The current diffident, unrelenting, almost dead state of self-isolation imposed upon most of us across the world reminds me of a predated isolation I lived through in 2016-17.
In October 2016 I relocated to the South Indian town of Coimbatore for a job. Everything seemed like a dream come true, almost like a flower coming to full bloom in a dead land. Then the complications started popping up. My language skills, rather the lack of them, were the starting point. My ethnicity, a close second. I wouldn’t know what to cook, how to interact with my neighbours, how to realise the prestige points I was earning with my local Big Bazaar membership card. I was short of knowledge of Tamil and either the people around me were shorn in their grasp of English, or I just put them off like nothing else.
I would soon, unknowingly, tiptoe into a PTSD that would take years to wash away. Still struggling with its after-effects, here are some nuggets, some snatches from my digital diary then. I have now moved out of that job and relocated to Delhi — a city closer to my language of ease and my native place — for more than three years, but this lockdown reminds me strongly of those putrid, dry, solitary days when I would repeatedly apply clove lotion to my bleeding gums.
These are entries from November 2016 to March 2017 when I lived through what was a self-imposed isolation, a zidd, a youthful obsession. These can be read as standalone flash fiction notes, or as snatches from someone’s very personal life who underwent a very intense form of isolation. You can take them as you want to, but they will give you a glimpse into my life in Coimbatore where in addition to feeling distant from home, I saw myself alone through a loneliness I had little or no point of reference for.
Back then, I ached to be back to where I belonged, for the familiar, and for that I had self-isolated. I never stepped out except for office and dinner. I never ate much, didn’t drinking or smoke. I took to reading and reading alone. And that too heaps and varieties of Jhumpa Lahiri. I wouldn’t sleep at all, leaving my apartment at five in the morning for walks in the compound to see fathers teach lawn tennis to their sons, and mothers tend ruefully to their gardens. On those lonely morning my heart, in a mess of its own creation captured these bustling, violet vignettes which my diaries were not prepared to note down.
New bottle today and a mixed day. Pretty worn out cafe corners to keep me going. First self-cooked dinner in the new house. IMPERMANENCE is the only constant.
My new workplace is a single storey building. A small hunched office pushed back in time with some of the finest brains running the place. The office is home. The tea makes me feel alienated. I like my cup of tea over any other on earth except maybe honey lemon tea and of course Maa’s brew of chai. This noon as I made calls to strangers to help me find a flatmate, I looked out of the window that breaks the flight of stairs running up to the first and only floor. I saw the sunshine its way gloriously through the tree leaves, a light wind caressing them. I remembered that it is November. I thought of Kanpur, my hometown where I spent a good seventeen winters. And it all rushed back to me. How on Saturdays after lunch and Sundays from late morning hours we would gather all our reading and studying materials with a chauki or two and with a chatai (netted floor mat) and climb up the stairs to the terrace. The humble structure of our house is sheathed by a terrace that during winters used to be our paradise. “धूप निकली है, चलो जल्दी छत पर।” Maa or bhai or I would say scrabbling up the steps. The winter November sun meant so much, dearly precious to me – as it was in those hours that I could snuggle up to Maa, hug her, kiss her, fight with her or simply just sit next to her mug a lesson or two while she would sit there knitting a sweater or scarf or pull-over or a pair of socks for either of us. Papa loves his afternoons just as much till date. He would join us after 3:30pm and then we would all head back downstairs… Maa would make tea for her and dad, and milk for bhai and me. I miss childhood. I would want to be there for a brief ambivalent moment – if only to hang around in levity to see them – that family of four co-exist harmoniously in under the lambent November sunshine. I tried cupping the sheen today, it was impossible to clasp it, it was possible to live those moments though….
This is how leaving looked. But the cabinets, ajar, make me look within. I search for something inside that was never mine. I leaf over pages of notebooks I filled with stories and names that were never full-enough for my mouth. I tasted the feeling of sinking into quicksand. The apartment lift always carried in its womb, the fear of getting stuck in the middle of someone’s nowhere. Trembling knees and wide apart toes sank my being. I looked and looked; I couldn’t find anyone. All I had were words. They never abandoned me. I dreamt of colossal loss, of parting, separation from a lover who wasn’t mine ever.
Watching Wake Up Sid for the nth time. This is what I though domestic life would look like: a cosy 1-BHK, with adequate ventilation, pigeons doing their usual rounds around, and a lot of seventies Hindi music. But what do I have? Two bathrooms, one with a leaking pot. A plush bedroom with an attached bathroom and balcony. A swarm of bees comes beating at the door of the balcony door each evening. They are like the hundreds of flatmates I never asked for. No one in this city of retired old, relaxing souls, is suited to be my flatmate. So, I go scrounging for one.
From Magic Bricks, to Facebook, to Twitter, I look everywhere, and then go relax at a neighbouring café in the evenings. A man on the table next to mine orders a fresh lime sofa and is quibbling with his wife on the phone. I think of his wife, in a distant big city. I think of their distant, pathetic lives. I tell myself never to be a part of such a set up.
I miss talking to you on the phone endlessly. But I found a new triptych of stories by your favourite writer. It’s a borrowed book that I’ll bury my nose in and dive out tomorrow morning to do some Mexican painting. It’s a new reading corner, right at the centre of my apartment premises. I did a photo shuffle too today. Let me tell you, I’ve missed you more than I’d thought I would have. And I’m missing you I’ve noticed how green my veins look on the inside of my palms. How they go purple and then dark blue at times.
I looked for you everywhere you know. You made a brief appearance at the cemetery of dead photos. I spotted you and hurriedly rushed to scurry one more photo to make you stay. But you left. I tried to write to you the old-fashioned way. I made a photo and I wrote a caption, a long one and I posted it. Then I saw it and deleted it. I didn’t want people to read what I wanted to say at that moment to you.
I sit here and a young set of boys play football in the basketball court. In the swimming pool adjacent to it, I see mothers lined up with their sons in tow. Some new pupil has picked up the saxophone today. He’s playing the regular Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Da on it. He breaks and pauses. Gently so. A group of friends, three of them, sat about twelve feet away from me and one girl yelled at the boy for not talking to her for so long. She shouted and told her heart out in English that was laced by a thick Tamil accent. I think of when I was thirteen and friendless and shy to the extent of not even attending school get togethers. I think if I ever talked like this to any guy. I think of me being the bridge between my best friend and other guys in school. She was hot and they were hormonal adolescents wanting to allure her. I was the tomboy they recruited in the holy pursuit of winning her attention.
I cheated on food today. Ate Blue Lays. But my gut warded the 200 ml can of Coke away. I think of swimming and how I almost drowned in a two feet deep pit next to the tube well in my mom’s village. I think of my maternal uncle who frisked me out of it. I think of his smile. Coy and always hiding a secret. He was unemployed and had promised a big bar of Dairy Milk if he got that government job. He died in a road accident in the December of 2012. I’ve always blamed my birthday for being around this time of the year.
Methods and techniques have been employed to dodge the unwinding stance that my birth date throws at me. Big South Indian stick insects suck at my toes as I key all this on my super slow phone. An auto rickshaw pulls over at a distance behind me. A medical student with his lab coat on steps out. Our eyes meet. I return back to gazing at the screen and continue typing.
I think of you again and burrow my eyes back into the book. I hope you call me. I hope you do that sooner.
I watch Before Midnight. Again. For the twentieth time maybe. My residential society’s film club played The Jungle Book (2016) on the basketball court outside. I watched Before Midnight for the last time this year. Just like Julie Delpy’s ageing Celine in the movie, I write a letter too.
I’m writing to you from the other side of the woods. This letter is to find you in the twenty fifth winter of your life. It’s your father’s birthday today. Did you wish him? Pick up the phone presto. I want to tell you that all is not fine out here. But you’re making it through pretty fit and fine up until here. You’re out of the corporate job circle, you have all those titles (you didn’t even think of) to your name, your parents are in a peaceful fine place and you traveled to Greece with them. There’s a surprise too. Guess what, love did not fail you. You found someone on your tour in Paris and brought him home to meet the folks. Settled, all began well. It’s the times of changes and of movements and of deep introspection that you’re going through. You’re crying more, and you’re drinking less. You’re not smoking – you’re keeping fit — these are going to be constants for life. Your brother fared out well in life. The niece is in Argentina. Ha! See? You’ve been in and out of love – and you own your body. It’s the nows that are worrying your scattered little brain, but you’re made for bigger stuff and you’re going to make through this with so much sheen and shine, you’ll not believe yourself. So, I tell you, do one thing tonight – drink that can of wine, gobble that blueberry cake and walk for a while. Stay in the moment, float if you can. This instability is going to last a lifetime – your life is going to be one hell of an earthquake. Brace for impact!
Afternoon nap on a working Friday noon. I am seated on the pillion of a colleagues’ scooty as she raves about her next city, Chennai, and I fade out.
A very distant, yet real, neat memory floats back.
The year is 2005 and my parents are in office. They have forbidden me from going to for a dumb friends’ get together. I am home alone, and I turn on the TV set. My brother is home too, after classes we both toggle the various channels hunting for something to watch.
“I’m more the Al Pacino, Godfather type.
With chillies on the side?
Perfection? You first.
The pink flamingos on my parents’ front yard.”
And Rahul Khanna and Lisa Ray break into Rang Rang. I get on top of the centre table in our living room playing the role of the Hindi film ‘heroine’, as my brother pivots and clumsily mimics the radiant and dashing Rahul Khanna.
I wake up with the jolt of the scooty’s brakes at Annapurna. The servers there, gaze at me as if I am a pink flamingo in the parched February lands of Coimbatore.
Napier days. I’ll share the beauty, give me some comfort. Please. I visited a children’s library today. And it had some very pretty nooks. And choicest collection of books. Outside the windows it looked like decay. Inside the readers kept reading. The rain couldn’t be photographed. So, I looked for beauty on the walls and the paintings that adorned the library. The rains did not stop. Not for once. Sadness was re-emerging. Beauty lost and regained its sheen. Soon everything was shrouded in a pregnant lament pause. And before I knew, I was drenched. A hollow, seeped, soaked sadness clasped me from within. And I was all but a visitor paying some attention, lending a couple of listens to the void within.
“Where do you belong to?”, the puppeteer asked me.
I am 25 ebbing on the heavier side of it, and I tried watching Umrao Jaan. I could not keep up with the note-taking-and-watching-the-movie-act for more than 45 minutes. But simultaneously I am able to sit through re-runs of Mughal-e-Azam, Ganga Jamna, Aan and Mother India without even realising that am seeing them for the umpteenth number of times.
Similarly, there are movies I watched as a rebel pixie in love five years back, and I can’t stand them now (Pyaar Ka Punchnama). Then there is the inimitable Manorama Six Feet Under, there’s Haasil and there is Maachis—I borrowed them several times, I downloaded them on other occasions, and I sat with roommates to see them on other occasions. But I just couldn’t.
I pride myself for being my father’s daughter and for watching Mother India with him and crying therapeutically, clutching onto my mother’s wrist. I pride myself for being the 90s movie megalomaniac who would sit and just watch TV with the elder brother on weekdays and run to switch it off as soon as we heard the parents’ vehicle at the fag end of the bend of the road that led up to the house.
I pride myself for having parents who went on movie dates to see Fire, Ardh Satya, Ankur, Mandi and Water. But there are somethings are stuck at the back of my mind. Just yesterday I saw Le Passe (The Past) and I thought how brutally it mirrors the lives I am surrounded by (since eons now), and I thought what happens if my mother sees this movie? Where would things have led up to if my mother and father had gone for the screening of A Separation in Lucknow?
Why do I run away from Umrao Jaan, there’s a story behind that and of course some latent burning fear – and perhaps I am just not ready to have those conversations with myself as of now. But yes, the fact that my mother has been the Amelie for several people she knows and that she believes in trying and hoping (if not dreaming) that gives me strength and hope enough to gather the dew drops early in the mornings and do what I do. To conclude this here, I would repeat myself – all of this does not make sense, but neither does life. So be it.
Leeching the creativity out of this but one life, coffee mixed with beer. Driving, listening to the nasal concoctions of the now, the North meeting the centre. Whirlwind of the lineage of seconds seeming like epochs, tendrils trying not to reach. Floating, surviving, splitting fragile pains, gumming into the humdrum, multiple clasps, numerous pecks some sullen moments, some filling the silences, some lying, some teasing, some passionate rummaging through the bags…some plans, breaking into sudden rhythmic commotion, breaking in, sprouting out.
Only love is the cure. Eternal or momentary – LOVE.
Before me is a postcard and I imagine the smile on your face as you wrote to me. I smell it to catch your scent, I touch it with a gentle caress to feel how you would’ve held it, I want to make a call to you, I want to hear your laughter… Your ball-pen handwriting and that curve in the way you shape your “A’s” when you spell my name… This might’ve been posted from Dublin, but it comes from the heart like a poem of the fluttering birds who will fly away once the monsoon leaves… Sing me a song, will you?
Listening to Leonard Cohen tonight before the sedatives embrace me… It was a beautiful day. Quite outstanding if I must say. People you work for, the boss of the bosses recognizing your positioning in life and appreciating it even for a few fleeting seconds is uplifting. Certainly so. Then Pune Mandai postcards arrived at office today… These earrings given by a friend who now seems long gone and distant… This wallet, the only gift I’ve received in recent times, the diary that I gifted to myself. Life’s a compost of what we do ourselves. You have to take calls. You have to be. You have to love – love yourself.
I am so awfully aware of my being in this city – every waking second – an unknown language, stares, and the known discomfort of not belonging here. I miss my friends a lot. Two of them. Both lawyers. Demonetization – a word I knew absolutely nothing of till one week ago, is now a central part of my thoughts. I think of money, cash – its crisp feeling in the loose clasp of my withering away Mango wallet. Work gets over at five here. I have a feverish itch in my toes as I think about getting a flat mate. What a task! I doubt all my decisions – each one of them, every waking hour. I will stay in employment for at least two summers, I promise myself. My insides burn at the state of the state and my indifference to the state’s indifference. I think of the songs of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, one playing on my ear-phones – I think of what song I’ll play next. I play the title track. Devoid of love, lacking direct human touch, I live a life that has been told to me – shall be ideal for a girl like me. “Sell the security point of view” a very new friend told me tipping me how to sell the apartment to a prospective flatmate. The song changes, “Alizeh” plays. I think of all the morons I’ve lost to what they thought was one-sided “LOVE”. I think of the idea of love. I’ve postponed installing Tinder on my phone for over three months. Men who say…
I feel like a balloon full of cold water. Holding itself by tenterhooks. Just staying in the present. Grappling by the straws, I feel like I could burst anytime. I feel like I could use some help. Every trip taken by myself in this town takes me farther into the woods of sadness. I feel so detached from my own self. I gobble down ice-creams without much ado. Gorge on chocolates. Eat out almost every meal comes from a shop or an expensive cafe. I live on tentacles. A life so fragile, so weak yet too strong to ask for help. I took a long long ride in an auto-rickshaw today. It was ten and a half kilometres away from my office. The auto-driver was a student, working part-time as an auto driver. It was drizzling. The ride was to get my laptop’s external hard disk repaired. He said it would cost fifteen grand. What a joke! On my way back, my niece called from Nagpur. It is her birthday tomorrow.
I need to channelize this sadness. I undertook an auto-rickshaw journey after dusk today. A good twenty-five kilometres. And I just feel like all of this is a mistake. Coming to this town. Should not have taken this job up – mainly because of the city. I love my job; I can’t say enough – how much I love it. I long for familiarity. I long for faces that I could believe more easily. I don’t know the language here; I feel so scared all the time. I love my assignments, I love my story ideas – and just not that, my bosses love them too. But – and maybe it’s the rains. It is the rains, I guess.
I am crying thick tears; I feel lost and unbelonged. Heaviness has made home inside my heart. I don’t like the permanence of this knot. And worst bit is that I don’t even know if I leave this city if this feeling will recede. I am spending a lot of money also, and it does take its toll on me. I should be a little easier on myself. I am falling apart. I want someone – that one someone to come here and put me together, piece by piece. is it possible to even want that of someone you have known only through social media? I feel so lonely. so alone. so, spaced out. I look at the map and the distances weird me out. they are over two thousand one hundred and forty-seven kilometres between my hometown and this town.
it feels so good, this job and my writing and words and myself in there, but outside of it I think I will go mad. I will lose it. I’d this flatmate thing works out – good enough for me, but else – I think I will give up. I loitered around through the lanes of this town, in an auto-rickshaw and then you know, the work was not done, and I come home to an empty apartment. the city was covered with heavily pregnant, about to burst kind of clouds… but it was only drizzling. I don’t know if it’s just my words, but I really want to come out of this. I try a lot of things. I try pushing the blame on someone else. I try deep breathing. I write, pushing all the laziness away. frankly, I’ve never struggled with ideas – so that’s sorted.
I am still able to write my stories off in less than an hour. I love my job. but the rest of it – it’s taking a toll on me. should I see a therapist? I live in a society that is so full of people and kids and swings and pools and trees and plants – yet I feel so alone. Maybe it’s all not cast in stone – maybe it’s not. I want to get out of this feeling. I feel like it’s the plastic of all emotions to be feeling right now. So plastic, like one of those make-believe Hindi movie emotions, so plastic, so unreal, so distant.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional. Her writings have appeared in Berfrois, 3 AM Magazine, Cafe Dissensus, The Alipore Post and others.