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Home / India News / ‘At an existential level, time has suddenly collapsed into itself’

‘At an existential level, time has suddenly collapsed into itself’

I think I know what she means because that’s just how I’ve been feeling about opening the locks to life and the world outside again. About being normal.

india Updated: Jun 04, 2020 03:59 IST
Ritu Menon
Ritu Menon
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
An Antony Gormley cast iron figure from the series Another Time that was part of the 2017 Folkestone Triennial in Folkestone, Kent, UK.
An Antony Gormley cast iron figure from the series Another Time that was part of the 2017 Folkestone Triennial in Folkestone, Kent, UK. (Getty Images)

When I asked her, S said the first thing she would do when the lockdown was lifted, was go for a long walk in the park near her house.

M said she would get her hair cut

A said she would visit a friend

H said she would rush to the office

R said she would have the family over for lunch

K said she wasn’t waiting around for that, she’d already written her Will.

I’ve been reading that wonderful writer, Grace Paley’s, short stories these lockdown days, as well as another little book she made with a friend called, Long Walks and Intimate Talks. While they walk, they talk about all sorts of things, among them about happiness. Her friend says, that “what she means by happiness was having (or having had) (or continuing to have) everything. By everything she meant, first, the children, then a dear person to live with...”, and this is followed by a list of what her heart desires most.

I think I know what she means because that’s just how I’ve been feeling about opening the locks to life and the world outside again. About being normal.

Ritu Menon
Ritu Menon ( Courtesy the author )

By normal I mean not jerking awake in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, because I dreamt I was boarding a flight — without a mask on.

By normal I mean going for a long walk with a friend, anywhere and at any time of the day or night, and discussing at the widest, deepest, and most hopeless level, the state of the world, the venality of politicians, the stupidity of RWAs, the incompetence of governments, the loss of a loved one, the brilliance of Ondaatje’s Warlight — without having to remain two arm lengths away from each other.

By normal I mean walking into the office, sitting at my table, leafing through the mail, or the proofs, talking to colleagues, meeting authors, without worrying about whether I might be infecting them, or they me — or each other.

By normal I mean being able to look some distance into the future, say a few months or till the end of the year, confident that it’s likely to continue in as reassuringly predictable way, as before.

By normal I mean not being pulled up short by the realisation that tomorrow might dawn terrifyingly different from today.

But Time’s axis has shifted. It has become relative.

In a mundane, everyday kind of way it is expansive and leisurely, almost indulgent. Nothing is urgent. I am not bound by a routine that is regulated by my watch. I edit mss., read proofs, correspond with authors, discuss projects, in the knowledge that none of these are going anywhere in a hurry — at least for the “foreseeable” future. I’m not rushing to publish a lot of books, to make up for lost time (there’s a thought, time that has been lost in lockdown) because there is a serious question mark hovering over sales. Who will buy? Will people rush out to buy books just because they have been confined, or will they have had their fill of reading already, because they could do so little else? Maybe the last thing they will want to do is pick up another book. Let’s give book production a bit of a rest, I think.

But at an existential level, time has suddenly collapsed into itself. Is no longer measurable, because — will I even be around to see those books published if I don’t hurry up and get them out? Shouldn’t I be accelerating instead of slowing down? What if I run out of time?

In between the mundane and the existential is yet another impulse, that of pretending that I can, in the short term, exercise some control over the time at hand. I can pretend that, really, nothing much has changed, everything will settle down, so I should carry on regardless, because time will — if I can hold out for long enough — resume its normal rhythm, and life will resume its normal tenor. I can pretend that if I, personally, carry on as if there had never been a lockdown, then I will be able to turn the clock back, and no time will have been lost.

But that will be tilting at windmills.

And so I manoeuvre myself into that tiny space, that sliver of time between lockdown and post-lockdown, whenever that might be, to think and plan for a week at a time, which seems to me a good compromise between the everyday and the existential. As for normal, it looks like I might be wishing for too much and too little at the same time for, as Grace says, “everywhere vast public suffering rises in reeling waves from around the earth’s nation-states”.

Ritu Menon’s next book is a biography of Zohra Sehgal.
Ritu Menon’s next book is a biography of Zohra Sehgal. ( Courtesy Ritu Menon )

Ritu Menon is a feminist writer and publisher. She is the author of the forthcoming Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts

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