airline staff did not haggle over stray pounds of extra cabin baggage and the usually tepid immigration officers were remarkably quick.
I wasn’t carrying much luggage. How could I? Is it even possible to wrap up six years in just one night and fit everything into a forty five inch suitcase? I had lived in Bangladesh for six years, finished at college, earned my degree, crossed a couple of milestones in my life. Most importantly, it was a place I had made countless memories with so many people. How was I supposed to wind up everything and say my final goodbyes to all those people? This wasn’t how I had pictured the end of my journey in the country.
One fine evening, when the lockdown was in full force and COVID-19 cases were on a steep rise, we’d received an email from the High Commission that an evacuation flight had been arranged for us and we were going to be sent home ‘very soon’. The ‘very soon’ part turned out to be two days later. It was chaotic, distressing, and left me surprised at my own ambivalence. My first reaction was to be happy that I would finally be home. My second reaction was a pit that I felt in my stomach, my heart slowly slipping into it. I was about to lose a place that had been home to me for over six years, to lose people who had been family to me through thick and thin all those years. Most importantly, I would not get to say a proper goodbye any of them.
Soon this grief was replaced by uncertainty. Was this really going to be my final journey out of Bangladesh? Would I ever get a chance to come back? I stood staring at my closet, thinking about what I should take and what I should leave behind to come back for. This entire process was gruelling. ‘Should I take this flight and go home or should I wait for things to get better?’ I kept debating with myself for hours. The possibility of things getting better was nowhere close on the horizon. Going home seemed the saner choice. But then there was a part of me, a significant one, that wanted to stay back for closure.
I started counting hours. I had some thirty six hours to make calls, to say goodbyes, to pack up and I was undecided as to which I would start with. I picked up the phone and started calling up friends.
My hands trembled as I dialled each number, one by one. A very close friend had tested positive a week back, I called up to say that I would be leaving soon. I could hear a sigh on the other side. There was going to be no formal valediction, no farewell hugs, not even a parting handshake. One must thank technology but even a fifty minute video-call wasn’t enough. There was no replacement for human touch when it came to expressing love. We were stripped of this way of expressing solidarity; making the other person believe how much you love them, feeling their energy seep into you and transform into a precious positivity that then share with the next person. This cascade of tenderness had been dismantled and we were left to concoct substitutes.
As human beings we claimed to be at the pinnacle of evolution but here we were floored by something placed towards the bottom of that same hierarchy. I was baffled by the sheer irony of what was happening. Yet, I saw people fighting back, trying doubly hard to express their love through unconventional means, in any way possible, from a distance of two metres away, and I felt the same warm fuzzy feeling in my chest, the one probably called hope.