Let the hair down in lockdown

On January 7, the World Health Organization announced the identification of a new virus named 2019-nCoV (now popular as Covid-19 or just Corona). Ninety-four days later—April 9—was my birthday. In these 3 months the world had changed into an unbelievably surreal dystopia. By April 9, most of the world was in some form of lockdown. The busiest metropolises of the world looked like ghost towns.

Locked down in Mumbai, with three cats, one dog and one exasperated cook, I obviously had zero expectations from this birthday. But love and human kindness, it turns out, are more resilient and creative than omnipresent pandemics. The birthday started with a group call on Zoom—my parents wished me, and then my mother addressed Bikesh, the cook and said, “Arre Lao!” And lo and behold, Bikesh produced a beautifully baked marble cake that he had baked without my knowledge and concealed very cleverly. The cake was cut as my parents, sister-in-law in Delhi and brother in Jakarta watched on video call.

The birthday morning, I learnt that acts of random, unexpected kindness are the most life affirming experiences one can have. The bell rang twice that morning and two of my building neighbours gave me the most beautiful surprise. They had baked cakes and brought me—learning from Instagram that it was my birthday.

The afternoon brought more surprises. Two friends had walked four and six kilometres each from their respective houses to meet me at my building compound’s gate. Gloved and masked we chatted with each other at the prescribed distance.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

“We have an entire family Zoom call at 8pm. Dress up! And keep yourself free for an hour,” were the instructions my cousin had given me a few days ago. I put on a pair of jeans and a fresh top and felt presentable. At 8pm the whole family was on a Zoom call. A whole round of wishes and birthday singing took place. My cousin had prepared a photo slideshow, with pictures of me from my birth to very recently, set to music. Then, suddenly, friends started joining in as their photos with me started appearing in the slideshow. I hadn’t expected that. Soon the elders of the family left, the younger cousins stayed back. Some more close friends joined and, before I knew it, everyone in their own Zoom chat windows pulled out drinks and the party began! I later discovered that this group had been planning my virtual birthday party for a week. My sister-in-law had decorated her house with the signs ‘Happy Birthday Swara’. So her window looked very festive. My best friend, a postdoc student at Rutgers, baked a gorgeous looking cake all the way in New Jersey, USA, for our virtual b’day party, cut and ate it, and assured us all it was great!

Another friend and his wife had come up with a fun quiz on my life! Every wrong answer meant a shot of what you were drinking, and the questions were such that cannot be repeated in public!

My sister-in-law, her brother in Delhi and my brother in Jakarta had prepared dance performances. Soon someone got up and began dancing and suddenly all the chat windows looked like a virtual dance club! Then there were speeches, and, finally, I gave a vote of thanks. We looked at the time, and it was 1:30am!

I spent the next two days in a joyous haze of my cross-continental virtual birthday party. I felt loved, deeply valued and celebrated. And, for the first time since the lockdown, I felt hopeful and assured. This display of thoughtfulness and creativity affirmed my belief in the human spirit. If we cannot rise above odds, we can certainly find innovative ways to circumvent the odds. I woke up the next morning, severely hung-over, but happy in the realisation that this was one of my most fun birthdays, ‘non-lockdown’ birthdays included!