There are mornings when I open my eyes and for a moment it feels like a different sun has risen in the sky. It gleams behind the determinedly drawn curtains of my room. If I lie very still, it’ll still be there. How wonderful it is, a new sun shining upon a world struck with disease.
I tread carefully those days, trying very hard not to upset the new scheme of things. We have a new sun, everything is OKAY, do you know how rarely such miracles happen in real life? Very rarely it turns out, because just then, the doorbell screams an abuse and it’s my cue to wake up. The real world, with its sad, sick sun waiting to melt everyone except the virus, awaits.
Physically, I am here. In September. Working from home, working all the time. Mentally, I am in March, standing outside my office, waiting for an Uber to take me home.
I can visualise it, the office building. I can see the trees around it, and I remember the “Wine and Bar” shop around the corner that I used as a landmark for cab drivers trying to reach my location. But now, as I sit writing in my bedroom with the door tightly shut because there are too many people in the house, I am unable to recall the name of the building where I spent approximately 2600 hours of my life.
Southern Park, the publishing office. Took me thirty seconds to get to it. This is what the pandemic is doing. No, it’s not playing mind games, that’s too clichéd and where’s the fun in that. This is something different. This is a new kind of scary, mysterious and exciting. A bit like living inside the pages of a Murakami novel which has a beginning but no end. Where time has stopped but you’ve aged a hundred years. It’s like a rambling speech – stay home stay safe, wear a mask, carry a sanitiser – stuck inside your head like an annoying post-it.
The day I write this is exactly a week after the six-month anniversary of my life in lockdown. The days pass in flavourless haze and the nights are still restless. Sleep eludes me and I am tired. All the time. One would say Capricorns are creatures of routine but not so much when a pandemic has struck, no. I wake up when I wake up, I sleep when I sleep. Everything in between, that’s my routine.
‘Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life and it’d lose even its imperfection’: Sputnik Sweetheart
There must be a theory about adapting to things as they are, because in the beginning, it felt like it wasn’t real. Back then, it was more like a time-out situation, uncertain, but tolerable. I remember the first experimental lockdown on Sunday, 22 March, when the chirping of birds seemed all new. No one drove their bikes and cars by our house, no one honked. And then, just one day after, things got real. On 24 March 2020, the PM announced a 21-day nation-wide lockdown resulting in complete mayhem, the effects and consequences of which would cripple us for months.
Slowly and unwillingly I adapt to the change. I train my brain to read PDFs of newly released books. On the bed, on the couch, sometimes in the balcony. I come up with marketing ideas for them. On the bed, on the couch, sometimes while taking a shower. Aar bhalo lagchena (can’t deal with this anymore), I complain to my mother who checks on me every day.
She tells me to be patient and encourages me to eat something nice to feel better. Being at home, all day every day. It’s not easy. I am down and out but I have no choice. No one does, that’s some solace. It can only get this worse, I think. I am wrong.
Initially the pandemic was a new kid on the block, so most of our evenings were spent following the news. Italy, Spain, France, US, UK…and India, not far behind. We split the house chores between us, the husband and I. As days turned into months we accepted who the better cook in the house is. But better cooked meals don’t always mean on-time meals, a lame-ass claim I like to brag about. We did a mini PhD in everything related to the novel coronavirus – symptoms, prevention, causes, immunity building foods, homeopathy, allopathy, Ayurveda, everything.
Somewhere between this and obsessive bursts of cleaning out corners, realisation hit. We were spending every hour, minute and second around each other. Soon enough we started marking corners for ourselves. I reserved a portion of the dining table to work during the day while he retired to the bedroom. Eventually, the set-up grew dull.
One afternoon, I noticed a streak of light piercing through a half-open window. It had created a tranquil spot on the living room floor. It was a hot summer day and I had deadlines breathing down my neck, but all I wanted to do was wrap myself in that moment of calm, unmoved, unaffected by anything.
That spot is now my new work space. The coolness of the marbled-floor pairs well with the mid-afternoon warmth pouring in.I spend five days a week sitting here and working; my favourite time of the day is somewhere between 3 pm and 4 pm, when everything’s still and quiet, and it’s just me alone with the day’s to-do lists.
On days when work is manageable, I try befriending the cats. But the neighbourhood felines are snooty as hell, at least the ones who lurk around my block. So I turn my attention and affection to the mutt who sleeps outside our gate, sometimes inside when it’s raining. He no longer chases the cats. He eats and sleeps, and sleeps and eats. I am jealous of his ability to sleep whenever, wherever. What must I do to trade lives with him, I think, as he polishes off the broth.
Sometimes a dreary day turns golden when I spot a flock of black-billed magpies on my short walk to buy milk and medicines. And then there’s Instagram that throws random throwback pictures: your post from one year ago when you visited a Batik factory in Sri Lanka – wouldn’t I like to repost it and make my friends a little jealous? Sure, why not: repost, hashtag throwback, good times, nostalgia, travel. The only difference is that now I am jealous of myself too, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
‘None of us are ever finished. Everyone is always a work in progress’: Killing Commendatore
Let’s talk a little about vanity that has died a quiet, sad death, thanks to Covid-19. Formal author meetings at the IIC diner, and some occasional informal ones at Perch in New Delhi’s Khan Market, are now dial-in conference calls. As a book publicist, being eloquent, besides the usual – knowing the author’s background, their previous works, the nature of the new book, fresh marketing ideas – is a requisite that comes with the job.
Most of that eloquence was taken care of by Anokhi, Kilol, Fab India and Byloom (Nicobar came close but, I’m sorry, it’s still ridiculously expensive). As much as I am grateful for calls that are “audio only”, I miss dressing up. And no, please don’t start with you can dress up at home too: I can’t and I won’t. The fine cotton pants and pastel linen dresses will have to wait until the summer of 2021.
The way we do business too has been transformed, and yet it feels like nothing has changed. Book launches have moved online, and so have book-reading sessions. I would like to believe that an in-person meeting with a new author has a greater impact than an online encounter. It is, after all, the beginning of a new relationship, a seed of trust that gets sown. Now all that poised body language to impress the author has to be compensated for with a confident, modulated voice, which is not easy. So far, I’d like to believe it has worked.
‘Nothing so consumes a person as meaningless exertion’: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
And then there’s the subject of reader’s block. One would have thought it’d be easier to finish all the unfinished books now that there’s so much free time. But no! This forced hibernation feels like a time-warp. The dust on my bookshelves has made itself at home. Seldom do I probe the shelves. They know I know they’re there, and that’s enough.
I’ve started reading tweets more keenly than books, they make more sense to me. The other day, someone tweeted: “It’s okay to not feel okay…” At once I decided to frame the line and mount it on the wall above my bed. Did I do it? Guess you’ll never know.
It’s a strange feeling, these past six months. I want to meet people but then I don’t want to meet people. I want to talk but I end up texting. The pandemic has physically distanced us from our near and dear ones. It’s a mandate and therefore, we don’t like it. Quite like the state of affairs in this country.
But it has not in any way restricted communication, and yet I hesitate. Communicating via Instagram stories seems easier. You see my story, I see yours. Occasionally I send you an emoji, it is my way of making up for the missed calls.
I wish I could use this approach with the husband too, it’d be so much easier. Most nights, he positions himself at the far end of the other side of the bed, almost hanging off it, engrossed in reading something on the phone. Reading with the lights off is not good for you, I tell him. He grunts his acknowledgement but continues to read.
I turn around, face the other side, and tap open Facebook only to find that Haruki Murakami has written a new short story – “The Kingdom That Failed” – his second in the last three months. What the hell…is he the only one unaffected by this fog of uncertainty?
Maybe. I close my eyes and imagine him sitting at his desk at 4 am, writing his path-breaking pandemic novel in which miserable creatures like us feature as obscure characters. He’s the master storyteller and he’s made everyone a protagonist. “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” he wrote in What I Talk About when I Talk about Running – so we choose, either to stand at the shore of two parallel worlds, conscious and unconscious, reverberating with desires, or to give up and accept defeat.
Thankfully, from out of nowhere, the boy named Crow appears from Kafka on the Shore and whispers, “You’d better get some sleep…when you wake up, you’ll be part of a brand new world,” and eventually I fall asleep with hope in my heart. (And also because it’s 3.45 am and tomorrow’s Monday and the end of this bad dream is nowhere near.)
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.