This week marks three years since India, and more or less the rest of the world, locked down because of COVID-19. On Facebook and Twitter, memes went around, asking people to share how their lives have changed in the last three years. Some of the replies were startling. People moved out of cities, some lost jobs but found better ones, some met the love of their lives, some walked out of existing relationships, and quite a few used this time for gender transitions.
But, absent in all of these recollections is an account of how the lockdown itself felt. Perhaps because my life did not change in a significant way in the last three years, that first lockdown is frozen in my memory as time that was suspended in itself. It felt like all the rules we had lived by were rendered irrelevant and we had to figure out new ways of doing everything, especially everyday things, on the fly. For a generation that was spoiled by search engines, where every question came with a possible answer that someone somewhere had conceived and recorded, the lockdown was a frustratingly puzzling time. We have to think on our feet while not knowing how any of these parameters were going to play out? How do we do that?
When our issues seemed small
We did that by writing in new rules on the mundane aspects. We left our packages untouched for three days. We washed the plastic bags our groceries were wrapped in. We masked and bathed and used our elbows to push the buttons on elevators. For the more significant aspects, we threw the rulebook out altogether. In my case, my daughter moved back home from boarding school and my former spouse and I decided to throw our lot in together to take this new enemy on. In a callback to an earlier life, we split our chores, divided television time, and went out of our way to try and not annoy the other person.
To be honest, it was one of the best “family times” we had ever experienced. News about the pandemic was so scary and sources of verified information so scarce that it was best to unite our forces against this common enemy than train our guns on one another. It was also a time when we couldn’t ignore the reality of our own mortality, and all our issues seemed small when cast in, quite literally, a life and death question. New traditions began, most prominently that of Zoom calls. Family calls, cousin calls, friends from the first job calls. Everyone, it seemed, was reaching out to everyone they knew, trying to cram everything they had always been meaning to do, but had never gotten around to.
Then we came back, angrier, greedier
For those of us privileged enough to have a place to live and a job to do, the early days of the lockdown brought a childlike quality with it, like pizzas for breakfast or sleepover with friends, it seemed like the time when all rules were suspended, our priorities shifted and we began to think about the small things that made us happy. Air pollution reduced, news reports talked about spotting dolphins in the Bosporus and cougars wandering around Santiago. Nature is healing, we giggled to ourselves, and we should too. All this was even more fascinating because there was the perceived temporariness of it, and perhaps a realization that either we would be dead or we would have to go back to our previous “normal” lives.
Now, three years on, we are still on the ‘revenge’ tour. Revenge travel, revenge weddings, revenge dining. It’s as though the minute we were let out of our cages, we ran for everything we felt we were denied. Not for us the small joys of living in the moment, of being able to appreciate what we have. At best, some of those Zoom calls have survived past year two of the pandemic. For the rest, we are back, greedy as ever, angry as ever, trying to do everything and finding happiness in nothing. For a minute there, nature might have healed, but us, we managed to escape. Phew!
The writer is the author of ‘Independence Day: A People’s History’.