Nabanita Sengupta explores the impact of COVID19 in the small town of Ghumi that she has created
Ghumi, the small town, had always thrived on close social interactions. When the world was hanging out in shopping malls and cineplexes, Ghumians continued to entertain themselves by visiting each other’s houses or gathering at their only club for a game of cards or for reading or to simply chitchat. A lifestyle that was old yet treasured had continued and a colonial aura with its associated languor still hung in the air. It was a world in itself — contained and calm to the point of collective lethargy.
Raya wondered, sitting at her thirteenth floor balcony in a South Kolkata locality, of how Ghumi was coping with the current wave of pandemic and isolation. She thought back to the numerous Sunday afternoons she had spent in the company of family friends, in her house or in theirs; the games they had played as children and loud laughter reverberating throughout the house from the elders’ adda* sessions. School breaks meant sleepovers or lunches with close friends. And evenings meant playground – kabaddi*, lock and key, hide and seek and so much more.
Even the last visit that she had undertaken a few months back, a trip taken almost after twenty years, had shown her that nothing much had changed in their way of life. As soon as she had stepped out of the train, she felt she had entered a time bubble where everything was at a standstill for the past twenty years. Yet oddly, it did not lag behind the fast moving society outside. In its own pace, it negotiated with the rest of the world. In spite of spending a part of her life here, the leisure paced lifestyle came as a shock to Raya, now used to the hectic city life.
Raya often thought of her time in Ghumi as a utopia, something that no other place in the world could give her. But it was also a place where one could not return. Going back would mean turning time backwards and that would of course be unsettling in this world of linear progression. Now in the pandemic, as she found herself overflowing with leftover time, she suddenly felt her life had reverted to her days at Ghumi.
Employed as a saleswoman in a private organisation, most of her time was spent running across the city. Her two-wheeler had become an extension of herself and home meant just a resting place at night. But now, confined to her apartment, she felt strangely liberated, perhaps from the grinding schedule that was slowly eating away her soul. In fact, life had become an oxymoron for her. On the one hand, this sudden lull in time was exhilarating, while on the other, she often had panic attacks — fearing a job termination, a health crisis or a similar personal catastrophe. Like million others, she did not know what the future had in store and hence, for the moment considered it best to live in the present.
Overflowing time, a luxury she had missed since Ghumi days and was now available to her once again, had made her nostalgic about her childhood and teens. Suddenly she found herself transported to that world.
Food during lockdown was one of the first things that made her feel nostalgic. With the fear of infection spreading like wildfire and a self-imposed ban on food bought from outside, her life sought solace in her childhood memories. Ghumi in her childhood had no restaurants or fancy eating places. There were a few sweet and samosa* shops and a few roadside eateries on cart, but they were out of bounds for her. Baba would never allow her to have those ‘unhygienic stuff’ as he called them. So only home cooked food was allowed. But ma was the saviour. She learnt new recipes from her friends there and thus cuisines from various parts of India found a place in their meals. There was never a dull moment for the taste buds. From the tangy rasam* to the continental pudding, all had made their way out of her mother’s kitchen. Also, a visit to any of the friends’ homes always meant a treat of home-cooked delicacies. Hospitality floated in the air of Ghumi. Yet Raya till date had regrets about not having ever tasted those street foods. Imagine, spending years in a place and never ever eating on a roadside eatery there!
Today as she was rolling out the dough into small circles ready to be fried into fuchkas or panipuris* as they are also called, she couldn’t help thinking back to those wonderful evenings of friends and her mother serving them all fuchkas one by one in their small bowls. That was many years back, yet the memory was bright and clear. She made a mental list of all the delicacies that she was going to include in her lockdown kitchen — dosa, idli, samosa, pudding, pastries, payesh, luchi all found a place there. She was going to hone her culinary skills during this period.
An alarm jolted her out of her musings. Her phone calendar reminded her of the online reunion that she had this evening with her school mates. On a whim she had also sent an invitation link to one of their ex-classmates still living in Ghumi. They had left him out of their earlier meets due to their pre-conceived notion of poor network connectivity of that place. A quick dash of lipstick, some kohl around her eyes and her favourite danglers in the ears and she was set for the meeting. She often marvelled these days at how minimalistic life has become in the pandemic times. No elaborate dressing up any more, no fancy sandals. She cast a pitiful look towards her closet as she keyed her laptop out of snooze mode. When was the last time since March that she had completely shut it down?
One by one most of her classmates came online. But the name that surprised her most was Jishan. He had logged in from Ghumi, the only one who had stayed back there, continuing with his father’s business. All her other friends had moved out. She had missed meeting Jishan in her last trip to Ghumi as he was out of town then. Suddenly, everybody was curious to know about Ghumi’s latest state of affairs. Conversation, dripping in past memories, freely flowed. After satisfying all their queries, Jishan added with a smile, “Now finally Ghumi is at par with the world even in terms of socialising. Chased out of malls and cineplexes, you people are also taking resort to chatting with friends as a way of unwinding. We, at Ghumi, have been doing that for ages! Now, when you start taking baby steps towards reclaiming your socialising, I know the first thing that you will start with is calling over a very small group of close friends to your homes, going back to our childhood days of weekend gatherings. And perhaps, you all will cook too, not order from outside, displaying your culinary skills as our parents used to!” And he laughed aloud…
Raya and her friends were all left stunned. This was not how they had thought of the matter, but realised how true it was! Lockdown had forced them to put a brake on their fast moving lives and had taken them back to days when meaningful interactions with close friends in a homely atmosphere was preferred over large gatherings with strangers over fast foods and drinks. A bit of Ghumi was woken up in each of them as they perhaps also realised the mindless pace of life in pre-lockdown days.
*adda — gossip
*Kabbadi — a game
*Samosa — a savoury
*rasam — a spicy soup
*fuchka or panipuri — a savoury snack
*dosa, idli…luchi — savoury snacks
*payesh — rice pudding
Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor in English at Sarsuna College Kolkata. She is a creative writer, a research scholar and a translator. Her areas of interest are Translation Studies, Women Studies, Nineteenth century Women’s writings, etc. She has been involved with translation projects of Sahitya Akademi and Viswa Bharati. Her creative writings, reviews and features have been variously published art Prachya Review, SETU, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com and Different Truths. She has presented many research papers in India and abroad.
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