A writer explains why she misses the lockdown brought on by the pandemic
Arefa Tehsin, who writes books on nature and fiction, says she welcomed the opportunity for solitude.
Gawd, how I miss the lockdown! So much that it hurts. I look back at those months with nostalgia and a dull ache in my chest. The word “isolated” has latin origins; it comes from insula, meaning island. My partner and I were literally marooned on a lake island colony in Colombo, where our little cottage squats. The lockdown, which started in Sri Lanka before India and was much more stringent, was a period of tranquility for me. No, that’s an understatement. I was ridiculously happy.
The literature festivals I was invited to were cancelled, and so were our other trips. I was writing my first novel for adults (I generally write for children and young adults) and I remained asymptomatic to surprise or distress. Suddenly left with so much time for incubation of ideas, the only bit of the novel corona virus that made sense to me was “novel”.
Set around a murder in 1950, the story caught me in a time bubble. I revelled in the disorder of skipping personalities. One day the zamindar Roa sahib who prided in a good fart, the other the child widow Badi bi, the housekeeper who ruled a mansion from under her frayed ghoonghat.
Fraught with the events of the tale, I lumbered like the Komodo dragon-sized monitors here, ducked behind my desk aping the white-breasted waterhen who decided that the underside of my bookshelf is the perfect time for a catnap, looked at masked humans with suspicion in the style of the resident mongoose, twinkled on finishing a chapter like the fireflies that rise in the garden post dusk, worked diligently in the fashion of the hornets building mud houses in our living room and filling them with caches of live spiders for their little darlings, dived into my writing like the regular bandits of the lake – the Brahminy kites trying to steal grey herons’ hard earned catch, and roosted on the sofa after a long day just as the pelicans outside on their heronries.
The only encounter that left me running around the dwelling chasing my own tail was a large crocodile floating past the garden one afternoon. He looked at me as if he couldn’t care less about me (or my novel!). Ah, those eyes.
The other lockdown gratuity was spending time with Aditya. Watch him tending to the plants, digging a long-pending compost heap to recycle our wet waste and experimenting with cocktails in the evenings. The most seductive of them was the pink lemon cocktail. It looked like dusk sky. It tasted like contentment.
I’ve been lucky in landing a partner who is worldly wise. He learned how to cook six months before we got married, considering the possibility of starvation living with a woman who categorically refuses to cook – the quintessential quality of a good Indian wife. With our house-help not coming, we enjoyed cooking two meals a day together.
The lockdown was lyrical in its absurdity. A zoonotic flu breaks and we sapiens scuttle to our caves, curl our tails and barricade ourselves from our own species. For months. We have always practised isolation as a punishment, when it should be a part of growing up. It would work better towards making a balanced individual – someone who can spend time with herself – than the moral science classes taught by nuns at the convents. Or the carrots doled out by dedicated parents who live for their children. “Ninety percent this semester and that playstation is yours, beta…”
People took to reading literature and watching films that were prescient. Everyone suddenly knew about the Bengal plague and Spanish flu, Wuhan-400 was a rage…“Unbelievable, no? He knew! Can’t be a coincidence!” and Contagion gave technicolour to nightmares. But I avoided The Plague like plague. Refused to read even the excerpts of doomsday prophecies.
Beg to differ
I suffer insomnia for more than two decades now. The description “sleepless dreamer” on my website is not poetic, it is my condition. I slept during those months. Like a normal person. Believe me, that is the next best thing to nirvana. Social distancing gave me back my sleep. The only ones I was missing were the two porcupines who would cross the bridge at night and come to the island with bristling confidence.
In those hallowed months away from the tyranny of socialising, I had deep philosophical insights like discovering the absolute importance of my thumb and the realisation that lipstick can make you look like a purple moorhen if you apply it after three months. And, amongst the high demand for “traditional remedies” and the subsequent shortages, I grew to appreciate the fact that life could go on without turmeric.
The only strength of will required was to ward off the perpetual demand for video calls. Zoom reminded me of Madagascar. The movie where animals stuck in their cages spoke to one another all the time, the lion and zebra being the best of friends in the unnatural environment. It is not that I am asocial (or a hermit), but I always had a grinding suspicion that my chattiness gets in the way of my happiness. That I have a much greater affinity for the written word than the spoken. That the plight of wild animals moves me much more than that of humankind.
While many sighed about a world struck with disease, I begged and pleaded to differ. The world happily rotated on its axis, trying to recover from a disease brought on it by an ape lineage that she perhaps has named “dynasty of the dumb”. A pompous species who has poisoned the water they drink and polluted the air they breathe and caused the 6th Age of Extinction.
The damage caused by even the human pets and pests was evident during the lockdown. We were following the life and times of a diligent waterhen couple who was rearing four chicks. We didn’t clear the undergrowth by the lake waters on our side to provide them adequate shelter. One afternoon, a little black chick was killed and deposited on our doorstep (without being eaten) by the kitty we feed.
And then another chick went missing and then the next. Till there was only one, which I hope survived. Multiply that into billions and you’ll get a small peek into the destruction that our pets cause to wildlife, which we graciously write off as, “Aney…it’s just their natural instinct.”
There is no denying that the force of human tragedy has been brute, especially in India where the government has been in quarantine and the middle-classes suffering the community spread of apathy towards low-income bipeds. Sri Lanka has managed the crisis much better, probably the best in the South Asia region.
Life is almost back to normal for now and I feel wistful thinking about the lockdown. I couldn’t agree more with a friend who said that the world should lock down every year for two months to give a breather to fellow creatures.
Would it have been different if I was not stuck literally on an island? No, I believe. When we were based in Mumbai and Aditya was regularly travelling for work, my brother-in-law who once dropped in, asked me, incredulously, “You haven’t stepped out of the apartment for a week? Like not crossed the main door?” That was the first time I realised solitude was an achievement of the preposterous kind.
Would it have been different if I was not writing a book? I was in the same psychedelic state a few years ago when our island was flooded and we got stuck in our cottage for four days. While Aditya was busy pouring buckets of water out from our garden and living room, I was busy catching blind snakes that had surfaced due to flooding. I love snakes, blind as well as the ones with foresight and hindsight.
It is not that I don’t miss a few things. One of them is my longing to visit my folks in India, some of who are on the other side of 75. But I have come out of the lockdown with a diminished desire for human company, stronger affinity to spend weekdays with books, and weekends gobsmacked by a flitting paradise flycatcher or an idle bar-headed goose. One day, I wish to pass on to the happy reading grounds amid critters who will not notice my passing. And yeah, I have come out of the lockdown with love for a certain pink cocktail prepared by someone I don’t count among humans; I hope he will take this as a compliment.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.