We don’t leave the front door open anymore, for people, their stories and fragrances to waft in and out as they please. The shop round the corner where Appa bought idlis from, every Sunday morning, for seventeen years, shut down a while ago. So did the grocery store where the kind Bohri owner would offer me a free candy since I was three. And the squealing and giggling of little kids in the back lawn will continue to be muffled by a mask – for a bit at the least.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and the lockdown that followed changed our lives in more ways than one. With companies restructuring their work-space models to cut costs, schools offering distance learning options and social distancing norms to be maintained in public, the pandemic has altered human interactions in an unprecedented fashion.
I no longer recognise the street next to my home. A street that used to be bustling with local eateries and tapris, where middle-aged conservatives would consume their daily dose of politics powered by WhatsApp University, and where Amma would send me to run and buy bread is now desolate as a cemetery.
While a new Starbucks has popped up at the curb, I’ll continue to crave the adrak wali cutting chai and the butter biscuit that Prakash dada used to sell under his giant colourful umbrella.
Local businesses that were resilient enough to survive competition in the crowded city of Bombay for decades, wiped out in light of the stringent lockdown and lack of economic relief by governments on different levels.
The kakus, dadas, bhaiyas and tais that made everyday normal have been torn out of Bombay’s breast and might never return from their villages, where they now eagerly look for marriage prospects for their sixteen-year-old daughters.
Having dropped out of school, these girls who used to call me to solve their doubts in Mathematics, their mothers now call Amma for financial help – to pay for their marriage. Livelihoods lost and huge debts to pay, the pandemic has robbed many women I know of opportunities and new beginnings.
This pandemic has made me painfully aware of the many ways in which we failed many subsections of people. Students, labourers, medical and health professionals, and those at the disadvantaged intersections of gender, class, caste and religion.
The lives of students lost due to crushing debts and negligence on behalf of institutions to make online education accessible, the trauma that health workers have had to work through without proper equipment, the hundreds of kilometres that labourers have had to walk with their worlds in a briefcase.
All these remind me that the while the world to this side of my privileged window will somewhat go back to the old normal, for lakhs of families in India, things will never be the same.
While many things have changed for the worse, there are some ‘old-normals’ that I hope are not brought back. The men in my family, who have traditionally taken advantage of the unpaid labour of women at home, now acknowledge that every woman is a ‘working-woman’. There are dishes to be scrubbed, floor to be mopped, fans to be dusted, and vegetables to be chopped – and we all take turns at it.
We finally eat dinner as a family on the dining table, occasionally followed by a Tamil movie, in contrast to the dinners eaten in our respective rooms, in front of our own screens. Huddled up in our little hole, my family now understands the need for space and privacy, we now knock-on doors before barging in, as well as talk and listen more.
I don’t know if the vaccine will bring back the old normal in 2021- statistics and research definitely do disagree! But I hope that the lessons we learned from the old normal, as well as the new, help us become kinder and more compassionate at the least. I hope that this experience reminds us of the essence of the human touch and that we never again take the people in our lives for granted.