Quarantine Diaries: In Which I ‘Killed’ Two News Editors & My Mom
“Here’s how I coped with 14-day home-quarantine after returning from a reporting assignment,” writes Revati Laul.
It happened on Day 6 of the new world I was in. You travel for work, and the price you pay for your ‘sin’ is self-isolation. Especially when you live with an ageing parent and young infant. I had been to Western UP for a reporting assignment and the condition laid down by my mother, who I live with, was this: I had to be confined to my room for fourteen days after, because she did not want to live with the paranoia of sitting next to me and imagining virus-like goo dripping off my skin and onto hers. Or my five-year old nephew’s.
Food would be laid on a tray outside my room. I would have to soak my clothes in soap-water and leave them in a tub outside for my mother to bung in to the washing machine. Any surfaces I touched in order to leave clothes at the door or take in the food tray would be sanitised. My communication with the outside world would be through a big glass window on the wall of my room.
I decided this had to be chronicled for posterity. People all over the world were writing lockdown and quarantine diaries and I wanted to be part of that conversation. And use this space to ask myself what isolation meant, and what price we must pay as storytellers in order to do what we do. And whether the experience is different for different genders.
It didn’t take long for it to come to murder.
#MyQuarantineDays – Day 6
The imagination is a dark place, and if you are brave enough to allow it centre-stage, turn on the arc lights and give it a mic, you may never need to watch an M Night Shyamalan or Hitchcock movie again. It’s why I’ve never kept a diary.
Today was a day like that. I wanted to kill the editors who promised to publish my COVID story but had not done it yet. I wanted to slay. Editors. My mother – who is the most important person in my life. But she too had sinned. By being paranoid about me leaving traces of disease all over the house via objects that enter and leave my room. Separate plate and glass and spoons. Separate ‘jhadu’ and ‘poncha’ so that if there were germs lurking on my body after I got back from a COVID hot-spot, they wouldn’t crawl off the mop I touched and worm their way around other members of the house. This COVID panic put my mum firmly on the chopping block. Off with her head.
Speaking of jhadu-poncha, I found it interesting how the domestic space was finally the front and centre of all conversations. Was this a tiny step forward for womankind – from home-makers to home-workers? For this work to finally start to be seen as productive?
Nobody was putting housework on any GDP yet, but it certainly was the stuff of wars with the making of a whole new Game of Thrones, Version: Femme. At least in our home.
#MyQuarantineDays: Day 1
In our house, what really makes or breaks us, is our washing machine. On Day One of my fourteen-day quarantine, it wreaked havoc as a longstanding issue came to a boil. It was over the very complex and divisive matter of whether to use the Normal Wash or Delicate.
It wasn’t about the machine; it was about raw power and control. My mother insisted clothes be put in ‘Normal Wash,’ while I insisted on ‘Delicate’. Being confined to my room meant my mother felt this war was hers to win, and she put my clothes in Normal Wash.
“Please take them out, Ma, and put them in Delicate Wash!” My mother was offended and enraged. How dare I tell her what settings to use when she was doing me the favour of washing my clothes. “Nothing will happen to your clothes in one wash,” she shouted back. Having seen evidence to the contrary and wearing my one and only good pair of black pants with ripped hems as a result of one wash, I did not agree. I brought up the story of these pants, that jabbed her in the jugular. And then, like all wars, this one ended in steely silence. There was no armistice, but then, when has there been a workable one in so many decades? It was like those Israel-Palestine or Indo-Pak peace summits and accords, where the silences were louder and more menacing than all the guns and bombs and IEDs.
My friends commenting on these posts threw their weight firmly behind my mother. “We are with Normal Wash,” they said in unison.
Was this just self-indulgent banter, I asked myself as I wrote this diary. Were there themes that had a wider resonance? In a world where we are all in our own isolated bubbles, who are we? I wrestled with these as I went along, fully aware of my privileged position, to be able to be fed and kept safe while thousands of workers were going without food and dying just to be able to find their way back home.
In my little world of my friends and those who read my quarantine posts on Facebook, I asked if the universal response to COVID-19 was male in its character, and not just male but patriarchal. If New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s handling of the pandemic contrasted with Trump’s or Modi’s, and if, pushing this argument to its most extreme, preposterous position, was empathy a more feminine trait?
#MyQuarantineDays: Day 4
Lockdown. Confinement. In a purely psychoanalytic sense, from Freud to Foucault, what has it meant around the world to have a universal response born out of primordial social conditioning? What we don’t know, we talk about endlessly with great fiat and pretence. So male! Not being able to deal with the unknown has produced the typical reaction – to discipline and punish.
The post started on this rather shrill note, but eventually broadened out to the gender spectrum we are all on.
Could our first response have been to make our most vulnerable people comfortable?
Giving people the flexibility to travel and shop at any hour they please? If you limit the time people step out, aren’t you forcing them into tighter spaces as they queue up for their Rs 500 of Jan Dhan money or to buy groceries? Instead of containment, would expansion have been a less patriarchal, more inclusive way to deal with the virus?
A close male friend commented as follows:
“Strange Brew. Supine logic. I am a lot embarrassed of my gender conditioning. Truth always escapes me. Since it is at the tip of my nose. Blind-spotted like the male virus.”
If I was going to spend my confinement tossing everything over, then I had to dwell on a perennial favourite – what I called `The Jane Austen Conditioning.’ If the personal is the political – and I have always believed that – I had to look at the way I was conditioned and put it out there.
#MyQuarantineDays: Day 5
Has aloneness ever felt like a celebration to you? Each morning, you hear the loud ‘tak'’ sound of the toaster popping, and the scratch-scratch of the butter knife, not drowned out by the insistent morning chatter of others.
Each night you close your door to the last drunk friend whose stench lingers on a bit. And heave a sigh of relief that you’re finally by yourself.
I am speaking here of the rich, freeing celebration of being able to walk in your house naked (with the chick-blinds turned down).
Pepper this routine with a stash of different lovers – none of which fit the descriptor of a relationship. They come and go like the breeze that interrupts a hot summer.
I didn’t think I would like this person or be this person. I waited for Mr Darcy to walk out of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and speak to me in dulcet tones as we hold hands under the stars or fall asleep under a tree with a book we’re sharing.
Then I realised that if he actually did show up, I’d probably wretch and squirm and tell him to get out.
To my surprise, the most interesting reactions to this piece were from two very married women. One wrote:
“Identified and resonated with every word. Hmmmmm. At 80?!!!!!”
The other said:
“I think I'll watch Pride and Prejudice tonight to reimagine Mr Darcy with dentures and kick him around a bit.”
Encouraged hugely by these responses, I dwelt on a phenomenon that I felt was under-written in our Coronaworld and needed calling out.
#MyQuarantineDays: Day 7
Age. That’s the most frightening word on the Corona-scape. It’s taken the word ‘old’ and stretched it right upto death. It’s made the disease hover overhead like an insistent invitation, to the point where every news broadcast underscores this doomsday prophecy with statistical progression.
Why are we taking the best part of time away from time?
Do any of us want to go back to adolescent stupid or their testy twenties, throwing up in every car and every parking lot?
Age. That thing that comes when you wait for it. The slow shaping of you into you, one cell and day and realisation at a time. Age is that sculpture that we’ve been chiselling away at our entire lives. What we’ve run the rat race or some race for. What we’ve hurried along, carrying kids and cases, to get to. Do we really want to speed through the railway track and then not rejoice when the train finally pulls into the station to say – ‘I am here?’
This is that autumnal serenity that takes us past deceit and failure and success into that glorious place of just being. The comfortable sofa time, when we can just sit. Talk to the birds, not as bird watchers but for no particular purpose at all. We can see parts of our mind unspool and be terrified but also see how much we’ve carried and let a bit of good sense slide out from the sides.
We can let it all hang loose. Laugh very loudly.
Your tea tastes funny. You want to have more cheese than you’re allowed.
You stare at the TV without really watching it and so effing what? Why does everything have to add up to some ridiculous purpose. Lose purpose. Throw it away for a few days.
The coronavirus pandemic can make it seem as if the story we’re being fed about youth is a real, mathematically verifiable truth.
We’re plied the nth story about how India is great because of its ‘demographic dividend.’ I never heard anything so absurd. We’re great because fewer of our unmanageable 1.4 billion strong population will die? What are we doing while we’re alive and young and stupid?
What we need are our Amartya Sens (currently 86) and Medha Patkars (65) of the world, who’ve travelled barefoot and had their feet singed.
What is beauty without fragility? Give me the bright beady-eyed knowing face with its wrinkles of age over a plump know-it-all any day. Because right now, youth and the myth of invincibility masks the self-righteous, self-assured, self-contained bigot.
This post travelled quite a bit and came right back to me as a WhatsApp text from a friend’s mother who said:
“From all of us above 60, thank you.”
As I got closer to the end of my quarantine, I moved away from these deep questions, to the shallow, happy freedom of making my entire day about nothing more than the way I do the eggs.
#MyQuarantineDays: Day 10
There are days when you just want to throw stuff at the walls, smash a few window panes, rip up the mattresses and cry. On a morning when hormones played their worst trick, making my pre-menopausal cycle a complete mess, I took all day to focus on the one thing that altered it. Eggs.
For a really wrecked day, it has got to be golden scrambled eggs, tossed lovingly in a pan full of butter, a bit of pepper crackling onto it just before eating. I place a whole wobbly lot on a crisp, nearly-burnt brown toast, and as the bitterness of the charred bread mixes with the creamy egg, it takes me straight to orgasm and back.
For a moody day where you need some decadence, fried eggs with bacon on the side, where the egg yolk drips all over your hand and toast and even when it’s a mess, it looks so good, you know your day will be fine just because it started like this.
The masala omelette, the kind that can only be done properly in the street. This is for that time of day when you’ve sat in a meeting that made no sense. Or a day when your life feels worthless, you are telling yourself that you are a total loser, a failure. Then you pass by an ‘anda-slice wala’ and the masalas frying on top of eggs send a sharp tingle up your nose, breaking the circuitry of those grim thoughts.
Within less than three minutes of me publishing this post, my phone pinged with a WhatsApp text from a very dear friend in Boston.
“In homage to your writing Rev.” The accompanying picture said it all.
I could not end my tryst with myself without a nod to the one theme that defined me most to those I know. It had to end with a wholly primitive, provocative post about sex. Or in times of COVID, self-sex.
#MyQuarantineDays: Day 13
I am almost at the end of my 14-day quarantine, so it’s only fitting, that when I emerge from my cave, I shed new light on a dark world. I preach from my pulpit about the way the fallen must be resurrected. So, here it comes, friends, women, not-children… my talisman to you is one word. Masturbate. When you’re angry, masturbate. When you’re bored, when you’re sad, when you’re on edge, just do it.
If your bills are piling up and there’s no work coming in, masturbate. If your family thinks you are a cretin, masturbate. If the fat lizard on the wall that you’ve spent all afternoon avoiding, lobs missile-like turds on your freshly-washed pile of clothes, take your clothes off right there and show the helpless reptile what’s what.
Let’s just say my mother wasn’t thrilled with the post, but quarantines had to be used and I thought I had put mine to some. I had killed, cooked, self-flagellated and given myself love. I had no idea what turgid reality awaited once I crossed back. Or how the math of five days of reporting leading to 14 days of confinement would play out going forward. Would there ever be separate quarantine centres for journalists? There were no answers. But as far as I could tell, when everything was out of control, all that I could do was to use the quarantine as my vaccine, to prepare for whatever was hurled at me next.
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. This story is the result of a Laadli media fellowship, but the facts and ideas presented are the writer’s responsibility. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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