Delhi's year of isolation
Cities shuttered, streets emptied, trains halted, and our days wrecked by fear — for our loved ones, our jobs, our everyday functioning. A great many books will be written, and movies made, on this first year of the pandemic. Here’s a snapshot of how Delhi coped with the once-in-a-lifetime occurrence
Laila’s stay-at-home consolations
Dressed in a many-hued hand-woven Murshidabad silk sari, craft activist Laila Tyabji, 73, is sitting in her book-lined drawing room in south Delhi’s Shantiniketan. Behind her sofa is a huge glass window through which all you see are sky, clouds and trees. As she chats, the birds fly past the window—like fish swimming in the aquarium. During the lockdown last year, “my drawing room window reminded me that looking out is as important as looking in,” she said. “Things have their own beauty, but also the beauty of memory and the people with whom you associate them.” She tells us about five cherished objects that were a source of comfort during the homebound isolation we all underwent in the early months of the pandemic.
The bottlebrush trees outside, brilliant with colour, planted by my parents in 1971 when they built the original house, now tall enough to reach my 2nd floor window.
The South Indian elephant lamp, bought by them in Mysore on a car trip through South India circa 1954. I’ve always had a thing for elephants and, aged 5, swore I would marry a man like one – big, wise and with a twinkle in his eye. Alas I never found the right one!
A brass Buddha head bought by me to replace a family one that fell to my brother’s share and whose serene beauty I’d loved all my life.
Chiks on either side, made by Ram Singh, who arrived early morning to hang them the day (god-daughter) Urvashi and I moved into the reconstructed new flat in 2001. The only supplier (from fancy air-conditioning companies and master masons to Italian kitchen manufacturers) who met his deadline absolutely on time and accompanied it with a blessing, mithai, and an Om on my door.
Rows of books, almost concealed behind the sofa but an essential magic entry into other worlds and minds.
Claiming the new normal
The auditorium at Ghalib Academy in central Delhi can accommodate 200 people. These days it has set its maximum limit to 50 in accordance with social distancing.
One afternoon last week, the auditorium was empty with chairs marked with posters saying “Please do not sit here.” The institute has resumed its popular literary meet held every second Saturday of the month. Its first pandemic-era gathering took place in December to mark poet Mirza Ghalib’s birth anniversary.
Prachi’s fresh start, A young woman emerges from a disrupted year
This is Tagore. This is Yeats. And this is Vikram Seth—says Prachi Sharma, pointing out cuttings of poems stuck on her closet. She wants to be a writer, and has chosen this tiny fourth floor room in cramped Delhi locality of Saidulajab as the setting to realise the dream. It is the first home of her own. “Pandemic or not, this house is a beginning for me,” she says. “It feels like a return to normalcy.”
Ms Sharma, 21, moved here a month ago from her parents’ house in nearby Faridabad in Haryana. “Though they wanted me to stay with them.”
But staying in Faridabad was never in her original plan. The pandemic had forced her to do so. Last year, she spent the successive lockdowns alone in her PG (paying guest) accommodation in north Delhi’s Roop Nagar — she was then a literature student in Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College. Ms Sharma’s only roommate had left for her parents’ just before the lockdown started, and so had the other 40 students living in the building. She had stayed back “because I liked being alone in a quiet unmoving time.” Eventually she was obliged to give it up in June “when my contract to stay ended, and because nothing else had fallen into place. I had to return to Faridabad.”
Some months after getting a job as a content writer in a Gurugram firm, Ms Sharma decided to “take the leap” and move to Saidulajab.
“The locality is good... full of young people still in college or with their first jobs... they look like people who live my kind of life.”
The great part of her optimism comes from her apartment. “No matter where I am during the day, the thought that I will be returning to this place is comforting.”
At night, the young woman sees the moon through her curtain-less window. In the morning, “the sunlight wakes me up.” There’s no bed but a mattress on the floor.
“I like listening to my thoughts in this room,” she says, turning on a Jagjit Singh song on her mobile phone. It’s lying atop a bed table, along with a Murakami novel, a pair of jhumka and a facemask with a Madhubani design—the only thing in the room hinting that we are still in the midst of a pandemic. Does she feel its oppression?
She says—“In my room, I do not feel the pandemic. Because only one breath, and only one touch live here - mine.”
Shakespeare as Dilli’s migrant worker
How would Shakespeare cope with this year of pandemic in Delhi? Jonathan Gil Harris, former president of Shakespeare Society of India and professor of literature in Ashoka University, gives us his take.
“Shakespeare was no stranger to pandemic. It shaped his thinking, his language and his career in ways that might seem uncannily familiar to us here in India. Picture this: an epidemic is ravaging the capital. Healthy people fall ill with fever, aches, and dry coughs; many die within a matter of days. A migrant worker, one of many in a city swollen by people desperate for economic opportunity, faces a difficult decision. His livelihood has disappeared overnight: the place where he has worked, has shut down, and his company has disbanded. He has to find another source of income. And that means walking back to his village, about sixty kilometres from the city – or finding employment elsewhere in the countryside.
A Dilli worker from UP? A Mumbai labourer from Bihar? No. This migrant worker was Shakespeare, who arrived in London from his native Stratford just two or three years before the devastating plague of 1592-3, which killed maybe as many as 10% of London’s population.
Shakespeare survived, obviously. His forced relocation led him to find new employment as a poet for hire. Under the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, he wrote and published his first works: two poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. These helped gain him money and some reputation. But all his subsequent work bears the silent imprint of the trauma wrought by the pandemic. Many of his plays – Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest – speak of the horrors of sudden, enforced exile; others – Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens – address the trauma of the sudden loss of income. Shakespeare prospered. But the pandemic left him with a lasting sense of the fragility of life, livelihood, and home.”
We, the isolationists
During the lockdown, we asked Delhiites what they see when they close their eyes in self-isolation. Faiza Hashmi , video producer, 25, who spent the lockdown with parents in Hardoi, said, “I close my eyes in self-isolation from corona… and I see my home. Rays of sunset are dazzling upon my mother’s shoulder as she picks bougainvillea flowers from the scaffold of the gate. My father is done doing wazoo in the courtyard and calls my brothers emphatically to ensure they don’t miss maghrib namaz. And there I was standing at a distant balcony looking at them and thinking what if I had made it to home on time? May be that smile that was missing on their faces would have made a comeback.”
Abhishek Chaswal, ad writer, 45, who spent the lockdown with his wife, son and a dog in Saket, said, “I close my eyes in self-isolation from corona… and I see myself watching my facial hair grow like the plants in my balcony. Everything has slowed down so much I can almost feel them growing in slow motion. Don’t want to start hating the indoors too much because eventually an urbanite’s life is all about moving from one box to another. Reading quite a bit about the Hikikomoris of Japan as dystopian fiction unfolds the day in front of my eyes. What else can a man do but hope to grow as wise as one’s beard.”