By Sunila Galappatti
A few days ago my husband reported to me a conversation with our son. He told me because he knew I would want to know. Also, I had been in the room with them at time — where else would I be?
Kavan, nearly three, had apparently tried to speak to me several times but I had not responded. He asked his father,
‘Does Amma not hear me?’
‘I think she is distracted,’ his father replied.
‘Why is she distracted?’
‘Because of the coronavirus’.
You can imagine how I felt, hearing about this exchange — how I resolved to be more present the next day and partially succeeded. This is how it is, we go back and forth, partially succeeding.
As a family we already spent a lot of time together, my husband and I both work flexibly and often at home. Usually we split the working week between us – each day one of us is working, the other is with our son. We live in a spacious apartment on which we don’t have to pay rent, we think we can go weeks till our last grains are gone and we have small savings that can be made to last us a few months either in lockdown or when we emerge to no work. We have a balcony and a mango tree, we like each other’s company. We are minutely conscious of our good luck.
We possess the art of staying home, but the context does transform it. A few days ago Sri Lanka passed the 100 patient mark, last night we had our first death from the coronavirus. Each morning we read with horror the numbers from Italy and Spain and the grim projections for the UK, my other homeland. The prospects for Pakistan look bleak. Sometimes we forget not to be obsessive about checking updates – not just on the spread of the coronavirus but the effects of this crisis on those without food or work or stable mental health.
We try to set rules about our time online and we fail. We try to remember to play music and we fail. We want to be in touch with our friends but are disoriented by the experience of talking only through a screen. Every day I remember someone else I should check on. I do an exercise class online and we make sure to walk or cycle on our lane in the evenings, talking to our neighbours doing the same (at a distance). We’re trying not to enter the frenzy of online ordering – I find more relief in careful meal planning, using things in the order they will perish, rationing onions, tomatoes, tonic. We eat well and feel guilty about it. We seem to be cooking new food, paced by our ingredients and preferring food that veers away from our former everydays. I am becoming a slightly more archetypal South Asian mother – I chivvy my child, anxious he should not waste the food and nutrition that come his way. Our son finds it hardest that people don’t come over any more. I haven’t yet found the stillness to read.
Today we’re trying out a new schedule of how we will manage to work each day but also mark this time as particular, and do different things with it. We’re remembering too not to over-aspire or back our days into a corner – we grew up with periods of uncertainty and conflict, we recognise the value of letting oneself feel it. I am conscious of the odds – we are unlikely to get through this time without adding the more personal grief of losing someone we know to it. Several times a day, our small son does something magically funny.
Tension and solace alternate, basically.
On Monday night, I prepared anxiously for an early morning departure the moment our curfew lifted the next morning – into different bags went shopping list, gloves, mask, money, snacks for the child (who would wait in the car with his father), water, whatever else we thought we might need in case it took a long time. Pancake batter prepped for breakfast at 5.30am.
On Tuesday morning we still scrambled, leaving the house five minutes after the curfew lifted at 6am, to discover there was already a three block queue at the supermarket we’d had in mind. We found a tiny outlet with a shorter, better spaced, queue and I waited only an hour for my turn. Only now thinking back do I realise how quiet it was – everyone waited, silent with their thoughts. There was the feeling that since the curfew was first imposed the penny had dropped somewhat. Later that morning a friend called – she’d picked up some extra greens for us (we hadn’t managed to get any ourselves). A little later, she managed to find eggs. We stood on what is usually a busy thoroughfare, gingerly transferring eggs, packed in straw, from her bag to mine. We laughed and promised to remember this.
On Wednesday we spent the morning plucking mangoes off the tree my great grandfather planted. In terms of solace, nothing came close to this moment. Then in the evening we washing them, packed them (in gloves) and hung them on our neighbours’ gates.
It is becoming harder to tell the days apart – or rather they have begun to feel very far apart, distanced from each other. I did manage to pick up a book two days ago – on the single page I read, a character left the house to go to a garden centre. I was a little shocked how cavalier he was about it. Do you know, across Colombo, we are missing the tabebuia rosea in bloom?