Municipal workers disinfecting a street in Lahore’s old city on March 23, 2020.(Arif Ali/AFP)
Municipal workers disinfecting a street in Lahore’s old city on March 23, 2020.(Arif Ali/AFP)

Lockdown Diaries: To connect and to share by Anam Zakaria

The pandemic is so bizarre that we oscillate between obsessing about it and feeling emotionally numb
Hindustan Times | By Anam Zakaria
PUBLISHED ON APR 12, 2020 08:08 PM IST

I booked my ticket to Pakistan in February, thrilled about the prospects of visiting family and friends after spending seven cold and snowy months in Toronto. I was particularly excited because my visit was planned around a theatre play, The Bus That Didn’t Stop, written and directed by director and actor, Corinne Jaber and based on my first book, The Footprints of Partition. Corinne and the actors had been working tirelessly to bring forth not only Partition experiences but also narratives of displacement, exile and longing across time and continents. My partner Haroon and I couldn’t wait to join them in the final days before the play was scheduled to be performed at the International Performing Arts Festival organized by the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in Karachi and supported by the Goethe Institut.

However, three days before I was meant to fly out, WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Within the next few days, as the number of infections spiked in Canada and Pakistan and the play was indefinitely postponed, I felt as if I was stuck watching a movie that in ordinary circumstances I’d steer clear of because it was far too unrealistic for my taste. Hours before the flight, Haroon and I debated about whether to fly or not. We wondered whether it would be better to remain in Toronto or be closer to family; we argued about which place may be safer, knowing fully well that there was soon going to be no safe nor insulated place. I consider us to be one of the few very lucky ones because, armed with gloves and disinfectant wipes, we eventually boarded one of the last few flights prior to cancellations by airlines and lockdown by states, which has left several travelers stranded since.

264pp, Rs 399; HarperCollins
264pp, Rs 399; HarperCollins

Today, as I write this, it’s been 19 days since we landed in Lahore, and I find myself fortunately healthy and well after our 14 day post-travel quarantine period, privileged to have family within reach and a home to socially distance myself in. I also find myself with more time on my hands than I have had in the last several years. Yet, I find it far harder to write than I have in the past, even though I was earlier juggling three day jobs, spending the majority of my day outside the house, rushing from one meeting to the next, from one assignment to another.

Strangely, however, for me this doesn’t seem to be an issue of overall productivity. I am still able to meet deadlines for my day job, read coursework for the degree I’m currently enrolled in, and conduct Skype sessions with the clients to whom I provide psychological therapy and counselling. I am even able to do grant/proposal writing or other kinds of writing tasks. I find myself present and able to deliver in these roles as required. Why then, one may ask, am I not able to extend the same productivity to the writing I do for myself, for the books and articles I write? Why am I unable to use the extra time I have on my hands to work on the ideas I’ve long complained to have no bandwidth for?

320pp, Rs 599; HarperCollins
320pp, Rs 599; HarperCollins

While every writer is different, I have always found that writing requires a different kind of tuning. I write from an intuitive place, more often than not driven by anger at the distortion of history, the furthering of jingoistic narratives, the instilling of hate, the otherization of certain communities, and the persistent use of state violence against citizens in South Asia. Frankly, I write when I don’t know what else to do. I write because I find that is all I can do in those moments. It is the only thing I can turn to. It requires me to feel, to process the emotionally-charged moments before I can turn them into some form of coherent storytelling. The problem is, the current pandemic has posed us with a situation so unprecedented, so bizarre, so frightening, that I find myself oscillating between moments when I can think of nothing else and others when I am too numb to feel at all. To write is my normal but life feels anything but normal at this time, and it feels almost strange to be trying to create normalcy when we are surrounded by illness and death. While I find myself in an incredibly privileged position, not having to worry about a running income, shelter or food, the reality of how this pandemic is devastating already vulnerable populations, some of whom I’ve worked with and written about in recent years, is a reality that cannot and must not be minimized. I don’t find the argument that the pandemic may be a great equalizer convincing at all. As much as it may be a crisis which leaves no country or people unaffected, the imprints it will leave will be fundamentally shaped by structural dynamics and the interplay of class, caste, religion, ethnicity and gender.

Anam Zakaria (Courtesy the author)
Anam Zakaria (Courtesy the author)

As an oral historian, my writing is driven by people’s stories. It is shaped by the interviews I conduct; by sitting with people; by observing their affective states, their spoken words and perhaps, most importantly, their silences. At its essence lies the ability to connect and to share. While some of this work can indeed be conducted through video calls, and I have resorted to these mediums when necessitated in the past, I am aware that physical proximity cannot be replaced with online tools. And so for now, I turn to journaling - when I find the energy - and reading fiction, things I have wished I had more time for over the last few years. I ration read every day, worried about what I will do when the books I have on me finish and bookstores are still closed (I am not an e-reader). And I try to get lost in the narratives I read till I can again sit with the people whose stories they and I work together to tell.

Anam Zakaria is the author of 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir and The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians

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