New Delhi, Apr 8: When the world is battling against the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, for some writers, the only way forward is to put their emotions into letters while living in countries under lockdown where the normal life has been thrown out of gear.
Jaishree Misra is one among them. The London-based Indian author has written eight novels published by Penguin and Harper Collins. A best-selling author, Misra’s debut novel 'Ancient Promises' is now a prescribed text on several University BA English Literature courses. Her most recent book is a humorous first-person account of building a writer’s studio by the sea in Kerala.
In an interview with UNI, Misra narrated her experiences filled with uncertainty and fear as well as small moments of hope and humanity.
Travel in the time of Corona
I was in India with my husband and daughter when people were first jolted out of a collective complacency that the newly discovered Coronavirus was going to remain confined to one city in China. In fact, it was on the Malayalam news while I was at my mother's house in Trivandrum that I heard about medical students from Wuhan being brought back into quarantine in Kerala. Regardless, my family holiday continued and we soon travelled up to Delhi to spend the planned few weeks with my mother-in-law. It was while we there that international broadcasters began talking about the possible unprecedented scale of this new disease while the numbers of fatalities in different countries started to grow.
The scare that it could become a pandemic spread quickly but I remained blissfully unaware of the solemnity of this fear until I boarded my scheduled return flight to London on the 18th of March and found that it was to be Air India's last flight out of India. I was aghast when the Canadian women seated next to me told me that she had had to pay $50,000 to fly her family of five back to Toronto.
The crew also informed us that they were startled to see their scheduled return flight disappear from schedules only to be later informed that they would need to fly back to India the following day as passengers - after which all future flights would be suspended until further notice.
I felt shaken and rather grateful for the timing of our return tickets - until I reminded myself that, by boarding my flight home, I may have increased my family's chances of getting the virus. After all, we were returning to an England that sat squarely on the doorstep of Europe which was fast becoming the new epicentre of the illness. As we took off, I watched Delhi’s sprawling urban mess recede beneath with a sinking sensation of not being sure at all of when we would be allowed to return to see our elderly mothers.
Spirits on board the flight were jolly as most people aboard were returning to the safety and comfort of their homes. There was also a strange camaraderie over the uncertainties that lay ahead and the stewardess serving us, realising that my daughter had special needs, brought over a large bag filled with bread rolls, biscuits, nuts and even a large tetrapack of long-life milk before we landed. “Just in case you can’t get supplies after you reach home,” she said.
Landing to a different world
Even from the skies, it was clear that Heathrow was eerily quiet, ours appearing to be one of the few aircraft landing that morning. There were no tests on arrival, just a modest number of people queuing up at what appeared to be a reduced number of immigration counters.
London wore a generally subdued look too but it was only when we went later to a grocery store that we saw clear evidence of the panic buying and stocking up that friend’s emails had warned me of before we left India.
The kindly man who keeps our house keys had stocked our fridge full of milk, fruit and vegetables (though himself Bolivian, he knew enough about Indian food to realise that a vast quantity of onions, garlic and ginger were compulsory too!).
But I was grateful for my own forethought in packing rice, pasta and, strangest of all, toilet rolls that a friend had instructed me to bring from India.
A lot of the smaller shops and cafes had already downed shutters and the impact on smaller businesses was evident as the local florist had taken to placing unsold bunches of flowers on the street with a sign saying, ‘Free flowers. Help yourselves. Take care.’
Despite fears of a lockdown, my daughter returned to her supported living unit a day later. It was a tough decision - one that a fellow parent of a young adult with special needs described as a ‘classic left-brain-right-brain decision’.
While it was deeply tempting to make an emotional decision of hunkering down and hugging loved ones close in the event of a lockdown, I knew this was not in my daughter’s best interests. For one, she had just spent three months with us and had reached the end of her own tether regarding family interaction. Besides, she needed peer company and the comfort of structured activities in the event of everyone being told to remain within the confines of their homes.
She left without batting an eyelid, completely unaware of the ramifications of sickness, quarantine and a looming lockdown on her weekend visits home. But I watched my husband put her and her suitcase into the car before they drove off, heart squeezing at the thought that it could be weeks, even months, before I saw her again.
Five days after we returned to London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK needed to lockdown. Measures were not going to be as stringent as in some European countries as food shops, pharmacists and newsagents would continue to stay open, and people would be allowed out to buy essential items as well as get a bit of exercise.
But there was no end date suggested and new laws were hastily rolled out that invested unprecedented powers in the police to fine people who did not keep to the rules. In fact, some overzealous policemen took this literally and wanted to stop somebody shopping for a chocolate Easter egg as it was a non-essential purchase!
Writers in lockdown
A lockdown does not bring dramatic changes to the life of a writer. We thrive on solitude and silence, after all. But a recurring theme among the authors I follow on Twitter seems to be that it has become harder than ever to write at this time. Is that the effect of fear? Or underlying panic?
Perhaps some kind of seizure of imagination when real life events are more dramatic than anything one would ever dream of creating?
While economists and politicians are already studying the likely effects this pandemic will have on the global economy, its impact on human imagination and creativity could take years to assess. Who knows, perhaps a body of poetry and prose will emerge years from now that will examine this strange time when all human endeavour was brought to an abrupt halt. When a microscopic virus humbled us into realizing the only truly important things in life. (UNI)