March 25th, 2020
The day our lives completely changed, and we’d never think of the term ‘normal’ in the same way, ever again.
Prior to this, there had been some rumours of a new virus ravaging the streets of China, Europe, and parts of the US. Little did we expect this virus to knock on our doors and bring the entire country to a standstill. Nevertheless, amongst the different smells of fear and the unknown future, we said to ourselves “seh lenge thora” (we’ll deal with this).
Unfortunately, most of us, apart from brushing arms with death, did not realize how difficult it would be to keep our individual and collective sanity intact. This is especially true for those who have lived in isolation or come from troubled homes.
A fair disclaimer before I start with my story: I am aware that I have a relatively privileged existence; my parents have provided for me to whatever extent they could have. It was only after I left the comfort of home that I realized how to check my privilege — how to be more empathetic, for lack of a better term.
If any part of my written experience seems to trigger you, for whatever reason, I wholeheartedly apologise in advance. This is just my own phenomenological experience that I’m trying to put into words.
I hail from the small North-Eastern town of Shillong, and by the time I intended to return home, the Meghalaya government had imposed a complete lockdown and ban of vehicles from outside the state.
As a temporary solution, I had decided to isolate myself at my family’s empty apartment in Guwahati, Assam. Now, I’m habituated to living alone — I have lived alone for most of the five years I spent out of home (for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees). I did not mind the situation – the freedom of staying alone, despite its responsibilities. However, on the days before corona, I did have a social life. Isolating in a different city, where you don’t know anyone of your age and barely speak the local language (Assamese), meant that there were other challenges to conquer.
For the first couple of months, I led a fairly easy life. Revisiting my favourite web series, movies, and studying for the final semester of my MA degree — I managed to go through the days. As the months went by, however, it all started to merge; days and nights would be difficult to differentiate, especially in terms of my circadian rhythm.
As I was a student at the University of Delhi, I was the first batch to go through the dreaded OBE (Open Book Examinations) for my final semester. As most of you would be aware, the OBE did raise a lot of questions and received a lot of flak from both the teacher and student communities. This led to the exam being postponed four times, amidst numerous court proceedings to discuss the validity of the exams themselves.
Soon enough, all this uncertainty, isolation, and numerous personal issues hit hard. I seemed incapable of studying, constantly worrying about my future. Working out and a bit of physical toil required an amount of willpower that I completely lacked at the time.
Eventually, I turned to reading.
Now, I have been an avid reader for most of my life. Nonetheless, it was only during this period that I understood how much change you could inculcate into your mental health through a few lines on pieces of paper stuck together.
Most nights were spent turning page after page; book after book.
By the end of December, following a reading spree of six months, I completed about seventy different books.
Some of them were second readthroughs — these are important, as they help you cover pieces of information, metaphors, plot twists, or character developments that you might have missed in your first readthrough. From drama and social issues arising from postcolonial contexts to post-WWII era’s existentialist thought processes; I devoured them all.
Some books, such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea” and Albert Camus’ “The Fall” helped me understand the nuances of isolation. Both of these authors/philosophers have differing worldviews, which may be difficult to differentiate for the uninitiated. The post-partition woes of Siddhartha Deb’s novel “Point of Return” walked me through bits of my childhood in Shillong, and the issues plaguing the North-Eastern part of the country. More importantly, it taught me to understand the complex emotions that you grow up with and repress, as a non-tribal resident of Shillong.
These books had minor lessons to impart — lessons that were important to learn in one of the most tumultuous times that the world has been through. Before the pandemic halted the world, mental health was an issue that was contested; outright denied by conservative institutions, and almost vehemently brought forth by the more liberalized sections of the society.
On the internet, everything seems rather distant from your very soul, something that probably couldn’t touch you or hurt you. However, when you’re backed against the proverbial walls of your mind, peeking over and seeing the edge of your sanity, that’s when you realize that you need ways to keep yourself from falling over.
Each of us may have our ways of dealing with our issues. Some people like to distract themselves; pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. A select few decide to find a particular outlet, such as exercise or cooking, to deal with their issues. Others may repress. The point that I’m trying to make here is this: the pandemic has shown us that our lives are only as good as our minds make them out to be.
Life truly is unpredictable. For those of us who are just starting this decade as adults, doubly so. Our generation is burdened with a myriad of issues on a socio-political and socio-economic level, both nationally and globally.
The least that we can do for ourselves is to allow our minds to speak to us, so that we may listen to them.
What does this have to do with my habit of reading, you ask? Truth is, I didn’t understand it at first either. It was only much, much later on, that I realized how literature, philosophy, art, and culture saved my sanity from spiralling into the depths within. I must confess that I’m still struggling with a few issues that I may have to deal with for years to come. Nonetheless, reading allowed me to expand my horizons and broaden my perspectives in a way I didn’t expect.
Maybe it’s time for more of us to turn the pages of the books on our shelves which gathered dust over the years. If the numerous lockdowns and the possibilities of catching a deadly virus have impeded our ability to broaden our horizons through our social lives, we might as well broaden the scope of our imaginations through books. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get to understand much more about ourselves, our passions, motivations, insecurities, fears, and ambitions as a result.