As we observe a phase-wise and periodic imposition of lockdown in various parts of the country, the socio-economic ill-effects of the longer lockdowns imposed recently—continue to haunt many sections of the society, including the student community.
As the lockdown was imposed in late March, I was a student in Kolkata, who could not return home to Pune. Due to the sudden closure of air and rail lines, I had to stay put. In my experiences of living outside home for many years across India, and in countries abroad, it came to me as no surprise that a woman living alone is an ugly scene to witness.
My social circle in Kolkata only comprised of fellow students, and my friends had either left for their respective home towns or were quarantined within their homes. From March to May, shops would open on selected days for a limited amount of time for people to buy essential items. Occasionally, in order to give me company, one of my male friends would visit home once or twice a week and leave within a couple of hours.
Since I did not reside in a gated society and there were no internal rules imposed, the neighbourhood could not directly prohibit my friend from visiting me. Besides, the owners of my house were understanding of my situation as a person living alone. I needed help with supplies once in a while. I would have understood if the neighbourhood collectively decided to prohibit my friend’s visit for safety, and would have spoken to my owner or me about it.
Instead, they resorted to spreading rumours across the neighbourhood, which eventually took the shape of a false complaint to my owner regarding my activity of “inviting men to my house at night”. This is not a unique event; it is faced by many female students who decide to live alone—without flouting any ‘rules’ decided formerly by the owner.
In all my time outside the home, I have observed that spreading of rumours, especially related to the character assassination of women, is a common way of keeping us under surveillance. The strategy of fear, ostracisation and in some cases, total banishment from the place of residence is often devised to achieve the same. The extent of these rumours most certainly carries with it, social dynamics at many levels.
For instance, in the part of Kolkata where I live, there is a strong collective resentment towards the Muslim community. So, while it is difficult to find homes and survive as a single woman, it is even worst for Muslim women—as they are not even allowed to rent flats. One of my friends also faced a similar situation in Pune—as she lived alone during junior college. A series of house owners refused to rent her flats initially and mentally harassed her in various ways thereafter, just because she was a Dalit student.
By the end of May, one of my family members residing in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, succumbed to brain haemorrhage. Since domestic flights started, I accompanied my father from Kolkata to Bhubaneshwar and lived there for around eight days. As my father approached the police for permission for funerary rituals amid a continued spread of Covid-19 and the resultant lockdown imposed during weekends in Orissa, the police were clear that in case of emergency death and illness, it is the neighbourhoods and gated societies that impose restrictions, rather than the forces of the state or law.
In my experience of surviving lockdown in two cities, I noticed that the neighbourhoods and societies were quick to establish certain unwritten norms in the name of safety—without considering the state the affected person was in. In case the neighbourhoods do establish rules and norms, they should ensure that basic supplies such as food and other essentials reach the person who was dependent on others’ help for the same.
Threats to members of a family or pointing fingers at women show the regressive and inhuman nature of several housing societies that impose restrictions and rules under the guise of ‘lockdown’. It is not only significant to take note of the larger contexts that shape the activities of such neighbourhoods, but also to keep in mind, that we as individual residents, neighbours, colleagues, batchmates and owners can extend a helping hand to any person, family or community in need at this time, alongside taking all the necessary precautionary measures.
It is in these moments that a humanist society can be envisaged—a society, which if existed before, may not have led us to witness this day.