I cried all the way while driving back home. This was three weeks ago. I was at the Aadhar enrolment centre in New Delhi for an update in my national identity card, my first outing after the lockdown in April. If I didn’t have to leave for the UK in December for my research, I wouldn’t risk my life trying to get that update. A cash-strapped researcher can not afford the treatment if the pandemic strikes, but worse would be the cancellation of my dreams and a future I have diligently worked for over the past year.
India is, any given day, a nation of swarming multitudes and when the government reopened select services at carefully curated, stringently limited centres to facilitate the outbound journey of researchers like me, it came with a tacit understanding that there would be crowd, streams of it, and social distancing would be impossible. That update, as it was, was the first step in applying for the visa. I just couldn’t miss it.
As soon as I stepped out of the centre and got into the car, I broke down. Ten kilometres of the journey back home was tearfully difficult – I stopped at traffic signals and felt ashamed at my emotional outburst. A woman crying at the wheel is a woman in distress. I didn’t want the world to see and make assumptions about my life, especially not when I had a tough time making sense of the outburst myself. And then, the reflection came to me in a blinding moment. The mask and the conversations from behind the mask at the centre flashed before me. It’s weird that I am saying this but I am quite awkward with social conversations. So, isolation and lack of social interaction shouldn’t affect me much, I have always told myself. Except that in many ways, we skip life’s profound realisations only to get a handle on them in the simplest of ways. Like, stepping out after months for an update in the identity card.
I am not the life of a party but street conversations with strangers is my strong suit. They say introverts excel at one on one conversations. Never ever in my life have I survived an Uber ride without conversing with the driver, for instance. It’s true that common, working class people set off something in me. I want to connect in deeply spiritual ways that only life connects all human beings irrespective of class, caste or religion. But that day, I couldn’t bear what I had just lived through – being inside an enrollment centre throbbing with people but all I did was to keep looking at my watch to count the minutes, making sure I didn’t spend too long inside the air-conditioned enclosure. Someone like me, who has given days to long conversations with strangers even at the risk of not meeting writing deadlines, was fearful, observing frantically the six-feet distance and constantly adjusting the face mask. At the moment this happened, I didn’t realise the tragic turn our human lives have taken. In the solitude of the steering, it hit me hard. I cried and cried and cried. Perhaps, I needed to vent, let it all out and at that very moment, it felt like a dam had broken inside me, oceans heaving in my heart and tearing me up like the rivers they swallow.
I had feared on some days that Covid-19 will turn us into socially reclusive human beings. I write about this today because I want to put it away, like a small note submitted towards building human memories on the pandemic. But what I am becoming is more than just my grief melting into tears in moments of emotional weakness. I am doing socially awkward things, just the way extremely recluse humans do. In recent weeks, I have kept cancelling important work calls. Often, I tell them that I am unwell or someone I know is. Often, I just want to postpone everything to the week that never comes. I read a message and respond to it hours or days later. I shy away from taking calls unless it’s the courier guy with my ear pods or stationary. I have set my phone to two call and app block schedules, which offer strictly limited scope for conversations. I have deleted Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp from my phone, as if I were winding down for a long hibernation. I feel like a giant, fatigued panda, who just have started a war with spoken words and no fellow humans without a valid reason to back it up.
I once told a friend going through a divorce, my dear, do not postpone joy. Even as I recollect this here, I remain on the hurting, sorrowful trip of delaying it for myself. I feel inertia, anger and stoic stubbornness about self-isolation that I have never felt before. The quarantine may have gotten to me, you might say. I would merely say that I still wake up everyday and try to shun all of this distress by writing. Just trying these days, like today, is an act of courage.