Lockdown Diaries: Longing for company by Aseem Chhabra

How will we face the world again, sit fearlessly in large movie theatres and restaurants, and walk amid crowds?
Lockdown yearnings: Oh, for some(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Lockdown yearnings: Oh, for some(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Updated on Apr 08, 2020 01:36 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByAseem Chhabra

On February 20, I had a back surgery in Delhi. Five days later, I was released from the hospital, but given my condition I was not to step out. Since the time I left the hospital I have only gone out four times, to see the doctor and once my cousin drove me to an ATM. When the Covid-19 related lockdown was enforced I had already been home in self-isolation mode for a month.

I have been a freelancer since 2009, when I lived in New York City. I would work from home, but I always had the option to go out whenever I wished to. There was a Starbucks downstairs in my building and I would often sit there for a few hours, especially in the summers because of the air-conditioning. It helped to talk to strangers, or just hear the chatter of others sitting around me.

I have not had a concept of a weekend or vacation for more than a decade. I could take time off and not work. Otherwise I could work all day, sometimes late at night, as long as I would meet my deadlines. Living mostly in Noida since 2016, I was used to working at odd hours, then taking a cab to Delhi to have drinks in Khan Market, go eat chaat, sit in a quiet café, or walk in the midst of the crowds in Connaught Place. My work lifestyle gave me the option to be alone when I wanted to or find myself lost in a mall at 4 pm.

196pp, ₹395; Rupa Publications
196pp, ₹395; Rupa Publications

The new real – the lockdown situation, perhaps important to control the spread of the virus, has been difficult. I find it stifling and suffocating to be home bound. I know it is also tough for people who would go to office in the morning and come back in the evening. They would rest over the weekends. I, on the other hand, had a lot more flexibility in my life. That flexibility is gone with the lockdown and it is wearing me down.

At the same time I know I am privileged. I have a roof over my head, food on the table and I am safe at home. There are thousands less fortunate – the daily wage earners who trudged all the way back home to their villages. For them it was a question of survival. I take my survival for granted when I complain about being locked up.

My day starts with breakfast, followed by physiotherapy, which I do on my own, since the physiotherapist has not been coming over for the past couple of weeks. Shower, lunch, perhaps a brief nap, then more physiotherapy, followed by dinner. And finally I watch a film. Films keep me sane.

It has become a predictable routine. I feel like the Bill Murray character, stuck in a Groundhog Day state of mind.

I try and read a little. This year I have promised myself to read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy for the second time. But it was easier for me to read the 1400-page long magnum opus riding in the crowded subways in New York City. It is a little hard for some reason now that I am stuck at home

I don’t mind spending time with myself. I am essentially a loner. In fact, most writers tend to be. Your work involves the connection you make with your laptop. When you write words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and eventually finish an article or even a book – it is your loneliness that sees you through the process. But sometimes even loners long for company and no matter how much I engage in social media, it is not the same as sitting face-to-face with a friend, with a glass of wine in my hand.

Aseem Chhabra (Courtesy Rupa)
Aseem Chhabra (Courtesy Rupa)

I live at home with my 91-year-old mother who is unwell and hard of hearing. It took me a few days to explain to her the havoc that Covid-19 has created. We have a live-in maid who cooks for us and takes care of my mother. I talk the most with her, but there is a limitation to how much we can converse.

To amuse my followers and myself on Instagram, I started a hashtag #WhereIWantToEatAfterTheVirusIsGone. I have posted old photographs -- street foods of Varanasi and Patna, cafes and restaurants I love, especially Illiterati Books & Coffee in Dharamsala and Lahore Tikka House in Toronto, for the best kababs and biryani. Like the films I watch, these images keep me sane and hopeful of better times.

Read more: ‘I told Priyanka Chopra, she could not come across as a Yankee-sounding person’

But what I fear the most is this -- will I be able to trust people, when the lockdown is lifted, the virus is gone and if some of us have survived? Will I be able to feel comfortable enough to touch a stranger, shake hands, hug someone -- a friend or relative, somebody even closer? Right now, I feel frustrated to be home. But the virus, the lockdown and self-isolation have also convinced me that I am safest when I am alone.

How will I face the world once again, sit in large movie theatres and restaurants? Will I be able to go back to New York City, walk in Time Square and be jostled around by tourists?

254pp, ₹500; Rupa Publications
254pp, ₹500; Rupa Publications

I am unsure about that. Corona virus has really changed how I perceive my existence and I don’t know if I can flip the switch on again and start to think differently. It will take a long time for me to accept the next new normal.

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Friday, December 03, 2021