Quarantine diaries: When everything is a story

Travelling from my couch and other self-discoveries during the lockdown
Shunali Khullar Shroff is an author and columnist(Aalok Soni)
Shunali Khullar Shroff is an author and columnist(Aalok Soni)
Updated on Apr 25, 2020 11:33 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByShunali Khullar Shroff

The novel coronavirus has introduced us all to novel ways of experiencing life. We go through life collecting moments and encounters, future memories that we are sure to reminisce and derive pleasure from in our frailer and older years. But the virus has advanced us all to our retired future already in some ways and many of us are discovering newer interests to kill time with and being introduced to capabilities we didn’t know we were in possession of before.

Novel discoveries

I for one have discovered that I am a passable cook and baker and that I have enough self-discipline to exercise and meditate every day if you take the temptations of the external world away from me.

But my most pleasing discovery during the lockdown has been my ability to sit still without the distraction of a book, a child, a dog or the phone for longer than I thought possible. What’s more, I can hear inanimate things speak to me and take me on exciting journeys without having to leave the couch. In other words, I have become the old woman I was meant to be one day in the distant future, the sort that hates domestic chores preferring instead, to sit around all day smiling to herself. This I can tell you isn’t a bad experience, especially given the circumstances and in the knowledge that one-day when the confinement ends, my precious youth (read midlife) will be returned to me.

Novel memories

A few days ago, I introduced a new post-morning-tea ritual to my quarantined days. This involved sitting still on my favourite couch in the house doing absolutely nothing except allowing my gaze to move around the room and letting my mind travel unencumbered to many happy moments from the past.

I began to relive long-forgotten experiences and precious conversations as I considered some of the things around me. I looked at the imposing brass statue of a warrior Ganesha that my father had gifted to me as a house-warming present nearly 19 years ago. I could see him sitting across from me, telling me how he had someone buy it from Moradabad from where it had travelled to Dehradun and then to Bombay by train to me. It was mystifying that my father was so alive in my memory, I could see him, hear him, and touch him almost, but outside of my mind’s eye, he was gone. It made me think about life and the illusory nature of death that philosophers are always talking about. Realising that I was letting my mind slide into too heavy a territory, I moved my attention away from the tall brass Ganesha to the kilim on the floor.

I recalled the day it was bought as though it had happened only yesterday. Eleven years ago, on our second day in Istanbul, shortly after we had tried to feel impressed with the Blue Mosque, my husband and I went looking for a carpet shop to get away from the sudden rain shower. The shop had been recommended by the hotel concierge and it was on my list. Istanbul hadn’t still become the popular destination that Indian tourists flock today but it was already thriving with sweet-talking salesmen who knew exactly how to seduce tourists like me into buying rotting pistachios, expired spices and carpets woven with hair from a camel’s gonads.

I warmed up to the smooth-talking and tragically self-effacing carpet seller so much that I refused to bargain him down to what I later learnt would have been a fair price. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a genuine wool carpet and not one made of matted hair from a camel’s nether regions. Despite my dogs treating it like dried grass they liked to ease themselves on as puppies, it continues to be in good condition.

The silver bird perched on the coffee table that invited my attention next, reminded me of the time I walked down the Portobello market in London with my mother on a beautiful September’s day, two years ago. We were browsing around, buying knick-knacks we knew we weren’t likely to use ever when my eyes fell on this marvellous piece of British craftsmanship inside a silver shop. It wasn’t cheap and I was about to walk away from it but my mother insisted I purchase it, telling me that it was too exquisite to let it go. I am glad I listened to her that day because that morning the bird took me back to our brief holiday in London. The mildly overcast sky, the cool breeze, the aroma of caramelised peanuts that pervaded the air, children on scooters, ice-cream trucks, my mother’s laughter... the sights and smells of that moment came alive before my eyes.

Next, I looked at the red Sikkimese carpet at the other end of the room with a dragon woven across it. I grew up seeing the carpet at my parents’ home and was keen to inherit it but my father, who had bought it from Sikkim years ago, was too possessive about it to part with it.

Then one day, without informing him my mother packed it and brought it with her to Bombay. Every time my father visited us, I would roll it up and put it away. To be tricked easily by women is a fait accompli of all men in a house dominated by women. It was years before he realised that his beloved carpet had been smuggled out right from under his nose.

Entertained by my own memories and partly overwhelmed by them, I started moving around the house, stopping to consider objects and artefacts that had become a blind spot for me over the years. I tried to dredge up memories linked with them and it delighted me to know that so many of these lovingly collected objects around me had a story to tell.

The dead coral sphere that I keep near my plants in my balcony is something I had found adrift on a beach in Mauritius while on a brief holiday there with my husband. Our hotel owned a small private island that was a short boat’s ride away from the hotel premises and we decided to sail to it for pre-lunch drinks. Had we not been married for as long as we have, this might even have been a romantic excursion, but it had a more Robinson Crusoe and less Blue Lagoon vibe to it. Anyhow, we walked around the shoreline of the island, drink in hand as we collected shells and fossils to take back home to our children. The coral was the size of a large rock, a heavy item to fly back with by all accounts and my husband insisted I leave it behind. Standing in front of my balcony door and admiring it for its symmetry, I was glad that as always I did not yield to his exhortations.

On top of a Portuguese camphor chest in my drawing-room, sits an antique Turkish coin box of great aesthetic but little value, the outcome of a failed entrepreneurial exercise that has a funny story of its own. Years ago my friend Jaya wanted us to jointly do an exhibition of antiques she was sourcing from a mysterious and startlingly cheap vendor in Cochin. We could not muster much enthusiasm for its sale after the first consignment arrived. ‘We are always buying things, we are only good at buying, not at selling,’ Jaya the shopaholic said to me. I ended up buying three of the 10 for myself, the rest of them Jaya was happy to keep.

In Kerala, earlier this year I made a beautiful purchase that is spread in front of my reading chair and one that I am particularly proud of. On a flight to Kozhikode, where I was attending a literature festival earlier this year, Air India lost my bags. Bereft of any decent clothes to wear for the writer’s dinner in the evening, I had no choice but to attend it in my destitute state, in track pants that I had been wearing since 5 am that morning and a locally-purchased T-shirt. To make up for how absolutely undignified I was looking in front of the mirror in the washroom at the dinner venue, I bought a vividly coloured Kashmiri rug from the hotel shop right outside the toilets. This did not save me from looking like a gatecrasher at the party, but I felt comforted in the knowledge that I was helping people from the locked-down state of Kashmir to make a living. ‘Who buys a Kashmiri carpet in Kerala?’ my friend Jamal who was also speaking at the literature festival asked me. ‘Someone who has been given rupees 2,000 by Air India for losing her bags,’ I told him. No doubt the carpet cost me a lot more than that princely sum discreetly handed out to me by the Air India personnel to recompense me until my bags arrived the next afternoon. Still, that carpet is something that lifts my spirits every single morning with its vivid reds and blues. As far as impulse purchases go, this is one of my best to date.

As I key in this story, I am thankful for the life I have lived and all these memories that have come alive, I cannot wait for Covid19 to be a thing of past so I can go out there and replenish them with newer experiences. Oh wait, but did they say the vaccine will take another year?

(Author bio: Shunali is an author and an avid traveller who has recently authored Love in the Time of Affluenza. Follow her on social media at @shunalishroff)

From HT Brunch, April 26, 2020

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Wednesday, May 18, 2022