Durga puja is the worship of Goddess Durga. According to Hindu mythology, in autumn, Ma Durga “comes home” to earth for five days from her Himalayan abode. A Bengali eagerly waits for autumn the entire year. Marquees called pandals are erected in neighborhoods and housing societies to worship her. We shop for the best-looking clothes, decide what to wear on each day of the five days; make plans to meet friends, and go pandal-hopping much in advance. The city takes on a whole new and more chaotic character.
This year’s Durga Puja – arguably the biggest religious and cultural event in eastern India, was vapid. Under strict orders from the Calcutta High Court, organizers had to cordon off the entrances to the pandals, and sentries posted near them discouraged pandal-hoppers from lingering for too long. I managed to visit a few pandals before the festivities began in earnest. The size of the crowd was laughable compared to other years.
In my housing society, a pandal constructed with bamboo poles and covered in colored fabric and tarpaulin is erected every year. Watching the pandal take shape is also an exciting process as we count down the days leading to the puja. This year, the organizers opted for a metal structure that was erected in a few hours. The marquee was huge but the Durga idol was small and gatherings were sparse. There was no life at the festival. Cultural programs, a norm in the evenings during the festival, were axed. Instead, there were some impromptu performances.
Almost immediately after the end of the festival, my mother tested positive for the Coronavirus. I, along with my parents and younger sister, went into self-isolation. Today is the eleventh day of our quarantine. We will be able to go out again after three days. Honestly, I am apprehensive about how people are going to react to us. Will they avoid us out of fear? Will we be censured? Being able to go out again is exciting, but these nagging thoughts are not.
Kali puja or the worship of goddess Kali is next week. She is my favorite Hindu deity. She has dark skin, wild hair; is naked and very, very angry. To me, she is the perfect antithesis of established societal norms. For now, Kali gives me courage. I think of her to keep my anxiety at bay.
Today is the very first day of the newest lockdown. Yesterday morning, despite the dazzling sun, it felt like winter had crept in and I watched as cold-air-smoke billowed from my mouth.
Whilst working at my desk this morning for seemingly the 34835798375 day, I think about how we’ve woven in and out of lockdowns with undetermined timelines and ill-defined rules. We’re left feeling guilty and selfish, for the mistakes and delays of our government. Then I refresh the news to watch as another nation chooses their government, so far away, so influential. I live in a (mostly) quiet grove in South London. I picture the rows of houses to my left and right, with everyone sat at their laptop in the same position as me, scrolling and refreshing. Occasionally typing. But really, I still don’t know what my neighbours do, despite months separated only by a thin wall. I think of what I can cook for the commune – my home – this evening.
By midday, the sun is out (London, this is unlike you!). I am curious about anyone I see pass by the window. Where are they going today when there is nowhere to go? Yesterday, I shared a very un-London conversation on public transport with someone who said he had just arrived in London. He asked me what the new lockdown rules were. I wasn’t sure I could summarise, I mumbled through my mask.
By mid-afternoon, there have been too many Zoom calls already and I’ve peered into too many living rooms already. I’ve spoken with one particular colleague nearly every day now for half a year, but haven’t yet been in the same physical place with her. Unless Microsoft Teams is a space? I am not sure anymore. We share a brief conversation after our meeting about mental wellbeing on and offline, and how we might do this better. Apparently, anxiety was the word of the day on BBC news this morning. I make a note to make a note to get back to this. There is so much learning left to do and we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we are in this for the long run. But some days we are just so tired from sitting still. Failing internet and an overloaded system mean a significant amount of time is spent on:
‘Can you hear me?’
‘Can you hear me?’
‘Can you hear me?’
By evening (which comes too early these days) I hear the fireworks going off and realise I had forgotten this is Guy Fawkes’ night. It feels out of sync with everything that is going on, and has gone on. I close my laptop; I’ll get back to it again in the morning.
In mid-September, the county supervisors announced that trick-or-treating would be banned this year. Within 24 hours, they had reversed course and said it was only “discouraged.” A city populated by so many migrants trained in the arts, I’ve often thought of Halloween as Los Angeles’s most significant holiday. The weeks leading up to the big day are typically filled with carnivals and festivals, parties and parades, giving children and adults the opportunity to dress up and express themselves. On the night itself, our neighbors pull out their projectors and fog machines, theming their houses to Halloween movies.
Within a few days of the county’s announcement and reversal, I started seeing ads for drive-thru Halloween events. I signed up for all of them: the one where you drove past displays of immaculately-carved jack-o-lanterns, the haunted barnyard, and the mall parking lot where they made candy rain down through the sunroof of your car. My neighbors and I also organized a drive-thru event for our kids on Friday night, with ten stops on the map, where neighbors wearing masks passed bags of candy into the windows of each other’s cars.
Halloween in LA has always given structure to a long, hot, season where the weather doesn’t turn to fall. This year it has felt more essential to me than ever, giving me something to focus on other than the election. Time has slowed to a crawl as the nation drags itself towards November 3rd. Virus cases are spiking all over the country, to levels we have never seen before. Since the current regime has given up on any sort of control measures as well as any economic relief, our only hope right now is for regime change.
Halloween itself is quiet. It’s a Saturday, so the kids wake up and play their online games while my husband and I do our morning yoga. The air is clear and we can see the mountains from our bedroom window. I joke with my husband that I will miss this view when we move to Canada next week. It is only sort of a joke. Unlike most of my friends here, I have the extra privilege of a second passport, a way to get my family across a border closed since March. My husband and I float the idea of leaving, back and forth, with each turn of the news cycle. We don’t want to go. We like our lives here, or liked them, anyway. Three more days. We hold on to the hope that we will like them again.
In the afternoon I take my daughter to an art class (in person, with masks), and to a drive-by birthday parade for one of her friends. The new Whole Foods is open, after four years of construction, and we talk about stopping and going inside. As we drive down Ventura Blvd, a caravan of shiny white pick-up trucks, waving flags and honking, encourages us to join the Trump Train. A chilling display, even for Halloween.
We take a walk in the early evening. None of us says it, but we’re all curious whether trick-or-treaters will be out, after all. There are a few families out with small children, a few houses that have set up candy chutes or treat pass-out tables, but it’s nothing like a normal year. We put our leftovers from the drive-thru out for any passers-by, turn off our lights and huddle inside.
Around nine, a party starts up in the rental house next door. Loud-music pumps through the neighborhood, and dozens of young people are dropped off in rideshares, or park their cars along the street. I call the non-emergency police number, to see if anything can be done, but no one is there to take my call. The party rages until two in the morning, when a police helicopter finally comes by, circling overhead and putting a spotlight on the revelers. They cut the music, the helicopter leaves, and for a few minutes it is quiet. Then the music starts again, a little softer, but still consistently beating into the night. I go to sleep and wait for the next stay at home order to come.
It is not quite the best of times and the worst of times, but that phrase is uppermost in my mind this morning. London is bright, blue-skied, and crispy cold. Yet, the newspapers are full of foreboding and warning. There is plenty to read about a second COVID wave. This suggestion bothers me. In my mind, we are still in the initial wave and it is clear that as a nation, we have dealt with it badly.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose stock is rising as the Prime Minister’s plummets, has told the House of Commons that “we must learn to live with it, and live without fear”. According to the Financial Times, Conservative MPs “particularly welcomed” that message. Well, it seems to me that everyone is ‘living with it’ and that most of the fears come from the government’s own messaging.
Fear is generated by the unknown and by uncertainty about what is to come. It is why it is a little scary entering an empty house, or moving into a dark tunnel. This government has waxed and waned with its approach to restrictions which gives people an uncomfortable sense that now things are being tightened again. That clearly does not suit a Brexit-focused leadership that needs the economy to be braced for that particular challenge ahead. It seems that perhaps the government knows something we do not. And it is not good!
Nonetheless, today feels properly autumnal, and welcome, although the shirt-sleeved weather that persisted through last weekend and into this week has been much appreciated. Strange distortions of the calendar mean that the county cricket season is about to start its final day at Lord’s and will be greeted by near-perfect conditions.
The BBC tells us that this weekend more than a quarter of the UK’s population is to be placed under stricter rules than the general advice. Households are being banned from meeting in one another’s homes and gardens. Northern cities and towns are particularly affected, but London has been moved up the list of places under review. What seems to be a poorly thought out ‘curfew’ plan to get people to leave pubs and restaurants by 10pm is simply generating crowds at bus stops and tube entrances, and a population inclined to raid the ‘off-trade’ supermarket provisions to party on, now that the ‘on-trade’ licensed premises are shutting early. Parks, car parks, school playgrounds and homes are seeing impromptu parties. Surely not what is intended. We understand our R rate – reproduction ratio COVID infection – is between 1.2 and 1.5. Ministers seem to want to blame the public, forgetting that contempt for complying with regulations started with the Prime Minister’s own ‘Special Advisor’ and his Durham foray in the spring.
Universities seem to be a new and material concern. Virus break outs in universities like Glasgow are leading to strict curbs on students, many of whom have just arrived. This is their first university experience and they are being told not to attend pubs, not to socialise, and to stay in their university accommodation with people they have yet to get to know and to study online. Fees are unchanged. This looks unsustainable.
Last academic year, the second of my children completed his university journey. I have just the one left in university now and she is graduating this year. That means that she has just passed the age of 21. It should have been a celebration. Our family were intending to meet near her home in Manchester and to celebrate hard with her and her friends. The ‘rule of six’ ended that, but it would probably have been difficult anyway to enjoy celebrating in the uninhibited way 21sts should be acknowledged. If the virus keeps society tied and constrained, she may not get to celebrate her graduation either. We did at least manage a dinner together and a lovely morning walk, brunch and reminisce before she jumped back on a train from Euston this week.
I wonder what her student cohort makes of our leadership. She is a Politics student and allows me access to Gen Z opinion forming. Her generation will have it tough. There is plenty of evidence that we are borrowing from them to fund our current responses, even when we were already loading millennials and Zers with large student debts and an inaccessible property market. How do they feel when they look at my generation, which seemed to have more access to opportunity and more freedoms in the late ‘70’s and through the ‘80’s?
However ominous things may seem, we are ‘living with it’ and trying to normalise. I have seen some theatre (thank you, The Bridge) and visited a cinema, where my son and I had the place to ourselves to see ‘Tenet’. And I was able to eat out to celebrate with my daughter. I am living without fear, and I think that is more typical of the people I know than living fearfully. However, we are living in frustration – at inconsistent advice, poorly conveyed interpretations of ‘the science’, and imagining what a no-vaccine, COVID UK and world will mean to our ambitions for all of our tomorrows.
It is becoming harder to grapple with my days. Like a skein of thread, my days reel free, unspooling but in a continuum of unrelenting sameness. I woke up just before seven in the morning to the realisation that this was a school day for my children. School lessons begin at 8 am on their tablets and laptops. My sons sit alongside each other on a long rectangular desk, the study room being an extension of the dining room, with foldable glass and wood partitioning the two spaces. As I arrange the table for breakfast, they mime their needs to me –
‘Your phone- internet is bad’(pleadingly)
‘Fetch my text book lying upstairs’ (assertively),
‘A glass of water’ (expectantly)
Now that I don’t pack lunch boxes any more, they are mostly served their breakfast on their work desk and I run back and forth to remind them of their unfinished fruit, skinned almonds.
The monsoon may not have bid a final goodbye to Jodhpur. The air is tensed, laden with suspended moisture alien to our city and foreign in its rapture. It appears as beads of sweat on the upper lip and brow without any physical exertion expended. The white sun scorches everything to health– from mattresses to jars of pickles, platters of condiments, pulses and grains, laundry. All of us are sunned to rejuvenate and recalibrate. But the sun has lately been sitting morosely unbright, trumped by hulking grey monsoon clouds. One has to be certain of what ones leaves on the terrace to dry out. My sister in law left freshly harvested cumin soaked in lemon juice in her backyard when the sun seemed alert. Before she could retrieve the bowl, it had swallowed rain water, leading the concoction to spoil. This is the time of the year when domestic staff from nearby villages, bring gifts of fenugreek, cumin and a host of desert vegetables.
The virus has now knocked closer home – family friends and relatives have succumbed to it. No more do I receive complaints from relatives for not visiting, no friends gather up for coffee. Since the state government began the process of Unlock on August 29th – heralding Unlock 4.0 – we saw a rush of social interactions and then a sudden drop as the number of corona positives grew ferocious.
I am to go to the office to dispose of some old files but I defer it as far into the future as I can. Everyone is cautious and, as gregarious as Jodhpur folks are, for now their instincts have been subdued. The daily count of the newly infected is now one and a half times that of August, though people are healing as well. It’s the ninth month of the year but it feels like something has stunted the flow of things and nothing appears to grow and bear fruit.
My younger son fell off his bicycle last evening, bruising himself quite seriously in several places. The doctor instructs us over the phone to get him a booster tetanus shot within 24 hours. My mother in law spends more than an hour trying to hunt down a nurse who is not attached to any hospital and willing to come home to administer the shot. Small misadventures now cost us a lot more time and money than in the past. I call up my parents in Delhi and my father can’t fathom how irresponsible we could be to allow the children to cycle on city roads. He fumes that we are displaying misplaced bravado in permitting our sons this access. I try reason with Papa: the boys have been cooped up at home, they haven’t seen any friends in weeks and their daily tennis lessons were stopped so long ago. How can young adolescents be deprived freedoms for such extended periods? While my father stings me with unflinching remonstrance on one side of the phone, my husband collates his ammunition of defences on the other –
‘Do you know more people die of suicides everyday than motor accidents?’
‘Can you ever calculate the cost of trapping children in prolonged fear?’
‘People die sitting on their own couches, how can you stop living?’
While the significant men of my life thrust and parry in verbal outrage, I nod to both, deferring to their contrary views, empathising with both at once. There’s little else to do when I know it’s not just my son who lost his balance on his bicycle, it’s all of us who seem to have lost our footing in the face of this pandemic.
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.