The sound of the doorbell echoes in the house. The phone ring seems like an intruder. The window opens only to silence and stillness.
If you’re lucky.
Farah Bashir, author of a remarkable debut novel, Rumours of Spring, has been in curfews where the opening of a window has resulted in death, a stray bullet from an unseen sniper hitting a woman straight in the heart.
That was Srinagar in the early 1990s where she spent her girlhood so when Bashir hears the advice, ‘stay home, stay safe’, she has mixed feelings about it. Home was no guarantee of safety. It was a place where everyone spoke in whispers so as not to alert the paramilitary forces on patrol in the streets, where TV sets were never switched on, where curtains were almost never opened for sunlight to stream in, where crouching to escape notice became the default body posture instead of standing straight.
For Bashir, the lockdown in 2020 was almost a return to that girlhood, where solitude was the only company. It is something several young men and women learnt last year, and as they face another extended curfew, they recall that experience, sometimes depressing, sometimes inspiring, but always transformative. Like Pratibha Saroj, 30, who currently lives and works Delhi. Her husband lives and works in Kota; her parents are in Allahabad; and her in-laws in Ghaziabad. Before Covid-19 halted everything, her life was split between weekdays and weekends, and it was a marathon going from one of these places to another. She lived alone during the lockdown of 2020 and says, as ironic as it may sound, she found the experience of being trapped “liberating”.
Many like her acknowledged their privilege, that they had shelter and food while several others didn’t, but it was also a chance for them to reconnect with themselves.
Like Aishwarya Sai, a 25-year-old professional. who was all alone in her three-bedroom flat in Pune, having dinner prepared by her cook, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown in March 2020. Little did she know that would be the last meal cooked by someone else in her kitchen. Her flatmates had already left for their homes in other cities. Her boss alone insisted she stay on in Pune. She was devastated to know that see was going to be locked up all alone without the luxury of having her friends around, her maid at her beck and call, and at the mercy of groceries and spices alien to her.
Sai had always been a social butterfly surrounded by friends. “Before Covid-19, my apartment used to be a party place and there was not a single day when I didn’t have friends over or plans to hang out. When the lockdown happened, my life suddenly came to a standstill. I felt so empty, so alone and depressed. I had never met myself in so many years, never spoken to myself, never spent time by myself, never looked within. So when I was left all by myself I didn’t know what to do,” she says now.
The hope that 21 days would pass kept her going. But the moment the second phase was announced, it shattered her calm. “That is when I asked myself a few tough questions: Why am I not enough for myself? Do I have any existence without having people around?” she says. That was the turning point of not just the lockdown journey but also her life.
So far she was just cooking enough to survive, but now, she started putting in extra effort and made her favourite dishes, with a little help from YouTube. She enjoyed everything she was doing even if it was just chopping garlic. She turned on the Bluetooth speaker (for the first time after the lockdown) that she would use while hosting house parties, played her favourite songs and danced to them. She found her old colours and brushes and painted to her heart’s satisfaction. She would set up lunch and dinner dates with herself by making use of all the beautiful candles, fairy lights and balloons she had bought to organise birthday parties for friends. She watched all the movies she had skipped earlier because her friends did not like them. She spent time collating old pictures and reliving all the memories. She took a moment each day to introspect and appreciate how far she had come in life. She sent long messages to family and old friends. She even attended some online workshops.
Dhruv Oberoi was in the same boat as Sai, stuck in his apartment alone as he couldn’t go back home to his parents in Chandigarh. The head chef at Olive Bar & Kitchen changed his routine and started being grateful for every aspect of his life. “I started journaling every thought and planned things around it. If any negative thought came my way I would literally erase it from my notebook. And every morning I would wake up to the sight of the lush green forest next to my house. That helped me to look at things positively,” he says.
Bashir, Saroj, Sai and Oberoi are fortunate to have thought their way out of forlornness. Mumbai psychologist Sonali Gupta says loneliness was one of the topmost concerns during the lockdown last year. And with the second wave, it’s emerging as a concern that a lot of young people and elderly who live alone are struggling with. Then there are others, who feel lonely in their relationships and the experience of staying within four walls makes it worse. “My worry as a therapist is that loneliness is going to have a deep impact on people’s meaning and their sense of belonging. These are deep losses that people are grieving for and this has in turn impacted their moods, anxiety and wellbeing in general,” she says.
Anything can be a trigger. For Wasudha Korke’s 90-year-old mother, it was the period when her favourite daily soaps stopped appearing for some time during the lockdown. “She lost all appetite for life after that,” says Korke, a 70-year-old retired engineer and accountant. “She was a brilliant woman, a high court lawyer in Mumbai in her time. But she never quite recovered from that break in routine.” The two women live alone, in a comfortable senior citizens’ residential housing estate in Pune, but Korke mourns her mother’s dementia.
For the much younger Saroj, as the 9-5 hustle stopped, she got much more time to reconnect with her friends and family. “Although I was alone, I never felt lonely. I started exploring what else I could do apart from my job which earlier used to occupy the whole time. Taking inspiration from a few of my friends’ posts on Instagram, I started learning watercolour painting. When I realised that am not bad at all, I started my own Instagram handle for paintings. Later, I saw people posting short poems and ghazals and I gave that a try too. I used to follow a few animation artists and the lockdown gave nudged me to start experimenting with that,” says the 30-year-old.
Oberoi being a chef experimented with food. He cooked once a day, only vegetarian lunch with seasonal vegetables and the right amount of carbohydrates by switching from rice to whole wheat to Bengal gram flour every alternate day. “As a habit I started saying no to refined flour, white sugar, butter and refined oil, using jaggery, whole wheat flour, mustard oil and desi ghee instead. I have a sweet tooth so I cooked desserts for dinner like <besan panjiri> with broken bitter chocolate, or the sweet version of <bhel> with salted nuts, dried fruits, jaggery, mustard oil and fresh coriander.” With intermittent fasting and a 6 am run with adequate precautions, he felt good even when all by himself.
But Saroj cautions optimists about Lockdown 2.0. The first strain of Covid-19 wasn’t as infectious as the present one and fortunately, none of her friends and family got affected by it in 2020. But this time, she, her closest friends and family have already been affected by Covid-19. Says Saroj: “I try as much as possible to share my experience of quarantine with the ones affected so that they recover physically as well as mentally at the earliest. This lockdown is not going to be about us but about our loved ones and society as a whole.”
Rajan (name changed on request) works as the chief of staff to the CEO at a video streaming company and lives alone in Mumbai. His parents are in Chennai and his sister lives abroad with her family. He hopes the lessons of 2020 will serve him well this time around. As he says: “While many are not happy about the lockdown, to me it has made no difference to my happiness, and to an extent I’m almost rejoicing at the extra time I will have on my hands again, to do all the things I like to do. But the stress of what’s going on in the country, and the hardships faced by thousands and millions is definitely worse this time.” Lockdown 2020 has not helped make Curfew 2021 more manageable. All that comforts those who live on their own is that they are far more resilient. Their only wish is that others had that advantage too.
It may well be that, like Kashmir and its people, melancholy becomes part of the bloodstream. “It’s where you’re alone even if you’re with your family. Where you know you’re entirely by yourself and you are your only support,” says Bashir. The effect of that is as deep as it is invisible.