The months that were: Of masks, social distancing and panic.

How much precaution is too much precaution?

I’m running up the stairs with as much speed as I can humanly muster. Pandemic or no pandemic, I’m always a little late. I frantically ring the doorbell, my mother opens the door surprised to see me, I run past her, grab my mask and head down again. They say, do not step out without a mask. Well, it’s going to take a couple of years to get used to that.

We’re in the 5th month of the lockdown. Covid cases are exponentially rising with India becoming the third country to have the highest number surpassing Russia. With the ease of lockdown restrictions, we’ve become complacent, the initial fear slowly losing its intensity, replaced with dispassionate concerns. How long should one be careful? How much precaution is too much precaution? It’s almost like we’re gambling with our lives; leaving everything up to fate, a chance that we might be safe, that even though the virus is inching closer, it cannot touch us. Many might argue wearing masks is a pain, and I’d agree, it is. But I would also like to have more years to look forward to with my family in the pink of their health and I think I can sacrifice my comfort to be able to afford it.

The pandemic has shattered well-built structures, reducing them to redundancy. Schools have transformed overnight to digital platforms. I see my brother half-asleep in his pyjamas, hair dishevelled, barely sitting straight, scrambling to get ready to attend online classes. I wonder if the children retain anything. The stress of homework is exacerbated with getting used to technology. The students who are privileged with fully-functioning computers & access to an internet connection can be part of the ‘new normal’. What about others? If anything, the pandemic has exposed the huge class barrier prevalent in our education system.

Everyone has been left way worse than one could have imagined. I can’t help but laugh( it’s more of a helpless laughter) when I think of the mental plans I had made when the year started. ‘This year just feels right,’ I exclaimed, looking at my friends, drunk on the idea of making a mark. Here I am, trying to get through every day without completely losing it. Loss, seems to be the primary emotion. While I can’t compare this feeling to the thousands of lives lost due to the pandemic, there’s an immense sense of grief for all the things that could be. It’s a collective breaking down of who we were before the pandemic cast a shadow on our lives, and who we’re becoming, transitioning into strangers we can no longer recognise.

The world order, if there was any, has changed. Stepping out of the house requires a mental gymnastics of sorts which includes several layers of protective gear and requires the perseverance & indomitable will to tick off grocery lists. Most of my time is spent aimlessly scrolling through social media, getting infuriated by the government, spending hours trying to find the right mask, looking at various disinfectants, screaming at members of the family to be more cautious, giving in to my mom’s totkas of increasing immunity and questioning the purpose of all of the above activities.

I read the other day that ‘pandemic fatigue‘ is real. I am relieved there’s a name to this restlessness. I wake up tired, dragging myself to pretend to look forward to what the day has to offer. I am usually very excited to hit the bed but falling asleep is another game of hide & seek. It’s a vicious cycle. Things I love indulging in have started to become irritants; nudging and poking and demanding to be dealt with. For someone who heavily relies on social media for work, I seem to have taken a step back. The constant barrage of information, pictures & selfies finally took its toll. The only respite in the midst of a crashing-down-of-everything-I-believed-would-stand-concrete is burying my face in books. But something has shifted in the genre of books I pick up too. I no longer revel in dystopia because real life seems to uncannily resemble what I believed would be restricted to only fiction. I reach for books with a ‘happily ever after’ as its primary objective, actively reading books of hope, of family and anything that does not involve dying.

The venerable pandemic-induced question keeps knocking at the door: What is the point of anything? Was there ever a point? If the new social order looks like this, I wonder if years of feeding off of lies was worth it.

Finding the ‘new’ normal: Dealing with uncertainty and navigating through life in the midst of a pandemic.

I gave myself six months at the start of 2020 to figure out a career plan. I quit my full-time job to pursue writing and editing as a freelancer. Naturally, I was skeptical and uncertain. It’s always nerve-wracking leaving the certainty of a monthly paycheck to dabble in something as shaky as freelancing. But I was convinced of the path I wanted to take, so I took the plunge. Things were going smooth as far as freelancing was concerned and then everything came to a halt. It was as if I was in the middle of a performance where minutes before the end scene, there was a technical difficulty and the lights went off. I’m standing there bewildered, nervously glancing here and there to find answers, surrounded by equally anxious actors on stage, who, just like me, have absolutely no idea what went wrong. Suddenly the lights come back, I can see the relief pass through the faces of my teachers, standing in the wings, frantically waving their hands to go on as if nothing happened, as if the temporary halt was part of the plan. 

 But when you’re in the middle of a pandemic, the end seems elusive, your part in the play never ending. You’re the audience and the actor. 

 I see my father reading the news or watching as the number of coronavirus cases go up exponentially. I wonder what goes through his head. As a man belonging to the era of extreme hustle & blind commitment to the business, he has never taken a day off. ‘I feel better when I’m at work,’ he’d retort when questioned about putting strain on his health every time he’s sick. The show must go on has always been his way of dealing with life’s curveballs. He switches to another news channel, clutching the remote, as if trying to have some semblance of control. We sit silently in the room, the news anchors yelling obscenities in the background. I have a book in my hand, and my dad is pretending to hear the verbal diarrhea projected on screen. None of us is registering what’s happening but we’re too afraid to address the elephant in the room, too afraid to admit the uncertainty.  

The first week of the lockdown sent us into the pits of anxiety-induced confusion. Every household is built on a system that enables the smooth functioning of everyday lives. But when the system itself is forced to change abruptly without a manual, adapting becomes wearying especially if you’re living in a joint family—where every chore is assigned, and every task is mechanical. We ran around like headless chickens on the first day of the lockdown, trying to put in place an order. What the order was, we didn’t know. My mother took charge as she always does, reassuring us, believing everything would work out. I could see the hesitancy in her eyes, the lines on her forehead telling a different story. 

That’s the thing about the precariousness of life—your carefully crafted plans seem flimsy, as if a strong wind will collapse the very foundations on which you’ve built your life. We unlearned our habits, inculcated new routines albeit forcefully, and started rebuilding what we thought would never break. A new order was soon put in place. 

The second week of the lockdown didn’t seem as taxing. We still didn’t know how things were taking shape but whatever we were doing was working. For now, it was enough. At the back of our heads, we knew the lockdown was necessary and there was a silver lining of things getting back to normal after 21 days. Holding onto this sliver of hope, helped us get through the uneasiness that had spread like wildfire. But soon enough, the inevitability of extension, drew nearer. We rallied through, praying fervently, for the worst to pass. At the end of the day, we had food on our tables, our loved ones safe with us, and a shelter on our heads. It was more than we could ask for.

Days turned into weeks, and we started making adjustments, as many as we could, to find a new normal. Our mornings seem to have fallen into a new rhythm, getting used to having the entire family together at meal times, bumping into each other more often, wondering at the closeness we didn’t think was achievable. Evenings, these days, have a quietness of their own. We indulge in evening snacks, sipping teas and discussing nothing in particular as the world continues to move forward. Board games now dictate our lives as we gather around to pass time, laughing at the madness of it all, letting our competitiveness channel itself in mild banters. Life events are now measured in pandemic terms—pre-pandemic, where our mundane lives were uninterrupted, and post-pandemic, where our pent-up desires will play out in the form of excessive physical interactions and new-found appreciation for the outside world. The middle is where we linger, in the confines of our homes. 

We all go back to playing the designated roles every single day. Whether it’s taking online classes, editing a manuscript, completing the assigned menial jobs and making sure there’s movement in our lives, there’s hope in our hearts. A new order is finally in place, this time, waiting to be disrupted. 

These days my dad passes by my room and stops for a minute, smiling and nodding his head. He then leaves. There is no need to exchange words anymore, we both understand and prefer the silence that is familiar and comforting.

Boredom in the time of Quarantine: Finding comfort in stillness

Embracing stillness and adapting to the mundane.

A few days have passed since the lockdown was announced. We’re all counting days, talking about a life post-pandemic, spending our time making future plans of what we’re going to do once the worst has passed, waiting to see which restaurants will see hordes of people stuffing their faces with anything that’s not home-made food, which companies will witness a spike in sales for things we don’t need. If anything, self-isolation has been unrelenting in its pursuit of teaching us to live without things we thought we needed.

 The current scenario has aggressively dismantled the very structures on which we built systems to keep us going. Our lifestyles are heavily influenced by new-age media, the increasing effect of capitalism, of a desperate need to always be ‘doing’ something. Social media will tell you to never give up, to always keep striving towards your goal, to sacrifice sleep if you ever want to accomplish anything. Ever since college days, I’ve kept myself occupied with more than I could handle. While staying busy in this day and age is a blessing (this is also a man-made construct), I no longer know how to deal with boredom. I do not know what to do with this ennui. People, in order to avoid feeling bored, attempt things that are bizarre as much as they are unnecessary. Our need to always have something to do, whether mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, or binge-watching a show for the 20th time, or killing ourselves over jobs that are impermanent, have created a disconnect from the self. It’s worrying how even during a pandemic we’re supposed to be working, keeping our productivity at optimum levels, making sure we’re still ticking things off our list, that failure to finish said tasks sends us spiralling deep down into an abyss of guilt and self-doubt. Why can’t we sit in our rooms without distraction? How long can we go without checking our phone before we combust into meaninglessness? Why is there a continuous need for incentive? The need to overcome our inherent existential crisis often manifests through over-indulgence in any form of stimulation. Social psychologist and philosopher, Eric Fromm believes boredom to be ‘the most important source of aggression and destructiveness’. According to him, our constant search for thrill, for adventure, for anything to fill this huge hole in our lives, is not a solution but merely a distraction. We’re going around in circles to attain the unattainable. 

 The word ‘boredom’ was used by Charles Dickens, as an emotional state, in his serial, Bleak House. That was the first-time boredom was described as a state of being, although the word ‘boredom’ originated way back. It wasn’t till the 19th century that scientists started taking an interest in this weirdly existential phenomena of nothingness.  The 21st century or the ‘pop culture’ era can shrug this feeling of as ‘meh’. Anything that is dull or tedious or which single-handedly brings down the energy level is MEH. 

But is boredom lethal? I think not. As Jenny Odell, author of, How To Do Nothing, writes, ‘I consider “doing nothing” both as a kind of deprogramming device and as sustenance for those feeling too disassembled to act meaningfully’. Odell’s book aims to disengage people from the attention economy, to curb economic insecurity, and help realize the potential of doing nothing. Being at home, it’s natural to feel bored. It may exacerbate feelings of existential anxiety but doing nothing is as essential as productivity. When you start acknowledging the stillness as equally important to your life without assigning any deep-rooted bias, these feelings wither, they change shape, and you begin to feel as if a weight has been lifted, helping you further to stay afloat.

 We’re going through an unprecedented time where our resources are being stretched, human lives are being lost and put at risk, and our economy is on the verge of collapse. Perhaps, during this time, not doing anything is how we cope. We cope by sitting by ourselves, staring into the night-sky as it transforms into morning light, we cope by watching how our neighbors spend their evenings crowding on their terrace, and we talk to our family—we notice how our parents seem to be drifting into the inevitability of ageing, we watch our siblings, who are still in school, deal with a crisis not part of their curriculum, and we observe. We pay attention to how humans are adapting to change, how the will to keep moving forward surpasses the unpredictability of our lives and we learn. We learn to shed our inhibitions, we unlearn societal constructs of prejudice, of class, of color. We learn to just be. When all this is over, and it’ll be over soon, let’s hope we wear the feeling of nothingness as second skin, embracing it and letting it sit with us.