There are times when a darkness sets in your mind that is associated with lack of contact with your loved ones, with sharing of ideas and dreams, a poem or experience not just virtual but actual. As I write this that these 2 apparently similar sounding words are so far apart in their meaning and impact. The small invisible microorganism has taught us-the modern, civilised human being the meaning and real life impact of these 2 words. Also the fact remains that what we call modernity or developed is to make many things which should have stayed virtual actual and vice versa. For example sharing of feelings, a common space, a lovely moment of togetherness, a special day has been made virtual by a click of the button.
One of the most frequently heard statements that are part of the lockdown dialogues is “ How lucky we are that there is technology in the drawing rooms that bring your close ones close enough through a video call…birthday, anniversaries, even funerals can be attended without the encumbrance of meeting, touching, holding ,caring for sitting in your own private comfort zone. This it is said is the height of luxury and achievement. A huge group of people in the world have “ graduated” into this specialised space that technology has created and project this as the most comfortable, conducive and sophisticated state. Here words and expressions like “love”, miss you”, hugs and kisses” have also graduated from the actual to the virtual. This stage had been achieved much before the Corona came in.
But there exists a group of urbanites whose mind set is naturally so that they really do not want anyone. This started much much earlier. For them apart from the inability to move around the lockdown did not cause much shift in their life style. They never ever wanted anyone near them. They never pined or waited for a loved one. They never missed the sound of footsteps in the house, the stray hum of a song, vessels falling in the kitchen, the fragrance of a freshly bathed body beside you, the irritating questions and queries. The only sound they heard was that of a knock on the door when the lady help came at the correct time. Most often for fear of a conversation,the list of items to be purchased and the menu would be written on the scribble pad kept for this purpose in the kitchen.
Mr.X was the quintessential urbanite who prided in being self reliant,independent, and capable of being on one’s own. He lived in one of the oldest and elitistic housing colonies in the city where intrusion of the “ flat culture” still had not taken place much. The place was easily accessible to shopping malls, traditional vegetable and provision shops, a pace where your domestic help must have been with you for decades and so on. Mr.X was a widower with no issues except a sibling who lived in the same city with safe “ social distancing” much before the lockdown. There was a perfunctory remembering of birthdays and wedding anniversaries. At times a niece or nephew would video chat and flood him with “ miss you”, take care and a few flying kisses. They would proudly present to their corporate world team about their uncle’s virtues and independence.
Mr X thought he would be least affected by the isolation that its declaration wouldcause. The first few days went by well as there was ample food in the refrigerator. But he was a bit irritated by the vessels to be washed..making a cup of coffee which was always his forte meant 2-3 vessels besides the spoon and cup. His irritation turned into despair when the loyal lady help informed that she has shifted to her son’s house in the suburbs to be with them. His niece and nephew along with his sister called after many days to say happily that they are all together in a city in another state where the youngsters were working. Their kisses and miss you sounded harsh and cruel on his ears.
By the end of two weeks, Mr X was tired of bread and eggs, rice,curd and pickle…he longed for some good vegetable curry and hot crisp dosas. He was never comfortable with the online booking and deliveries as it would mean interaction with some strangers and maybe their friendly enquiries. By now each and every smell and sound from the neighbours kitchen which used to exasperate him became fragrances of home food. He longed for the clanking of vessels and the flow of water from the kitchen when the lady came, the sound of the pressure cooker, the whirl of the washing machine, …the silence descended upon him like a heavy suffocating shroud…
It was then that a friend from bygone days called enquiring about his welfare. Thankful for the call Mr.X hesitantly asked him about his food and he replied that the community kitchen has a home delivery system that is efficient and timely with wholesome,simple food. For the first time in many years.Mr X decided to take the risk….so desperate was he!
He got the number of the nearest Community Kitchen and the lady who attended kindly took all the details and asked him to try for a day and see. The very next day,a young boy came in the morning with breakfast that was still warm and much to his surprise quite tasty. So too lunch! The volunteers came on time wearing a mask and showing no signs of getting acquainted which put Mr X very much at ease. On the second day he asked the boy to leave the food packet in a bag in the verandah just in case he was engaged otherwise when the bell rang. This continued for two days. His sister who called was surprised and a bit hurt about this arrangement but knowing the nature of her brother she silently agreed. There were many relatives in town who would have readily accommodated him,but that was anyway out of question.
On the 5th day, the volunteer who came to leave lunch noticed that the morning’s food packet had not been taken. Sensing something amiss, he tried opening the door which was locked from inside. Looking through a gap through the heavy curtains of the window, he saw in the dim light a figure sitting in the coach slumped. He immediately alerted the nearby Community Kitchen coordinator and as he had more deliveries to do, he knocked on the gate of the neighbour. An elderly couple appeared on the doorstep who seemed scared to venture out but promised to stay alert. Luckily they had the number of Mr Xs sister …
What happened next was sudden and quick..fire engine, Police ,Ambulance…and Mr X was taken in s semi conscious state to the hospital where he went usually as suggested by his sister whom the neighbour had called. On the way to hospital when minimum first aid and a drip was started in the ambulance, Mr X regained consciousness for a brief while when he saw a stranger in white dress smile reassuringly at him. He felt a tiredness so overwhelming that he fell into a stupor immediately.
A few days later the neighbourhood came to know that Mr X has passed away in the ICU of the hospital. One wonders what his last thoughts were. Did he wish to see his sister and children? Did he regret the world of loneliness he deliberately created the root cause being the fear of loneliness if one gets close to someone? Many around us chose to be alone because they are scared of being rejected when expectations rise with love and relationships. Mr X certainly was the “ once bitten,twice shy “ kind. Would he have looked at the masked face of the nurse on duty and wished for a smile or a reassuring word?
The lockdown and scare of the Covid teaches us a lesson or more about the lonely human world we have made where every act and interaction has to have a purpose that is beneficial to us. We cannot afford to make a mistake, go slow, not succeed, treat the other as an enemy whose convenience is a hindrance to our speed. Looking at the other person in the eye, feeling for his/her comfort, reaching out and getting involved are all signs of weakness that will bring down “ immunity” of the mind and make you vulnerable. And what are you vulnerable to- love, compassion, being taken for granted, losing your privacy, being dependent and being depended upon….at some time during his exit from the world Mr X might have felt “ being alone never felt right. Sometmes it felt good, but never felt right( Charles Bukowski)
Covid lockdown does just that- forces us to look at all that feels good but never felt right
Anitha S is a writer from Kerala
30th April 2020.