Do you remember how many days you had spent sequestered indoors before it began to chafe a little? How many baking projects attempted, moods observed and self-soothing mechanisms tried until it all began to feel a bit much?
For me it was 45 days.
Days 1 to 44 had passed in various ways. In the first week, disbelief and rebellion prompted me to try and walk out of my colony and on to the street outside. I was stopped by a security guard and lost my temper at him. My hot, angry tears at what I felt was the huge unfairness of it all mortified the both of us, and I retreated back indoors.
As I developed a routine for myself, I took refuge in the sameness of the days. Outside, the mysterious, implacable disease raged; inside, nothing really happened. Some days it rained and flowerpots fell and broke. I became intimately acquainted with my plants, taking on the duties of the maali who could no longer come to work and discovering the many quirks of the various flowers and trees now under my care.
Most of the time, I read. At first I found that I could not absorb anything new. I was constantly distracted by the news and my own feelings toward it, so I found solace in old favourites, letting myself be absorbed once more in the complete and heavily populated worlds of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Madeline Miller’s Circe and Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Next I downloaded the Six of Crows set: YA novels full of magic and daring and a cast of incredibly cool young people beating very long odds; a panacea for current times. I read a chef’s memoir – Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton – full of sensuous detail of unfamiliar places, foods, and people, all of which seemed at a distance from me. I found to my dismay that I could not focus on shows and films at all. Only the written word, and my imagination, could transport me.
Time to rejoice
Several weeks in, though, the utter beige-ness of my days became hard to ignore. As restrictions eased, the city became a lure. The idea of revisiting some part of my old routine grew and I looked longingly back at the Saturdays when after a long swim at Talkatora stadium, I would drive through the quiet roads of central Delhi with the music on, and decide to extend that feeling of perfect contentment by making a stop to buy a new book on my way home. The Book Shop announced that they were ready to reopen, and I quietly rejoiced.
Among all the bookstores in Delhi, there isn’t another with which I’ve had as long an association as I have with The Book Shop. My earliest memories are of the Khan Market branch which was there all through my school and college days. I first began visiting with my mother who would take me there after work in her nearby government office. The trips usually involved buying stationery for school and often, a book as a treat. So even though the news of the pandemic had been alarming enough to have kept me indoors thus far, the need to be among physical books felt too hard to ignore.
It was a Saturday afternoon when I finally made the trip. It felt like an event: to dress differently, to swing my legs into the driver’s seat of my neglected car, to turn out of the colony gate and onto the main road. Driving in the city, particularly on quiet, hot afternoons has always been one of my favourite activities.
As I navigated the distance to Jor Bagh though, something seemed very wrong. The silence felt eerie – there were no people, anywhere. No pedestrians, clusters of people sitting on pavements outside AIIMS, hawkers or beggars at traffic lights. The only presence was that of uniformed and masked policemen.
I’d never imagined that a city that thrived on its own chaos could be silenced in this brutal manner. Here I was, driving a familiar route to a comforting place in my favourite season. Here I also was, feeling as though I was moving through a carefully constructed set, trying to understand the visceral sadness and cold fear taking over me.
Time for doubt
When I arrived, The Book Shop looked reassuringly the same. The same shelves full of coloured spines, the very welcome smell of paper, ink, and vanillin. Even the resident cat was there, curled up and asleep in her spot. All the store asked was that customers be limited to two at a time, that they be masked and sanitise their hands. The gentleman at the door was the same person who’s been there for years, but now he also dispensed sanitiser to everyone entering. Overall, nothing at all unreasonable or unexpected.
At home, I’d dismissed the unceasing instructions around distance, contaminated surfaces, aerosol droplets as slightly paranoid. Now, my confidence waned. Sweating behind my mask, I wondered if I should touch the books or pick them up to read a blurb or opening page. Could I lower my mask to ask a question or smile, was it permissible to loiter even a little while a small queue formed outside? The one other person in the shop with me gave me a very wide berth and seemed alarmed that we had to manoeuvre around one another in the narrow aisles, but then I couldn’t read her expression from behind her mask.
I couldn’t help but compare my visit to past ones when the norm had included dawdling, chatting with the staff about recommendations, sitting down to read bits of several books before picking any and sometimes, taking a break to get a chocolate from the adjacent shop and returning to sift through more books.
Today, I had come prepared with the ever-increasing list of books I wanted to read that I kept saved on my phone, and leisurely picking seemed untoward. I selected two books quickly – Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love because it’s always a good idea to read her writing, and Jonathan Coe’s Middle England because I remembered reading, and enjoying, The House of Sleep a long time ago – paid quickly and left, smiling at the person who entered as I left, simultaneously realising that they couldn’t see that I did.
Objectively, very little had changed; I got my outing, my books, and my glimpse into a recent past. But perhaps it was that I had come seeking reassurance and was already mildly reeling from the surreality experienced on the road, that caused me to not find comfort in this familiar activity. It in turn made me feel worse.
I had left home feeling relief, but I drove back via the shortest route to seek safety. My belief that the imposed restrictions on movement were the real culprit for any disquiet I felt and all that was needed was to be out again in order to feel “normal”, had just evaporated. Perhaps isolation was the best policy? Or maybe, knowing that this change was unlikely to be short lived, I just needed to develop a thicker skin and adapt?
Dispirited as I was, I hadn’t come away with the feeling that physical book stores were a hazard, or that I’d be doing more e-book reading . If anything, the opposite felt true. Given social distancing, the inability to physically express emotion, and all that does to the mind, spaces like The Book Shop unwavering in their calm are pure solace. The books they sell offer the catharsis and space in which at least the mind can run free.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.