Back to the Future
Now that unlock ki prakriya (the process of unlocking) is in its fourth phase, I feel brave enough to talk about the time during lockdown. The virus and the humans now seem to have got used to each other. It brings me immense solace when my doctor friend says that with time not only have we found ways to survive the attack, but the virus too has gone less virulent. Apparently the virus senses that to survive, it needs a host and if it feeds off all of them, it would lose its very existence. Wise thought though still scary!
Fortunately, most of the people I know, did not have to face difficulty of travel, major treatments or any other crisis during the lockdown period except, of course, the all-pervading sense of concern and a lot of precaution. They sometimes shared what they were doing. Whatever news was left, was filled in by the news channels which continued to make me ask back – What, now? In these days?
With the malls, stores, pubs, discos, clubs, restaurants, craft and bookstores closed, people had to rely on their own ingenuity to keep themselves and the children busy and entertained. After the initial shock, days fell into a pattern of housework, eating, complaining and some other activity. There was no sense of any idle work. No goals, nothing else to do. Nothing that made you forget to eat or sleep.
Everyone got busy. Work did not stop, only the venues changed and for a big percentage of people, it was work from home and online meetings. Yet for the rest of the time, they were so many physical things to do at home or to tackle in the mind. They were making up for the free time they had yearned for. They followed their old interests, picked up new hobbies, tried out new activities. While some carefully chose how to spend time, the others were either wayward or simply unsure.
Cloistered in their homes, surrounded by members of the family whom they had learned to distance before this, and now willy-nilly, had to spend most of their waking hours with, they all decided that it was the right time to ‘let the passion surface’. After all, how many times can you have Happy hours in a day?
The topmost spot went to social networking. People called up children, parents, siblings, friends and relatives to ask about their well-being. They exchanged warnings or tales of vulnerability and sent audio and video messages to the ones they had not talked to for, maybe, months and years.
The Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions leave not much to guess what most of us did. Binge-watching films or drama series for hours together made up for the opportunities lost of watching what we had missed or mindless watching as a perfect escape to kill time.
To find some peace, baking was a strange choice. Instagram went aflame with photos of people baking cakes, flans, Focaccia cheese-topped veggies and what not. Naturally, the viewers oohed and aahed over them and made appropriate comments.
Crème caramel flan Photo Courtesy: Lily Pandeya
Close behind was the main kitchen activity-cooking. Such creativity! Such experiments! Healthy and nutritious meals during lockdown! The impressive fact is that the whole family seemed to have jumped in with a sense of adventure.
Then there were the ones who took great care of their mental health. They fed their minds with reading and writing or listening to music. They made and released online music videos. They played board games and solved puzzles.
They reminded you of the great minds who had done remarkable work during the quarantine days in the 16th and 17th century.
When bubonic plague hit Florence in 1348, father and stepmother of Florentine writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio succumbed to the disease. Boccaccio survived the outbreak by fleeing the city and hiding out in the Tuscan countryside. During this period, he wrote The Decameron, a collection of novellas framed as stories a group of friends tell each other while quarantined inside a villa during the plague.
When the plague hit London in 1592, playwright Thomas Nashe fled to the English countryside to avoid infection. This was the same time he wrote Summer’s Last Will and Testament, a play that reflects his experiences living through the pandemic. One famous passage reads:
Adieu, farewell earths blisse,
This world uncertaine is,
Fond are lifes lustful joyes,
Death proves them all but toyes,
None from his darts can flye;
I am sick, I must dye:
Lord, have mercy on us.
Shakespeare was an actor and shareholder with The King’s Men theater troupe when the bubonic plague forced London theatres to close in the early 17th century. The official rule was that after weeks, when the death toll crossed 30, public playhouses had to shut down. This meant that the theatre industry was paralyzed for much of 1606 when the plague returned to the city. After suddenly finding himself without a steady job and lots of free time, Shakespeare got to writing. He composed King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra before the year was over.
In 1665, when Isaac Newton was in his early 20s, one of the last major outbreaks of the bubonic plague hit the country. Classes at Cambridge University were cancelled, so Newton retreated to his family estate roughly 60 miles away to continue his studies there. The young mathematician produced some of his best work during his year in quarantine, writing the papers that would become early calculus and developing his theories on optics while playing with prisms in his bedroom. This was also the time when his theory of gravity germinated.
The Scream painter Edvard Munch contracted Spanish flu around the beginning of 1919, while living in Norway. But instead of becoming one of its many victims, Munch lived to continue making great art. As soon as he felt physically capable, he gathered his painting supplies and began capturing his physical state. Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu shows him with thinning hair and a gaunt face sitting in front of his sickbed. (Wikipedia Commons)
The Scream by Edvard Munch
Similarly, in recent times, some people let loose their creative sides to draw, paint or sketch. This included the thousands of children who had to be kept out of their parents’ hair during this period 24×7 company with no respite. The online sale of paints, crafts material and subscription of videos soared.
I was relieved that the Chinese apps were banned because it put a stop to the continuously pinging of my phone with the tik-tok videos of poor jokes and husbands motion-photographed doing the household chores as evidence of creativity.
The houses of God on the street corners went silent and so the flowers which were duly plucked daily to be offered to them, bloomed and the birds sang. These could have been great opportunities for ambitious photographers but alas, the only photos I was treated to, were of everything else.
Some others made good use of the time in organizing the house. Though sadly, there was almost no one who seemed to share my interest in needlework.
People took care of their plants in the broiling heat. They took the pets out and I was not surprised to see some so far unseen characters in our building being pulled by the leash as the happy dogs took them out for a walk.
With the gyms, parks, tennis and squash courts closed, the fitness conscious people took to yoga and exercises inside the house to keep their bodies healthy and agile. The YouTube views on the dance videos also became a popular choice.
Those who had a pair of running shoes and some ground to cover did some walking or running, and with the earphones emanating music they could enjoy some alone moments of fun and activity.
Not only that, with the golf courses closed, people like K S Asla, blessed not only with the sportsman’s heart, but good joints and enthusiasm too, chose to cycle during the morning hours of lockdown relaxation. And believe me, in the Chennai summer too!
IRAS officer K S Asla (in blue) and his cycling buddy Sanjay Aryavir, ex coast guard Lt Cdr
Photo Courtesy: K S Asla
“Tum itne din baad mile…Bolo itne din kya kiya (You have met after many days…Say, what did you for so many days?), asked the beautiful Dimple Kapadia from Jackie Shroff in the Hindi movie Ram Lakhan, albeit in typical Bollywood style with lyrics, music, dance and much flicking of her heavy mane. And to a romantic’s delight, naturally, the suave hero replied, tera naam liya, tujhe yaad kiya (Took your name, remembered you). Alas, nothing so great happened in my life during the lockdown or later. I continue to be as scared as I was on March 24, that I dare not take ‘the’ name lest God forbid, it should feel that I am calling it.
I am among those harmless creatures who prefer a peaceful quiet life somewhere in one spot of this planet. So in the midst of the pandemic, the cyclone, floods, earthquakes, issues like survival of Rajasthan Government, the frequent social gatherings organized by or for the political elders in the southern states etc., I just stuck to the mundane and the ordinary activities.
I did not contribute to any more earth-shaking moments for the sake of the rest of my species. I existed during the lockdown and yes, worried, incessantly at that, about my present and future health, that of my dear ones whether near or afar, and wondered how they survived not just the threat but the fear too of this unforeseen time.
In my ordinary life baking and cooking have to be followed by a great deal of washing up. With the maid not coming, I stuck to preparing simple food, in the name of health, homemade and nutrition. For me the only sorrow was that family packs of instant noodles had disappeared from the sellers’ stocks before I could think of them.
The practical side of my brain also warned me when good times return I’d have neither the inclination nor the energy to regularly serve gourmet meals. Not only that, to burn up all that flour, butter and sugar, I would have to move my bums, surely not a welcome thought in this heat and humidity. My excuse – no one enjoys failed experiments in food served. In fact, from the pictures I received, nobody ever talked about whether the cake was soft, the others asked for a second helping of the dish or actually suggested that this be made more often.
I guess instead of jab main chhota bachcha tha (when I was a small kid) stories would now begin with jab lockdown hua tha (when there was the lockdown), everyone would have his version to tell about that time.
Only I would announce with confidence that was the only time in my life I really got scared for you, and for me!