Lockdown Diaries: Curl of Time by Sumana Roy

Published on Apr 02, 2020 02:22 PM IST

The world feels like it is moving more slowly as everyone, the writer in her room and the migrant desperately walking to her home hundreds of kilometres away, slides into snail time

A snail on a flower in a valley near the village of Gordes in southeastern France.(Getty Images)
A snail on a flower in a valley near the village of Gordes in southeastern France.(Getty Images)
Hindustan Times | BySumana roy

It is a word I often use in class. Slightly obsessed with what art does to time, I am like a detective who wants to find out how it is done. “Say it with me,” I tell them. “Say ‘curl’.” They say “curl”. Say it faster, I continue, asking their tongues to be horses. They say “curl” again, as fast as they can. But the word is disobedient – it doesn’t have the inbuilt technology of a hair dryer to facilitate speed. Water falls off a curl slower than it does from straight hair. I’ve observed this in my grandmother’s hair, the hairpin bends a droplet of water has to negotiate before it can answer the call of gravity. It is of that kind of slowness I think when I see a sleeping dog’s body – what Shakespeare, in recognising the slow behaviour of sleep, called ‘rounded with a sleep’.

252pp, Rs499; Bloomsbury
252pp, Rs499; Bloomsbury

I had, a few years ago, in How I Became a Tree, called this ‘tree time’ – living to time outside artificial clock-hours. When the lockdown happened, I did not feel any seismic change. It had to do with a state of unpreparedness – for who is ever prepared for a ‘lockdown’? – but also with the natural habitat of my life. I am addicted to being at home, specifically to my bed and to its room. Teaching, shopping for provisions, visiting the doctor – these are excursions that I must take, like a patient taking her medicine to be able to survive. Long ago – 25 years to be precise – I had met this line in a poem by John Donne: And makes one little room an everywhere. This room was my “everywhere”.

261pp, Rs 599; Aleph
261pp, Rs 599; Aleph

I began reading a book. I realise that I am saying this as if it were the first time I was reading a book. But that is how it felt after months of instrumentalist reading – of reading ‘texts’, not books. The book had an unexpected title: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. It was written by a woman who had been ill for a long time. Her name was Elizabeth Tova Bailey. A friend had brought in a tiny snail into her room along with some flowers. Now the snail was her roommate, her only real companion. I said these things to myself as I read this book. On its cover, its green background, almost as if it were moss, except without the latter’s velvetiness, was a picture of a snail. As one moved through the book, the snail appeared on its pages from time to time – for me, though I have no idea if that’s what the book’s designer meant it to be, I had the sense of the snail having become a companion in my reading, moving as it did with me.

I touched the snail’s picture from time to time, even when it crawled through the book. I ran my fingers on its whorls, its curls. Any creature shaped so luxuriously into circular folds, into such extravagant curls, could not not be slow. Slow. I said the word aloud, and then almost stifled it – I’d forgotten that the snail wouldn’t be able to hear me. But I wasn’t criticising it at all. Slow. Like “curl”, it isn’t possible to say the word very fast, not even when we give it a tail, as in “slowly”.

Author Sumana Roy
Author Sumana Roy

I did not read the book slowly on purpose. Like the words “curl” and “slow”, it was coded in language itself. Ahista. Aastey. Dhirey Dhirey. It is impossible to say these words quickly, too. The slowing down was in the manner and form of the writing itself. There was something else. There was hardly a sentence – hardly a sentence, I repeat – where time was not invoked. Again, I cannot say whether any of this was conscious. Elizabeth Tova Bailey, ill and alone and only allowed to lie horizontal during that long period of illness, was in a private lockdown herself. It wasn’t just the mention of day and night, the structure of paragraphs moving to that rhythm, or phrases and clauses marking time (“once”, “sometimes”, and so on), but in innocent words like “rotting” – rotting and decay were, after all, made possible by time.

I read a few pages every day. I pause at lines like these: “Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.’ I am living to snail-time, intellectualizing this luxury of time. But outside, on highways that connect cities like Delhi to the rest of the country, are people, poor and suddenly robbed of their livelihoods, walking, walking, walking hundreds of kilometres to their homes. No one knows when they will reach. They are living to snail-time, too.

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree (Aleph), Missing: A Novel (Aleph), Out of Syllabus: Poems (Speaking Tiger), and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories (Bloomsbury).

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