Lockdown Diaries: The assurance of certainty by Ghazala Wahab
For a while I followed the synchronised movement of the dancing dust particles in the lone ray of sunlight that was sneaking in between the curtains. The room was dark enough for an adult’s siesta. But there was enough light to bother the 12-year-old me that the afternoon was getting wasted. Lying next to me on the bed was my aunt, drifting between wakefulness and sleep.
It was early April. I was visiting my favourite aunt during the post-final examination holidays. She lived with her in-laws in a multi-generation joint family in Mainpuri – a little bigger than a village, not yet a district. This was the 1980s of pre-Samajwadi politics when ageing dacoits were still Mainpuri’s claim to fame. My aunt used to force me into bed every afternoon, lest any of her in-laws complained about my unsupervised activities in a house where one didn’t need to exit through the gate to hop into the gully.
Bored of watching the dust particles, I tried to focus my attention on something else. Closing my eyes, I decided to exercise my aural faculties. In the quietude of the afternoon, the birds seemed to be performing an opera. Slowly, I calmed down, focussing on the sounds – some tinkling, some screechy, some gently melodious – each distinct from the other. Suddenly, the cawing of a crow interrupted the musical. For a moment, the birds fell silent.
“The stupid crow had to come just now,” I said irritably.
“Maybe, we will have guests,” my aunt mumbled sleepily. Those days, unannounced guests were a surprise, a break in tedium. Not an inconvenience. I immediately perked up, trying to imagine who the surprise guest might be.
Memories are quite independent in their ways. They can both energise and enervate. But what is worse is when they sneak in with a dose of melancholy.
Forced home by Covid-19, I have been alternating between housework that doesn’t end and work, which I am unable finish. In short, I am in a state between despair and forced enthusiasm. Lying on the couch in my study one afternoon, I was listening to the birds’ music, frequently interrupted by the guttural call of the pigeons when I caught the cawing of a crow. The pre-summer memories of Mainpuri rushed in. I heard my aunt mumble -- maybe, we will have some guests. I immediately perked up.
Then the reality of the lockdown hit home along with Kaif Bhopali’s verse soaked in melancholy: “Kaun aayega yahan, koi na aayega hoga/ Mera darwaza hawa-on ne hilaya hoga” (Who will come here, nobody would have come/ the breeze would have knocked at my door)
One thought led to another. And the much welcome solitude that the lockdown had afforded me turned into loneliness.
One evening, my maid, a widow, called. Her children had gone to the village to meet their grandparents a few days before the lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi without a forewarning. Like me, she is alone at home. Her teenaged son had taken ill in the village.
“Who am I earning for if I can’t take care of my children,” she cried. “I can’t go to them. They can’t come here. Nobody will even come to know if I die alone in my house.”
I don’t tell her that the same thought had crossed my mind too. Loneliness is an equaliser.
“Can I come and stay with you?” she asked.
Several thoughts rushed through my mind: If I sneak her in, I will be saved of all the housework; I will have somebody to talk with; I will be able to do my writing without stopping to cook my lunch or washing the utensils.
As the plan of sneaking her in started forming in my mind, the sense of loneliness was replaced with adventure. I could hide her in the boot of my car, park it in the basement and then get her in. A perfect plan. The only hitch? Corona. She lives in the urban village that hugs our high-rise complex. Has she been maintaining hand hygiene, social distancing? What if she is carrying the infection?
I call and tell her that it is not possible; that the guards are very vigilant. So we talk on the phone occasionally. Actually, she talks. I listen. After all, I have so many other means of amusing myself – evening family session on Zoom, television, books and phone.
“People are saying that this will never end,” she says. “We will always have to wear masks for the rest of our lives.”
Don’t be silly, I say. Everything becomes alright after sometime. Only this one will take a little longer, but if we follow all instructions, maintain distance from others, we will get back to normal faster.
I don’t tell her that sometimes change creeps into our lives so surreptitiously and gradually that we don’t even notice it. And by the time we do, we get used to it, upending everything we once held dear. New-age gurus are telling people to take the pandemic as a message from nature. That henceforth we must lead more mindful and empathetic lives. I fear the exact opposite.
I fear that human beings are likely to become more insular, more self-centred and more suspicious than before; that the necessity of social distancing today will become the lifestyle of tomorrow. Sure, on the other side of the pandemic, the world will not be the same. My worry is that the change will make it a colder place, not a better one. As we fight the disease, we must also fight to retain what has been good about us – love, trust, kindness...
Going to bed, I pick up a book to read, a Wodehouse that I have read before. The unread books, which I had intended to read during the lockdown, remain untouched. With uncertainty about the future, I need the assurance of certainty. I need to know beforehand how it will end.
Ghazala Wahab is executive editor, FORCE, where she also writes a column, First Person. She contributed a chapter on the changing profile of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir in the book Operation Parakram: The War Unfinished. She co-authored the 2018 book Dragon on our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power. Her new book Born a Muslim will be published by Aleph Book Company later this year.