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.