Wednesday, December 02, 2020

A misanthropic “touch” – a personal essay about being locked down

Wrote this essay for the latest issue of The Indian Quarterly (which is available on Magzter). It is about aspects of my pandemic experience, including the animal-care expeditions during the lockdown, finding new ways of being “social” through online courses... and the strange episode of being in a vet’s clinic interacting cautiously with a man who had made unwanted advances towards my mother 30 years ago.


The two months between late March and mid-May, with the lockdowns on in full swing, were the best two months of my Lara’s life.

During our evening walks in the grassy park just below our flat – once a DDA playground, now a makeshift parking lot, and so organically located within the neighbourhood that it couldn’t be locked or put off limits – a new spring entered her step. Her tail wagged confidently, she looked relaxed, she even sauntered.

This was well against type. Lara is an exasperatingly nervous dog, recoiling and straining at her leash to rush back home if she so much as hears a motorbike starting nearby, a drilling machine, a plane flying low – or even if a stranger gets too close or looks in her direction. For this period, though, she was queen of her terrain, relishing a space that was now shorn of vehicle noises as well as the chatter of residents and domestic staff.

Meanwhile, standing on distant balconies, neighbours looked enviously at us dog-walkers, at this pretext I had to be in the park every day (even if well-masked throughout). This, remember, was a time when we hoped a month or two of abstinence from all social activities would muzzle Covid, and when many people – including youngsters who weren’t in the high-risk category – were literally not stepping out of their homes for days or weeks.

But if Lara lost some of her social diffidence during this time, so did I, in my own way.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fiercely possessive of my private space; at a very early age, I felt stabs of annoyance when someone would carelessly brush against me during my evening walk, or come a bit too close. Or when I happened to look around and see someone staring at me (even if it was a vacant, inoffensive stare). The sense of being intruded on was always intense. 

Much later, a basic comfort with long people-free periods contributed to my decision to work from home relatively early in my career, something I have done for the past 14 years. That’s good practice for 2020 you’d think; surely these lockdowns wouldn’t make much difference to my daily routine.

And yet, my initial pandemic experience was different from what you might expect from the shrinking-violet introvert. As the world shut down or coiled into itself, I found myself opening up, becoming more relaxed and social.

During lockdown time, I was out and about quite a lot. For context, I maintain and live between two flats, located a brisk 10-minute walk apart, in south Delhi’s Saket – one of them being a home-cum-office where Lara is looked after by her live-in “nanny” Reena. In theory, when lockdown was announced on March 24, I might have opted to stay round-the-clock at one flat, giving Reena regular instructions on the phone, or making brief trips to the other place only when absolutely necessary. In practice – given that I had the luxury of a workable alternative – I was never going to do this. Being a housebound introvert is one thing, but I would have felt stifled stuck in one place all the time, lost and worried without being around my canine child for a few hours each day. So I continued with my routine as if nothing had happened – the only concession I made, in the early days when cops were freely waving their batons at passers-by, was to substitute my laptop case with a more innocuous-looking cloth bag that made it seem plausible that I was out for groceries.

There were practical reasons too. With our part-time staff no longer coming to work, and home delivery and online buying not being reliable options, the onus for buying daily provisions for both flats was on me; I was also helping out an aunt, a close friend of my mother, who lived alone and was rightly nervous, at her age, about stepping out. And so, a routine quickly formed: every morning, bag slung around my shoulder, I journeyed from one flat to the other, passing the stores along the way, picking up as much as I could after a quick look at the list my aunt had sent me; during the day, if needed (or if I simply felt like leaving the house), I would get out again for a five-minute walk to the shops.

Another catalyst for my blossoming into a more outgoing version of myself were the other members of Lara’s species, the many street dogs in and around our neighbourhood. My concern about street animals in lockdown time – so many of them dependent on humans for food and care, left desolate as shops and dhabas closed – culminated in daily feeding expeditions. I got a feeder’s pass made that allowed me to be out. For the first time, I sought out and asked to be added to WhatsApp groups so I could stay in touch with other animal feeders and rescuers in Saket. It wasn't all virtual interaction either: I began meeting some of these people – people whom I must have walked past dozens of times over the years, but never spoken with before – and accompanying them to nearby spaces for feeding, practising a version of whatever socialising was possible. In their company, I even discovered a jungle called the Indian Forest Park, located less than 500 metres from my residence.

And I discovered unexpected thickets in myself, surprising clumps of fellow feeling that had been buried deep within. For someone who has long self-identified as a misanthrope, it was a disorienting epiphany to have become not just concerned about the future of his own species, but sentimental too. Even in the days leading up to the lockdown, when signs of coming trouble were clear, I had begun thinking about what a human-disinfected world might look like… and found that I wasn’t ready for such an eventuality. (Let me get a little mathematical about this. I would certainly welcome, say, a 60 or 70 percent reduction in road traffic and human activity in our colony lanes, or in Delhi more generally – but I wasn’t pleased about almost all of it suddenly vanishing.)

Living in a suddenly transformed neighbourhood, I began, to my astonishment, initiating conversations with strangers during these outdoor stints, being social at this most unsocial of times: chatting with worried colony guards and shopkeepers, bringing snacks and juices across for the former whenever I could. In times past, I used to be irritated by the jobless neighbourhood chatterboxes who went from shop to shop daily, stopping to exchange a few words with everyone on those rounds – but now I found that I had become a version of that person. (I say “a version” because, well, in my defence, the shops that were open now were only a fraction of the ones that used to be open pre-Covid.)


What was it like to experience “touch” during this time? At a time when one was mindful about even brushing one’s bare hand against someone else’s while exchanging money or taking a bag of groceries.

For me, the answer lay in sitting on a grass lawn, shoulder to shoulder with two paravets, as we all held down and administered treatment to a struggling dog with a maggot-infested wound in her ear. This was perhaps the closest I came to touching another human being in these months.

On another, surreal occasion, I found myself in a vet’s clinic at a table next to one where an elderly man was holding down and cooing at his own dog. With some trepidation, I had recognised the man before we entered the clinic: it was someone I had known, in my first couple of years in Saket as a child thirty years earlier, as “Rajiv uncle” – the husband of one of my mother’s friends, who made an unwelcome proposition to mom on the phone late at night when his wife was away. You could argue that he was only trying his luck, but I have sharp memories of what the experience did to my mother’s friendship and, to a degree, to her personality – how guarded it made her, how much more aware about all the things she had to be careful about, as a divorced woman, while casually chatting with men.

All these years I had felt revulsion whenever I had seen Rajiv from a distance in the colony. And now here we were.

At the clinic, my wife began exchanging pleasantries with him, asking about his dog; I stayed out of the exchange as far as possible, but eventually – as he said things I could relate to as a canine-parent – I found myself making noncommittal little sounds in reply, without looking directly at him. With the tables located so close, we probably brushed against each other at some point, as we tried to control our struggling dogs. Or close enough. Closer than I would ever have wanted to.

After the experience I felt like I had betrayed my mother; another part of me recognised that if I had ended up interacting with this man after all these decades, the proximate cause was something that she – the most dedicated of all dog-lovers – would have approved of.

And there was also this minor point: we were living through the strangest global situation any of us, any living human being, had ever experienced. A situation where so many of the norms of communication and interaction have been turned on their head. Maybe this was a time for (conditional) forgiveness, for allowing oneself that ghastly, over-sentimental cliché that “we are all in this together” – and nothing that happened in the past mattered any more.


However, this sense of feeling alive and purposeful (and sentimentally philosophical), of doing clearly defined things within a vacuum, changed swiftly in May when the “unlocking” began and people set about behaving as if the pandemic was under control. Walking on populated colony roads, I began feeling like an even more paranoid version of my old self: nervous and angry at how casually people sauntered about and spat on the road, or at the imbecile standing just a few inches behind me at the Mother Dairy queue, mask around his chin, coughing vaguely in my direction. At a time when other people were reclaiming their lives, I retreated into a shell – something that was facilitated by the delegation of animal-feeding as well as our part-time help returning to work.

And in the process, I was reminded of how complex the subject of personality really is.

Though it’s understood that there is a big continuum made up of many types that can broadly be labelled “introvert” or “extrovert”, many simplistic definitions still persist. For instance, it is usually said that extroverts derive their energy from being around other people, while introverts need to “recharge” alone. There is some general truth to this, but what if being “alone” or “with yourself” doesn’t necessarily mean being confined at home? What if you want to exercise the option of being alone in a crowd? To get out every now and again, do regular-seeming things, but without it being tied to specific, planned activities with people you know.

Going to a restaurant alone, for instance, or to a film (after carefully picking a seat that is unlikely to have other people nearby). Or walking around in a (not very) crowded mall or park. Or just going on a short metro ride when it isn’t rush hour: absorbing human energies, feeling the hum of being around people, but without pressure to interact. As I write this (in late August), the Delhi metro – far and away my preferred means of travel over the past decade, and often my principal motivation to get out and go anywhere – is scheduled to reopen soon. But I also know I won’t be descending into any of those underground stations soon – too much risk, too much potential chaos, too much time wasted standing in long lines getting one’s temperature checked via fraudulent thermal scanners.

Meanwhile, there are other ways of being touched. When the scale and implications of Covid first became clear, one of the things I thought I would miss was teaching classes or leading film-club discussions in the real world; the electric thrill of being physically in the presence of a group of people who are invested in a talk; the option of being able to walk between desks, stand next to someone who is making an interesting observation, to make eye contact while gushing about a film or a scene that affected us similarly.

This isn’t possible in the same way on a computer screen. But when I began teaching online courses a couple of months ago, other pleasing things happened. I received emails from people who lived in other countries and continents, had followed my work in one form or another – or had been in touch with me in a distant past when we were all blogging – and were now eager to participate in my discussions and courses.

For all the other benefits of real-world classes – in physical halls and auditoria –the attendance was dependent on who was in Delhi, and free, at a given time. Now I was in online conferences where geographical location didn’t matter. Here we were, many little talking faces on a screen, blinking in wonder at each other, all of us dealing with varying degrees of pandemic depression but momentarily happy to be sharing thoughts on things we loved, such as Hindi-film song sequences, or 1940s Hollywood noir, or screwball comedies, or the Mahabharata.

None of this can quite substitute for real-world interactions, of course – and I say that as a solitude-seeker and a sometime-misanthrope. But given, again, that we are in uncharted territory, that we may be stuck in it for months if not years, and that some of us are at least trying to continue being prudent, many of our earlier ideas have to be redefined. Including ideas about how to be in touch.

And if I miss actual physical contact, I can always head out into the field again for a second round of playing assistant vet.

No comments:

Post a Comment