There is only one word to sum up my experience of the last two weeks at home: exhausting!
The official ‘lockdown’ in India started a week after our educational institutions closed in West Bengal, including my college and my daughter’s school. In the first week, we were thinking only in terms of a fortnight’s disruption. So, that week of mine was mostly spent strategizing online teaching with my colleagues and settling down my daughter with a home-school routine. These were re-adjustments for sure, but pretty manageable (even with the extra spring cleaning of the house that I undertook, as an exaggerated safety measure).
The principal fear of the first week for me was that I had the two most vulnerable categories for COVID-19 at home – below 10 (my daughter is almost 8) and above 60 (my dad is 83). But I was able to contain it, getting busy as I did with my new home schedule. The lockdown from 23rd March, however, changed the whole scenario drastically. For it meant a lockdown of goods and services. And the clamping of services is what affected me the most, as it meant that our domestic staff - most of whom commute by train from the suburbs - couldn’t come any more.
We have the standard domestic staff of any Indian household - especially with a working woman in it - the domestic help and cook. But since mine also includes both a child and an elderly person needing special care, we have a nanny and night nurse as well. Now, I had to stand in singlehandedly for all of them.
Replacing the nanny was the easiest part. My daughter is pretty self-sufficient and I enjoy nothing more than spending time with her at home. That enjoyment is somewhat compromised, no doubt, when one is ‘working from home’, as opposed to just being together on weekends or seasonal breaks/vacations. But still, if one is relatively free of compulsive domestic work, one can still take pleasure in a child’s company along with meeting work deadlines.
I know it must sound strange to those living in the West – as everyone does their own chores there. In India, however, people are used to having domestic help.
Having said that, I must add that I have never been a stranger to domestic chores myself, having done a fair amount of it all my life – while growing up at home (since my mother refused to keep any help); after marriage, living with my in-laws; and especially in my decade in the Netherlands. But I have been out of touch for the last 3 years - after my return to Kolkata in 2017. Hence; my initial difficulty.
What has added to it is the lack of machines – there’s no vacuum cleaner or dish washer in the house; and even the rod of the long mop is broken! Thankfully, the washing machine is working. But on the other hand, the fridge is hardly used, as I’m cooking fresh meals.
I am also cooking simple meals, but they have not been easy. Not at first, anyway. Exactly what I’m cooking and how much is extremely important, especially for my father. That’s the secret of any good cooking, of course – a balance of flavors and ingredients. But for a kidney patient, not being able to do it right might be dangerous.
My first week of lockdown went in “getting back” to cooking; more importantly, to cooking right. It’s so easy to grow out of a habit, sometimes; I realized that in that week. Being inefficient, I spent practically the whole day in the kitchen, the first few days - and remained jittery throughout. By the end of the 1st week, however, my culinary skills were back in working order, and I got used to the rhythm of cooking and serving meals four times a day.
Every day in that week, I remembered that famous line from Tagore, summing up the general fate of women in his time (which hasn’t changed for many even now): “Randhar pore khawa aar khawar pore randha” (Eating after cooking & cooking after eating). Remembered my mother doing it for all the 40 years of her married life, right until the day she died. Also, remembered myself doing it for several years in Amsterdam – the most difficult years being from Srishti’s birth to playschool.
So: cooking I got adjusted to during lockdown, but after a week, I still couldn’t get all of it right - together. When I managed the meals well, the cleaning (read sweeping/swabbing) suffered. The day I could do both, I could hardly give Srishti any time. And of course, the most compromised was my own time (as it has been, unfailingly, for the last 8 years). Apart from what I gave to my students, i.e. Hence one night, I defiantly sat up, finishing a book I had started with great gusto before the quarantine, but had stopped reading in the intervening period; another sleepless night was spent in meeting a writing deadline.
All these days, I have given myself Facebook breaks. I can see that the quarantined time is being spent by many to pause and reflect People are full of helpful suggestions of how to spend the sudden gift of time: some are giving each other photo challenges (of one’s sari-clad self, of oneself then and now, of travelled places, favorite books and films, fun questionnaires); others are either going back to, or stepping up, their passions – singing, dancing, drawing, exercising, photographing, sewing, you name it. All manner of interesting diaries are filling up social media space.
Some are evidently enjoying more time with family, or brushing up their culinary skills, or soaking up the quiet of otherwise noisy neighborhoods; several have expressed the unexpected delight of hearing more birdsong. There are others who are recording with a sense of wonder the fresh flowers in their garden or clouds in the evening sky.
Some are more inclined to record the reality around them, their concerns and interests covering a wide spectrum: from reflections on the effect of the pandemic on students and their future prospects to what it can mean to writers, from feeding stray animals and helping those whose livelihoods have been affected, to sharing stories of doctors on the frontlines of fighting the pandemic 24/7, to the devastating news of thousands of migrant laborers walking for days and miles trying to reach home or others being sprayed with disinfectant to prevent contamination.
I don’t belong to either of these categories: I have neither given time to people/creatures in distress, nor given/accepted pleasant challenges to bide the time. Or seek respite from boredom. My problem is not a surfeit of time, but a lack of it. On normal working days, I race against the clock; during quarantine, I seem to be doing it even more.
I am just rushing from one work to another. Always a bit late, and always with a nagging sense of inadequacy; of not having done enough – not enough cooking, cleaning, teaching, giving time, looking after. In short, I am always falling short.
I am aware that there are many, even among those living in the shelter of their homes, whose situations are far worse than mine: people with babies, with bed-ridden parents, or sick family members having to go without medicine, the elderly left to fend for themselves, single men and women who live alone and are unable to travel to their families (like my own sister, braving it out in an apartment in Jersey City). This awareness is supposed to make me feel better about my comparative luck (it’s a peculiar feature of the human mind that it needs to imagine worse in order to feel better). But it’s not working with me. I still feel exhausted.
To have food on the table, roof over one’s head, a loved one nearby - these are luxuries in the present time. I know it. Still, I feel exhausted. I feel small, petty, for feeling so. But the truth is, I am.