I had heard about pandemics. My grandmother was in Rangoon during the early 1930s when there was an outbreak of plague of pandemic proportions. She had seen a rodent scurrying about in the house. Despite a massive hunt, it had escaped captivity. The rodent was a potential carrier of the mostly fatal disease. It had to be found. “We had a Bengali neighbour then, Ghosh Babu,” grandmother recalled. “We shared a compound. He helped us set traps for the rat. Nothing happened that day. Next morning, I spotted it and shouted for help. Everyone rushed to the room. We locked the door to trap it. Ghosh Babu came running in, armed with a sturdy stick. ‘We’ll get him today,’ he promised,’ she reminisced. Opening the door cautiously, both Ghosh Babu and my grandfather stepped in, the latter too steeped in non violence to swat even a fly, forget clubbing down a dangerous pest. Naturally, it fell upon Ghosh Babu to take charge of the mission. After turning the contents of the room upside down, the vermin was found, killed and cremated in a safe place, and the houses disinfected. There was a collective sigh of relief. Grandmother spoke of how terrified and vigilant they were, and how grateful to their saviour Ghosh Babu, though the mere possibility of another murine visitor gave them nightmares, for days to come. Later, when my grandparents moved to Matunga, in the then Bombay, post WWII, it was a bit of a ghost town. People had fled to safer places. Landlords were inviting potential tenants to occupy their apartments, leasing them for nominal sums. Often, they would waive the rent for a few months; so starved for company they were.
Relationships during coronavirus. Quarantine can test any relationship. Coronavirus lockdowns have us all stressed and edgy
I listened to these stories in rapt attention. Pandemics were like a once-upon-a-time narrative; something that had happened during times when we were still a progressing community. So, when a tiny red-coloured, club-shaped virus, unseen to the naked eye, struck out of nowhere affecting 177 Countries, areas or territories (according to the WHO site, at the time of writing), my first reaction was disbelief. It can’t be that bad, I thought. After all, this is the age of artificial intelligence (AI). Elon Musk has made plans to send 1 million people to Mars. We have completed a preliminary sequencing of the entire human genome. We are living longer than ever. How can a virus bring us down to our knees and drive us to a lockdown?
Well, it has. It’s stalking us. It has rendered us vulnerable; brought us face to face with our mortality. It has forced us to focus on the now. It has slowed us down. In one stroke, it has made us evaluate our lifestyles, our priorities, our dreams. It has made us intensely conscious of every passing moment, of our nothingness, of the possibility that all the plans we make may come to naught. It has made us apply brakes, slow down, stand and stare, smell the roses. The uncertainty is driving us up the walls. To add to it, we now have to live with ourselves inside our houses with our loved ones, 24x7. We are not used to such familiarity. Not with our own. Not with our own self. It’s going to be a revelation. I wonder what we shall unpack.
A decade ago, when people were opting for voluntary retirement or the golden handshake as they called it, I was in a Mumbai local train eavesdropping on an animated conversation between two women. “Ever since he has started staying at home, he interferes in everything. Last week, he quarrelled with our Kamal, and she left in a huff. She has been working with us for the last twelve years. Everything was running smoothly, and he had to spoil it. I had to beg Kamal to return. Fall at her feet. I’ve warned him not to talk to her. I really wish he hadn’t opted for early retirement.” The harried woman was obviously talking about her husband, and the house help he had driven away. Immediately, her friend responded with, “This is nothing. Your husband just drove away your maid. Mine is driving the children insane. Rohit was telling me that he watches him constantly. Both my kids have a set routine. Rohit is the ninth. He knows his responsibility. Arpita watches a couple of programmes after returning from school. He switches off the TV. Arre, both are very responsible. Doing well in their studies. Don’t know how to tell him to leave them alone. He’ll simply feel hurt. You know how big their goes are. But, my poor kids. I can understand, you know. Wasn’t everything going well when he wasn’t around? Very difficult it has become. We are fighting all the time.” I wrote a story on this. How familiarity can breed contempt.
Here we are now, cooped up inside our houses. It’s human nature to break rules, to rebel against unexpected enforcements. The reality is sinking in, though. Where I live, house helpers have been told to go on leave. Visitors are being screened at the gate. There have been arguments on the society’s whatsapp group keeping the gym closed, with the ‘for’ group accusing the ‘against’ group of being self-centred. There is an embargo on morning and evening walks. Still, some regulars are out walking in groups. I had to resist the temptation myself; such is the lure of the outdoors. Some parents have been ignoring the notice that bars children from playing in the garden, especially on the swings and slides. Tempers are flying, with mediators trying to pacify both groups and urging them to look at the big picture, the greater good. To make matters worse, the internet is acting up. There is a frantic exchange of notes on how to work from home in such conditions, and how to get the service provider to address the situation, since he hasn’t been responding to phone calls.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’m not sure the rosy picture of one big family rallying together to face these critical times, is realistic, however appealing it may be. Yes, it needs to be done, if we are all to remain sane and happy and productive. We don’t know how long these tough times will last. We have to unlearn a lot of things and adopt new routines. We have to share housework. We have to strike a balance between hoarding and sufficiency. I wash the milk pouch, the vegetables, the fruits. I wash my hands. I look at everything that comes in with suspicion. Often, without realising it, I touch my face. I cook. I wash utensils. I sweep, I swab. I enlist help. It doesn’t always come willingly. I get angry. It seems never-ending. I want to write, I almost scream. I try not to think of the extra work as drudgery. I’m edgy. I snap at everyone. I apologise. I think of strategies to make this easy for all of us.
We have to learn to look out of the windows and balconies to get a glimpse of the sky, the sun, the trees and the birds. We have to accept that for now that should be enough. I do that often. It’s an oasis. I sing as I work. Everyone exchanges glances. Suddenly, there is a burst of laughter. It lightens the atmosphere. For a moment, I forget the virus. I breathe easy.