Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.
‘I’d give my right arm for a day off work,” I thought.
It was the beginning of February, and I was beginning to seriously regret my latest avatar, that of a high school teacher. After being a scientist and writer in the US, to being a Soft Skills Trainer and writer in India, I had stumbled upon the chance to teach high school English. I normally enjoyed it thoroughly, but this was the beginning of the end of the school year and I was being swamped by massive notebook corrections and preparation. Another week went by, and things got worse. By mid-February, I was ready to kill for some time off – I was having to bring work home as well and answer paper corrections The stress was destroying my sleep, increasing my irritability, and turning me into a stranger who didn’t understand the word ‘chill’.
Meanwhile, in early January, we had begun hearing the words ‘Coronavirus’ associated with China. At the time, it was just spectator sport and a chance to speculate idly, and I did both with relish – a classic case of schadenfreude, enjoying others’ misfortune. As the Koreas grappled with it, I watched, on and off – I had my own problems, right?
Then March began. Schedules for final assessments were finalized and revisions were happening. And the epidemic transformed into a pandemic … and everything went nuts.
Every day brought new information, and new schedules. Final assessments are a very serious business in India. During the Feb-March period, train and air travel go waaaaay down, power consumption goes waaaaay up, and parental stress goes through the roof. We were poised to start ours when we went from exams to total shutdown in 3 days. Then the totally unbelievable happened.
Unprecedented in the history of Modern India, final exams of schools were canceled. I’m sure the Gurukula passing-out exams were canceled during the Kurukshetra war, but after the Dwapara Yuga, this was the first occurrence of this event. Children in this vast nation rejoiced like never before – no one could tell them to study now. All students except the Board Exam sufferers, sorry, Board Exam takers would eventually be given what is irreverently called ‘Gandhi Pass’ or ‘Dharma Pass’. In this case, it would be called ‘Corona Pass’ and all would be promoted to the next higher grade. Children didn’t know this at the time, but they were elated that exams would be canceled. Parents everywhere gnashed their teeth and tore their hair because one of the few perks of being a parent is to nag your child to study. Additionally, schools were closed, a punishment for parents everywhere.
Around mid-March, my town, Mysore, was in a state of ramp down. We were hearing the words ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolating’ used with a positive connotation for the first time – earlier, they meant ‘snobbery’ and ‘sulking’. At that point in time, I began to get the wind-up. The roads that we couldn’t cross for half an hour began resembling open fields with a stray vehicle here and there. Roadside eateries and vegetable/fruit outlets which usually swarmed with customers were shut, and there was an eerie emptiness everywhere.
“What if all the stores close for a couple of days? What if we run out of essentials?” I asked my husband anxiously. Private panic – what if I run out of snacks – but I couldn’t articulate that out loud, could I? My adipose tissue might hear! So we went shopping.
Boy, did we ever go shopping! I am a born hoarder, and this called out to my every primitive instinct. I stocked up on every kind of soap, washing powder, lentil, edible oil, masala powder, mix and sauce I could think of. I even bought some stuff I thought I’d never try. And, I layered my snacks – no sense in letting the whole world see that I was stashing. I was Troy, and the Greeks could never besiege me long enough.
To give you a better frame of reference – in comparison to the Costco shopping cart, the shopping cart I was trundling was definitely a fourth smaller in size. In fact, if you brought in Costco-sized carts to India, people would start using them as mini wagons for transporting kindergarteners to school. And the mood I was in, I’m fairly confident that I could have filled even a Costco shopping cart. Here, you may wonder why I didn’t just take another cart. Short answer – I didn’t want to face an ‘intervention’. Remember the story of the monkey that got caught because it couldn’t get its hand out of the peanut jar?
At the end of my shopping expedition, the shelves did need to be restocked a little, but not by too much. It was the middle of the month, remember, and in India, people usually stock up at the beginning of the month. And we don’t have the first world problem of toilet paper. So no interesting skirmishes in the aisles.
One look at my dangerously overloaded cart and my husband’s eyebrows rose so high they disappeared into his receding hairline.
“The government says ‘No hoarding’”, he remarked to no one in particular. I turned into the Lysol aisle, and effectively distracted him. As we loaded all our stuff into the car, I experienced a shopping-induced adrenaline rush like never before. That was when I realized that even pandemics had silver linings.
Then the Stay-at-Home-for-a-day, Janata Curfew, was announced for March 22. Once again, I went into a tizzy.
“Oh my God, oh my God, I don’t have enough stuff to see us through,” I wailed. At such times, OMG just doesn’t hit the spot. “We’re going to run out of essentials … like cooking oil … and we’ll … I don’t know … maybe starve,” I blubbered. Amid my sobs, I followed my husband as he led the way into the kitchen and began opening cupboards at random. An evil spirit must have possessed him because he hit pay dirt on the very second try. Opening a cupboard, he pointed at the bottles that were there, some unopened. “Canola oil, coconut oil, gingelly oil, olive oil … and mustard oil? I didn’t know you cooked with mustard oil!”
My survival instinct went into overdrive. “You idiot, you screwed up,” it screamed to me in blind panic. My hoarding instinct had overridden my habitual caution and now I’d been outed. But then I saw me another golden opportunity.
“Veggies?” I squeaked.
Another massive expedition was lunched … I mean, launched. I bought half a kilo of everything that was on the shelves – cucurbits, legumes, crucifers, and the solanaceous. This time around, the shelves holding the staples like tur dhal, rice and sooji were almost bare, which escalated my anxiety. I would have got one kilo of everything, but the Mister said that our fridge space was limited and no, I couldn’t buy another fridge.
As I squirreled stuff away, I felt the rush again, but this time it felt nasty around the edges. Did I have to buy so much just for a week? Did I have a serious Shopping-Unnecessarily-Just-for-Hoarding Syndrome? I decided to Google the 12-step program to de-addict myself.
And that’s when the nation went into total lockdown and nobody was allowed to leave their houses for three whole weeks. To my utter shock, I had done the best thing for the situation, for once in my lifetime. I was actually right to have stocked up!
Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana, USA, to Mysore, India, and inhabits a strange land somewhere in between the two. Having discovered sixteen years ago that writing was a good excuse to get out of doing chores, she still uses it.
The most far-fetched prophecy I have ever received is: maybe you can live on the moon in the next century! Although all Bollywood and Western romantic numbers croon about flying up to the moon, I feel safer on terra firma.
To pull out a fortune from a cookie seems gimmicky to me. Regardless, it’s okay to succumb to a little bit of self-love and to justify this behaviour, we read our message in a cookie with an enthusiasm that slowly dwindles as we go around the table and read each other’s luck.
In 2013, our friendly yoga teacher gave us a mason jar with a picture of her place of worship, a fragrant herb, and a colored strip of paper with a blessing. Mine was – “Get up and out, the day is bursting with moments.” by Rabindranath Tagore. We all went home with our jars and I put mine on my kitchen alcove. Over the years I kept putting other blessings in this jar along with strips of fortune.
Growing up, we ate Indian food at home every day and so to change our taste we went once a week for and Indian Chinese dinner in Mumbai. Hakka noodles, American chop suey, chili chicken/paneer, and big bowls of hot and sour soup were our favorite entrees. Indian Chinese food is not available in Huntsville but the next best option for my Indian friends is the American style Chinese food at PF CHANGS, doused generously with extra hot chili sauce. After spicing our palettes and clearing the sinuses, it’s time to read our fortunes. Unlike my other friends, I don’t like to eat the sugar cookie. I just hold the twisted fortune crisp in my hand and take a tentative bite of the vanilla and sesame flavored shell. Then I put it down and after everyone else has read their fortunes, I read the vague aphorism silently. Then I put it in my purse and at home transfer it to the mason jar. Every time I open the jar, I think of my yoga teacher and once again I read my fortune. I turn it over in the palm of my hand, look at the random lotto numbers and stash it away in my jar.
I did not know that these fortune cookies are not Chinese. They were popularized in America by Japanese immigrants in the 19th century. They were first made in the Benkyodo bakery in San Francisco and served with hot tea. Later, Kito the founder of “Little Tokyo” in Los Angeles sold his flour tea cakes with fortune slips to the Chinese. During World War II, when 100,000 Japanese were in internment in America, the Chinese started mass producing these cookies. Ever since that time, they appear as a courtesy dessert along with the check at Chinese restaurants. These cookies are accepted all over the world, including India, where people are fond of fortune-tellers, soothsayers, and Palm readers. Strangely enough, they are not popular in China and are considered to be too American.
I have never visited China but I have lived in America for almost three decades. We live in a sparsely populated region in the South but my American friends, family members, and strangers are all sheltered in place. A few of us go for solitary walks or wave at people from our porches. Friends FaceTime us to update us about their health or share their thoughts on social media. We wash our hands, run fingers through our hair, take naps, and spend days and nights in our pajamas. Time as we know it has slowed down. There’s nothing rushed. We all are running out of projects at home. We clean, purge, organize, sort, grow herb gardens, sew and donate masks, cook, share jokes, indulge in arts and crafts, read the stack of books put aside for a rainy day.
Today, I decided to open my jar of fortunes to look for a clue to solve the viral pandemic. I pour a cup of coffee and pour out my fortunes on the floor and arrange them in a cyclic semblance of destiny.
You will be honored with a prestigious prize or award.
Your dearest wish will come true.
A pleasant surprise is in store for you.
You will always be surrounded by true friends.
You have a strong desire for home, family comes first.
Good news will come to you by mail.
You have the ability to sense and know higher truth.
You will conquer obstacles to achieve success.
You are an evening star in someone’s romantic eyes.
You are competent, creative, careful. Prove it.
Generosity and perfection are your everlasting goals.
Focus on your long-term goals.
Good things will happen sooner or later.
Golden hours are coming to you eventually.
A cynic is only a frustrated optimist.
These strange words remind me of the hilarious attempts of two Asian women working at the Fortune cookie factory in Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” who are not able to translate these proverbs into Chinese. They give up thinking that they don’t contain any wisdom but just bad instruction.
Your smile is a curve that gets a lot of things straight. Answer the call to help a friend.
Now is the time to call loved ones. Share your news.
Don’t pursue happiness, create it (Mango?!).
Your luck has been completely changed today.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen?
The joyfulness of a man prolongs his days.
What you plant now you will harvest later.
You will learn about love and a peaceful heart. A smiley face and a Spanish translation.
Be prepared to receive something special.
The best times of your life have not yet been lived.
Everything will now come your way.
You will discover an unexpected treasure.
Now is a lucky time for you to take a chance.
You are going to change your present line of work.
Soon someone will make you very proud.
You were born with a sixth sense.
Confidence is at a high? Whose?
If it seems fate is against you today. You are right!
A closed mouth gathers no feet!
You will die alone and poorly dressed!
How about another fortune
Blank fortunes are the scariest because you freak out that something bad is going to happen to you.
I look at all these fortunes and put them back in the Mason jar and sit on my deck under a blue sky. I pray for all the people who are ill with this virus and especially for those who have succumbed to this terrible illness. I take a strip of green paper and tune into higher consciousness. I breathe in and out. I write, “VIRUS BEGONE!” and put it back into my mason jar.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.
Self-quarantined in my bedroom in San Jose, I pen down my thoughts about a time that will be forever etched in my memories. It is a journey between India and the US during a time when borders were getting closed, schools were reinventing themselves online, social fabrics were getting challenged, and loved ones were lost to a pandemic.
On Feb 23rd, I got a call from my father that my mother is in an ICU in a hospital in Kolkata. My mother, aged 69, is a Lupus survivor and in recent years, she had her bouts of cardiac and respiratory incidents. I thought she would manage this one also. But by the first weekend of March, her condition seemed to deteriorate and I decided to travel to India. This was also the first weekend that the coronavirus was moving its way into silicon valley. People started to hoard things. I could not find a thermometer and there were long lines and fights for parking places in supermarkets. I did some essential shopping for home, bought a direct United SFO – DEL ticket, imparted a list of instructions to my 12-year-old daughter, bid goodbye to my wife, and boarded the 15 hour flight.
Corona was on the periphery of my thoughts …. I had other things to worry about. I reached Delhi in the wee hours of March 4th. India had not started screening incoming passengers yet – not for flights coming from the US. I came out of T3 and walked 10 minutes to the newly created T2 to catch an Indigo flight to Kolkata. In the next 2 weeks, my dad and I shuttled daily to the hospital during visiting hours to catch up on my mother’s condition, which was not getting any better. Her sufferings and pains were hard on me emotionally. Corona was slowly coming to Kolkata. Masks were seen everywhere and hospitals were doing a good job of cleaning and providing sanitizers. I started avoiding elevators and used stairs to the 3rd floor ICU. I bought a mask for my father and made him wear it.
My early mornings were spent WhatsApping with my family and friends back in the USA. The changes in the Bay Area started slowly but suddenly picked up by the 2nd week of March – remote working, schools closed, 40 minutes line to check out groceries. And, then came the “Shelter in Place” order on March 16th – an (almost) lockdown of 6 counties of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley. I was concerned about my family but was also comfortable, as my close groups of friends were supporting them in every way possible.
I lost my mother on March 17th. By then we had moved her to a different hospital and she was on Ventilator life support for the last 5 days. We lost her to a Sepsis Infection (an infection that flows in the bloodstream) caused by a bacteria “Burkholderia Cepacia”. She most likely acquired during the long ICU stay in the first hospital but it was undetected. It was too late by the time we moved her to a different hospital. I did not say the last goodbyes but I wished on her bedside that she is freed from her pains.
After the cremation, we planned for the rituals of “shraddha” on March 26th. And then the arrived on March 19th that India is stopping international flights starting March 22nd. We made the difficult decision to complete all the rituals in the next 24 hours. Surrounded by my extended family in Kolkata, we offered our last pranam to “Maa” and I hopped on the last Air India flight ( KOL – DEL – SFO ) leaving India.
Corona cut short the time I wanted to spend with my father during this difficult time. The ride from the airport to home was eerie as I started assimilating the changes that happened during my absence of 3 weeks. Empty roads, silent parks, supermarkets rationing eggs, bread, and paper products and meeting friends over hangout and zoom. I decided to quarantine myself in one room of my house to protect my dear ones as there is a slight risk of my getting the virus due to my travel in long flights and the transit area of busy airports. It has been 7 days now in my room and 7 more days to go ….
The image which is still stuck with me is related to the most prized commodity of this new world – ventilators. It is still pumping oxygen in the still body of my mother ….
Featured Image by Bharatahs and license can be found here.
This popular phrase attributed to the Aesop’s fables came to mind as my workplace scrambled to put measures in place to implement new directives issued in light of the Coronavirus situation last week.
Finally, my long-held wish to work from home was coming true. Yippee!!
I had first toyed with the idea of requesting my boss to let me work from home more than twenty years ago. I was a young mother then, enjoying my first job as a research scientist.
It was the best of times. I loved my job, my home, even the short ride to work. It was also the most precious of times. My long to-do list refused to shrink despite the many items I crossed off each day.
If only I could get one day a week to work from home – I could fold laundry while answering emails, attend calls when my toddler took a nap, and get dinner started in the precious minutes salvaged from the daily commute. And just maybe, have those extra minutes to chase butterflies and hang out in the playground with my child.
It was my first job and I worked in the laboratory most days which meant being tied to the physical location. As expected, my request was denied.
The following year I received a promotion which added managerial responsibilities to my job description and reduced dependence on lab work. My duties now included supervising the people who reported to me. In the pre-Skype/Zoom days, this could only be done in person. Again my request to work from home one day a week was denied.
For a short period during the decade I spent in India, I was self-employed. This was the only time I worked from home. I felt I had overcome the tyranny of the clock, choosing to work during my most productive hours of each day.
As a consultant, I did not have one boss, I had many. Early morning flights, late evening calls, and impossible deadlines kept me on my toes. I didn’t mind. I could extend a business trip for a short excursion to a nearby resort or even slip away to watch a matinee move on a weekday depending on my schedule. This flexibility and freedom came at the cost of a monthly paycheck but it gave me control over the most precious commodity – time.
The quality of our work life is determined by the work culture of the place we live in. Despite having worked in large corporations in the USA and India, after the relative freedom of an independent consultant’s life, when I moved to Singapore and landed a full-time job, I found it difficult to get back into the groove.
My commute on air-conditioned trains and buses, although civilised and comfortable, took away almost two hours each day and drained my energy. When health conditions added to my daily fatigue I once again started praying for respite in the form of the occasional option to work from home.
My prayers were finally answered in response to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Except for one caveat. My family members had also been mandated to stay home.
Instead of having the house to myself, I moved from room to room with my laptop in search of a quiet location with a comfortably cushioned surface to attend to work. The family had the same exact thought. All four of us scrambled to sequester to the guest room, the only room with a formal desk AND good internet connectivity.
With technology enabling online classes for the kids, and phone calls to people locked down in their homes but scattered across various continents and time zones, the house was constantly buzzing with activity. It might have been easier to designate each bedroom as Meeting Room 1, Meeting Room 2 indicating times that demanded silence from co-workers, in this case, family members.
Laptops and phones were constantly being charged. Everyday at least one person madly searched for their earphones, yelled at others to keep quiet, or interrupted important calls with trivial questions. We clearly needed a written standard operating procedure for household interactions during pandemics.
Another hazard of working at home is the lure of an afternoon nap. To resist the temptation, I avoided the master bedroom completely.
The kitchen, on the other hand, had no such restrictions. This led to a severe drop in quantities of junk food which qualifies as “essential” during such times. I made a note to add unhealthy snacks to the pandemic preparation list, in addition to toilet paper.
Naively assuming that ordering online would take me a few minutes, I logged on to my favorite shopping website to find that it had crashed owing to surge in demand. A task that took me a few minutes once a week now turned into an obsession with hourly checks to find an open delivery slot.
Another irritant was my phone – reminding me of the number of steps that I had not walked this week. On most weekdays my commute and a short post-dinner walk helps me complete my target of 10,000 steps fairly easily. Not so during this week. It’s 4 p.m. and my phone shows 475 steps for my daily count.
I look forward to a nice long walk in the evening but the rain gods have different plans. There’s thunder and lightning, a heavy downpour that looks pretty from the comfort of my living room which has a pleasant green view that becomes particularly striking on rainy days. I sit with a cup of coffee and brownies (baked due to popular demand) to watch the sight, aware that less walking and more calorie consumption is probably not in my best interest.
Coming back to work, it is getting done. Not as efficiently as when I am in the office, but enough to keep the wheels churning at a time when every project timeline and priority has been turned upside down.
The chaos within and outside the house mirror each other. In one week, we have made one run to the emergency room (for a sprain which luckily was not a fracture), a couple of runs to the grocery store, and several long walks on wet walkways at night.
I miss my colleagues though. For the interim, we are all stuck at home whether we wished for it or not. Unlike me, some of them have a harder time as single parents or with little kids who don’t take easily to staying home. We communicate through whatsapp groups – sharing forwards with scary news and dire data, funny jokes and silly strategies, hoping to get through the next few days (or weeks).
All we can do now is keep our fingers crossed. And perhaps make a new wish. For things to go back to back to normal. I just hope this wish is granted soon. Going back to the office no longer sounds banal, it could quite possibly classify as an adventure.
Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog
Every life is a story waiting to be told, if somebody is ready to listen.
The life stories of men and women we admire and seek inspiration from, help us find life’s lessons and solutions to our own problems.
The little I had read about Hariprasad Chaurasia told me that his was a story that, if unravelled, could help show the way for many who wished to chase a dream, regardless of age or calling. Chaurasia is considered one of the world’s most loved flautists. In India, he has been given the title of Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second highest civilian honour. I had yet to know that his journey had not been an easy one.
All I knew about Hariji was that he had played the flute in countless Hindi film songs spanning the 1960s and ’70s. And that today, he is well known for his classical performances, which enthrall audiences from India to Japan, California and Brazil; once a year he vanishes to Europe and holds classes at a music school, where he teaches Indian classical music on the flute to groups of Western students.
I decided to write his biography but to my dismay I discovered, there were already two books on the flautist. One of them by a student who had moved closely with Hariji and recorded facts and milestones in great detail.
So, what could I write that was new?
Turning a perceived disadvantage to my advantage I realised I could use the published biography as a background. It was like having a thorough research assistant’s notes presented to me. Realising that biographies of classical artistes have limited appeal among younger people, I staked my hope on a new format for the story. A format that, in keeping with the shorter attention spans, the power of the visual over the written word, and the newly rediscovered love for listening to stories, would entertain and beguile with pictures to tell the tale. It was a risk, a format that may come apart if not held together well, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The story itself was fascinating, I realised. Unlike many of his contemporary musicians, who were born into traditional gharanas where the musical heritage was passed down through generations, Hariji’s legacy was wrestling. A skill that his wrestler father, renowned for the power his limbs could wield, wished his son to follow. Destiny led him to music – from learning vocals to taking up the flute. The radio became his teacher. And so, step by secret step he moved up the scales of musical learning, secretly playing, listening, even as he exchanged the thrashings he suffered in the wrestling pit to the tedium of a clerical job.
How he joined All India Radio and went on to becoming the Hindi film industry’s highest earning flautist and why he decided to give it all up to learn classical music from the reclusive wife of Ravi Shankar, Annapurna Devi, forms the rest of the story. But the taste of every pudding is in the eating. Here is an excerpt from my book, Breath of Gold: Hariprasad Chaurasia.
London. 1966. It is a strange world he finds himself in. For one, he is cold. His hands are cold, his fingers too, as is the tip of his nose. Worst of all, his flute is not warm and responsive to his touch, but feels cold. He lifts it to his lips, blows tentatively; the sound comforts him, it is almost clear as always, except for the slightest hint of a hiss. Perhaps if he wraps the flute up in a woollen scarf, it will feel better . . .
He looks around at the hall he is to perform in. It is huge, and impressive. He has already been awed by the building’s façade, but the semicircular seating inside, with tiers that rise one over the other in a widening arc, is like nothing he has seen before. He does not know if all the plush seats will be filled—there seem to be so many! He supposes it must be some thousands. (The actual number is 5267.)
His recital is part of an evening of dance and music. He has been asked to play for twelve minutes.
When his turn comes, the audience welcomes him with applause, as is the custom in the West. It warms his heart. He has decided to play a simple raga, knowing that the time allotted is not enough for anything complex. He looks into the dim interiors of the space before him, settles down, signals to the tabla player accompanying him, and closing his eyes, blows into his flute.
‘When I play, I close my eyes, because then I am playing only for God.’
For the stretch of time that follows, he is aware of nothing except his music. He could well be sitting by Draupadi Ghat in Allahabad. Tabla and flute play in tandem, then together, in perfect sync, and listening to the music, the audience is in thrall. It knows it is in the presence of a true master.
When the recital ends, the clock shows that it has lasted twenty minutes. But the audience does not mind. It calls for an encore.
Flushed and happy, Hariprasad stands in the wings, waiting for the applause to stop. Someone pushes him on to the stage, telling him to take a bow. He stumbles out; then, walking up to centrestage, bends low in a namaste.
It is much later that he realizes the magnitude of his achievement. Not only has he performed at the Royal Albert Hall, London, coveted venue of every performing artiste across the world, but the audience of British and Indian listeners boasted celebrity performers, including Yehudi Menuhin, the world- famous violinist.
He celebrates by buying gifts for Anuradha. Perfumes, which, in those days, were not available as easily as they are now, in India.
I rest my case. In these times that test us sorely, it is possibly a good idea to immerse oneself in another time and space. Music and books offer that. This book combines the joys of both.
Sathya Saran edited Femina for 12 years. She is now Consulting Editor with Penguin Random House and a full time author. Her books include fiction, essays, and biographies of cinema greats linked to music. Her most recent publication is ‘Breath of Gold: Hariprasad Chaurasia’.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet there’s a line – “I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”
Today is March 26, 2020. On the tenth day of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wake up to birdsong of crested red cardinals, whippoorwills, warblers and woodpeckers. Outside in the garden a cluster of yellow and coral poppies are opening their eyes. A blue jay hops and skips from one branch to another talking to his friends about cherry blossoms. A mallard family is quacking their morning assembly by the lake. A baby frog opens his mouth and then stops in mid croak remembering it is dawn and not dusk. I slowly enter body consciousness after a night of dreamless slumber. By now the birds have finished most of their psalms, I rub my eyes and dutifully join in the last hymnal. I have noticed that since most people and their cars are in quarantine, birds and buzzing creatures have become more prolific in their hum in our shared space.
I pass fingers through my uncombed hair and sip my turmeric and cardamom chai. These days I leave a pot of tea simmering on the stove. They say theophylline and theobromine alkaloids in tea don’t allow the stealthy coronavirus to gain a foothold in your throat. I breathe through both nostrils and blow out the stale air. I think of my mother listening to Gauri Aarti on the other side of the planet. Her baby fine hair is oiled and combed and her soft skin wrapped in banana leaves. Mother’s affect is sweet, her body and aura clean. She says: Your thoughts become more neatly organized after you have combed your hair. I don’t argue with her but draw a comb through my curls and braid them.
I think of nurturing times spent in her company. How she kept me clean, healthy, dressed in hand-stitched and beautifully embroidered frocks and pinafores. She waited for me everyday with a flavorful meal and a delectable dessert to soothe my sweet tooth. Then she listened and laughed as I regaled her with my day in school, college, medical school, on the bus, in the train and later at my in-laws’ place. Mother had a rule. Every garment and footwear worn outside the house had to be put for washing as soon as we returned home. We were not allowed to eat street food and because of this golden edict, we escaped several infectious diseases while growing up in India.
Today when this now airborne virus has spread to 198 countries, infected more than 468, 644 cases and taken 21,191 lives, I am reminded of all the safety precautions mothers instill in their children. This overwhelming disease is causing an insurmountable cost to the world economy!
We are hunkered down in our abodes and are drawing from familiar resources, old medicines, previous epidemics. Let us take this time to pay homage to the creator of this universe and ask the mother goddess to listen to our plea. After all as I am only a half of my mother’s half, so are you and you and you in Wuhan, in Italy, in Spain, in New York, in Los Angeles,in Seattle…. Together we can overcome this by using our collective intelligence.
The Sun has rolled higher in the blue sky and I have finished my tea. I look at the light through the slats falling on the French knotted neckline of my mother’s soft blue dress. I imagine her sitting at her dressing table and deftly kohlIng her eyes, pearling her neck, and twisting the tendrils escaping from her chignon. I can never forget the way she looks at my dad as he holds her hand and leads her out for an evening stroll in the park. My fingers rest on the soft fabric of the blue dress and I hold it up to the sun. I want to put it on but I hesitate. Today I will offer it to the Sun as a salutation from my mother because it is not my time to do it. Take this blue dress on your golden chariot to the blue heavens and ask the blue goddess to provide the healthcare workers with an endless supply of blue protective masks because in this solitary hour as they work and care for the sick we can share our stories of life, health, survival, maturity, loyalty, harmony, stability, and peace to heal everyone.
I am relieved that volunteers are making face masks and the federal government is encouraging citizens to wear masks, not N95s but regular surgical ones, home made, bandanas, scarves, any kind really… anything to cover their nose and mouth and to prevent them from touching their face. Let’s hope and pray that all of us can come together virtually to protect the ailing humanity from this fatal affliction.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner. She drew the featured image as a symbol of her love for her father.
Ageism is the new sexism that women start facing as early as 30
When I decided to write this article, I swear the inspiration came from an honest place. I turned 30 a couple of months ago and I have had a series of epiphanies induced by the people around me and their invasive commentaries on my life choices in the past few months. At first, that is what inspired me to pen my feelings down.
But to my surprise, there are more than 135K #turning30 posts on Instagram and almost all the top, as well as recent posts, are from women. So, this post is not going to be a personal rant anymore. I am forced to think that in the eyes of the society, for women, is turning 30 an achievement or is it some kind of a (biological) alarm? I don’t understand what it is but one thing is very clear from the thousands of posts on social media and numerous blogs on the internet, and not to mention the mausis of Indian mohallas– turning 30 is supposed to be some sort of a big deal. My question is why?
Pop culture and its influence
I am a huge Friends fan and data proves that so are millions of other people all over the world. So, I am hoping this analogy will work.
One of the reasons, they say, why Friends is still relevant is because the characters seem real and the audience resonates with them. Interestingly, all Friends characters had no clue where their lives were headed when they turned 30. Joey had an unstable and barely successful acting career and a series of flings but no serious relationships. Rachel was just starting in her career sorting hangers at a store after resigning from waitressing, Phoebe was a freelancing masseuse who had never had a serious relationship. And, don’t even get me started on Ross- divorced twice with major intimacy issues. Chandler and Monica were the only ones who’d found each other in their early thirties.
British songwriter Lily Allen talks about a woman approaching her thirties in her song “22”. She sings: “It’s sad but society indeed says her life is already over, there’s nothing to do and there’s nothing to say.”
While this song is barely a decade old, the notion of a woman’s life being over at thirty sounds archaic to me! In fact, I believe that our lives only start by the time we turn thirty. Think about it, we spend our 20s finishing college and trying to find employment. So, how is it fair to say that a woman’s life is over at 30? Or, even to expect that she should “settle down” by that age?
So much for changing times and progressive societies
We all like to believe that times are changing and that we live in a better and progressive society, but is that really true?
The advocates of “everything is a bed of roses” will pull out studies comparing the lives of women in their 30s during the 1960s versus women in the present day, to show how women above thirty are now “allowed to go out, have fewer children and even pursue a career”!
But is that real progress? Did you know that it was as recent as 2015 when for the first time, married women were better educated than their husbands? But despite that fact, 72% of the time, a wife earns less than her husband of the same age.
However, instead of focusing on real issues like gender disparity, wage inequality and lack of opportunities in the employment sector for women, society likes to focus on “things a woman should do by the time she turns 30”.
I chanced upon hundreds of articles about women turning thirty. From “are you eating right”, “do you have the right wardrobe” to “did you find yourself a husband” to “here’s why you should bear a child right now”- I found a range of “knowledge imparting” articles. Funnily enough, I could barely find articles advising men on marriage, fatherhood or ageing.
From the pressure of being married by this age to the constant reminder of the (oh so annoying biological clock) – the stereotypes associated with women approaching the age of 30 are archaic and need to go away.
I want to believe that we are a “woke” society outside of the virtual walls of social media feeds as well. I want to be able to decide things for myself. And, I definitely don’t want strangers advising me on my personal life and how I should be entirely dedicated to procreation because I am 30 and “it is already too late”!
Can we please stop with all the ageism and sexism, and let women just live their lives; or is that too much to ask?
Surabhi, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Surabhi’s work has appeared in various publications in India, Singapore and around the world. Website | Blog | Instagram