29 March, Colombo, Sri Lanka

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?

29 March, Hertfordshire, UK

By Katharine Richardson

This is the first Sunday since our lockdown began and the day the clocks go forward an hour in the UK. This is usually one of my favourite Sundays of the year. It symbolises spring, the nights getting lighter and it feels like the world is emerging out of its hibernation gently feeling it’s sleepy head towards summer. This year we are drawing in, moving opposite to the seasons, no opening like buds on trees for us, we are closing down, burrowing in.

The world is definitely changing quicker than we can imagine, only a week or so ago we were free to go about our business, albeit advised to stay at a two metre distance from people, our civil liberties were as they had always been. I never in my life imagined I would be comforted by these being taken away. It horrifies me to think it let alone write it, but when I knew we were being forced to stay home it felt like safety was in our reach.

In a situation such as this there is an absolute lack of power, which I find entirely over whelming.  There is nothing to do other than wait and those of us who have ever had to wait for news of a loved ones safety, or a diagnosis, or a baby to take its first breath will know that waiting can be the most excruciating time spent in what feels like an empty pause. I feel like the entire world has inhaled and we want to collectively breathe out so badly, we want to exhale so much our cheeks our red and bursting but we can’t, we have to wait and wait and wait.

I know that structure is needed in our home. Already school work is sporadic and there is way too much screen time for the kids, but I know this takes them to a place where they stop thinking about the virus and so I let it go because I want to give them comfort and it seems an easy way to do it.  Cowardly of me, perhaps. I know we will have to re-find a routine and it’s only week one out of how many we don’t know, I am thinking twelve is an optimistic estimate, so I am trying to be kind to our lack of structure and sit in the strangeness for a bit, maybe it will start to feel normal too.

Every day we are getting out for a walk and the simple things are becoming luxuries which I know is a shared experience across the world right now. We are all learning to appreciate the sound of birds, the sun on our faces, the smile of a stranger as they cross the street to create distance, a phone call to hear a voice, the internet for it’s power of connection, the warmth of our homes, our health, our National Health Service! How did it take this for so many people to realise the need for our NHS, for community not fractured society, for equality as the virus takes no care for rich or poor.  But that’s another conversation which would not be right for now.  I can’t even think about the politics of this just yet, in fact I don’t believe I can really think at all. So much time to read books or watch films and yet I can’t focus on a single thing for more than a few minutes. The underlying anxiety is too disturbing, like an undercurrent in a river that appears to be still until you try to swim it and get pulled under.

I am battling daily with how this entire situation is making me feel. I am naturally an anxious person and I sit with feelings for way too long, indulgent to emotions some would say. I feel like a magnifying glass has just been placed over my entire inner panic and I am unable to not see it every second. I have limited my intake of news, why feed the beast of fear?

I do believe there are lessons to be learned from this experience and I do believe we will come through it stronger and better than before. If we don’t ultimately allow ourselves to believe that then what is the point?  I know I am in a much better situation than so many and it would be ludicrous of me to sit in self-pity right now, or ever, come to think of it.

So there is my little mantra that I am carrying – one many of us know, ‘BE HERE NOW.’ Its an oldie but a goodie because it so beautifully true.  I panic when I think of my loved ones getting sick, I panic when I think of running out of something essential, I panic when I feel trapped and claustrophobic in the vast expanse of time that I can’t fucking control but then I remember – ‘Be here now’. That is my discipline in all of this – forget what life was like even five minutes ago, stop worrying about what life will be tomorrow or when this ends and oh God when will it end and…. ok off we go again…’be here now’. Now in this moment, my children are warm and safe and have all they need to thrive, what an almighty privilege to be able to say that. Now, this very second, this precious moment is ok; I will sit with this feeling, love all those in my life even from afar and be here now.  When I said to a friend recently that I struggle with the uncertainty she said “ How odd, because that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed”.

29 March, Modinagar, India

By Rakshit Kumar

Last sunday we observed the people’s curfew requested by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Next evening, he said that the whole nation would be in a locked down state for the next 21 days. That was the first time I was worried about all this.

My college has been closed since early March. It is my last semester of engineering and I am worried that the exams may have to be postponed. All the government job exams are already postponed.

Recently my father underwent an operation on his right eye. Due to an infection, his left eye is also hurting but the doctor is not coming to his clinic due to the lockdown even when it is an essential service and allowed to function. We are consulting him on Whatsapp.

All the non-essential shops and businesses are closed. People are not being stopped from coming out of their homes, particularly in small towns. But there are stricter norms in big cities like Delhi, Mumbai etc. The administration is battling to control the large crowds of migrant labourers heading towards their hometowns, which are as far as 1500km from these cities. But the workers have no other option as they are running out of money and have no work to do. Every crisis affects the marginalised the most.

Yesterday, it rained here. I took a photo of the sky after it stopped. It is very hard to pass time when you have nothing to do.

29 March, Berkeley, California, USA

By Rachel Shipps

I wake up with a scratchy throat from the space heater. The light creeping around the curtain is as gentle gray as yesterday, and the birds as loud. I look at social media automatically, then try to put my contact lens in with difficulty. After washing it out several times, it finally feels normal.

For breakfast, I eat a poppy seed bagel sent last week by my sister. It’s both soft and buoyant, delicious. I put butter on it, and salt, and dip it in labne.  While I’m doing this we talk on FaceTime. The connection is spotty, but we manage to hear everything in the end. The baby is with her and he’s learning to wave. Today he waves broadly, a carnivalesque wave.

Outside, the apple tree is still blooming. It’s now two weeks and one day since the Bay Area counties went into shelter-in-place status. Outside, I know people are walking on the mostly-empty streets. Cars are still driving. Some seem more considerate than usual towards pedestrians, and others are speeding wildly. For myself, when I’ve driven, I’ve been nervous, my arms floating out in front of me on the wheel, knowing that any risk of accident is terrible. Outside the dispensaries, there are still lines, and outside the grocery stores, the lines are very long as everyone is spaced six feet apart.

I draw yesterday’s lemon, the other half squeezed into tea, for a museum’s open drawing project (MAPR). It feels both frustrating and pleasant, and as usual I can’t capture the jeweled juiciness of it, the slight drawing together of the skin. The pen scratching against the paper feels good, though.

I try to read slower news sites, that is, sites other than Twitter. I’m somewhat addicted to reactions – they feel comforting alongside all the fear and incredulity they also inspire.

Later, I know I’ll walk through the neighborhood with my person. The trees will be blossoming and the sky slightly misting again. There will be the anxiety when encountering the few other people and we’ll fight it by saying hello across a wide space. We’ll play mandolin with my mom in the night, over video, in some way.

29 March, Coimbatore, India

By Amutha Kannan

Happy birthday to me! I wake up to another day and another birthday.  For all the right reasons I know I should be grateful to be alive. I know it calls for a celebration.

I also know there is not going to be the usual festive mood, new dress, special meal, or the bakery-baked customary cake usually associated with this day.  The husband and the two children do quite well by not mentioning it. 

I decide to keep the mood upbeat. Even think of wearing something new.  But realise I have nothing. My mom, who called me (from Chennai) last night to wish me in advance, wanted me to wear a saree along with the red and white stone set (necklace, two bangles and studs) – an heirloom. When I sounded appalled at her suggestion, considering the situation, she said: “just long enough to take a picture that you can send me on WhatsApp”.

Now I open the WhatsApp and the first wish I read is from my Madras University MA Mass Comm. group. We are a small quiet group (you have to believe me) of 16. As I read the messages, I decide which dress. We celebrated our silver jubilee reunion in 2019, where we had a colour code. What better than the dress I wore that day!

The dress out of the way, I go to check on the cats. My husband is in the Defence and we live on a campus. Our house has a garden and a closed garage. This serves as a mini-shelter.  We foster cats – wounded, abandoned, normal too. One abandoned cat has littered. She and her four 40-day-old kittens are the present occupants of the garage.

To my dismay I see Brownie making weird sounds and there is no sight or sound of her kittens.  I alert my husband.  Just like a man, he is cool as a cucumber, and assures us that the kittens must be behind one of the boxes (our packing stuff). But Brownie continues her cries and restless movement. Some time and a thorough search later, my son makes the announcement that all four kittens are missing.

Then all hell breaks loose. Flash lights from mobile phones are switched on and the search behind the boxes and along narrow crevices, begins. When this doesn’t yield result, the search spreads out. While father and son follow a trail, self and daughter pacify the worried mother (all the while thoughts of a large cat killing the kittens flooding our minds).

 After much effort, two are found in an officer’s partly-open garage, and two others are identified (by their sounds) to be in another officer’s locked garage. The revelation as to how they got into that garage through a side ventilator will come to us only at 11 p.m.

The garage is opened and by the time the whole rescue operation comes to an end, more than two hours have passed.  The kittens and mother are safe in our garage and the father and son duo go for their much-needed baths.  It is almost lunch time and I rustle up a quick decent biriyani.  We still can’t get over the fact that the kittens could walk that far and climb through the ventilator into the locked garage.  All the while, we feel sorry for Brownie.

The afternoon is spent catching a movie, followed by some gardening by the husband and the kids. I coordinate, via phone, some grocery delivery work initiated by a voluntary team. Thoughts of my birthday far away from any of our minds, we go around doing our things. Then around 6.30 p.m. my 17-year-old daughter calls me to the dining hall. 

Lo and behold! What do I find ? Three candles flicker in a small coffee mug (I have to come close to find a coffee-coloured cake below the candles), and a phone (held by my daughter) screen showing us connected to my uncle, my cousin and her husband, through a video call.

And, that is my surprise birthday cake in a cup, made by my daughter who has not baked one in her life (nor for that matter seen her journo mother bake one). I blow the candles as my family and extended family sing “Happy Birthday”. Now there is no space to insert a knife and cut the tiny doofer of a cake, so I scoop out a bit with a spoon.  Four of us taste a bit of it (four different spoons, following the social distancing diktat). It tastes yummy.

Later I get to hear from my daughter how she rustled up the “lockdown cake” from wheat, milk, coffee powder, sugar and some butter, all in a microwave, ably guided by my cousin. No maida, no baking powder, no eggs (we didn’t have any of them)! It warmed the cockles of my heart.

As is the habit, we go out for a post-dinner stroll.  As we step out, we check the garage to see if all is well.  To our collective dismay, all the kittens, including the mother are missing. We rush to the once-again locked garage from where they were rescued, and what do we find? Three kittens peacefully huddled below the ventilator; the fourth can be heard making noises inside. But where is Brownie? We slowly look up to find her happily stretched out on the ventilator sill.

29 March, Toronto, Canada

By Anonymous

My phone reports an average of 9 hours 45 minutes of screen time for this week, up by 12% from the week before. This morning as I woke up at six, with remorse from last night’s tempestuous affair, I resolved to spend more time offline. 

Before getting ready for work, however, I checked my notifications. My aunt in India had sent me a WhatsApp forward which urged people to call Corona “Narayan” because rebranding it as a pious entity would change its fatal propensities. I chuckled while reading and immediately turned around to see if I’d woken my roommate. Apparently, he hadn’t gone to bed because he couldn’t fall asleep.

At my usual relaxed pace, I went to the bus stop and boarded from the bus’ rear door. The front door doesn’t open anymore and the driver’s area is cordoned from the inside with yellow tape to protect him/her from infection. I tried to spot the usual crowd but couldn’t recognise most of my weekend co-travellers behind their masks. Only a few seats were empty so I leapt at the one furthest away from everyone.

I work as a weekend security guard in a residential building in downtown Toronto. My job has been listed as an essential service by the provincial government, which closed down all non-essential workplaces earlier this week. 

My younger sister had called me yesterday to convince me to stay home. My elder sister texted today as I reached work to reiterate yesterday’s point. 

“Have you taken days off yet?”

“There are so many reasons not to.”

“More important than health?”

I knew I had to call her. I am an international student in Toronto and this is my last semester. My convocation was to be in June but is now postponed. My college suspended on-campus classes two weeks ago quickly moving everything online. I worked as a tutor at college, but my department isn’t giving me any more shifts even though they’re paying me till the end of this semester. With the looming unemployment crises, I am worried about finding a full time job within the next few months. If I leave my security guard job now, chances are low whether I’ll get it back once things get better when everyone else will also start looking for employment.

“God has always helped you and given you food until now, why won’t he continue? Plan your money for food and longer sustenance”, she said.

There goes my plan to buy Apple AirPods.

There is a positive case in the building that I work in. Even though I’m young, I am no longer confident about my immunity against the virus. I’ve read so many accounts online about youngsters suffering severe symptoms. I am a bit scared. I will have to rethink my choice to continue working.

Nine hours since my resolve to abstain from digital dopamine, I have already used my phone for a whopping four hours. 

29 March, Kandy, Sri Lanka

By Dash Cooray

A man died yesterday. The first casualty of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka. He was my mother’s age.

I found myself go quiet when I heard the news. All the chattering that goes on in my head round the clock, the voices that wonder and think and panic and organise the chaos; they all went silent.

My first thought was that a man died and he was my mother’s age. He had a kidney transplant. My mother had kidney stones. He had diabetes. My mother has diabetes. I had assumed that the country would come out of this unscathed. That all the draconian measures would pay off.

But he’s gone now. Ashes to ashes and I won’t know anything else about him.

It jolted me out of the mindless cocoon of routine to which I had resigned myself for the last two weeks. My co-workers panic every day, but I have been fine. I am fine. I love working from home. We live in the countryside; we don’t come in contact with other human beings unless it is deliberate. I have a long pile of books that need to be read.

My mother’s been to our nearest little town twice when the curfew’s relaxed.  She goes instead of us because people know her and thanks to the selfless way my parents helped the people in this area in troubled times, our surname precedes us. She donned a mask and went straight to the shower after she got back with the groceries. She said people are not afraid. They fear hunger and that is a much more fearsome enemy than some viral infection.

Kandy was safe until last night. Now one of the towns is in lockdown. It’s one of those overcrowded towns with houses built on top of houses and crammed into ungodly crannies. A friend lives there. She has three children. I go to call her but realise I don’t have her number.

I was under the impression that our privileges will keep us safe. And maybe they will. Maybe we will come out of this unscathed.

I sit on my bed in the midst of a pile of books, typing this out. I was under the impression that to bear witness to history as it happens around you was something magnanimous. But it is not.

It’s uncertain. It’s like the bead of sweat that escapes my hair drawn into a slick updo and trickles down my spine at an agonisingly languid pace. It is a constant battle with the root of my voices, that anxious, record skip drone that is always asking me for answers I cannot provide.

There is no conclusion to what I write. No defining moment where I make a realisation like Archimedes in his bathtub. It’s just a quiet thought, a rumination that I am in the midst of something so vast in its awfulness and that is precisely why it will end up making history.

28 March, Cairns, Australia

By Mel Wicks

Today, the Queensland Government forced us to go to the polls to vote in the state-wide local council elections. When I say forced, I don’t mean we were marched to the polling booths at gunpoint. But I do mean voting is compulsory and we’ll receive a fine of $133 if we don’t show up.

We were repeatedly told by the Premier of Queensland, and her equally political Chief Health Officer, that “it is safe for the elections to go ahead.”

And their safety advice? Stay 1.5m apart from each other, bring your own pen and don’t hang around.

So here’s what actually happened.

I arrived at the polling station just after 8am when it opened. The queue was already 30-deep, snaking around the building and beginning to double up on itself. Still more voters were arriving by the minute.

There was one person directing new arrivals to the back of the queue, reminding them to practice social distancing. We obediently followed his direction.

And then he left. No-one else was in charge.

The first entrance was through a gate less than a metre wide and then, at the head of the queue, there was one door into the building. We were expected to arrive and leave the same way, passing everyone else as we did so. How exactly did the Queensland Government imagine we were supposed to keep 1.5m distance from each other under those circumstances?  

It took around 20 minutes to reach the building. Once inside I had to stand on a marked cross and shout my name at the polling assistant who handed me two voting cards. I pinched them between my fingers like a dirty nappy in my disposable-gloved left hand. In my right, I clutched my own pen.

I walked over to the widely spaced voting booths, four white-cardboard-hotbeds of coronavirus and wondered how many people had already sneezed and coughed into their festering corners.

My skin was crawling. I was holding my breath and shaking with anger as I marked my cross on their wretched cards.

How dare they force us to do this in the middle of a pandemic. How dare our own government tell us to avoid gatherings, stay home and practice self-isolation and then threaten us with a fine if we don’t come out to vote – in our millions.

I came straight home and told Russell not to go near the place. Don’t vote. Nor will we pay their hypocritical fine.

Right now I am back in the safety of my garden, still seething with rage, but calmed by the gentle lapping of the Coral Sea. Things will get better. Life will resume. But I don’t think I will ever vote again.

28 March, Kolkata, India

By Keshav Chakraborty

It’s the 4th day of Lockdown in India. On any normal day, by this time I would be in the Gym, buffing up and sweating, thereafter, with my friends I’d go for refreshment to the Sattu Thela wala. After that, returning back home and doing some assignments: the normal life. We own a retail garments shop and often I’d go there to help dad. It was always fun, I had a lot of friends, elder and younger, great time-pass buddies. I’ve got to mention about having a sip of tea and a biscuit, sometimes an omelette, and our adda at Tapos da’s Biker Dhaba or Rakeshdar dokan. The huge fleet of bikes, and also my guitar classes without which life has become more dull. Now everything has come to a standstill. But probably I am leading a more disciplined life now. Anyways, missing them, missing my friends, missing our gossips. Feels like I am cabined and confined to a cage. Fingers crossed, let’s hope for the best and we’ll surely win this battle.

27 March, Nantes, France

By Blandine Chambost

This morning I made soup. I called my next door neighbour Pascale, asking if she would like some and she immediately accepted. It was nice to cook not just for our family but with an extra person in mind. Pascale was diagnosed with Covid-19 yesterday, just like our opposite neighbour the day before. We text regularly, sometimes even talk across the landing. I have admired their calmness, away from the media frenzy. The virus is here then, not just in the news, but an unwelcome guest in our building. Time for soup, time for taking care of one another, beyond our immediate circle.

I rarely follow recipes but the idea of this soup I found in a book which is a collection of testimonies each illustrated with a favourite dish. Often people tell about their childhood and reminisce something their mother, grandmother or uncle cooked. This particular recipe was inherited from a Sicilian mother who grew up on a farm and would make broths, season after season, with every possible vegetable available from the land. What appealed was not just that I had all the ingredients, but that the soup had a Mediterranean twist to it. Once I added the final touch of cumin and lemon juice combined, the whole kitchen smelt of some remote place – Greece? Turkey? – I once travelled to. This sensation came as a surprise, and I was pleased to deliver not just food, but an escape, to someone confined to bed.

From a series by Camille Labro published weekly in the magazine of Le Monde and collected in Affaires de goût: 80 recettes mémoire, Editions du Rouergue, 2018