Jottings During Covid

Quiet observations on time paused


in Features • Illustrated by Kat Zale Heller


The road is wet this evening and there are small puddles everywhere. That car slipping onto the main road from the side road with its indicator flashing, the sales girl holding up the bottom of her sari to prevent it from getting wet; that cigarette stub flying through the air to settle down in a puddle, together in that exact moment seems to achieve a unique harmony, and the sensuality of a wet Wimbledon court with a freckled girl under an umbrella in the stands. 

Well, the rains are upon us. Tiny flower pots with plants placed in front of apartments in the building won’t need watering anymore. The rain will lash in and fill them. The stairs will be slippery and one will have to tread carefully. The shoes will be rubbed on the mat, and patterns shall form on them. I shall go out on the balcony and smoke, and watch the rain lash the city. 

Maybe  tomorrow the sun shall come out, or perhaps not. Rain spat in the middle of summer. Unpredictable weather. In some parts of town, hail fell down too. If it does come out, the schoolboys will be at the milk bar having  lassi, as I walk along.  That  lone blade of  grass sticking out from under the wall, on the way, bent by the rain today shall perk up. I will step out with an umbrella in case it rains — unpredictable weather — and wait for the bus to arrive to take me out, and by the time I come back late in the evening, I hope to see the guard smiling in anticipation of the night ahead as dark clouds hunch together with the sole intention of pleasing him. He likes sleeping on his chair and hearing the rain fall. 

The sun indeed has come out. But the streets are empty since there is an unofficial lockdown due to a virus that is becoming more threatening with each passing day. I went to the supermarket to get some provisions. I have been reading various views, and a section of Hindus are claiming the virus is an Avatar punishing humanity for eating meat, whereas a section of Muslims are claiming it is a punishment from Allah for sinning. The atheists are mocking the believers for shutting down places of worship and goading them. Humans are the strangest of creatures. I am reminded of impermanence through all this. Not in terms of this too shall pass. But in terms of the fickleness and unpredictability of life. As I enter the apartment the guard is standing with his hands on his hips, his eyes squinted as the sun hits his face — deep furrows on his forehead. 

The  sounds of birds stand out today. It is quiet. Complete lockdown for a day. Each chirp in varying tune. A dog barks setting off a chain reaction in the locality. The sky looks clearer. Birds, wings outstretched float in the air. That tree is a birch tree. I just realized that. The electricity post is slightly bent. Realized now. Snatches of conversations from adjoining apartments catch my ear. The hiss of the pressure cooker can be heard. The Malyalis, my folks must be preparing tapioca. The whirl of the mixer. Chutney for idli. TV playing. Hindi music. Must be the bachelors. Someone is down below, talking on the phone. The guard’s wife. It is quiet. It is not eerily quiet. There is a difference. Life and the senses which make up life is in a relaxed mood today. I will trim my mustache today. My beard too. Take a bath, and then sit on the balcony for a while. Know what? It is never eerily quiet. 

I am standing on the balcony. I read a book. Lockdown, time to kill e.t.c. Books and movies are supposed to find us, not the other way around. There seems to be a preplanned pattern by the powers that be as to which book or movie finds us at the right time. The timing is paramount. Our particular frame of  mind and the tone of the book or movie seem to be in sync. Only a few such instances happen in one’s life. When we later see the book in a bookstore or catch a scene on TV, we smile. The book or movie had communicated to us in an unforeseen way. We remember, hence we smile. It seems to be a part of a plan, a long-drawn path to make us have a series of realizations, not bunched together but with long gaps to arrive at the place called tranquility. Friends and relationships are not unlike those books and movies. Planted on the path to peace. In fact, everything — including the algebra exam we failed at. 

The lockdown is still on. All establishments other than essential services have been ordered to shut shop. But the shops in the locality remain open. The cloth pressers with steam rising from irons, the welding shop, sparks flying as I walk by,  the small bakery where discussions go on all day,  the bike repair shop, those small establishments which keep the area buzzing. The reason is quite simple. They can’t afford to close down. There is a sense of  genial acceptance of their reality. It is as if they don’t care what happens to them. Their daily bread is all that matters. They are not looking too far ahead. Each day is all that matters. We hoard. We seem more scared. 

 As it goes, the more you have the more you are fearful, and the lesser you have. Two kittens are playing in the next compound. They look up at me as I sit on the balcony, staring right into the eyes as cats do. They soon lose interest and jump onto a wheelbarrow placed under a tree and go to sleep. 

I switch on the TV and slip into another world. Shah Rukh Khan is singing to Katrina in the snowy alps of Switzerland. When I went out to get cigarettes an hour back I was in another world. When I sat on the balcony and watched the kittens play yet another, and now, lying in bed watching Shahrukh plant a kiss on Katrina’s cheek, yet another. It is like we are Alice slipping into one rabbit hole after another. When it’s afternoon in a while and I take a nap I will slip into another. When I wake up in the evening and have tea on the balcony yet another. 

Well, it is a lockdown and I have time to kill. Katrina has a beauty mole. Realized that just now. 

Cigarettes, I guess, are not an essential commodity. Those shops I talked about are closed today. It might actually turn out well, not smoking for a week or longer.  

On the bright side, the newspaper is still being delivered. Now, the initial panic has settled down. Yet I did wonder if I would eat my neighbor if there is a food shortage. She looks yummy. No, I probably won’t. We really take our fears to the extreme, don’t we? There have been worse plagues, wars, and disasters. In the end, there is a weariness that sets in with regard to the need to survive, the fear of death, and a need to let go. In simple words: giving up. A sense of the approaching peace. Love thy neighbor, as Jesus said, don’t eat her. That curtain looks yummy. 

This period at home reminds me of the journey on the slow passenger train from Cochin to my mother’s place Kottayam as a kid. From the liveliness of one city to the liveliness of cousins and aunts gathered for the vacation, it seemed like a long time. Slowly it moved along, stopping at each station, sometimes lying there for half an hour. It seemed like an eternity. One felt sad since as a kid there is always life around you and attention. But finally when the soccer stadium comes into view, signaling the destination is near, delight. 

Short tunnels are fun, but not tunnels that never end. From my experience, I can say there is no such thing called a very long dark tunnel. Right now it doesn’t even feel like a tunnel. It is getting a bit cloudy. Will it rain in the evening? 

Well, it did not rain. It would have been nice if it had, but it would have been nice if the nuclear bomb had not been invented either. A coconut is lying in the next compound. Reminds me of beaches, lying empty now. Those corners where the common man gathered to chew paan, and smoke beedis, and play cards in the evenings. The Eiffel Tower. All empty. Gully cricket in Karachi with tennis balls has been abandoned. The 108 temples. Mecca. Vatican. A virus. That is all it takes right, for chaos? Economically and otherwise. More precisely a bat. Are we supposed to learn something? A bat planted on the path to the salvation of my corrupt soul and yours, perhaps. 

I do believe there is an inherent goodness in all of us. When a close childhood friend achieves success we might feel an immediate jealousy, or it may build up, but the moment, say, we hear he or she has a critical illness we feel a wave of sympathy come over us, revealing that goodness. We may hold grudges against certain folks, but if we get to know their kid has been born mentally challenged — the same. It is like what we feel for puppies, kittens, and babies. It seems that only the helplessness of other beings brings out that empathy in us. It is a strange thing, our mind. The functioning of which cannot be distilled into an exact science. 

The kittens are still in the next compound. Their mother hangs around. I have heard that fathers of  lion cubs eat them sometimes, though I must admit my knowledge of feline behavior is next to nil. That is why I was a bit worried when a male cat, presumably their father, wandered into the compound. But he just played with them and licked them. That scene triggered the thoughts above. I can’t tie up the ideas or reach a  definite conclusion but sometimes there is no need to. To reach a final definite conclusion about any idea is as futile as trying to answer a curious kid’s question as to whether the chicken came before the egg — or vice versa — or if God created us, who created God? Sometimes ideas have to float around like kites with broken strings.  

We consume too much news. Not only news, but opinions jump at us from everywhere. There seems to be an event that divides people every other month. It could be the elections or something as insignificant  as a movie. Our personal prejudices against people we know come into play too. That is more subtle. The thing is there is nothing called a stance or an ideal that is perfect. If you believe in the right, rest assured the right will goof up. If you are on the left or center, rest assured they will also goof up. Man is weak. Each one of us. The people you admire will goof up, and the ones you thought had no character will show character. Social networks, ah. 

A fruit vendor has set up a pushcart near the bakery. Cars that pass by stop, and the bananas or apples are passed on in exchange for money. There are a few butterflies winging around. They don’t seem to hear the news. I wonder whether they have an opinion on if I should stop writing philosophy or not. Well, who gives a damn . . .

I found a strand of grey hair in the gravy l ordered today. In my 38 years, I have found hair in all kinds of food prepared by my mother or father.  I picked it up, placed it on the side, tore a piece of phulka, dipped it into the gravy, placed it in my mouth, and savored the taste of spices and the softness of bread. I am sure the cook did not tear a strand from his head and knowingly place it in the gravy. It is not that I don’t stroke the head of stray dogs or wipe my hands on curtains. Anyway . . .  

One kitten it seemed had disappeared. Had not seen him for two days. The horrible thought that his father indeed had eaten him crossed my mind. But lo and behold, he jumps out from behind the weeds with the other two. He has got fatter. He is spreading his wings and eating outside food. Well sometimes dining out is nice, or perhaps he ate his dad. 

I must admit I have been thinking of death and what might happen afterward. I have no idea. 

The idea of heaven might be a fairytale, but nevertheless a comforting one. Not that of any particular religion. The idea that we will be reunited with our old dog — our loved ones — is the comforting aspect. When a loved one passes away I have seen the most cynical and bitter of men being  comforted when someone says, he or she is in heaven, and we shall all join them one day. We are not thinking about being reunited with God, but with our parents, spouses, dogs,  and friends funnily. God is not in the picture. God is the least of our concerns. It is most likely a fairytale. But sometimes we need to believe in fairytales to deal with the vagaries and uncertainties of life. It sure might sound  ridiculous. But all fairytales need a suspension of disbelief. 

The phone is essential, now in isolation, I know. The  phone  is sleek, and the arrangement of icons on the screen too, but the milkman on his cycle, torn B-Grade film posters on walls, and crowded markets are, how to put it, more life-affirming. I must admit I miss being in town.  

The coffee is boiling. That too, life. 

It seems like it is going to rain. I get out on the balcony.  The birds, sensing the approaching storm are scampering for cover. There is a mad rush of activity happening up there. An eagle circling remains. 

It does not cut a solitary figure, but rather a striking one against the dark sky. Two clouds move towards each other, each sizable, long-lost lovers.  As the wind picks up, the trees sway. Yet again there is a rhythm, a rhyme in the air. A  rasleela with an ensemble of the characters of nature, the singers and dancers . . . A farmer standing in front of his hut overlooking the paddy fields, watches the sky get  darker,  goes inside,  kisses his wife’s shoulders, unhooks  the back of her blouse, and kisses down her spine. 

Where do birds take cover during rain, I wonder? 

The rain is falling down in heaps and I am taken back to a moral science class in primary school when it was raining. Honesty was the subject being covered. My basic understanding of the concept was don’t lie, don’t steal, and most importantly don’t copy during exams. Even in church, the pastors said, be honest and reach heaven, while others said sin, kill, loot, don’t worry — as long as you are baptized  at birth, you will surely reach heaven. In jest. But a different perspective took birth when I read My Experiments with Truth by Gandhi. In an excerpt, he mentions how when his father lay dying he was how to put it, more into making love to his wife. I was taken aback. The father of the nation! That altered my whole thinking about honesty. 

We are not the poem we write. We are the poem we don’t write. Maybe we should pen it down and redemption may follow. 

I have been reading about the economy. The stock market reminds me of the word illusion. 

I also realized I imagine a lot of stuff. I guess we all do. 

I woke up early this morning and went out to get a packet of milk. The road was wet from yesterday’s rain. Two boys on a bike whizzed by. The damp earth reminded me of the smell of a garden after hosing, a  lifetime ago. From that very garden, flowers were picked to make bouquets for birthdays. The bakery has got cigarettes back in stock again. I lit one, inhaled the smoke, and let it out slowly. It’s been quite some time. In the meantime, Boris Johnson has been hospitalized.  

It is midafternoon now. There seems to be a hint of rain. 

Life will continue, get on its feet sooner or later.  One day at a time. The tunnel may be long. Length is comparative. But the sudden appearance of stars in the dark sky once it is over is startling . . . •


Balu George is a resident of Cochin, India. He is an accountant by profession. His articles, stories, and poems have been published in magazines and papers like The Hindu, Muse India, and Spark. He has also had a screenplay optioned by a production house. He considers himself a poet at heart.