Life on a pause: Mitra Phukan



Ironically, for me, this slowed-down, pause-button life of the past several weeks began dramatically.

We were holidaying in Sri Lanka, a friend and I. It was a kind of “spur-of-the-moment” thing, and since Sri Lanka gives visas on arrival after an online application, it was easy enough to plan a quick getaway. Away from the urban centres, relaxing on beaches and hillsides, gorging on the most wonderful seafood among some of the friendliest people on earth, the Virus was a distant thing.

Of course, we had heard its rumblings in the distance, but had shrugged, feeling, it cannot touch us. It’s common enough, though inexplicable, this feeling that a crisis or an emergency will pass us by. Especially when one is enjoying oneself so much.

But the rumblings were there. In resort after resort, we were upgraded to the best suites on the premises, because there had been so many cancellations. But hardly anybody wore masks, at least in the beginning. There had been more of those in evidence back in Guwahati before we had left. But the guide cum chauffeur assigned to us in the car that took us around the island, polite and helpful always, still shared with us his concerns. The EMI on his car cost a bomb, he had twins at home and aged parents to look after, and tourist arrivals had dropped alarmingly. We were the last customers that he had been assigned. What would happen later was anybody’s guess, he said, quietly.

It was on the day that we reached Colombo that we realized we were caught in a crisis.  Suddenly, on the news apps on our mobiles, we came to know that India had closed its borders to all but Indian passport holders. I am an Indian passport holder, my friend is an OCI. An Overseas Citizen of India, a foreign passport holder.  

This was an emergency. We rushed off to the Indian Embassy, just across the street from our hotel. Everything was closed, they were working with a skeleton staff. Indeed, most of Colombo was closed, because suddenly, the Virus had spread its tentacles on the island.

At the Embassy, the person who dealt with us was very sympathetic, but helpless. Yes, I would be able to return, but not my friend. He advised my OCI friend to apply for a visa to get to India, but warned that it would take time, because it would need to be issued from Delhi.

And so, suddenly, we were in the thick of it.

After some discussion, we decided that the best thing would be to return to our respective countries. This entailed changing dates, times and departure cities on my friend’s tickets, but we were now caught up in a whirlwind of urgency. The hotel issued us masks, and took our temperatures every time we came into the hotel from even a short walk outside. There were sanitizers everywhere, and we were urged to use them.

The return flight for me was a strange one. While going out, our Sri Lankan Airlines flight had been full of holidaymakers from all over the world. The airplane on which I returned was much smaller than the one on which we had left. And it was half empty, with only Indian passengers, mostly young migrant workers returning home. 

At Chennai airport, the authorities were amazingly efficient. Paperwork about our health status, the taking of temperatures of all incoming passengers, everything was done ably. Everybody was masked, gloved. This was also done when I arrived at Guwahati airport a few hours later. My friend, returning to the US, however did not, surprisingly go through any of these checks, and just sauntered through the sparsely populated airport. 

And my Uber driver had the same story to tell as our chauffeur in Sri Lanka. Worries about what would happen down the line, how would he meet his expenses …worries that were echoed, time and again, through all the days of the lockdown by others.

Five days after I returned, with four hours’ notice, India closed her borders to all flights. I was observing home quarantine. But suddenly, here was a lockdown, complete and rigorous, the strictest in the world. My first feeling was that of relief, selfish, but perhaps natural relief that we had both made it back home. If I had stayed over even in Chennai, I would have been locked out.

But then came the practicalities. My fridge was not stocked since I had deferred going to the shops. For a bit, I felt a twinge of the same insecurity that the working classes did. How would I manage?  Thankfully, I live alone in my house, with my children living in apartments above mine. This has made everything easier. They help out with supplies, and we share our cooking, sending food up or down, especially if it’s something special that we have cooked. But I know several seniors who live alone, and for whom coping in this time is becoming ever more difficult.

I, along with many others, sent our help on leave, after paying them their salaries of course. Many of us gave them advances. They were unwilling to leave. They call me often, asking if they can return. No, they do not want money, but they want to get back to work.

Housework takes up a lot of our time. The initial days were dusty, and I am very prone to allergies. Sweeping, dusting, swabbing had me itching all over. It was only after the rains came that the allergies subsided.

It’s been a strange time. My work life has not changed, because everything I do is online, anyway. The editor of a project we are undertaking sits working from home in Delhi. The people related to my work are all online, I have their WhatsApp and phone numbers, so it has been more or less normal.

But I cannot help wondering…without the Net, and telecom facilities, what would we have done? I remember the days of the long bandhs during the Assam Agitation. WFH was impossible, and TV was the only available source of entertainment, such as it was.

At first, checking the numbers of those infected, those dead, worldwide, was compulsive behaviour. For me, a friend who had gone to New York to visit her daughter, and who had been hospitalized with the disease, became the face of the sick. On our WhatsApp group, we shared our worries about her. Nobody could speak to her of course. She was on oxygen support. It was a huge relief when, slowly, she recovered, and was allowed to come back to her daughter’s place.

These days I check the numbers of those infected only a couple of times a day. Have we flattened the curve? Who knows? In any case, I have locked down my mind, too, and only do as I am told to by those who presumably know about public health issues.

Bihu has come and gone, with no celebration, not even a pitha. But at least our family is together, in the same building, in good health. We will, we have promised ourselves, celebrate later. But I miss pandal hopping, miss the good cheer and music everywhere. And I worry about the musicians, many of whom are my friends, for whom Bihu concerts, and the income they bring, see them through the whole year. I hear loud arguments coming from a neighbouring building. They have cabin fever, and who can blame them?  

 I’ve made it a point to call up people who are older, and frailer. We’ve started a Zoom chat among friends, just laughing and joking for an hour or so every Monday. How refreshing that is. I’ve been asked to give motivational talks, recorded of course, for students, for whom this time is one of even greater uncertainty and chaos than it has been for us. I am happy to do that. It makes me feel a little bit useful. I am taking part in online discussions on our work. There is one scheduled around an anthology of murder stories where I have a piece, where I am due to take part, along with others. I happily anticipate that.

One thing I’ve come to realize about myself is that I need people around me. As a writer, I work in solitude. I need to go out, to travel, I need the comfort of crowds, for balance.  Though I hardly ever go to the bazaars in my city, I find myself now longing to plunge into the thronging crowds of Fancy Bazar, jostling and pushing, and being pushed in turn. I miss chatting with a friend over coffee, I miss Iftar invitations. We have all of us in this house cancelled our travel plans for the foreseeable future.

And I realize lockdowns are revealing many things about people.  I know I shouldn’t judge, but there are those who sit in their cocoons, indifferent to the fate of so many less fortunate.  And others, better people than me, who are organizing much needed relief work, to which I can contribute nothing except money.

I miss the activities that structure my days. My yoga classes have been shifted online but it’s hardly the same. Still, I use my Fitbit to make sure I walk a certain number of steps.  I read on my iPad, as always. But I need to go to music recitals, to plays. Yes, there is lots of fantastic music online, but I long for the energy of live performances.

Things are gradually opening up now, but we see huge changes.  And I see worry everywhere. A son has to pay his factory workers, though no work has been done. A daughter has to pay the rent for the music school she runs. But we are the lucky ones. We have come this far, we shall surely manage. Life has changed, but it has taught us many things about ourselves and others.

Let us pray that we all get through this sooner rather than later, and that life returns to the rhythms we are comfortable with.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is a writer, translator, columnist and classical vocalist who lives and works in Guwahati, Assam. Her published literary works include four children's books, a biography, and a novel, "The Collector's Wife". Her most recent work is another novel, "A Monsoon of Music" published by Penguin-Zubaan in September 2011. Besides, her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Her works have been translated into several languages. She is the Northeast correspondent of the Chennai-based journal of the performing arts, "Shruti" and a member of the North East Writers' Forum.