Looking out from the balcony there’s complete absence of the usual noise. The stillness at 6 AM is unusual in the neighbourhood. This is a typical residential area with the usual mix of people, places and performance. I recollect a distant memory – of a morning four days back.
Life was normal, as they say. I am surrounded by three schools. All of them in the same block. Twice everyday, two-wheelers and buses fill up the neighbourhood with constant honking and a frenzy that consumes everyone – children, parents, vendors and stray dogs. In other hours, our neighbourhood’s engine hums with sounds of groups of children playing, according to timetable, in the playground. The groups change every hour. While this goes on, there’s a battery of vendors calling out vegetable names that they are carrying and the day’s price as they push their carts along the lanes. It is about 9 AM. I hear the assembly microphones from one of the schools. The children are singing a song in English. A vague address on a trivial sounding matter by a voice that sounds like a seasoned school teacher’s. By this time office goers begin filing out of the buildings. I hear a couple of alarms of cars backing up. The bikers zipping out, impatient right from the start. The breakfast carts by the pavements are winding up. A few women walking down to their workplaces. Cars trying to negotiate fruit carts and squeeze through tight spaces. By noon, the neighbourhood settles into its early noon. I am through two cups of coffee, assessing the leaf growth on all the trees that make the wallpaper of my balcony. I count the number of kites perching on the tree in the distance.
This is the first morning of the nationwide lockdown that was announced last evening by the Prime Minister. The usual neighbourhood morning hasn’t happened. We are facing a pandemic. He said, the only way to deal with it is to stay inside our houses and sit in for twenty one days. This will slow down the spread of coronavirus and probably not wreck the kind of havoc that it has in China, Italy and Spain. Locked inside their homes people are overdosing on screens – TV, phones and laptops. Social media’s endless scrolling providing copious distraction for people to fill in the day’s hours that have all turned idle. People’s sense of the world, sense of worth, sense of time and every other sense is under review. Memes, creative videos from quarantine and all kinds of analysis, perspectives, thought waves and realizations that people are going through, explode on the internet. Children face several months of stay at home. Schools and universities have adopted reluctantly to what they thought will never be a way to learn – online classes. Lectures and assignments are now beaming through online streams. Raw facts of disease and death unfolding in the real world keeps breaching this digital cooperation and camaraderie that the world is indulging in, nervously conscious that there is something deadly out to get all of them. But as long as it ‘out there’ and not amidst their family, they can continue to beam their creativity out into the digital world.
It is afternoon. I cook lunch and eat while watching Al Jazeera’s livestream and alternate it with other channels on the internet. I have stocked up on rations in a panic buy move the previous evening. There’s a sense of security in cooking a portion of it. There are visuals from China. The country is bouncing back to normalcy. It seems to have fought its battle with the virus. The pandemic has extracted a price and moved on. I see people living by their smartphones. It is now their ultimate instrument to justify and ensure their existence. There are drones managing streets and mobile applications certifying people’s health status. There are footages from Italy, Spain, UK and from India. News from the US is about economic stimulus that their senate has agreed with the White House. It is a ‘deal’. Everything is a deal. India’s lockdown is seen as an extraordinary move. It has shut down the entire country and emptied its streets making its 1.3 billion citizens lock themselves in for 21 days. I am sure we will pay a heavy price, over and above the deaths from coronavirus. I am through lunch.
It is a bright afternoon. The day seems an early sign of a harsh summer in the months ahead. I draw the curtains and settle in to read. I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I read him sharing his perspective on solitude and his working method – ‘anxiety, fear, sadness, doubt: there is no human emotion that cannot be upended and put into service.’ I move on to news reports about delivery workers. I think of how in a span of weeks delivery workers have gone from being a dispensable workforce available in plenty to key workers. Everyone city administration wants them to continue providing delivery services. In this matter, the orders they have issued have been the fastest. I do research on gig work at a university. In these years of studying gig work I have not seen such a paradoxical time. Gig workers are key workers. And, they continue to be treated badly and paid poorly.
All along, instant messages on whatsapp, twitter and telegram continue to flow. I am in conversation with family and friends. We are living together. Only, one message at a time, bits of audio notes and video clips at a time.
There’s a soft glow in the sky as the sun sets in the evening. It is about 7 PM. The kites settle in on the tree visible from the balcony. It has turned into a pretty silhouette. I make some coffee, as I run a subtle check in the background, if I have enough for the 21 days of lockdown.
I sit down thinking of how remarkable this turn of events is, for the world. We are all in this soup together. How helpless every country seems to be right now, irrespective of GDP, per capita income and development status. The virus is not able to make out an ‘advanced’ economy from a ‘developing’ one. Ventilators are anyway not enough. It is not one country’s problem. It cannot be solved by sending fighter jets or troops. It cannot be helped by more ‘boots on the ground’. It needs more health workers. It needs caregivers. It needs volunteers. It needs us to share all that we can and cooperate. The world hasn’t bothered about the word cooperation for a long time now.
It is a time to reflect. It is a time where we all get several days of forced and idle time to be inside our homes, with our families. Some are stranded. Hung between workplace and home. Where have we come? What have we done? Each one of us trying to complete the sentence – After all this is over, I will…