The New Silences of the Self in Quarantine
by Anandi Mishra
I was just wetting my toes into the sands of self-isolation in Delhi, when a putrid smell came along, an estrangement within another estrangement.
It’s all over the town. Occupying our skies. Its blur red shape taking over our lives. We can’t breathe without getting it in due time.
I cried as I broke into profuse sweat. My eyes closed, the blue red landscape stretched before my eyes.
I sat in the crepuscular hours inside my living room, hunched, hooded on my desk, feverishly editing a document for work, when a stale smell caught my senses. I looked around, quickly wanting to dismiss it as a figment of my imagination. I thought it had probably emanated from the street outside and entered the house through the balcony door. It was everywhere.
Hours, and then some days into self-isolation, I learnt to live with it—both, the stench and the isolation. Things cobbled on, my flatmate and I would cook meals together, I’d whip up some wheat flour and prepare soft, fluffy chapatis. My flatmate would magically create spicy chicken curry out of the little supplies we had. It felt snug, agreeable even, a tad chaotic, but mostly manageable. We were cleaning the house twice a week—mopping, dusting, cleaning bathrooms, washing dishes and doing the laundry, everything split evenly.
And then the scrubbing began. The implacable, illogical, never-ending dirge-like cleaning. I’d scour for spots of muck, brushing at them, wet them, rub, sponge, scrub and wash. Repeat. Until the skin on my hands started feeling moist from within. Washing my hands became an obsession. Sometimes, I would wake up at 3am and stop myself from using the plunger to deep clean the toilet bowl that I had cleaned just that afternoon.
Next, it took over my dreams. Just when I was discovering the menagerie of sleep—a nightcap, followed by some callous reading and then slipping into easy slumber. The dreams were soon nightmares. Marathons of Covidian nightmares, hard-lined with blood and the red atomic configuration of the virus. One night, my flatmate slapped on my cheeks gently to wake me up. ‘You were saying ‘Covid and mosquitoes’ in your dream.’
I can’t ride a bicycle, and that has created some deep-seated fears in my mind, which in turn leads to a lot of bad dreams. One of them is running into a wall while trying to cycle, repeatedly. And getting caught in a thunderstorm inside a forest. These fears have chased me for more than two decades now. These fears and nightmares were very swiftly, in no time, replaced by Covidian ones, without my noticing.
In one of them, there was a gathering of family members and I was breathless. Sweating, getting palpitations in the open under a canopy, I was in a queue, waiting to get halwa, puri and chana for lunch.
I’d wake up drooling, and funnily parched. The side of my body numb and heavy, even paining faintly, like something heavy lay its weight on me. Deep lines stabbing through my cheeks, marking the restlessness I had felt while sleeping. My palms sweaty, I would feel like waking up, I’d want to leave the bed, but the nervousness and lackadaisical nature of anxiety would engulf me. I’d stay in bed, staring at nothing, waiting for a thin trickle of tear to drop out of my eyes. Nothing would yield. Instead, I would be overcome with a known, usual and not surprising urge to masturbate.
I roll over to the other end of the queen sized bed, and pick up my phone from the bedside table. Emraan Hashmi songs on YouTube would help me go. The orgasm was so untenable, short-lived and hardly wet, that I’d take a go again. The high felt akin to that of the first hit of beer after a long winter. For three times on some mornings, before I’d feel my knees tremble and the thirst choke up my throat into a dry cough.
The stink would warm up into my nostrils, and I’d leave bed, shivering with a golden unquenchable thirst, my stomach convexing into an inward emptiness. I’d gobble down a bottle of water and head straight to the bathroom where I’d login to my Twitter and doomscroll. Mornings would strike as bad timing, and I’d fret just thinking about the lit-up daytime hours before I could go to bed again. I’d scroll through the page of a science news start-up, to equip myself with facts and numbers in the face of a draconian pandemic of which we knew little felt like the right thing to do.
This became the horrible new routine, which, I later realised was a lot like the timetable I followed in the city I’d lived before Delhi– a sunny south Indian town called Coimbatore – which then forced me to revisit several past horrors. I would remind myself, ‘I made it out of there, I can make it out of anywhere’.
The stench would just never leave. It radiated around in the peripheries of my thoughts, always one thought away. I barely ever mentioned it to anyone, for an unnamed fear would grip me. What if it wasn’t real? Like the shadows I’d otherwise imagine in behind me while I wrote on the laptop or made notes in my notebook.
Some nights were good — poems would float into my mind and fly off while I’d still be deep asleep. I’d wake up with sentences swimming inside my head, names of writers spilling off the brim — incandescent stupor of literary writing keeping me afloat.
Then one day, it all fell apart. The now world-famous Tablighi Jamat fiasco had unravelled the day before. The Indian government has been varnishing Muslims as the main disseminators of the virus in India ever since. My blood boiled as my flatmate and I discussed the divisive politics at play behind the incident when my mother texted.
‘When will things ease up in Nagpur?’
Incomprehension clouded my mind but I tried to stay in control: ‘There’s been a spike of new cases in Delhi today Maa.’
‘Ya, but think of your brother. I am so worried for him, his daughter and wife.’
It has been over 19 months since I last had a word with my father. Things have not been quite smooth with my mother or the rest of the family either. My brother displays a certain distance and disconnect in which I tend to find comfort. I had grown used to it all, the coldness of it. I’d divorced the discombobulation, feeling a general tepidness about it all. Like other self-made 29-year-old women in India, my daily life required me to engage in several things. I did not have energy—emotional and physical—to expend on blood relatives. A new job, some old friendships, lots of movies and literature—old and new—kept me occupied.
Over the years, I had had to find my feet in different states, cities and countries — all on my own. My parents supplied me with the money but I would seldom land into situations because of spuriously ill-made choices. With time, I devised a method of my own to deal with the sheer affection with which my parents took care of my brother and the equal ignorance with which they abandoned me. Their disregard for me was the same with which I treated my first and only four house plants in 2018.
I developed a smokescreen, a veneer, a patina, a falsetto through which I ensured that their indifference would not get to me. Years later, my therapist would call a symptom of cognitive dissonance. ‘You tend to fog it out, don’t you? Detach yourself to survive better.’
I had learnt to get better at it by working at it daily. This pandemic seemed to get to the core of that. It felt like it was here to disfigure it all in one go. In the first few days I felt dizzy, shaking inside, tremblingly weak like a house of cards. I felt a crumbling within, finding it hard all over again to maintain my sanity about the nowness of it.
Doomscrolling for me also meant looking at tweets, posts and pictures of folks worrying about their parents, siblings, family in different cities and countries. I felt tectonically alone, estranged from my own friends, more now than ever. I would remind myself: I was my own family, I and my flatmate and some of my friends. Removed, detached, divorced, unable to arrive at a controlling conclusion, this new estrangement within the looming estrangement was finally getting to me. I felt a warmth shift within me, old memories I had actively discarded started coming back with a vengeance, I felt a stirring of strange coldness. I did not know how to feel. I could feel that raw old emptiness take over inflicting the very familiar vacuous self-important pain.
It’s never a great time to be an anxious person, but a pandemic could trigger somethings more than usual. I would lay in bed at noon thinking: How do I perform joy? Do I enact empathy? Do I pretend that I care? The unusual nature of this unpreparedness crept on me, clearing up way for previously unaddressed traumas to surface. And I would just stay in bed, zoned out, gazing at the pigeons outside the window, simultaneously thinking of the two lifetimes of unhappiness, detachment and coldness.
I figured addressing the calamitous thoughts head-on would be the best way to go about it and that it was fortuitous that I had a flatmate to help ride this wave. I decided that instead of piggybacking on her, burdening her with my sordid realism, I had to undercut my anxieties and meet them midway.
I reduced my intake of intoxicants such as alcohol, social media and dark chocolate. I started scribbling throughout the day, writing in different inks on alternate days, mostly just filling pages. I found an anchor in words, in thinking and writing them, in making notes while reading, in acknowledging that having stockpiled notebooks and pens from all those visits to MUJI was not a waste after all. On some days, I would even slip into deep sleep while in the middle of a sentence. Writing in Hindi was another way I kept myself engaged. Learning and relearning as a way of coping – these words came to mean something to me.
Most of all, I decided to be less submissive and even less apologetic. I’d never been one for self-care or prioritizing my needs over others, but I started practising it from scratch. I treated the tiding within by containing more and not getting provoked too easily. I realised that there was a serene, yogic, sated meditation to be found in all of it.
I understand that in India we might continue in this state of flux where nothing really changes but a lot does, for a while longer. It has been months since I saw my family, and it doesn’t quite matter to me now. The city I grew up in is in an extended lockdown till the end of this month. But in the midst of all this chaos, like Camus, I am discovering that there is, within me, an invincible calm.
‘I’m not afraid’, mother had told me at the beginning of the lockdown, ‘my God will protect us.’ These were the exact words she had told me when I’d broken ties with my father two Diwalis ago. I realised then, the stench was that of another relationship lost, one more ignored pile of emptiness, hiding inside a forgotten drawer in my head. The virus sent to me a new sense of loneliness, when the world was busy tending to their loved ones.
Photograph by Anandi Mishra
About the Author:
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional.