Just like everyone else, I remember where I was when the COVID-19 lockdown was announced. It struck as the school year was growing to a close in India. Thanks to it, the school where I worked closed down prematurely, and boy, was I happy about it. Fate laughed in my face just a few days later when just about everything locked down, and I understood a weird thing about myself.
I had been wanting some days to myself, where I could stay home, and forget about work. It happened. I wanted to stay in and not go out, vegetate at home completely. That happened. I wanted to concentrate on my home and my family. That happened too.
An ideal situation, yes, but just one caveat – it was not on my terms. Fate was forcing me to have a holiday. Every person I talked to said the same thing. Most of us being average salaried employees with a little money in the bank to fall back upon, we finally had some time to rest up and have family time. But to a man and woman, we resented it. To us, ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.
By the end of Lockdown 3, I’d truly had it. I got exactly what I asked for, but because it was imposed on me, I was PO-ed. As a family, we had maintained a kind of guarded peace at home, but we all knew that we were nearing the end of our tethers.
I had wild dreams about what I’d do the instant lockdown lifted. Not exactly floating on pastel-colored clouds, laughing for no reason and blowing bubbles, but something of the kind that was more suited to an obese 50-year-old. Visiting the library, going out with like-minded friends to chat over coffee and pakodas, catching a movie with family, going clothes shopping, that kind of thing. You know, all the normal things people like to do that won’t break the bank.
Fate gave me the break I wanted. But the tab, when it came, was huge. Coming out of lockdown, nothing was normal, and I just didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go out, but go out where and do what?
Meeting friends was out – nobody wanted to come to my house and nobody wanted me at theirs. I could shop for essentials, but where was the fun in buying atta and chili powder? Therapeutic shopping, where you buy what you don’t need with money you don’t have and suffer guilt pangs for days, was out because the malls weren’t open yet. Eating out was out … unless you wanted to picnic on the sidewalk – restaurants were only doing takeout. You couldn’t travel … heck, you couldn’t leave town because the city limits were closed.
I could go for a walk, but that would be just lame – like chewing on a carrot stick when you’ve got major cheesecake cravings.
And then there was the psychological component. Fear was an overwhelming factor. I’d heard stories from my father about how, during the plague, they would vacate their house if they saw a dead rat. In the case of Corona, there wasn’t any overt sign at all. Any desire to meet anyone was overridden by the trepidation – were they symptomless carriers? Even if they were clean, who had they met?
Those were the insidious things about COVID – suspicion and misgiving. What if the person I’m talking to was carrying the virus? S/he just sniffed – was s/he sick? Was that a Corona sniff or generic? Why? You might give people heart attacks by just sneezing.
Ever since my childhood, I’ve always loved to ride in auto rickshaws. When we moved back to India, I had got back in my auto habit without missing a beat. Since I was too chicken to drive, I took autos everywhere to the extent that I became the patron saint of the ‘auto men’ at our street corner. But now with Corona dominating the landscape inside and out, it became an effort to commit to an auto ride. Yes, things that I’d taken for granted became painful decisions.
When it came to food, it got weirder. The cooks, the deliverymen … and even the food – all were suspect. And, why was I paying the big bucks when I had all the ingredients at home and all the time in the world to cook it? It just felt wrong. Dang, I was becoming my mother!
So, where I had thought I couldn’t wait to get out, I was now afraid to leave the house. I wasn’t winning this game, I wasn’t even breaking even. Aargh, what was I to do?
That was when I got an invite … for a puja at a friend’s place! It was just perfect! I had a legitimate excuse to get out. I could actually meet people other than family. Also, though I’m not very religious, I believe in hedging my bets. It might not be a bad idea to work myself into His good books. Or Hers. And finally, I’d be eating someone else’s cooking – you just can’t refuse prasad, don’t you know?
Now came the preparations to step out. In India, by some association, silk and gold are related to prayer and religious observances in India and it is practically law that you must wear a silk sari to a religious ceremony. Who was I to question this hoary tradition … especially since I had a new silk sari with a newly stitched matching blouse that actually fit me?
Dressing to go out took forever. I had always been quite at home in saris as I’d worn them since I was 18, but the two months of dressing down in pajama bottoms and tank tops had taken its toll. Draping the sari took 10 minutes longer than normal and it felt horribly uncomfortable. Wearing bangles or bracelets had been a pre-COVID habit too. I snapped on my watch and put on a bunch of gaily-colored bangles – and instantly felt like I was manacled. I put on a gold chain (remember the unwritten law?) and felt like a middle-aged street dog forced into a collar for the first time. As for when I put on some lipstick, I felt like a painted woman. It felt all wrong.
However, being made out of strong stuff, I sailed across the threshold all manacled and chained … only to have my husband call me back.
“Haven’t you forgotten something?” he asked. I had my purse, I had my handkerchief, I had some Tupperware in case of leftover prasad … what else did I need?
He held out a black cotton mask. I stared at it, full realization hitting me. Putting it on, I realized bitterly that I might as well have been wearing an old nightie. At least, I’d have been more comfortable.
A drive in an auto restored some of my mood. When I got there, however, I was greeted not by the usual tray with haldi, kumkum, and flowers, but by the lady of the house holding out hand sanitizer. The penetrating smell of the chemical didn’t vibe with the look and feel of puja. The place looked like a masquerade ball or a massive hold-up with everyone wearing masks. I couldn’t recognize most faces and blundered around until the puja began.
To me, pujas have always been a time for my mind to wander. After the first suklam baradaram vishnum, my mind took off as usual. It is hard to focus during a puja when there isn’t anything specific to focus on. Priests can say just about any shloka they want and get away with it as long as they are careful to insert some well-known ones in between. It may be pouring for hours, leaving everyone blaming global warming, while it is only the priest next door reciting the Varuna Japa shlokas for a Ganapathi puja.
Then it was time for the unmasking … the eating, that is. The fare was simple, but delicious. As I tucked into the uppittu with coconut chutney and kesari baath, I finally felt at home. That was when I realized that it is the smallest things that make up normality – things like family and friends gathering for a meal, trading little jokes, laughing together. Meeting, catching up with each other. Taking selfies and pictures of unsuspecting people tucking into food. Laughing at silly things and sharing sad news.
I came away, reassured. No matter what, Corona can never take that away from us.
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.