“You didn’t play that song today,” my flatmate enquired rather sincerely on the fourth day of lockdown. We both have been working from home, together for the first time. As a habit, I play music aloud while working on my laptop. I knew exactly what that song she was referring to, except it had not occurred to me that she would notice. But she had, and also brought the slight departure of my routine to my notice. I felt a little amused and largely seen.
Sharing a house, balcony and sometimes a washroom with two other girls for over a year had bred a familiarity that is strictly functional. We knew each other’s clothes — we would aid our domestic help to sort them out in each other’s absence — who liked bitter gourd and who did not. After 21 days, we know who likes sugar in their coffees and who prefers tea. We have finally found out who used to get bitter gourds and who will not touch anything or anyone without generously applying some hand sanitiser. Days before the lockdown, we had made a choice to stay together and now we no longer have the choice to stay apart. The familiarity now — resonating with muffled snores during afternoon naps, sappy Pankaj Udhas songs, and loud shrieks on seeing a lizard on the wall at nights — resembles the kind we share with our family members and not friends.
Sajal Kumar, a writer in Mumbai, admits that the lockdown period has not changed things much with his flatmate. He shares a 3BHK with two other people, one of whom left for home in early March. All three knew each other from before but Sajal had initially moved in with the one who left. Before they were compelled to stay together, they used to spend their days mostly outside and rarely with each other. He maintains he did not mind the prospect of sharing the space with him but was a little apprehensive about everything in general and a bit about the food. “My other flatmate, who left for home, was the one who liked cooking.” The one who stayed back has taken him by surprise mostly at this front. “He cooks everyday and it tastes just like ghar ka khana. When I video call with my parents I almost flaunt what I eat.”
Much like us, Kumar is gradually recognising the different facets of not just staying but living together. Even though the space in their houses is still demarcated and each is careful not to disturb the other, they both chanced upon “a fun activity” to do together. The idea came up when a friend of his asked to share a video of themselves to make the bleak period less gloomy. Kumar can no longer recollect whose idea it was but both he and his flatmate started uploading their videos dancing to old Hindi songs on Facebook. “We chose the songs and each concluded with a message of social distancing,” he says. If one was expecting some conflict there, Kumar happily disappoints. “We would discuss at length the songs we would dance upon and never really argued. Once he had chosen a song I did not like much. I told him that and he immediately came up with something we both agreed upon.” From flatmates they have gradually transitioned to healthy professionals. Also friends, Kumar maintains. “I think we knew each other and were comfortable too, but we actually became friends during this period,” he says and then without hiding the joy in his voice adds, “tomorrow is my birthday. He has arranged a cake, and I guess we will be doing something at midnight.”
For those who had started out as friends, the crisis has altered the contours of the relationship. For Srija Roy, a 29 year-old media professional in New Delhi, the period has been a learning graph she would not want to trade for anything. She has been staying with her flatmate for the past one year and though they were friendly, it is the last few weeks that bonded them as friends. In a curious tryst of fate, the confinement at home has turned guests into flatmates but she is not complaining.
“My flatmate, Kanav and I have been friendly, but never really got a chance to bond much, thanks to excruciating work schedules. Right before the lockdown, his sister and brother-in-law shifted to Delhi and moved in with us till the time they could find a place and ever since we have been living in quarantine, like a small family unit.” The past days have helped in evolving the flatmates into a unit that somewhat resembles a family. “The four of us have formed a beautiful connection. Every day has been an experience where we try to learn something new from each other’s unique cultural tastes, and also motivate and appreciate each other. I am sure these distressful days shall pass soon, but this friendship with my newfound quarantine family is sure to remain for a lifetime.”
Sujatro Mukherji, a 28-year-old journalist in the capital, shares a 2BHK with his friend of 20 years. The flat he stays in, though exceeds his budget, was chosen to be able to stay with him. They have known each other for long but they have also grown up to be different individuals. With every passing day, the faultlines are beginning to show. “The little friction that we have is mainly our ideological differences. Our political views do not match and while it was never a problem before, given the circumstances now we talk more and thus argue more.” His friend works for a fund management company and sometimes, “says the most ridiculous things” Mukherji points out. However, he still would not want to spend these days with anybody else. “Apart from our differences, we make a great team. We both are terrible at cooking but you should see us encouraging the other person and quietly gulping down the food prepared by the other”. He has also devised a solution. “We try not watching the news together.”
For Aditya Sen, a professional at a university near Delhi, his stay with his flatmates was not part of the plan. He had put in his papers in February and should have been in Mumbai by now. His friends told him to stay back for his birthday on March 22 and now he is stuck.
Sharing the place with two people, Aditya had been friends with both but the relationship has been steadily deteriorating. One of them, he promptly describes as “complacent”, has sloughed off all responsibilities, leaving Aditya and the other person to do all the chores. “He wakes up at 2, makes coffee for himself and then leaves the cup on the sink assuming one of us to clean it. He does not care who cooks and it is pointless to make him see reason. He is a lost cause.”
Things took turn for the worse when the same “complacent” person had bought a pup from a common friend at the flat. “He did not consult us and the other person was not comfortable around pets. The good thing is the one who had a problem with pets has overcome his fright.” Resembling a dysfunctional marriage, the pup today has become the sole point of contact between the members of the flat, binding them together even when the one who brought him ceased to take any responsibility.
It could be the renewed investment in each other’s lives, a compulsive communitarian participation in the kitchen or an early morning quick discussion on the menu, but my flatmates and I have started eating lunch and dinner together. Every day as the clock strikes nine, one can sense a perceptible restlessness. It is time for dinner. One of us takes the food to the table and another carries the cutleries. I do not remember when we started doing it but it feels like it has always been like this.