By Freyana Irani
Day one: I live and work in a one-bedroom flat, in a complex of 24 apartments, down a lane edged with small dwellings, off a main road in Mumbai. At first, what was most disquieting was the lack of noise. Silence is unheard of in this city of 18 million people. But there was suddenly no late afternoon marching band practice at the school nearby, no traffic police whistling at speeding cars, and no bicycle bell announcing the men selling fresh bread and eggs each evening.
Now that Mumbai is under lockdown, the outside noise seems to have moved indoors. At times the apartment complex is bursting with the sound of pressure cookers, domestic arguments, and Hindi soap operas. Other times, you don’t hear a thing except the crows out the window and your ceiling fan.
I have forbidden myself from wearing my bathrobe all day every day. I now realise that I’ve been wearing the same dress for the last three days.
My kitchen shelves are empty of Tupperware, and my freezer is now full of it. I’ve since ordered more Tupperware online, and other essentials… like a watering can, because my houseplants are now the only friends I see.
This new unending time to myself has made it seem imperative that I research and master the great questions and mysteries of life, like: How to make Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs Every Time, and How to Braid Short Hair.
Mistakes have also been made. I should have frozen my freshly cooked dal in serving sized Tupperware... I now have 3 x 1L blocks of frozen dal to contend with. Dinner will be eggs tonight.
Day two: All of India was under curfew today from 7am to 9pm. For five minutes at 5pm, we were instructed by the Prime Minister to stand at our windows and clap, whistle, ring bells, and beat loudly on kitchen pans to express gratitude to the medical staff and service personnel working to contain the virus.
When stuck inside, you start to develop a fiction of what is happening in the outside world, based on the sounds you can hear and the small area that is visible from your windows. To try to build my reality, I read international newspapers and piece together bits and pieces from calls with friends and family.
Spaces inside and outside are witness to daily contradictions, both sensible behaviour and undiluted irrationality.
A caged parrot that used to hang from a tree in the compound has been relocated indoors, but reappears outside every evening. I’ve been told that around the same time, half of Mumbai’s population can be found exercising and jogging along the seaside roads and promenades. On many evenings, men gather at the base of my compound to gossip and play cricket with their children. There seems to be a popular belief that this highly contagious virus takes a break between the hours of 4pm and 7pm.
Over the phone today, my aunt instructed me to stock up on key items. Of top priority were: “Sugar, milk, tea leaves, and tea bags.” I asked: “Why tea bags?” She said: “In case you run out of tea leaves…”
An older family friend has given me a little muslin-wrapped cluster of camphor, nutmeg, cardamom and clove, with instructions to keep it close to my body at all times for protection.
I try not to roll my eyes when someone in my yoga class sends a group text suggesting: “When you can’t go out, go within.” Tell that to the joggers by the seaside.
Day three: A man with a face mask delivered laundry powder I ordered online. I collected it with my fingertips, to minimise contact with a potentially contaminated surface area. It fell to the floor instantly. I then gently kicked it across to the furthest corner of the room for 24 hours’ containment, and have washed my hands three times.
Today I had to leave the house. Days of isolation had me feeling so low and disconnected that I wanted to sink through the floor and fall into the apartment below.
A visit to the supermarket has become equally dangerous and deeply enticing as an opportunity to recalibrate my humanity.
The nearest supermarket is the kind of place that sells “artisanal cheese” and plays classical music on the loudspeakers. But the older woman next to me at the checkout had only a few packets of instant noodles and one or two vegetables in her trolley. As the items were scanned, she repeated: “Is this 1050 rupees (approx. 20 AUD)?” When the cashier asked for her membership number, she became flustered, embarrassed, and started defending herself. She said: “I don’t normally shop here. I’m just a regular citizen. I only came here because the city is in lockdown... I can’t afford to shop here.”
Vegetables are generally half the price from the street vendors, but with public transport now suspended, the vegetable vendors can’t get to work. Their carts are empty. People can’t buy the healthy food they can afford.
Living in India, you are always confronted with your privilege. I watched this “regular citizen” catch a bus home with her instant noodles. I walked home with my string bag full of fresh vegetables, and cried.
My Hindi teacher has shared some good news via text. “The planetary chart is very much favourable for this kind of pandemic right now, but by the end of the month, the changes are going to be good for all.” I have trusted this man with fixing my atrocious language skills. He can surely be trusted with this too.
Life in lockdown. Womankind approached its community to write about life in lockdown around the globe, notably a three-day diary of everyday life under the threat of COVID-19. Womankind is publishing these stories freely to show how the pandemic is affecting women from all over the globe - from New York, to Barcelona to Glastonbury.
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