My colony has been sealed. They found a positive case just behind the block where I live. An ambulance arrived in the dead of night and whisked the entire family away. I write this on the 38th day of the national lockdown, and for me, it also marks the end of two excruciating weeks under imposed confinement.
It seems I am trapped inside an Orwellian (with a hint of Plato) world of a lockdown within a lockdown. The walls of self-isolation are tightening their grip around me. My hands are pressed against these mighty walls, pushing them hard while they take long, menacing strides toward me. These walls are merciless.
But what about the fortified building outside these walls? Even if I were to get past these impenetrable walls, how will I jump off the iron grills of my locked down colony?
I am claustrophobic, almost nauseous. I feel terribly ill.
I wake up to the screechy siren of the disinfectant truck that barges in every afternoon to “sanitise”, to “wash up” our “virus-infected” buildings. Oh, that scream is unbearable – the sound of near-death, the noise of collapse. The eyes fixed on the fountain of this disinfectant spray are struck by fear, astonishment, guilt perhaps, humiliation definitely. After a few minutes, the sanitisation “drive” comes to a stop and the truck exits the gates of our locked down colony. It zooms past, mocking, pitying us of our existence under house arrest.
I feel terribly ill, again.
Asymptomatic and in need of solace
I cannot comprehend the lingering cacophony of the truck in my head, the sharp yet shivering stares of people in my neighbourhood. The sight of those serpentine queues of masked people – waiting (patiently or with hidden impatience) for their turn to get their daily supplies from yet another truck designated for distributing vegetables and fruit – unsettles me. I am wondering, what if it’s the same disinfectant truck, now disguised as a philanthropic vegetable-fruit dispenser? I think I am losing my mind.
There, not very far away, in front of another makeshift kiosk, is a man rummaging in a crate of discarded, half-broken, completely rotten eggs. He is trying his luck to see if he can find a good enough egg in an abandoned batch, just one egg would do. Our gazes collide, his stare reeks of embarrassment and mine, of helpless dismay.
I feel terribly ill, yet again.
Perhaps I am asymptomatic, unaware of my condition, oblivious to my illness, neglected by my mind which is at loggerheads with a tired body and a dried-up soul. And just as I am beginning to give up on my sanity, trying to find some cure to heal my frayed nerves and an anxious heart, Virginia Woolf holds my hand and promises me solace, at least, the will to feel so.
A few years shy of being a century old, Woolf’s 1926 essay titled, “On Being Ill” is a balm for the distressed and the quarantined in a society afflicted with the invisible Coronavirus. Virginia Woolf wrote this essay in the aftermath of her having “fainted at a party at her sister’s house in Charleston on August 19th, 1925”. This was also the time when she was working on her next novel, To the Lighthouse.
Unfortunately, Woolf contracted German measles while she was still on the path to recovery. “I can’t talk yet without getting these infernal pains in my head…” she writes as Lee recounts in the Introduction to Woolf’s essay.
The splitting headache that I suffer each afternoon when the sanitisation truck arrives with all fanfare is difficult to describe in words. When language fails, Woolf comes to my rescue. “Finally, to hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.” Language does seem inadequate, it does “run dry” as I struggle to describe the pain in my head or the burn in my chest, there are no “readymade” words at my disposal.
From the night to the light
My gaze must have discomfited the man sifting through the thrown-away crate of eggs. His stare too had warned me not to judge him; after all, desperate times call for desperate measures. Nonetheless, the experience was strange. All vulnerabilities and realities that we otherwise tend to hide in good health lay exposed during hard, unprecedented times.
And that’s what Woolf explains in her essay when she writes: “However strange your experience, other people have had it too…However far you travel in your own mind, someone had been there before you…In illness, the make-believe world ceases to exist…We are no longer upright, we become deserters. There is… a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals.”
Exactly! Both that man and I must have immediately recognised how juvenile our actions were. Still, we didn’t confront each other with caustic words, we only let our disapproving silences do the talking. Had all been well, he would have never ever looked at those rotten eggs in search of a golden one tucked in somewhere, and I wouldn’t even have noticed such a thing unfold!
The first lines of Woolf’s essay are iconic. While it’s true that she was under heavy sedatives during this time (the name of one such sedative, “Chloral”, becomes the name of a character later in this essay), the clarity with which Woolf explains the condition of common illness and the recurring inadequacies and inconsistencies in the mind that follow is simply hallucinating.
The version of the essay that I found online came with handwritten notes from a reader. On the margins, the reader had scribbled, “light = health; dark = sickness”. And what Woolf is urging us to find in such dark times is, “the undiscovered countries” within us. She tells me to awaken the dormant free-spiritedness in me and embrace the “spiritual” strength both my mind and body seem to be craving. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The walls will eventually crumble and the gates will open soon. I want to believe so and I want to wait and not lose hope, therefore.
Meanwhile, Woolf coaxes me “…to look up…at the sky” because she explains it to me and gently so, “Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible. … Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different…that really it is a little shocking.” She is right.
Now, when I look up at the sky, I look at it carefully, I look at the hovering clouds, I hear nature through the singing birds and the silent breeze, I see the green of the grass after the rains in the apparent face of ruin and the least I do is, I say a silent prayer. I pray for good health to return with a promise from my side too that once everything gets back to normal, I shall not forget to be good.