Some time last week when the world as we knew it was changing one news update at a time, I messaged a friend to check on him. The intent was to find somebody— anybody— to share my anxiety with, to fill them with the same lurid details which were keeping me from sleeping at night, to reiterate how the lives of thousands of people were being reduced to mind-numbing statistics. Like a panic phone call to a friend before an exam, I was perversely hoping that discussing and comparing collective misery would offer some relief. He was doing well, he said, catching up on pending work and shows but the compulsive need for self-isolation was preventing him from meeting his partner. That is what was irking him; not a crippling despair about the world falling apart, not anxiety-induced insomnia, not agonising thoughts over parents living in a different city. Or maybe all of them were but the only thing he chose to tell me was amidst a global pandemic, he missed seeing her.
When I visited my partner last time, coronavirus was a distant headline in newspapers. The dread seemed far-removed and could be still made private jokes about: “Do you think I can have coronavirus?” “Coronavirus will have you.” In a span of little more than a month, the world looks different. The elusive virus has compelled us to scuttle inside our homes, depriving us of human touch, and disrupting lives and economy with pointed ferocity. Suddenly, the roads are vacant, the sky looks different, animals and birds are barking and chirping with renewed authority, and we, who paid to watch them, are locked inside our homes. Life has come to an abrupt standstill and we find ourselves at the intersection of becoming the stories we have so far only read with detached horror. The need for self-isolation has expanded days into hours and converted physical spaces into sites of separation. And yet, on the surface, little has changed between him and me.
We have lived in different cities from the outset. Seeing awkward mugshots of each other in phones has been the norm; meeting a rare luxury. We were in a long-distance relationship before the virus decided to make everyone staying away from their partner (even) in the same city suffer from similar pangs of longing. We were always hopelessly reliant on words to confront and reconcile, helplessly dependent on a song to articulate an apology we were too proud to offer. Some arguments were always set aside to be resolved in person and others solved themselves between relentless phone calls and text messages. We were maintaining social distance before it was prescribed. We had been waiting before we were told to wait.
My friend’s complaint, though different from mine, did not feel facile. It was fittingly and only human. Popular literature, films and even life have almost always underlined the way lovers are perpetually troubled by each other’s absence, how they undertake staggering risks to do as little as meet. In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things — a haunting piece of fiction on devastating losses, horrid costs for loving and a relationship that ends as a precautionary tale— Ammu, the mother of two, and the much younger, lower caste, Velutha serve as telling examples. When they had met for the first time, both were acutely aware of how high the stakes were, terrifyingly familiar with “how far they went would be measured against how far they would be taken”. They paid the price of their audacity with damaged childhoods, dismantled familial relationships and death.
And yet, it is striking the way Roy keeps this incident till the very end, revealing the beginning of their story after showing us how it ended. She first informs what happened and later details why and how it did. She concludes not with crisis but with the image of two people consumed with an inexplicable need to meet. This curious arrangement of the chapter becomes her way of saying that they knew from the start how things would unfold and given a chance they would do it again. It also highlights her insistence that the two people who were fated never to be together were not fighting that battle to begin with. They met that night and kept meeting because every moment felt crucial, every time spent away from each other felt like a waste. They met because, unlike love which fights for validation, lovers are always contending time. That is the only thing that matters to them, not the nature or magnitude of the exigency. The plight my friend was suffering from felt similar. Like them, he too was aware of the silent clock ticking away. He was more petrified of being defeated by it than worried about what was lying ahead.
Staying apart has not dulled but delayed this urgency, fundamentally changing my relationship with time. The always existing distance had made me—us— long aware of and accustomed to how limited it is. We accumulated it—taking an obscenely early or late flight or lingering at the airport for some more minutes than necessary — before deciding to spend. We never fought time, but placed our faith in it. We befriended and treated it with reverence expecting to be served well in return. We paced our stride with it, made plans for the future hoping that there will always be one. And yet, all of a sudden a pandemic such as this —which is pushing the very future to the brink of uncertainty—is threatening to undo it all. With every passing day, as the number of casualties keep mounting and flights remain suspended indefinitely, the distance seems more distant. While those staying in the same city moan over what all they could have done, we silently lament over how much is left to do. When they complain over not meeting when they used to, we keep mutely looking at dates knowing we will not meet when we were supposed to. When they begrudge losing time, we, who could never afford it, fear how much of it will be left when all this ends. The crisis is robbing them of their present and quietly eating away at our future.
In a time such as this, worrying constantly and only about being with the person you want to be with — worrying enough to be mentioning and writing about it — reeks of privilege. It perhaps is. But when confronted with a disaster none of us had accounted for — and which of all things is diminishing hope — the worry also feels strangely natural. The nagging question is not when we will meet but if we will.
When we had met for the first time, breaking some hearts and to see if ours fit, he had left a small note that tenderly suggested to keep faith. In the succeeding months I did just that, in spite of the many fights and insecurities. When we speak now, we repeat and remind each other of the same. We still have placed our faith in time, not because we know no other way but because a little more than a year back, it had worked itself out and two people staying in different cities had chanced upon each other when neither of them was looking. All we are hoping for now is some further kindness for everybody: those who had disregarded time and those who had paid heed to it.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines