When we first moved nearer to the capital city of Delhi from our sleepy little shire in the hills, I couldn’t but act like the poster child for the pre-pubescent, starry eyed, fresh cheeked girl you see and dislike in your typical rom-coms. The new kid on the block. The fresh meat, that went around looking at everything with a newly acquired wonder in her eye.
Everything in the city—the frothy white waters of the Yamuna, spiced by the industrial unguents pouring into it, the snarling traffic, the sensuous politics at Raisena Hill that worked its ways into legislations and policies that circulated into the South Block before crawling at a snail’s pace into the Parliament, the formidable building of the Secretariat, the grey corporate housing areas, the alleyways of the Old City and the hundreds of crumbling tombs and mausoleums—was alive.
As if the whole city was some whispering some strange secret to its million inhabitants.
It never ceased to move. The capital was always sprinting, where to only God knows. But you’d only have to look at the morning commuters piling up on the freeways inside their carbon-emitting vehicles to know that everyone had somewhere to be and no one could be even a minute late.
Sure enough, trials and verdicts stretched on for years before sputtering to abrupt judgements, the bureaucratic red tape never cleared, holes and potholes never fixed, municipal offices always looked as if functioning on half capacity, striking workers never paid, cleanup projects never implemented, deadlines not crossed, but obliterated as politicians created a fracas in Parliament and staged senseless walkouts.
Yet all that could be attributed to incompetency and inefficiency, the trademark of Indian bureaucracy, not an unwillingness to move.
Because the delicious paradox of Indian Governance stated:
“If a government came to power basing its election campaign on a good, corruption free government they were going to be the most corrupt, inefficient, sneaky and scoundrel of a government that the electorate ever saw but the they would have until the next election to figure it out.”
The appearance was always one of action. So, when the pandemic infiltrated our lives and shut down some of the busiest cities in the world, we were left stumped. With no people walking, driving, spitting, pissing on the roads the capital looked haunted. I fear it still is.
Before the boldly splashed headlines of the dailies carried even a whiff of the subsequent lockdowns that were to be imposed in India, I was an eighteen-year-old child who had just finished her board exams.
Five years spent in a public school, looking at the blackboard, watching draughts of chalk rise up like sulphurous clouds, thumbing through thick pages of Indian History and Civics textbooks and differentiating integrals till I my eyes ached and I was ready.
No more would I be nodding off at History, or looking outside of the French window- panes in Math class to the fruit trees and blaring morning traffic outside. I was free as a blackbird. Free to roam every nook and cranny of the city. Free, free, free!
It was a warm glowing March morning and the soundtrack of my life was, “It’s a New Day”. It seemed incomprehensible that a plague would end erupting all over the continent, work its way across the Pacific Ocean and then sneak into our lives as well.
It was one thing to read The Wall Street Journal and shake your head at China, but quite another to live in a world that was crumbling. You could hear the oldies collectively sighing, “Tch, tch, that’s why you mustn’t meddle with good old nature. It’s been around longer than we have.”
But then world governments and corporations labelled “eco-friendly” had been meddling with nature long before we were born. Chopping rainforests to lay their railways lines, excavating tonnes of fertile earth to scoop out fossil fuels, causing oil spills that lay like scaffolding on the ocean floors.
Why must mother nature strike back at this inopportune time when I was about embrace the wide, open world. This moment in time which was to be my emancipation? Why, why, why?
The irony was too bittersweet. Just as I was about to make a dazzling entry into the world that lay across the far side of the Yamuna, I was yanked back and made to sit in the corner to wait it all out. The lockdown was total, absolute and complete.
It seemed as if I were entombed in walls of silence. Days came and went, suffocating and formless. Old routines resumed. A cup of milk every morning with a spoonful of Bournvita (yes, even at 18 years old) with the morning papers to supplement it.
Lounging about the house in my pyjamas with hair that hadn’t been washed in a week. It was as if someone had cut the cord between me and the real world. Now I was just floating in a vacuum hoping the electric wires could be crossed again.
Bare unscheduled summer days lay ahead. I’d thumb through the calendar at my desk looking at the dates and wonder what was I supposed to be doing with all this free time when in school every minute of every day had to be accounted for.
Blessed academic calendars that took up the last two pages of your school almanac. On the eighth of March you’d know exactly what you’d be doing on twelfth of September because you’d had your midterms starting from the fifteenth.
I lived the disciplined cut-to-cut life that the Indian education system imposes on its students: 7 hours of schooling, an hour of Math tuitions (the plague of my life) plus the grueling hours of self-study which may have permanently damaged my spine, coaxing my prefrontal cortex to absorb some more obscure tidbit of Indian history.
Day to day functionality broke down in the pandemic. It snatched the comfortable certainty of old days and replaced it with stale borrowed time. I was someone who lived between the two needles of the clock. Who lives, swears and dies by their schedule.
At eighteen I knew I wanted to graduate by 21, get a masters by 22 and be established comfortably at 24. I compartmentalized my life right down to marriage and retirement. Foolishly I did not plan for an anomaly.
The pandemic interfered with this delicate timeline and it infuriated me.
It seemed as if lifetimes were compounded in the clock’s circulation. Did the second hand move from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.? Did an hour fly past or have I been down the YouTube foxhole for 12 hours now? Is it the sixth of May or the seventh of June?
There’s only a limited amount of joy to be derived from breadcrumbs and Netflix and I had reached my peak.
Fresh faced chick no longer. I have always been optimistic, I have always been clear eyed and farsighted but three months into the pandemic, say hello to the Enfant Terrible.
The one who slams the bedroom door so hard that the even the hinges protest, the one who wakes up 11 a.m. and eats processed cheese slices for breakfast, the one who has screamed out her lungs in desperation and yet nobody has bothered
The geographical distance, the spatial separation from the city where I was supposed to be and where I actually was at the moment was agonizing. The cultural and political cleavage was too vast for me reconcile. Would my life ever turn out what it was supposed to turn out as?
Or would I succumb to the drudge-sludge of a life of normalcy, of mediocrity, of utter indifference and apathy. “Am I one of those writers who’ll spent their lives in dingy bars having barely three pages worth material published?” I wrote in my journal one Saturday evening.
The fear was real. I couldn’t be one of those cynical, chewed out, middle aged pen-pushers who had big fat As on their reports cards and bright futures but were now spending their lives in falling asleep in front of the T.V in their one roomed apartments.
A stack of unpublished writing staring sullenly at them as they went about their lives. Even their epitaphs were pessimistic. Didn’t Bukowski tell people not to try? Poor sucker knew there wasn’t much in it. Didn’t Kafka say. “I have spent my life resisting the desire to end it?”
I felt as I were being rendered invisible, voiceless and was disintegrating, bit by bit, each limb at a time. Outside of this quiet world of snarling domesticity, politics was swarming the city.
Every day the newspaper carried the most ghastly news imaginable, the kind that makes you want to chuck the papers in the bin and write angry essays and op-ed pieces about the deterioration of a nation-state.
Politics is the worm that burrows itself into the subterranean layers of the soil, always on the get-go.
While the world was shuttering down, sneaky legislations wormed their way into the Indian Parliament and were passed just as stealthily too. Show cause notices began flying in the air and landing up at journalist’s doorsteps.
Dissenters were arrested in the dead of the night, while the rightful occupants of central prisons were walking around in broad daylight, as if out for a stroll on Rajpath. And nobody speak of the nightly circus of television debates lest I might implode. Balderdash! Absolute poppycock!
The real world of politics and people and crime was so unfair and cruel and yet so ensnaring. I spent hours licking clean the headlines, devouring books and surfing social media trying to get a clearer view while my line of sight was obstructed due to my civilian status and of course, the godforsaken epidemic.
I imagined myself as one the protestors, crying out against the tyranny of the state. I’d skip class, hop on the metro and viola! land in the topsy-turvy world of Freedonia. As if I were some sort of 21st century Che Guevara without the motorcycle.
In this thick reality-obscuring fog never once did the undeniable fact of police brutalities, permanent injuries or even incarceration cross my head.
The idea of growing up with a popular class struggle was something I’d be telling everyone, the idea of getting a bone cracked by a police baton, not as entertaining. So much for romanticising revolution.
This insolent lack of acceptance of the realities of life, the impunity with which I dreamed, the foolhardiness of it all—spelled disaster for me.
Two important things about myself came to light: I hate passivity, inaction even more so. And I have not a modicum of patience in my jittery bones. “I have to stop lying to myself, life is what it is, it is the time that is given to you, not the time that is to come”, another wise journal entry.
But if were to take an overview of this situation, even with the self-awareness and intelligence I have now, I don’t see things panning out any different. I am writer, and I lie to myself for a living. No two ways about it.
I wished I could be in Delhi, the air crackling with politics, every tower, every minaret telling a story and every second someone dreaming a dream. With every life the epidemic has stolen from us it becomes clearer that time is precious.
And, it becomes clearer to me that the time given to me, although not what I desired is what it is. Instead of pacing the daylight hours I sit at my desk now. I live between the two needles of the clock; the only difference is that I have turned myself over to them.
I am learning to make good use of my time even if it is spoilt. The world is getting madder by the minute, I still read the morning papers, I still always hope, and I still always dream.
And, one day when the city wakes again from the slumber and the air comes alive with the scent of politics, freedom and resistance, I’ll be there. I’ll be where I am meant to be.