Looking Out, Looking In

These days, I am unable to hold on to my days. They are like runaway horses. And the reins are no longer in my control. Strange now, when my life is even more cloistered. I withdrew from the rambunctious world outside when my children grew old enough to be independent. So I could write.

These days I rarely leave my 18th floor apartment. Not even to walk on the lawns and parks of our gated community, a microcosm, self-sufficient and barricaded against the rough and tumble of the world outside. Covid 19 may be my official reason. But I know better. I don’t belong. I can’t relate to problems arising from dealing with housework and office, because of the absence of an entourage of help—cook, nanny, char-woman or maid, chauffeur and elderly care help for those who have senior citizens living with them. The hysteria that arises because their expensive cars—BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Jaguars etc. etc.—need to run or else the batteries will die. And the excitement of queuing up, re-usable shopping bags and masks in place, for the various food trucks selling mangoes and other fruits, chicken and mutton and even varieties of Indian desserts. Because well-off Indians need their shopping fix, and if it is only food for sale, well then so be it.

I am a crow living among birds of paradise.

The world has stopped travelling. But Indians have not. They are travelling hundreds of miles, by the hundreds. These are the migrant workers, those nameless, faceless, union-less men and women and sometimes even children, who work for long hours for disgraceful remuneration, and who are now bereft of even that meagre earning.

This is the other face of India. A face that has wiped out my self-centered sorrows at losing my quiet days of uninterrupted routine, because my spouse is working from home, and he naturally gets priority—that is how we were raised, to put ourselves last, and I am a feminist only in theory. That is not the entire truth, though. I have also stopped writing because it suddenly seems like a frivolous activity. But I can’t stop writing in my head. As I cook and clean and repeat the chores again and again, the writing continues and disappears, because the words are never ‘put down.’ I have to look at my cell phone to determine my days. I cannot tell a Sunday from a Monday any more.

Be thankful, be thankful, we tell each other, and our children when we video chat with them.

Sixteen workers were cut up like butcher’s meat beneath the wheels of a goods train during the early hours of the night of the flower moon. They were walking home from one end of India to another, thinking they were taking a straight and safe path, because trains were not running during the lockdown. They didn’t know about goods trains. Another day, a young man, traveling on the roof of a bus, after shelling out what would have been a fortune for him, collapsed and died in his friend’s arms. The day temperatures often rise to 42 degrees Celsius and more. He was not Covid positive. He died of dehydration. There are so many tragic stories being played out. The media catches the dramatic ones and housebound ghouls lap them up.

What should I be thankful for? For myself and my family? We wrap ourselves up in the comfort of our self-centeredness. Life is less complicated. Or would have been if my mind was differently configured.

Looking down from my balcony, at the street dogs chasing each other and the occasional car, the delivery trucks and Swiggy bikes, I watch workers without any kind of protective gear laying underground cables and repairing roads. Across the road, and beyond the boundaries of a posh villa community opposite our own, cranes turn slowly over a high-rise complex, gradually adding to its height.

The ministers say they are helping the economy and also providing jobs for the migrant workers, encouraging them to stay back in the cities. The government has announced financial aid and safe transport for the migrants who are returning home, because they feel it is better to die there among their families than in the cities. The exodus continues. Aided or unaided. Even as the government prepares to lift lockdown and ‘normal life’ begins to trickle back.

There are other tragedies happening, non Corovid ones. These are putting their weight against Corovid’s devastation. Cyclone Amphan flattened homes and livelihoods in my home state, Bengal. Swarms of locusts have eaten acres and acres of standing crops in Rajasthan and neighboring states. And they are still feasting as I write.

The gloom and doom are lighter in places though. Good Samaritans, ordinary citizens, and even news reporters interviewing the migrants are stepping in to give what help they can. Even if it means only slippers for their feet and bottles of water. These people are not necessarily the rich. Many are financially needy themselves. Then there are our pharmaceutical companies who are going all out to produce vaccines and medicines. I didn’t know before this pandemic that India produces around 70% of the world’s vaccines.

My heart remains restless. Suddenly writing to be published seems a frivolous desire. Mending a hole in a T-shirt seems a superior activity. Nevertheless, a week or so ago, I made a conscious effort to sit down at my computer and write, random paragraphs. Those exercises have helped. I am somewhat relieved, because I had written nothing the whole of April.

Sometimes the writing is automatic. As if a creature from my innermost depths has risen to express herself. And it is possibly she who has put this thought to me: what does it matter if nobody ever reads me? If my fiction, poetry, essays etc. never get to see the light of day? How does my writing change anything in the world, anyway? There are thousands of unread books. If I were to choose between one and the other, what would I rather be, the reader or the writer?

My reading life has returned, quietly but firmly. As a child, adolescent, and then as a single adult I used to devour books every day. I felt insecure if I didn’t have a book in my bag, even when I went grocery shopping for my mom. Juggling office and children changed all of that. I read to my children when they were small, but had stopped reading for myself. My spouse isn’t an avid book reader; he would choose television over a book. None of our acquaintances, personal friends and relatives are. None of them write either, but they have strong opinions about books and writers and the artistic world in general. For many years my reading had been reduced to a trickle, as I tried to straddle my inner and my exterior worlds. A handful of books in a year, instead of the three or four I used to consume in a week. For the past few weeks, I have not sat with my spouse to watch a movie or even the news. I’ve been reading in between my chores and before going to bed.

I feel I have begun a new journey, albeit a private one. I will not stop writing. But I am now conscious that it is the act of writing that brings me happiness, not seeing it in print. Material success or the lack of it is, well, immaterial. This does not mean I won’t send out work anymore. I will, but there is neither hurry nor anxiety now.

The world has changed. I see it as molting into something new, and perhaps terrifying, but definitely different. We don’t know who will survive and who won’t, who will be able to adapt and who won’t. As for me, my place in the world may be less than a dust-mote, but let it be a happy mote of dust. Because that is humanity’s triumph against strangeness, against adversity, against calamity. Because humanity knows how to rise again and again. And I am part of it, tiny, insignificant, but a part nevertheless. Stay blessed.

 

—May 27, 2020

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Shikhandin

Shikhandin is the nom de plume of an Indian writer who writes for adults and children. She is an alumnus of The Anam Cara Writing Workshop, Ireland. Her published books, as Shikhandin, include Immoderate Men (Speaking Tiger), and Vibhuti Cat (Duckbill-Penguin-RHI). Contributor to Magic Stories for Eight Year Olds by Penguin RHI, and Flipped: An Anthology of School and Sports Stories by Harper Collins. A novel and a short story collection were published prior to her becoming Shikhandin. Her sci-fi story "Communal" was published simultaneously in two anthologies, A Dying Planet from Flametree Press and Avatar from Future Fiction in January 2020. Shikhandin's honours include: pushcart nominee by Aeolian Harp (USA) 2019, winner 2017 Children First Contest curated by Duckbill in association with Parag an initiative of Tata Trust, first prize Brilliant Flash Fiction Contest 2019 (USA), runner up Half and One Short Story Competition (India), Shortlist Erbacce Poetry Prize (UK), 35th Moon Prize (Writing in a Woman's Voice: USA), first runner up The DNA-OoP Short Story Contest 2016 (India), second Prize India Currents Katha Short Story Contest 2016 (USA), first prize Anam Cara Short Fiction Competition 2012 (Ireland), long list Bridport Poetry Prize 2006 (UK), finalist Aesthetica Poetry Contest 2010 (UK), Pushcart nominee by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2011 (Hong Kong). Shikhandin's poetry and prose have been published worldwide.

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