In the land of the living there are lights and those lights are slowly coming on, one by one in the shuttered stores of my London neighborhood. Used to the dark store fronts, I sometimes want to stop and admire the heads of human beings. I spot them inside as they organize and arrange their establishments, getting ready to open their doors to customers again. This morning a black cat with shining green eyes, much like the lights that emanate from within these dark stores, stood near a tombstone in the cemetery I was walking in. I should feel pleasure in this land that is coming to light, where tables outside cafes sell coffee and pastries. In the cemetery there are flowers and dog walkers, squirrels and bees, cats, birds and weeds. The grass grows tall in some places and sometimes I stop to read names that are almost erased from old stone. In the evening today while walking in the park, a red helicopter hovered close to the tree tops, finally descending unto the skatepark stirring up dust and leaves and the interest of people. While leaving later with my children on scooters, they tell me how a boy had fallen from a tree. An ambulance, police cars, a red helicopter. Objects mark the land of the living. My heart is heavy like a stone for a boy in a park for whom these vehicles waited. In America a man could not breathe. A knee on his neck till the lights went out.
Our first summer in London will now always be about this virus. Today while walking by the Thames I got a whiff of India in the air. The same summer heat rising from the ground, the saltiness of the water hanging on every surface, the same languidness that only sultry afternoons seem to possess. Sometimes these days, being in the present is a concentrated effort of willing. So I will myself to read the inscriptions on the empty benches facing the river. Dedications to lives lived and done. An old lady with two walking sticks shuffles through the grass. On the water a speeding boat, men in orange life vests. Runners push against the dry earth. And me in my grey fedora hat and sunglasses moving ever so slowly through them all. White fuzz from a tree falls in downy clumps making it improbably feel like snowflakes falling in summer. A few more airplanes than usual pass by overhead.
The vegetables we have planted in sacks on the cement patio are rising up daily. There are tomatoes, courgettes, beans, brussels sprout, herbs and some other things I don’t know until they fruit, because during lockdown I ordered these plantings, almost whimsically and arbitrarily from the local nursery where the waiting line to enter the site was anywhere from two minutes to twelve minutes. I would feel I was in a sacred queue waiting.
There is a lady in an oversized shirt on one of the benches, her grey hair covers her eyes, a black mask covers her mouth. She has laid out in front of her a sheet with musical notations, quibbles on a sheet that she is scribbling more upon and then gently strums her guitar again and again.
The bike ride to the Indian grocery store in Tooting was the first time I had ventured more than two miles away from my home in six weeks. Since we moved to London, I had been holding a fear of double decker buses bearing in on me while bicycling. Now, we have bigger, more urgent fears.
Discovering new lanes and tunnels and parks, bicycling by skateparks, following directions from my phone, I rode by Wimbledon Commons, one thousand acres of countryside in the middle of Wimbledon. I felt again that pang of guilt at the beauty of this city where the parks have been kept open. The Commons though not full had plenty of people keeping space between themselves and kicking ball, playing, running, exercising, walking in the early summer sun.
In India, an uncle of mine spent an entire day in an ambulance trying to find a hospital in Kolkata that would take him in for a respiratory distress, earlier misdiagnosed for two weeks as typhoid. In a small town in Andhra Pradesh where another aunt and uncle live with their daughter, the apartment building is now in quarantine after a resident in the building tested positive. It has been three days now and the uncle is running out of his diabetes testing needles and my aunt of her blood pressure meds. They eat dal and rice, they have run out of tea. They will not be able to leave their apartment for twenty one days and no one has yet figured out how or if they will receive their meds or any more food. The stories of migrant laborers from India to Singapore are painful to read.
I will stand in line at the Indian groceries and after I buy my chilis and rice and okra and dal, I will bicycle back home with them. Afterwards I will call uncles and aunts in India and talk to them and relive again being the child I once was to them.
It was always out there. Danger, possibility of it. Now it has a name. The name of a virus.
When we dropped our children to school and got our hair cut and when we drank coffee in a shop seated near the door, looking out at the street and passersby, when we stood at the bus stop and climbed up holding on to the rails, on a subway back to back with other commuters, sharing the cramped air, our bags and bodies almost touching, headphones on our ears.
I read a parable yesterday. A woman is being chased by a tiger. She is running away as fast as she can, when she sees a rope hanging on the side of a mountain. She jumps off and holds on to the rope but when she looks down she sees there are more tigers. Near her she sees a strawberry plant, a few bright red strawberries. When she looks up, she sees a mouse biting the very rope she is holding on to. She looks up, she looks down, she looks at the tigers and the mouse. Then she picks up a strawberry, puts it in her mouth and eats it slowly, enjoying it thoroughly.
Our life has always been this way, dangerous. Only now it feels we aree more keenly aware of it and the only way to keep sane every day is to focus on eating that strawberry.
The cherry trees in the cemetery are shedding their petals. On my morning run yesterday I found the narrow pathways between the graves covered in pink. After a couple of warm days, I was not prepared for the wind and the cloud covered grey skies.
Running in the cemetery comforts me though I can’t really explain why or what it is about these mostly ancient gravestones that ground me. Maybe because it seems they contain by their very essence the mystery of what it means to be alive?
Boris Johnson left the hospital and is recuperating in his country home.
The cemetery had only a few occupants, mostly dog walkers, a few exercising amidst the stones marking lives once lived. A girl did drills with a band, a camera posed precariously above the gravestone, her clothes and a bag lay the head of the stone. I wondered if it was someone she could have known that allowed her that level of intimacy.
I could hear the birds in the trees, flowers and leaves coming to life as winter nears its end. When the paths merge into the grass, I always turn around and start a new loop. It is a small cemetery. Most of the inner small paths end at a gravestone or two. I see as I keep running from the corner of my eyes the words Loving Memory carved on many of them. Grandma, mom, sister, brother, father, grandfather, child.
I had seen yesterday morning an aerial photograph of a gravesite on a New York island where coffins are being buried of Covid-19 victims. It is a long shot of an empty stretch of land, in the backdrop a long building. No words carved in stone for them.
I look for something positive, generous, kind to hold on to every day. Some days I find it in myself, some days in the news, on social media, in the supermarket or in my home. Some days I find it, the days I don’t, I despair and convince myself that I need to look harder.
When I am back at my desk later in the day, the girls come by to sit on my lap, tell me a story, complain or settle a fight. I breathe in the scents of their wriggling bodies and hope to create in my own bones and flesh an imprint of their youth, a remembrance of this time.
They say we are awaiting a new world order, after this pandemic passes and we rush off into the busyness that constitutes our modern life, we will find that the world is not the same. The enormity of a virus invasion is bigger than we can envisage, jobs lost, broken economies, broken homes and so many dead before their time.
Cloistered in my own home with my children, husband, brother and dog, we have reconfigured our days to a slower rhythm. During these Easter holidays the children don’t have access to their phones or laptops. We watch movies together as a family and when my husband and I are working at our desks, we give them the time to figure out what to do with theirs. It is a luxury they have never had before.
As modern parents we have filled their days with school and after school classes. We have wanted to give them the best lest they fall behind. Over the last few days after the initial annoyances and sulks resulting from not having the internet, I have watched them lie on the couches reading for hours, the oldest gives an inordinate amount of attention to colors. Her art is a psychedelic dream of neons and shimmers. I feel I am peeping into her teenage heart. They play pretend games and help us clean the house and prep meals and clean up after. Their fingers linger on the piano keys.
The privilege of our isolation does not escape me. Sometimes I stand on the narrow patio of our home that faces what used to be a busy road, now quietened of traffic and I watch the people pass by. There are gloves and masks and mothers and children. London has not shut down as completely as many other European cities. Occasionally I go for a run and dodge other pedestrians. It is a like playing a game to veer away from people only I have always been that way.
I do not miss school drop offs and pick ups, I do not miss having to do small talk and small smiles with people I don’t know. I don’t miss all the things that we have to do in a world where outward action is more important than our isolated moments of meanderings. I have long been looking for a home. In the last ten years we have moved eleven times, from house to house, job to job, one state to another and countries and continents. I am complicit in the current human condition of overuse and abuse. The earth has begged us to stop in a way we cannot ignore.
Today when there is no choice, when all travel plans have been canceled, I sit at my table and am glad for a sky empty of airplanes and look down at the tiny backyard where the children find patches of sun to sit in and picnic. I watch carefully the many seeds I have planted come to sprout, blueberries and raspberries and tomatoes and lettuce, radish, beets, carrots, strawberries. They will not be rushed. They peep out bright green from the soil and then slowly they bend towards the sun. This is what I hope for us too. A gentle turning towards the light and no need for anything more.
These days we scour the news looking for hope and information and minute to minute updates. Which country is the latest to succumb? Who is the latest to catch it? What will the new future be like? What is happening outside our doors and borders? The inflow of info is both overwhelming and underwhelming. We seem to learn nothing new other than what we have known from a couple of weeks. We need to self-isolate to flatten the curve.
The world and all of us are so tightly connected that it seems almost unbelievable that we live the way we do, day to day, rushing from one thing to another as though all that matters is that meeting we are going to present at or that argument we had or that meal we want to eat. It is incredible that we are so complicit in destroying the very planet we live on by our consumption and travel and mindless use of plastic and cars and almost everything else.
In India, workers without jobs are walking fifty miles or more to get back to their villages, crowding bus stations, the very antithesis to the current problem. Those who have no means of stockpiling food are in danger of not having enough food for the unforeseen duration of the virus life.
Meanwhile my children are able to study online, my husband and I work from our rooms, there is enough devices and privilege to keep us going. But what about the rest of the world? The ones who have no way to get home or far enough away from each other, the ones risking their life to keep the rest of us going, what about them? Because if there is one thing that is startlingly clear isn’t it this that we are not in this world, we are the very world we inhabit?
I am on my way to Mumbai for an event I didn’t want to miss, to meet someone I have wanted to meet from a while, a last minute and really need to do and go travel.
And so here I am in Heathrow airport. At six in the morning it is not deserted but definitely not humming with activity. Through security in less than ten minutes. I should commend my excellent packing but there were only a few folks in front of me, a few behind, all of us with steely expressions of we have to do this and we are ok and we will all be ok expressions on our yet to drink coffee faces. A small group of Asian men with disheveled hair wearing face masks stand in a small group talking to each other. Not many people traveling the lady behind the counter at Duty Free tells me. Buying deodorant and face cream are symptoms of my vanity and optimism. The headlines on white newspapers inform us in CAPSLOCK that the NHS is preparing for an epidemic.
I told my husband this morning before leaving that it would serve us, the world of adults burning up everything with our plastics and airline travel and fossil fuels and cutting down of forests, if the children of the future in a subconscious state of self preservation were carrying a virus that did not effect them but only us.
There is a Brazilian lady who comes weekly to clean the home, stale cigarette smoke a cloud around her, a beanie, black jacket, a wide smile and not a word in English. For a while we communicated over Google Translate but it frustrated me to take so long to say something like, Could you please change the sheets? So now we say what we have to say and we nod agreeing over god knows what.
She has taken to bringing me flowers every week. A bunch of daffodils, the yellow peeping out from closed buds, a bouquet of tulips wrapped in cheap plastic, their potential already in blushing tips of gold and orange. I am at my desk, unbrushed, unbathed on another cup of coffee. I protest always, too much money I say. No, no she says. Love she will say and hug me and then help me arrange them in a vase.
It is a mystery why we are loved by those who have no need to do so. When I was getting ready to be a divorcee twice over, that was surely a question. Now I would be struck off the lovable/datable/marriageable scene. Women came with invisible check boxes–virgin, fair, unblemished skin, well educated, qualified, financially independent (or has the potential to be), pliable, kitchen worthy, sexy, modest, humble, soft spoken, straight teeth…
Disbelief when I married again, picking up my divorce certificate on my way to the registry office. A direct rebuke to dictum–shameless, immoral, renegade, outcast, difficult, defiant, dangerous, impulsive, immature. Social structures will collapse. Children will run wild, hair uncombed and buttons undone, kitchen fires will burn down the house.
She will spend her entire day staring out the window at the grey and gold London skies, read a book and type a word or maybe a page on a good day. She will have eaten before her children and returned to her desk or angry with her husband, slammed the door and taken the dog for a walk or even gone to bed. She will be available and not available, she will be loving and not so much, she will be there and then she is gone.
I wonder why she still get flowers that bloom on her table on such a dank damp day.
This winter has kept me out of my skin. What I will remember are cold dark days, wet dark days, sometimes sunny dark days and me unable to rest or find a pause of restfulness in them. Being in my body has been shall we say a challenge. Panic, panic attacks are inane words of my state. I describe it as my days of un rest.
Unsafe. It can happen on the brightest of days and moments. The girls watching a sitcom, I am cocooned against their bodies, I close my eyes and I wake up scared. Their warmth and laughter and the evening dark gathering in the air outside cannot protect me from myself. Three girls, how I had kept them safe within me.
The biggest danger in my bed. It is my bed. A generous California king that can hold if needed a family of five and their dog. It leans against the window and light pours in on some winter days and tries to warm me. Or is it warn me? It, the bed, warns me to jump out of it and run. Flee like it is about to be bombed or mobbed taking me with it into a fire.
There is no fire. I know. I can see. It is a simple room. A bed side table on one side with my books and a clock, some medicine bottles, a pair of spectacles, a lamp. On the other side, my husband’s side table covered in his language learning books and wires and gadgets. On the ground near it always discarded clothes that he has stepped out of as he steps into the ones he will wear into the world. He makes it look easy. This stepping into the world. A cozy intimate bedroom one would say. Why, even I would say it.
My body does not let me rest in the room or in the bed. Especially during the day. At night I take a bunch of herbs to soothe and relax, ashwagandha and passion flower and HTP5 and sometimes a xanax or a melatonin. Passion can happen on that bed. In the dark. In the day it could have been a tent in a war zone, the way I flee it. Rest is for the wicked.
Could be that my work these days is all about mining my dark and that of the dark stories/myths apparently lit with the light of ancient wisdom and goodness. I have found hiding within them the darkness of subservience and obedience and coercion that we have been taught since the time we have been born. Sita the queen, Sati the goddess, see how they shine as they burn. You are not a good girl. See how you don’t shine.
I have come downstairs now to the couch in the living room. It is bright orange. More home furnishings meant to comfort and hold a family. Cushions, chairs, tables, a TV, musical instruments, photos laminated and framed, a piano, the back-greying dog sleeping on the purple bean bag, one eye always open like me, the remote near my feet urging me to give it up and watch something.
Noting. That is what my therapist had once told me to do. Note what is in the world around you. Make that safe corner in your home. So I try. There is a brown harmonium with a broken glass frame, a statue of dancing Shiva who went mad after his wife committed sati and he almost burnt the world down with his anger, children’s books and yoga books topsy turvy on dvds that line a shelf. Keeper of Lost Cities and Harry Potter with Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. The dvds reflection of a home I tried to make in foreign land. Bollywood movies and Bengali movies. Lagaan, Queen, Swades, Dangal, 3 Idiots, The Lunchbox. More.
Noting. I ate too much this morning. Sometimes I do it even before I think or know the fear is near. My stomach always seems to know and feeds me in anticipation. I cannot digest the eggs and nuts. The sun is in and out of the window.
The dog is having a nightmare. He barks under his breath in his sleep and breathes in deeply. The sun continues to come in and out from whatever clouds are in the sky today and my face moves from light to shadow with it. I continue to note. Maybe it will be enough for today. Sit still through the light and the dark. Brave.