Why my heart gently weeps

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.

TikTok, China and Swadeshi

India is facing an uphill task battling the Covid-19. New Delhi, its national capital, is flooded with cases and subsequent stories of misery and deaths due to the pandemic. Its financial capital Mumbai is buried neck deep in the crisis. The infectious disease has reached its southern state with a vengeance – there have been 338000 Corona virus cases in state capital Chennai so far. But on the WhatsApp groups I am in, the conversation has already shifted in recent months, in rhythm with the shift in narratives on television news. On June 15, India went to bed with 332424 Covid-19 cases and an overwhelming sense of fear and chaos at the burgeoning health crisis. Next morning, newspapers were awash with reports of a “violent face off” with China’s People’s Liberation Army in eastern Ladakh, in which more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed. In what was the first Indian casualties in a clash with the PLA since 1975, the barbaric killing of Indian soldiers enraged the nation. Today, Covid cases in India have touched 2.7 million but this isn’t the biggest news of the day. Overnight, the virus is not the biggest enemy in India; China is.

My neighbour, who has rented the flat and lived in Delhi for five years, is vacating the flat this week. His real estate business has dried up in Delhi and he is moving lock stock and barrel to his hometown where his family has stayed for most part of the lockdown. Next door, another neighbour who owns a garment factory and drives a Maserati, has just returned in weeks to reopen the factory after the lockdown was lifted in early June. In two months since mid-June, I am listening to the clamour of people on my floor – one of them is moving out and another has just returned. Their conversations are the stuff you mostly find in WhatsApp groups these days. The one shifting out of Delhi is leaving all behind all the electronic goods made in China that he ever purchased. That TCL television set was his favourite but he doesn’t care anymore. The cleaners could take them home but he has asked the floor cleanliness manager to make sure they are discarded. The neighbour who has returned to his flat in two months nods in agreement. He says he would discard the One Plus mobile handsets owned by his family. I gasp, aren’t they expensive?

“This is the least we could do after what China has done to our soldiers,” he says. The widely reported details of the deaths of Indian soldiers in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley have angered Indians. Those who can afford a Maserati can discard a One Plus phone. Those who own Hero Honda Splendor are dismantling the Xiaomi sets. The battle against China, however ill-conceived, is out on the streets and everyone seems to be doing their bit with vehement vows to boycott Chinese products. Social distancing is no more the worry. Street congregations have been organised to burn Chinese products by political parties, trade bodies, government officers and individuals alike.

The protests on street have come to mirror the policy decisions taken in the week of the aftermath of the Ladakh attack — amidst clamour for boycott, three projects worth Rs 5000 crore signed with Chinese companies have been put on hold in the western state of Maharashtra, and many more stalling of projects could follow.

The Indian government took it to another level: it banned 59 Chinese apps including the very popular Tik Tok on the grounds that they pose a threat to the country’s “sovereignty and security” and more may be under the axe. TikTok has about 200 million registered users in the country with app downloads in excess of 660 million since its launch in India. Globally, the sentiment against China has reached a crescendo with the US banning TikTok and contemplating extending the ban to Alibaba.

In my upscale apartment, the anti-China slogans have pervaded Whatsapp groups. But the decades old reliance on Chinese products is mixing up loyalties. Like the hostilities along the border, the discarding of Chinese products is difficult to take to absolute
completion.

My cook has a Xiaomi handset and he lives away from his family in Bihar. His cheap smartphone enables video calls with his kids every day. Whenever there has been an
emergency or any urgent calls needed between them and him, or him and me, the
phone has proved to be immensely useful. We have all the urgency and urge to discard
everything that has anything to do with China even remotely, but the courage to
discard all of it at once hasn’t been in ample supply. For the first time, this
feeling or rather the weakness of action has no class divide – from opulent
classes to middle income to poor households, reliance on Chinese products has
grown too deep for us to discard overnight.

Yet, the rhetoric is loud and toxic, and it escalates, two of the biggest challenges confronting us fade into the background – the Covid-19 crisis and the worsening unemployment crisis in India. Every passing day, newspapers and television channels and digital media has other priorities, and every day, our collective conscience is tricked
into outrage we don’t need.

Millennials are gutted but some companies are trying to uplift them

Millennails are truly gutted. I remember I had barely started my career as a journalist when the 2008 financial crisis plunged the global economy and it seems, my generation has not recovered from it yet. Blame it on economic crises after crises, and this year, we are staring into a recession even as we lose jobs, savings, and even lives. In the middle of all this mayhem, some companies may be finding it important to cancel out fun for us. Airbnb will now restrict bookings for under-25s in the UK, Spain and France as part of an effort to stop unauthorised house parties. Work from home has already led to serious psychological issues for us, and now some of us can’t even house-party! It may be alright, given that the pandemic isn’t over yet but the threshold of patience with quarantine and social distancing may be crashing now for many of us. We are social animals and we need people. I can totally imagine what this year is turning out to be for college freshers and younger folks. My heart for you, folks, carry on and perhaps take heart in this beautiful write-up, which argues that it’s not just the millennials who have never recovered, but also the Gen-X! I just love the way it ends and I cheer you on with this below:

Without inheritances or family savings to keep us afloat, we have recreated stability in a world that is unstable. We turned friends into family. We have accepted debt as a part of our lives. We have made peace with possibly never being homeowners. We have no expectations of being able to retire. ….
It would be nice if other generations noticed our resiliency. Our creative endeavors. Our platforms and social media and art and multiple jobs as evidence of our perseverance. But even if it’s never seen that way, we will know we are doing the best we can to create lives we can love.

Love, love, love! These sentences are beautiful, they are making me all teary, and ever so ready to take on the world. We are the infamous cohort of people born between 1981 and 1996 and we will survive.

Before I forget, financial literacy is equally important and often, we have no one to go to for financial advice! I think this survey says a lot about this – ”Although 37% of Americans said their main source of financial advice comes from friends and family, Gen Zers cited social media as a go-to source. And 31% of those surveyed said they got no financial advice at all.

Meanwhile, even as you badger on, some companies may be trying to brighten up the lives of singles out there. German software company SAP has been hosting virtual wine tastings and barbeques for its single employees and even designed a Tinder-like app for lunch dates!

Alright world, I need to bow out with this. What do you think? How are you coping? What has your workplace done for your mental health? Write to me.

Poem on quarantine featured in Lockdown Journal!

I am happy for Lockdown Journal to feature my poem ‘Quarantine’ on their website. You can check it out here or download it here: