Lockdown Diaries: The importance of human company by Biswadeep Ghosh
Patna is eerily quiet. In the lane where I live, stray dogs are the only ones who are loud, active and out on the streets all day. The locality has scores of noisy pigeons, who have made homes in windows everywhere. Even they have stopped cooing, it occasionally seems.
Mine is a spacious two-bedroom flat on the fourth floor in a well-maintained apartment complex, which stands out among other buildings with shabby exteriors in the middle-class neighbourhood.
Meant to be residential buildings when built, some of them have been converted into hostels for students from neighbouring towns and villages, who come to Patna to enrol in coaching centres for competitive examinations every year.
Today, I cannot see a single soul on the balconies and rooftops of these hostels. Like the neighbourhood shopkeepers who are from rural Bihar, the students too have left for home. I miss their unpleasant yelling, which I often heard when they walked past my apartment complex in small groups.
What was disturbance yesterday is an absence today.
Having returned to my home town after spending more than 25 years in New Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, I live with my septuagenarian mother, who conducts music classes in the evenings and watches regressive Bangla television serials at night.
At the moment, she is in New Delhi with my younger brother and his wife. During such testing times, mom’s presence in Patna would have been comforting, her liking for gibberish on the television notwithstanding.
She cannot fly back to Patna now. We talk on the phone every day. She sounds exhausted and mumbles in a weak voice. After there is nothing left to talk about, one of us murmurs an informal goodbye and I confront deathly silence once again.
Personal tragedies can change lives. A few recent ones have turned me into an introvert, who has spent most of his time inside a tiny room in the last three years. I have not been keen on company after work, have not met school and college buddies who also live in Patna, and have not even attended puja celebrations in my apartment complex. Distancing myself has kept me contented; I have not bothered to ask myself why.
Now, I want to meet somebody, just about anybody I know. I am desperate to sit with them and talk about the mundane joys and sorrows of simply-led lives. I want to share stories about childhood pranks, failed relationships, life during the 16-hour work days of the past, of how my marriage cracked up, leaving me staring at the future.
Days spent in solitude behind closed doors have reminded me of the importance of human company. I am desperate to spend time with real people unafraid of falling sick through contact. That is what I need.
Fifty-one isn’t young. I realise my reflexes have slowed down. I find it faintly amusing that I am the youngest resident on the fourth floor. One of the four like-sized apartments on this floor is owned by a retired banker, a widow, who lives alone. We interact circumspectly with both of us standing a couple of metres away from each other.
“I prefer to sit quietly these days,” she says. Her only son is a thirty-something software professional living in New York, which has been devastated by the ongoing pandemic.
An elderly couple in their sixties lives in the apartment next to mine. Knowing I am alone, they sometimes make food for me, one of them passing the dishes to me with outstretched hands.
Usually, they are garrulous extroverts who step out to meet their relatives and friends and like chatting endlessly. The sound of their television every evening on an average day is an indication that both of them watch Bangla serials as passionately as my mother does.
Their TV has gone silent in the last few days. The husband, a retired university professor, has told me that much of his time is spent following the news on the cell phone. They, too, have a son. He lives and works in New Jersey.
The third flat is owned by a couple, who might have been forgotten had the husband not been on the cell phone for hours every day. They have cut themselves off entirely, limiting their interaction to a quick “hello” when we meet inside or near the lift.
I met the wife, whose timing of placing the garbage bin outside her flat had coincided with mine, a few days ago.
“How are you?” she gently asked, adding, “We are scared, you know. If an old person contracts the corona virus disease, he or she might develop serious complications. That we have pre-existing health conditions makes it worse.” Having spoken with her face hidden behind a multi-coloured mask, she quickly disappeared inside her flat.
That is the only time I have exchanged a few sentences with her since the lockdown came into effect.
Trapped in uneasy silence, I want to return to that cacophonic world I knew until recently in which people didn’t wear masks; when they bargained with shopkeepers, taught at schools, ate in restaurants, and went to malls and the movies without apprehensions.
I want to meet friends and colleagues, see my mother, and fly down to New Delhi to meet my brother and his wife. I want to talk to them about things that make no sense and experience the joy of doing so.
After the pandemic fades away, I promise to step out of my room and remain there for most of the day.
While the door to the world outside remains firmly shut, I have a dream.
Biswadeep Ghosh is a journalist, author, and teacher. Among his books is MSD: The Man, The Leader, the biography of former Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni.