A week into national lockdown and it already seems that we occupy a dystopian “surreality”, where every fear we had of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic turned out to be true. Headlines scream that presidents and prime ministers and the heir apparent to the British monarchy have tested positive for coronavirus, and like in a Hollywood apocalyptic film we realise that the villainous virus is both invisible and invincible.
Governments across the world scramble, realising far too late that the sophisticated defence machinery that ate up the budget is of no use in protecting their citizens from this invisible enemy. Everywhere in the world there is a shortage of medical equipment. “We” the citizens are advised to shrink further into our homes and keep a distance from everyone including our loved ones.
As shops and businesses shut, and public transport stopped, “they”—numerous migrant labourers in every major city in India—have lost their livelihood and shelter. And, thousands of them have begun their trek to their native villages. En route to home, they will have to battle police lathi-charges, hunger and exhaustion, in addition to the villainous virus. Reports of doctors getting infected due to lack of masks and protective gear are emerging. As if these are not bad enough, economists warn of a worldwide crash of economies as soon as the lockdowns end.
Psychologists argue that this pandemic has led to chronic helplessness and anxiety in people everywhere. Author and public speaker David Kessler in the Harvard Business Review explains that “the discomfort and anxiety people are feeling is actually a form of grief”. He says that we as a people are experiencing “anticipatory grief’”—a feeling we get about what the future holds when we are uncertain.
I take a deep breath. I am holed up in my comfortable two-bedroom flat in Mumbai with my three cats, one dog and one cook. I was hoping to travel to my parents’ house in Delhi, but the lockdown was announced suddenly and I was stranded in my own home. The cook holds me responsible for him being stuck in Mumbai, and has made lauki for lunch three days in a row. The resident welfare association closes the building gates—no outsider is allowed to enter. My maids and driver are forced to take leave. I keep track of the palpitations of my heart that now come and go regularly as I wonder if this lockdown will ever end?
I begin to snack incessantly on junk food. I take the dog for too many walks to the little garden in my building. I watch rubbish on the internet and stalk the Instagram profiles of people I do not know. I feel guilty about my privileges. I try to make the day “worthwhile” by working out; but instead I paint my nails. I spend the entire day making calls to friends and family, and playing silly games on phone apps. I post pointless updates on Instagram Stories. Anticipatory grief makes one unimaginative and repetitive, I argue to myself. I have nightmares when I sleep.
After six sleepless nights I opt for “comfort reading”. I pick up Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree. As I read the endearing and magical adventures of three little children in an enchanted forest with a magic tree, my palpitations ebb. Blyton’s signature description of sunny British summers, cheerful daisies and delicious picnic baskets make me forget that apocalypse may be looming. I smile as I recall my first trip to London and my adult disappointment at discovering what a humble food item a scone really is. My childhood mind had conjured up some whole other treat when it had read Blyton’s description of “hot scones and honey”. Finally, after six days, I fall into a dreamless sleep. At least the coronavirus cannot access cherished memories and childhood experiences.