|Today is the 90th day since India went into its first lockdown, thus our 90th day of general house arrest. It’s not like these statistics matter much, because our brains have long turned to goo. But it still helps to remember how far we’ve come, especially since it looks like we may have an equally long way to go.Over the first couple of weeks of the lockdown, I spent obscene amounts of time tracking CoVID-19 statistics on the internet, so much so that the Worldometer website became the default page on my browser. I was utterly bewildered that a bunch of people eating pangolins had managed to stir up a virus that travelled around the world faster than a rich brat on a trust-funded sabbatical, devouring thousands of people without a trice. I would stare at the numbers and wonder if it was finally apocalypse time, albeit without the proverbial lightning and thunder, just some deadly aerosols destined to send us packing.
My initial bewilderment soon abated, giving way to nonchalance. The prospect of death can never be vanquished, just fervently wished away. In the case of this particular virus, all appeals for cosmic assistance are futile. There is little one can do except carry on with life, mask and gloves in place.
As it turns out, even this phase of life has its own share of lessons to teach. The experience of spending three whole months in nothingness does bring its own learnings.
For instance, you come to terms with the entire gamut of banalities the human mind is capable of when unoccupied. If left to wander without aim, people can go from pleasant and purposeful to petty and pedantic in no time. When forced into co-existence, people can quickly shed their skins. How do you deal with these revelations at a time when walking away is not an option? How do you make peace with the fact that a lot of equations you held to be fool-proof are actually miscalculated? That’s the first lesson. You learn to adjust your expectations, to tone down your standards. The whole exercise can be quite depleting, but call it a blessing in disguise, because blind attachment only brings grief.
Then there are all the epiphanies that come from dealing with yourself. When your professional existence, which you’ve spent long years to cultivate, is trimmed down to a laptop and a webcam, you suddenly realise you have very little to wake up for. It’s not like life holds value only if you get to step out and live it up, but then again, doesn’t it? Suddenly, the phone calls are down to a trickle. The scooter stands abandoned in the shed, covered in thick layers of disuse. A closetful of things that once served to impress the world are suddenly pointless. Your pride at being a self-employed person feels a little misplaced and you realise that going solo comes at a price. Suddenly, the whole idyll you created on the foundation of creative autonomy and financial independence has been turned on its head, leading to an identity crisis, a massive struggle to piece together what remains of you when you’re no longer monetize-able.
What am I, then? What am I when I’m not making money? Maybe I could try to define myself based on how I’m feeling this morning, which is a hot but interesting mess. It wouldn’t encompass all of me, but then, at no point are we everything we could be.
This morning, like most recent mornings, I am precariously put-together. I am a yo-yo, swinging relentlessly between despair and relief. The climate of my mind is unpredictable: it is sunshine one moment, torrential rains the next. Except for brief interludes, it remains engulfed by a thick fog. There are a hundred things to accomplish, yet nothing gets done without enormous struggle.
I wake up at leisure, in stark contrast to my former 6 am mornings. I loiter around like an urchin sometimes, unable to decide which way to head. I take naps when I please, shower at odd hours, and dress like a vagabond. I exercise like a maniac some days, other days I don’t at all. I read late into the night. I eat all my meals, but on no two consecutive days have I taken them at the same time.
I have also been spending copious amounts of time pondering the purpose of human existence. At some point, guilt takes over and I find myself heading to my Linkedin profile. I start to browse through my timeline, which is replete with stories of people who are apparently acing the whole lockdown work routine. Each such post stabs me with panic, so I eventually give up on the masochistic pursuit of perfection. I tell myself what a million woke handles on Instagram have been saying for the past couple of months – that I am allowed to cut myself some slack, that there is no pre-approved template on how to survive a pandemic, that even inertia as a response to the prevailing circumstances is entirely valid.
In summation, I am variable. Some days I’m upbeat and happy, convinced that freedom is right round the corner. On other days, I’m wistful and weary, wondering if I will ever live fully again. On and on the pendulum swings, a steady tormentor, so my current biggest endeavour is to guard my sanity with barbed wire and a high fence against the wilderness of my thoughts.
In India, we’re far from flattening the curve. Heck, at this point, our “curve” is just one rapidly ascending line. While the virus once happened only to others, it has now wriggled its way into our inner circles. Most people I know have at least one COVID-19 story involving loved ones. Two days ago, our immediate neighbour tested positive. A friend lost two relatives yesterday. Another friend’s entire family is in a micro containment zone, since six people from the building have the virus.
Most infected people are recovering, but some are dying and leaving the world without a whimper. Big gatherings are outlawed. People are too exhausted and numb to properly grieve. Not very long ago, we used to gasp each time we glanced at Italy and Spain statistics. Our own stats now look all set to join the league, but nobody is gasping any more. We seem to have surrendered.
How long will we all stay indoors, I wonder. Our government has had to do what several other nations have already done – allow people to populate the streets again, even if it means losing a few thousands as collateral damage. Those of us who can resist have resisted, but just how long can one belong inside the same set of walls? I don’t know which will be worse – being made to stay home till we all lose our minds, or being let out into a world where we risk walking into a lethal sneeze cloud every step of the way.
What I do know though, is what this shutdown has made of me.
The version of me today is a distant cousin of me from last June. I now eat cleaner and healthier. I read more, write more, feel more. I need less, buy less, crave less. I no longer hanker for a new pair of shoes, or a car, or a world tour. I forgive myself more easily. All I want is to emerge from the pandemic alive, with my mental faculties intact. Some days, even that feels like asking for a lot. Every day, I feel grateful that I’ve made it so far.
If there is one thing we take away from this fight for survival, let it be the art of living life minus ado. Let’s learn to be content even when there isn’t an immediate dopamine fix in sight, to prioritise what matters and discard everything else, to persevere even in the face of nothingness. Let’s stop living for wealth, clout and acquisition, and start living for experience, wisdom and love. Let’s become people who live with no agenda but to live.
Because, we’ve spent far too much time on the things no one will remember us for. Because, what is the point of a life lived for anything other than living?
|Megha Nayar is a corporate trainer based in India. She teaches English, Workplace Skills and French. She devours short stories and is grateful for the existence of literary journals. When she’s not writing, she learns Spanish, goes for long walks, and contemplates the purpose of human existence. Some of her thoughts can be found at meghanayar.tumblr.com. She was longlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers’ Short Story Prize.