You are walking through Shivaji Park, a large blue plastic bag on one shoulder. It is empty, the bag and you must fill it or you will not eat. You must find waste plastic, Bisleri bottles, rubber slippers, old batteries, anything that might be bought by the kilo. But now that the middle-class, the dirt-creating middle-class, has quarantined itself at home, there is nothing for you here. They have stayed away and they have not even left behind the remains of the birthday feast for you to lick some butter cream off the cardboard box. And if indeed you find something to sell, who will buy? It may be time to look into the dustbins for something to eat…
That’s when you wake up and realise it was a nightmare. You are at home. You are safe. Your family is asleep around you. Your bedside clock says it is 3:46 am. You can sleep for another three hours before it’s time to get up and go to. And then, the other nightmare hits you.
You are not going out tomorrow. You are at home. You are self-isolating, not because you want to but because the hated HR department of your office sent an advisory saying you should work from home.
Now it is for you to decide the shape of your day. Your day was always shaped by the form and nature of your work. You gulped your breakfast because you might miss the bus or get stuck in traffic. The mornings were driven, racked, but only until you reached the office. Then you punched in and settled down to the rhythms of the work day. These are familiar rhythms, the usual politics, the coffee-breaks, the water-cooler gossip, the email that had to be sent, the circular that had to be read, the meeting for which you had to brief someone. All this fed into the myth all of us, who are not on the frontlines of the Covid battle, must maintain inside our heads: The Myth of Personal Indispensability.
As we send off another carefully worded email in which willingness to do is combined with inability to commit, we think, “Who else could do this job?” or even “Who else would do this job?” As we sit through another numbing meeting and manage to suggest that the task allotted to us actually belongs to the department down the corridor whose idiot representative is not present, we think, “Really, what would they do without me?”
We were never as important, we office workers, as doctors or teachers. We often say it: “It’s not rocket science.” But, truly, most of our jobs are simply redundant to the world. This moment, this self-isolating moment is forcing us to recognise how much it takes to keep our redundancy hidden. Today, we’re not as important as the men who carry bags of vegetables on their backs. Because if they don’t show up to work and they don’t do their job, how will you get your aaloo baingan? Today, we’re not as important as the municipality workers because if they don’t show up to work, any amount of getting Raju to wipe the floors again is not going to work. This virion is saying to you and to me, “I know what your embossed visiting card says. I know how hard you fought to get there. But you’re still supernumerary in this war. You’re going to be at your best if you sit at home and do as little as possible.”
How does that feel?
It drives most men out of their houses. From my balcony, I see a cross-section of the world and most of the people who broke the janata curfew were men. I think this has something to do with the feeling that you are only doing something if you are out in the world. At home, you are doing nothing. Today I watched the street for an hour. Seven women passed by, almost all carrying vegetables or milk. Eight-five men passed by, only eight had shopping bags. The rest had cellphones. Many simply emerged from their buildings to stand and watch; they were often joined by other men and, together, they would simply stand with their hands behind their backs, pontificating.
A strand of nucleic acid in a shell of protein is forcing us to confront another myth: The Myth of the Indian Family. It goes without saying that we love our families. And we do. But our love is as fractured as the love of any other nation’s; it is as exhausted love. It is not a given, it is to be worked at. Now that we must all stay at home with ourselves and with each other, we are asked again and again: How can I love these people when they take up so much space and time and effort? And suddenly, the bounds of the home become too small, and the corridor, surely that’s not breaking curfew? Or the courtyard of the building? Or even the street outside? Not going too far. Just away from you. Just away from this myth of love.
Not to go all Sufi on you, but you won’t run very far from yourself. And confronting the self, the self-as-it-is, not the imagined self in a nightmare, not the inadequate self of a dystopian future that suddenly doesn’t seem so improbable, that may be the only task we have.
And not just in the time of Covid.
Pinto is a Mumbai-based writer
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