Self-isolation has made Malvika Banerjee grateful. The list runs long, ranging from having a roof over her head to food in the fridge, but mostly it is the flatmates. A journalist by profession, her work timings had been starkly different from the two women she stayed with. “I would leave around 4 in the evening when no one was home and return at 2 am when everyone would be asleep.” The ongoing lockdown has turned things upside down and Banerjee is not complaining. “I have been a single child and am used to my space. But for the last couple of days I have been so thankful for the presence of my flatmates. The thought of hearing some chatter outside my room or even exchanging a good morning with one of them is very uplifting. I had undermined the joy of company,” she admits.
For Ashmita Ghosh, a PhD student in Germany, the realisation is the same but a little belated. A resident of New Delhi, she stayed with her parents and sister till she moved abroad for further education. Staying apart has been a lesson in how she took so many things for granted and now the 29-year-old consciously keeps some time to talk to her parents over video call. “It is important to spend time with family, however far away from them you are or however busy,” she says.
Staying alone has also made her introspect about the life she was leading, the feasibility of it. “Life before the coronavirus was not ‘normal’. We all need to slow down, breathe more, take meals on time, eat healthy, sleep on time, wake up on time, take care of our health, and take care of family’s health,” Ashmita adds. At the same time, she has become more mindful of the preciousness of the company. “None of us can live like islands, however much we may want to. It is important to be kind and exercise patience with people around us. It is important to surround yourself with kind people.”
For Vishal Kumar (name changed), a development sector professional, the lockdown has opened up an unforeseen opportunity. This year, in late February, he married his partner for seven years. At that time coronavirus was a lurking dread. In all these years of being together, they have mostly stayed apart. His partner stayed in Delhi while he used to be in Rajasthan. Things were no different even after the wedding till the news of lockdown started floating and he took a cab and came to Delhi. They have been living together since, a first in all these years. Kumar still thanks his stars for thinking on his feet that night, for not waiting for another day (as he was advised). “Staying together has been the only silver lining in all this,” he says. But this has also brought forth a new challenge: Their fights can no longer be resolved by disconnecting the phone. Kumar also sees this as a much-needed step for better understanding in a relationship. “When you live together, especially in such circumstances you not only know yourself better but also understand and appreciate your partner more closely. You start appreciating the relationship in a more substantive way.” He does not mind the domestic squabble too. “Now we have more space to fight properly and in turn even patch up in a more organic way. When you stay away, reconciliations are mostly artificial and hasty. Some hurt keep lingering somewhere,” he says while adding, “jhagda toh chalega” (fights will continue)
Working with an NGO, Ankita Sharma had stayed up nights arranging basic amenities for people. Now at home, the 30-year-old is tending to her flatmates. “I feel with all the need to see a change in society, we forget that it needs to begin from the domestic space. I have lived with my flatmates for a year now but this is the first time when we are together all the time. And there cannot be a better opportunity to practice caregiving, to be the change that I want to see elsewhere.”
Sharma says she has realised the worth of kindness more intensely this time than ever. “With everything happening around, I strive to be kinder every day and not only seek my own happiness but also make those staying with me happy. Having a kinder home reminds me why I do what I do.”
If the domestic space has helped Sharma to put her profession in perspective, the reverse is true for Ved Desai (name changed). A writer by profession, he lives with his mother in a 2 BHK in Mumbai. Prior to the lockdown, the Starmark next to his place would suffice as his workstation. Now the need to stay at home has also brought forth the need to spend time with his mother. “It has been a welcome change. With every passing day I realise that so much of the way I write or even think has been derived from my mother. On evenings we have coffee together and we talk about my childhood, her childhood, about the life we had both witnessed together. When we compare our versions now, it is oddly funny to see how differently we remember the same incident. But having said that it is her approach to life, her perspective that has percolated in the way I view things, even in the way I write,” he says.
At a time when the very ethics of humanity is being challenged, Manju Sharma has been plagued by how wide the gulf is between the have(s) and the have not(s); how a novel virus has held a mirror to the society, hiding none of the inequalities that exist. The 60-year-old who played a crucial role in the first wave of women’s movement in India and also extensively worked with domestic violence victims repeats one word to describe what she is feeling: chhatapataahat, loosely translated to restlessness. Looking at the way things have been unfolding, Sharma has been troubled by it but it has become more acute now owing to her inability to do anything. “I have not seen war, I do not know how things looked like at that time. But it is becoming difficult to wrap my head around this. It is a disease, right? How are people dying like this?” she asks, her voice strung with the same chhatapataahat. “I have been doing the little that I can, contributing somewhere or helping my maid but there is so much to do. Look at what the world looks like today.”
Sharma has a learning from all this. “We talk about humanity ever so often. But this has shown how far humans are from the ideals of humanity they have been preaching.”