By Ketaki Datta
Lockdown! Stay at home!
I know not how long this period of incarceration will continue! More than a couple of weeks have already sped by!
But believe me, days are not appearing long, neither the nights.
The self, I was groping for in the closet of my being, peeped out and hollered to me, “So finally we meet!”
I cheer up, eyeing a happy prospect of getting a friend, though supernatural, ‘otherworldly’ , or non-existent to the ordinary mortals like me! But I get a friend here, in this apartment, where stay I and the Self!
Last evening, just after I slurped the last drop of soup from my tureen, I saw her sitting in front of me, asking me, “So are you happy?”
She is my lookalike. I feel uneasy, sometimes, to talk to myself. But, when I see her crooning old, long-forgotten numbers to me, when I find her analyzing my past deeds with a serious face, I simply sit back, relaxed, thinking that I am in good hands.
Last evening, my next-door neighbour, rang me up to inquire about my whereabouts and said, “I find you in good mood these days. Yesterday, in the afternoon, while I was having my siesta, I heard you talking loudly to someone. But in these lockdown days, who has dropped in at your residence? Please ask him/her to leave at the earliest. You may fall ill. It may even turn fatal.”
I told her, “I was taking classes, online.”
“I see, then it’s fine.”
I am not just working from home, but I also love to indulge in exploration of the self and the world around me. I did not know that the afternoon sky has so many shades, apart from azure. I was not aware of the morning breeze that has a fragrance latent in its being. I had no idea that the cuckoo that coos beneath my balcony has a companion who answers its call from the coconut tree, standing tall in my neighbour’s courtyard. I was blissfully ignorant of so many things, how could it be so? Why was it so?
A few weeks of the lockdown are over by now. I keep wondering how a virus goes raging across the length and breadth of the world, claiming lives, taking pride in a large toll, escalating with each passing day. Just a microbial being and all experiments in all world-class laboratories are failing to discover a vaccine, let alone an antidote! All sorts of primitive measures are being followed: Wash hands again and again, as though an indelible mark of wrong-doing gets stuck in between palms of each inhabitant of this planet, which “ all the perfumes of Arabia” cannot sweeten, not to speak of washing it off!
Why are we being fooled by a virus, which if contracted, or smitten with, will land us straight before the gate of Paradise, nay Hades? Or if spared, may leave us crippled with a pair of weak lungs? I cannot think any further.
At one point of time, I kept toying with the idea of going out. Yes, I am running out of provisions. I have curtailed many a thing, putting embargo (self-imposed) on luxuries; for example, I am not casting a glance even at the chocolate bar, the last of its kind, lying at one corner of my fridge, trying to lure me with its tantalising taste whenever I fling open the refrigerator-door! I am now going to curb all of my cravings, it seems.
My mom used to say, “You can attain nirvana by saying ‘no’ to all sorts of temptations but winning the allurement of chocolates would be the Achilles heel, for which your nirvana might have to wait or be deferred to an unknown date in future. You may even cease to exist without tasting the nectar of nirvana!” Nirvana or no nirvana, I was happy with my irresistible love for chocolates! But these days, I am trying to say ‘no’ even to chocolates! If by any chance, I nibbled at the last bar, what would happen if I felt a craving at midnight with no chocolates around? So, I have to save it for some unforeseen desire for it!
When through my balcony I cast a glance overhead at the purplish-black sky, I can see a few stars, a few dim celestial bodies but I cannot tell one apart from the other. I try to trace the Milky Way, but a zigzag row of stars pop-up, which might or might not be the one. Standing there, for quite some time, I was trying to empathise with the people from all walks of life, who are terribly affected by this lockdown, a 21-day-period of total collapse of social life, gregarious existence of the populace, beyond home, even normal buying-and-selling in the shops.
The picture at a medicine shop may be different, chock-a-block with people, who are queuing up mostly to buy Vitamin B or C strips or even expectorants or common medicines for cough and cold or diarrhea. I went out only one day after a gap of about fifteen days to buy essentials, mainly eggs and biscuits. That too, at about seven in the morning. I was astounded to see the busy thoroughfare, which generally teems with life at cockcrow was desolate. Absolutely secluded. The old man who used to sit and beg outside the metro station was not there anymore. I was worried as I used to buy him medicines for his heart condition.
I found the dog, who is generally sprightly and feisty, sitting dejected, in front of the closed shutters of a shop. I was happy to see the birds chirping on the trees. They trilled, crooned, twittered, whistled as they pleased. They were probably so delighted to find a sky — clear, above their head, with not a speck of smog in it. The greenery outside got a shade extra, it seemed.
The air outside also seemed fresh. The roads were just devoid of the shouts and screams of the jostling crowd, there was no sign of any sick hurry of the regular commuters to distant places. It appeared as though, life needed a respite, the thoroughfares needed a break from daily schedule, a nagging routine. The small lane that leads up to the main road usually stay crammed with vehicles since 6.30 a.m., but the serene road seemed to enjoy a breather with no vehicles honking or waiting in a long queue. The traffic light changed colours as usual, but there was no hurry, no avid wait of people for the ‘red’ changing to ‘green’.
The sweet shop was about to open its doors. As I looked at it like a sleuth with my surgical mask on, the man drew a cloth mask from the counter and kept tying it round his nose and mouth. All of us, who came out risking our safety, were behind masks, as though to conceal our identities. A terrible something was about to transpire, it seemed. Only Nature and its feathered creatures seemed to have a field day. I could not sing within, I caught myself unawares, praying for the corona-affected patients who fought for life on the hospital bed, “Oh Lord, give them life! Let all the people come out unscathed and come around soon. Let others who are yet not affected by the viral attack enjoy health and secured existence. Amen.”
I was coming back that day with a vow to stay indoors from then on, and not to come out at all, howsoever necessity it would be. I haven’t reneged on my resolution as yet.
Ketaki Datta is an Associate Professor of English at Bidhannagar Government College, Kolkata, India. She did her Ph.D. on Tennessee Williams’s late plays and later it was published, titled, “ Black and Non-Black Shades of Tennessee Williams”. She has quite a few academic publications along with two novels, two books of poems and quite a few translations. She had been interviewed by Prof. Elisabetta Marino, University of Rome, archived by Flinders University, Australia. She won grants for working at American Studies Research Centre[1993,1995], Hyderabad, India. She presented academic papers at IFTR Conference[Lisbon], University of Oxford and University of California, Santa Barbara. Her debut collection of poems, Across the Blue Horizon, had been published from U.K. with the aid of Arts Council, England. Her latest poetry-book, Urban Reflections: A Dialogue Between Photography and Poetry has been published by KIPU, University of Bielefeld, Germany, with Professor/Photographer Wilfried Raussert [photographs of Street Art of Americas]. She has interviewed American novelist, Prof. Sybil Baker, recently for Compulsive Reader. She is a regular reviewer of poetry volumes with Compulsive Reader, USA. She interviewed poet Lucha Corpi of San Francisco, in 2018. She is the Regional Editor, India, of thetheatertimes.com, headed by Prof. Magda Romanska, Emerson College, Boston, U.S.A.