On the fifth morning of the government-mandated fourteen-day quarantine, sitting alone in my room at a city hotel in Singapore, I had a panic attack. The first I had ever had. Yet, I had no difficulty in diagnosing it for what it was. I had all the classic symptoms – heart racing painfully, sweat pouring from me like rain, a sense of severe tightness, of something dark and airless gathering around me relentlessly, its dense, suffocating fibres choking my airway.
A nameless fear overpowered me; my head throbbed, I couldn’t move my body, couldn’t throw off the ensnaring bedclothes, couldn’t run out of the room in Singapore that I was forbidden from leaving. Submerged in the tide, flailing and drowning, a thought remained sealed in a corner of my head – this fear was irrational and I must pull through.
I pressed a finger on the wildly beating pulse on my wrist and focused on my breathing, trying to slow it down. I forced open my eyes and looked at the puddle of light under the night lamp. Soon, the hammering of my heart slowed. The invisible vice around my body slackened. I got up and pulled back the curtains from the large, sealed picture window and crouched in the window seat. I felt I had run miles, emerged from a deep well and fought off a gale all at the same time.
Three hours after sitting motionless by the window, watching the wedge of faraway ocean brighten slowly, around 9 am., my phone rang with the routine call from the Ministry of Manpower. The woman on the other side asked me how I was doing.
I had a panic attack this morning, I informed her.
How are you feeling now, she asked, are you ok now?
I felt tears rise to the surface. Yes, I whispered, but I am afraid I might get another one; there are no windows that I can open, nowhere that I can escape…
It will be ok, she consoled, I am sending you a link to register and a doctor will call you shortly. Don’t worry, you will be fine.
Until this day, the quarantine had been a surreal experience. I spent large parts of the day sitting by the window and watching people, speculating whether they were going to work or the shops or pick up a child from school. I gazed at the busy life on the street several floors beneath me with the calm of being in the ocean while currents eddied all around me.
With no sounds, smell or touch penetrating my glass and concrete perch, all the senses shifted to my eyes – I sensed the wind in moving trees and the billowing dress of a woman crossing the street, the fragrance of freshly baked confections a man carried in a cake box, and the warmth of the baby held in its mother’s arms. I read the laughter in the joyous movements and thrown-back heads of a family emerging from the hotel opposite mine.
The open deck on the sixth floor of a residential building to the left supplied me with much to see. A man in rubber boots and overalls hosed the plexiglass awning over the deck. Rainbows played in the silent spray from his hose. Children, their laughter muted, climbed monkey bars and slides in the play area. Fluorescent tennis balls thudded soundlessly in the tennis court as players darted about.
I also took to watching the morning light – grey and gossamer, with traces of the evening’s bloom over the large lighted sign of Amara Hotel opposite my window. The world was a silent montage that I could look at but not reach.
And I thought it was all right to be sequestered inside for fourteen days. It was, after all, a very comfortable room; I could see my loved ones on the phone – flattened and in parts – but I could see and talk to them. I could plan for when the quarantine would be over: the friends we’d meet, the foods we’d share, the places we’d visit. This wasn’t a prison. No, of course, not.
Except on the fifth day, the day of my first panic attack, I realised it was. A prison that had no guards but with an implicit code, rules and fear of reprisal. I realised that this fear was greater than the one which came in swirling waves and overwhelmed me during the panic attacks. The overwhelming fear of the state triumphing over a more primal fear of survival surprised me.
The doctor called. He was friendly, sympathetic. It is natural, la, he said. I had to quarantine too and went a bit crazy, he laughed lightly. How are you feeling now?
I don’t know, I said. All right, I think…I am not having an attack right now…
Yes, yes, of course. But it will happen again, he said, these things come in waves. The important thing is to distract yourself. Watch movies, la, I watched so many during my quarantine that they are all mixed up in my head, he laughed again.
Yes, yes, the best cure! But if you do not feel well, I can write a note to admit you to a hospital. They’ll monitor you there.
The hospital sounded drastic. I did not want to go to a hospital. I just wanted to go home, sit on the balcony with a cup of coffee and listen to birdsong.
I underplayed the attacks in front of everyone – from my son who was quarantined in the adjoining room, my husband who was eagerly awaiting our release so we could be together after ten months of separation, the longest and most trying period in our marriage, my mother at home in Jaipur, already anxious at having a daughter outside the country. It was nothing, I told them, no, it didn’t happen again; I am perfectly fine, quarantine is just like a short forced holiday. I do yoga every day, everything’s just fine.
Only, it wasn’t true. I wasn’t fine. I was constantly afraid of another attack, of falling into the deep airless place again. I came up with coping strategies – I carefully divided the day into sections and crossed each section off as it passed, taking me closer to release. I sketched a little, re-read my favourite books, repeating each page several times until my eyes closed with fatigue.
I kept the curtains drawn back, even at night, but never looked down at the street or at the deck filled with life and activity. I slept poorly in the night-glow from the city’s lights. Still, those lights were important, they assured me that the world didn’t end in this room….
All the while I tiptoed around my thoughts, trying not to think of the attacks and monitoring myself for signs. As soon as I felt my pulse start to race and the unbearable weight descend on my chest, I forced myself to move – from the window to the door and back again. I did things that required some focus – sharpened a pencil, peeled an orange, poured a glass of water. I talked to myself, recited favourite bits of poetry, and waited for the tide to recede, believing it would, panicking it wouldn’t.
But I never called anyone, my husband, my mother, sister, my son from the next room. The turbulence was inside me and I kept it to myself. As an avid reader and a writer of fiction, I had always been fascinated by the power of imagination. For the first time, this unbridled imagination, which threatened to upturn reality, frightened me.
As the quarantine drew to an end, my attacks increased. The last three days, after we underwent a swab test, were the most petrifying. What if the result came back positive? Friends had mentioned how asymptomatic carriers had to maintain strict isolation till their test results came out negative. The thought of an endless quarantine and the dark, heavy door sealed as the year ebbed away made my hair stand on end.
The thirteenth day arrived and there were still no test results. Though I agreed when family and friends called or messaged to say the results would surely be shared soon, I did not pack my things. That night I did not even try to sleep; the bed felt like a trap and I sat up with a book. I had left some peaches in a dish on the windowsill. The sun had warmed them through the day. Now their sweet ripe fragrance filled the room, like a friendly presence.
At 3 am, my phone pinged. The swab result was in. I had tested negative and could leave in the afternoon. I read the message a second time. Then I picked up a peach and took a bite. Sweet juice filled my mouth.
My son and I waited at the reception to check out. We were early by a couple of minutes for our check-out time at 12 noon. I glanced around but there was nothing to see. The area we were in had been screened off from the rest of the lobby by black plastic sheets stretched from floor to ceiling. I was reminded of the dark tunnel of my nightmares.
I searched frenetically for an egress, my pulse beating, sweat beading my forehead when my eyes fell upon a narrow door tucked in a corner, leading to the street outside. My husband stood outside, smiling anxiously.
Outside, the air was moist, with a hint of rain in it. The sun was sharp, shadows deep, and sounds myriad. I stood on the curb and breathed it all in.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.