P. Ravi Shankar
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
|Art by Devika Allath, Year 8, Willoughby Girls High School, Sydney, Australia, 13-year-old niece of the author.|
The sun was about to rise on another day of lockdown. At the beginning of a new day there is a vague sense of optimism, but that is followed by an overwhelming sense of tiredness, ennui, and crushed hopes at the thought of being confined within our apartment. My brother was sleeping in the drawing room and my sister-in-law and the kids in the other bedroom. It is a small apartment—around 750 square feet—but big by Mumbai standards. Social distancing is the norm of the day, but staying at least one meter away from each other is a tough ask in one of the world’s most crowded cities. A heroic fight against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was on in Dharavi, Mumbai—Asia’s largest slum—where people live packed together. When a family of six in Dharavi was advised to stay home and at least one meter away from each other, the family head complained that his entire living space was only two meters long.
The morning air was still cool but soon it would boil over. Taking out the trash gave me a chance to stretch my legs, a welcome change from being cooped inside. Then it was time for morning tea and online meetings and training with the team I will be joining once it is possible to travel. Reviewing articles, doing some writing, participating in online courses, collaborative research projects with colleagues: I keep myself busy, knowing well that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.
The road outside is nearly empty. Occasional two wheelers and trucks carrying commodities break the silence. The red buses of the local transport authority (BEST) are seen every half an hour. They are mostly empty but are still a welcome reminder of happier times. The trains are silent. I have never seen the roads so empty, although emptiness is a relative term in Mumbai. There are still people on the sidewalks going about their essential business. But the roads are as “empty” as they can be.
At the nearby supermarket for the weekly shopping, the queue is already snaking to the back of the building and doubling on itself. Nearly all other shops are shuttered. The long queue advances slowly. Social distancing. My temperature is checked and I am in. The shelves are well stocked, though fresh fruits and vegetables are running low. The cashiers wear face masks, face shields, and gloves that are sanitized frequently. Shopping gives a welcome sense of optimism and permanence in these uncertain times.
When I return, the kids are up. They spend most of the day glued to their phones watching cartoons and other shows. I think the younger generation has a different view of reality. Lockdown for them might be to exist in the wide-open world without their devices and the internet.
Servants have not been allowed into the building since mid-March. We wash and dry our clothes, then sit down for lunch. We have to enter our details into a register when leaving the building and sanitize our hands when we come back. Wearing of masks is mandatory. I am slowly getting used to having something cover my mouth and nose.
We are lucky in some ways. With economic activity at a standstill, many are struggling to put food on the table. The weather is hot and humid. We survive with fans, as there is a general advisory against the use of air conditioners. It is time for an afternoon siesta, then some more writing and other work in the evening.
My brother and sister-in-law are working from home. The kids interrupt their work frequently. Working from home has its drawbacks, but the internet is stable and able to handle multiple demands, a lifeline keeping us connected and sane.
Dinner and then some television. I watch a movie on my tablet, a documentary about the nature of reality. Theoretical physics is a welcome relief. The reality outside is the relentless march of the virus. The total number of cases had reached over 2.2 million worldwide by April 18th.
I get up in the middle of the night to attend meetings, sessions, journal clubs, and research clubs organized by a university for whom I work part-time as a research advisor. Their basic sciences program is online and has had minimal disruptions during the pandemic.
In Mumbai, houses are tiny. Public spaces and the streets are part of the extended living space, which has always given people a sense of freedom and expanded daily life. Malls were a popular diversion. The pandemic has shut these options down. Most are confined to the four walls of their apartment. Social distancing remains a challenge when people live cheek by jowl.
I flip through old photographs on my mobile of celebrations, outings, crowded restaurants, and busy streets during the pre-pandemic era. Will that life ever return? Or will we live a masked existence forever, looking over our shoulder at the microscopic assassin lurking in the air?
P. RAVI SHANKAR is a medical educator, a clinical pharmacologist, researcher, creative writer, hiker, traveller, and photographer. He has been facilitating medical humanities modules for over 14 years at various locations. He is a faculty member IMU Centre for Education, International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is a research advisor at Oceania University of Medicine, Apia, Samoa. His areas of research interest are medical humanities, rational use of medicines, small group learning, prescribing skills, quality assurance, and accreditation among others. He has 670 publications in various journals and a h-index of 35 and an i-10 index of 139 according to Google Scholar.