For a while in the not-so-distant past, during our weekly phone chats with her, my eight-year-old niece seemed puzzled by a single aspect of our work life in North America – working from home. Whenever my husband or I mentioned those three words, there’d be a slight pause from her, followed by an inquiring, “Oh, you’re working from home?” Although she seldom probed beyond that, we could picture her bafflement over the whole arrangement. She’d never had the opportunity to “school from home.” So how was it that grown-ups could be at home and still report to work?
All this was in the pre-Covid-19 world of lockdowns and stay-at-home directives. Ever since, my niece, like her peers the world over, has been doing her best to navigate the isolating world of virtual classes and physical distancing, which keeps her away from playing in the park or inviting friends over. On March 24, when the lockdown in India came into effect, schools and other educational institutions were closed. Without asking for it, children got a three-week vacation. Only, the extraordinary circumstances that brought it ordained it to be what’s come to be known in North America as staycation – a holiday period where one doesn’t leave the house.
As I tried to peer into the inner world of a child bound indoors, I remembered Two (1964), a silent film by Satyajit Ray. Made at the request of the American public broadcaster PBS, this 15-minute film contrasts two childhoods, separated by only a window, yet a gulf distancing them. Curiously enough, it also offers a lens on the two lockdowns that children in India are now living through.
The opening scene in Two shows a pre-teen boy, ostensibly a rich kid, waving at a car (possibly with his parents) from the balcony of his mansion. He drinks from a soft drink bottle, sports an expensive watch and wears a Mickey Mouse hat. As the rich kid – let’s call him RK – walks back inside the house, remains of a celebration come into focus. RK, already bored by the prospect of a long day to be spent alone at home, indulges in a few vacuous activities before giving up and walking through the room – evidently his own, as his gallery of toys – exotic and sophisticated – comes into view.
RK turns on a drum-beating monkey. Just then, another sound, of a flute, breaks his monotony. Tracing its source, RK rushes to his window to find a scrawny kid, who could be his age or younger, playing the flute. The poverty of this second child is as stark as the extravagance of RK’s luxury. Clothed in tatters, the poor kid – let’s call him PK – plays his flute with an abandon so unstilted, it could only be interpreted as freedom. This is also the precise point where tension in Two starts, as RK, seemingly awestruck by PK’s flute playing, grows restive.
A lockdown isn’t in place in this story, but it’s not hard to infer that if there were one, RK would be well-equipped to go through it without struggle. He has the privilege of space – a large house with a room of his own – to practise safe physical distancing. He also has a multitude of toys and access to a refrigerator packed with food and soft drinks to keep him satiated. PK, in comparison, lives in a house so small that even to savour a moment of personal freedom, he must step out in the open.
Imagining RK and PK in a virus-stricken, locked-down world isn’t all that difficult. RK’s modern counterparts have the latest electronic gadgets, video games, all-terrain vehicles and fully-stocked refrigerators. They Facetime with friends and move their limbs to online dance lessons as their parents bake them lemon cakes and chocolate-chip cookies. The PKs of the world – the children who pick trash and work as helpers in city shops – are, however, truly in a spot. Even the more fortunate children from economically weaker sections, those able to attend school find themselves at the rough end of the digital divide when stuck at home.
As I read reports of kids who yearned to return to the breath-choking landfills they scrounged for a living so as to be back with friends and stave off hunger or of those who called their teachers to share the claustrophobia of being stuck in the house with violent fathers beating their mothers, I thought of PK in Two.
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Staycation versus incarceration
With the first sound of his flute, an intense competition starts between him and RK. The two kids attempt outsmarting each other as they bring out prized personal possessions for display. Ray’s use of mostly ambient sound – the melody of the rustic flute, the broken rasp of a toy trumpet, the soft rustle of a breeze – works compellingly to heighten the conflict. As RK brings out a succession of faux weapons to intimidate PK’s humble bow and arrow, the poor kid concedes defeats and retreats to his hut. RK decides to celebrate his victory with a delicious snack that’s within easy reach for him, but is back at the window before long.
This sequence of binge competition between the two kids reflects not just the difference in their props, the rudimentary versus the high-tech, but also the contrast between their immediate spaces. Every time PK brings out a new item to play with, he has to step out of his hut. RK, though, has no need to leave the house to access his entertainment machinery. And that’s what a lockdown is for the children of the affluent – an extended staycation. For the children of the poor, it’s an indefinite incarceration.
The permanent epidemic of distance
When he’s back at the window, the scene that RK witnesses – PK enjoying the outdoors with just a kite and a spool – troubles him anew. With the kite-flying scene, the tension in Two really kicks in; for there’s no way the rich kid can take advantage of his big house to perform an outdoor sporting activity. This time, instead of falling for the competitive bait of a lesser opponent, he becomes ruthless and decides to bring down the kite. With the munition at his disposal, this doesn’t prove to be much work. Within minutes, the kite, as tattered as PK’s clothes, drops to the ground. RK seems as satisfied as an unrelenting imperialist would be on seeing their subject cowering in submission. This is an obvious metaphor, given the timing of the film, made in the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
When I see Two in the context of physical distancing, though, other layers are revealed. Social distancing, the phrase initially used to help folks maintain a distance healthy enough to keep away the deadly coronavirus, had quickly become the subject of heated debates. There were calls for changing it to physical distancing so as to avoid implications of social disconnection between humans.
In Two, although the actual physical distance between the two children is insubstantial, possibly less than a 100 meters, in societal terms, it’s insurmountable. Despite being so close to PK, RK never chooses to walk down to join, or even compete, with him, nor does he invite the poor kid to his house. PK isn’t part of his socioeconomic circle, which is all the more reason to keep him in his place – defeated.
The interminable distances of caste and class are in evidence in every frame of Two – in RK’s toy robot that demolishes the block pyramid on the floor, in the torn paper kite PK picks up from the ground; in the smug smile of entitlement on RK’s face every time he defeats PK; and in the resolute yet non-violent flute-song of PK, with which the film ends.
In revisiting Two, it becomes clear that in India, social distancing has always meant physical distancing – with or without epidemics that come with prescriptive Lakshman rekhas.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her first book of fiction, Victory Colony, 1950, is due out from Yoda Press in 2020. She lives in Ontario, Canada.