Change in the Time of Coronavirus

It was last Friday that college sent us an email asking everyone to leave for home by the weekend. I was thinking of meeting a friend, and worrying about the history test that I hadn’t studied for. I had just returned back four days earlier from the mid-semester break and was easing back into being a sleep-deprived student. We had had a great list of speakers and film screenings that week; it was an exciting time.

Sitting at the very end of a long cafeteria table, nibbling at some unsavory vegetable that was part of lunch for inexplicable reasons, I see a professor smiling at me and waving hi. I’m curious because I’m not even taking his class this semester, so what might it be? Then he comes closer and says ‘Go home’. My breakfast-deprived brain does not understand; all of us squeal ‘What?’. Then he explains that college is shutting down until March 31 because of the coronavirus, and that we should all start packing and leave by Sunday evening. Shortly after, we get an email informing us of the same, telling us that we will receive further updates soon.

The message was: we don’t know yet what will happen to academic schedules and tests, but for now, please just pack up and leave this place as soon as you can. I abandoned lunch and rushed outside to call home. I bounded up the stairs to inform my best friend who has this annoying habit of never checking her mail. Suddenly, movie nights and laundry plans were getting cancelled. Everyone was calling home and scrambling for flight tickets. The lazy Friday afternoon had been abruptly interrupted.


One of my biggest worries about going to study in another city was homesickness. It had been very hard for me to leave after the break in December. But this time, when I returned from the mid-semester break in March, I did not feel that bad: the semester was going well, I was making friends and everything was generally great.

That’s why this felt like I was being uprooted, like an unwanted interruption. No one wanted to go home now: we had just finished unpacking from the earlier break! On the corridors, in the cafeteria, in hostel rooms and on the lawns, this sentiment reverberated: ‘it is just so sudden, I did not expect this, I don’t want to go home, why did we even come back?’.

When I came back home, my brother was so happy that his school was shut; while I was whining about wanting to go back to college. I never imagined that I would rather be at college when I was asked to go home; it is a reflection of the weird times we live in!


At home, there is good food and clean sheets. You don’t have to worry about not having decent clothes to wear because you were too lazy to slog up two floors to operate the washing machine. But, at home, all you feel like doing is eating and sleeping. You feel restless and unproductive. Which is a horrible state to be in when you are supposed to be working on a philosophy essay about causation and counterfactuals (don’t worry if you don’t understand, even I don’t), read 4 history chapters, and work on a research project of 2000 words.

But in my defense, it’s not like I have not tried okay? It is just too hard to implant a crazy university schedule into the relatively saner confines of home. For a college kid, the concept of ‘working from home’ doesn’t exist. We inhabit a dual world: college is for work and home is for vacation. (It is another thing that college is also like a vacation, but you get the point no, that’s enough). You should now understand why the virus has completely disrupted the workings of my optimal self. Of course, the other, more plausible explanation might be that I’m this precocious student spewing out some fancy sounding stuff.


So what have I been doing? (other than trying to work, that is). I tried to explain the no-self view of Buddhist philosophy to my sibling, and you know how it went. He called me for a board game and I tried to get out of it by citing my philosophy essay; his response was ‘ask your professor how you can write an essay on your non-existence if you don’t exist in the first place’. Let’s just say I won’t be asking that to my professor.

Upon recommendation, I read Ki. Rajanarayanan’s Gopalla Gramam, and absolutely loved it. Here’s a bit of what I wrote about the book:

சில நாவல்கள்,  அவைகளின் உலகுக்குள் நம்மை இழுத்து விடும். மௌனி போன்று கி.ரா வின் கதையில் இது மன உலகு மட்டுமல்ல; கோபல்ல கிராமத்தின்‌ உணர்வு ஓவியங்களில் அந்த மண்ணும் நிலமும் ஒன்றியிருக்கிறது.
கிராம மக்களின் ஆசைகளும் கனவுகளும் அவர்கள் உழைத்து ஆக்கிய நிலத்துடன் திடமாக பிணைந்திருக்கின்றன. வெண்ணிற பூக்களின் கசந்த வாசனையும், தேனில் தோய்த்த காட்டு மாமிசத்தின் ருசியும் நம்மை கவர்ந்து இழுக்கின்றன.
(I spent a whole day trying to figure out an English equivalent for that brilliant kasandha vaasanai and failed).
Further readings lined up include: more of Ki.Ra’s writings; the Bill McKibben essay
collection that I found at a book swap event on campus; and Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark after an article in The Wire on the protests quoted her. I have come to believe that there’s necessarily some level of serendipity involved in how you find books, or rather, how certain books find you at the right time. Ki. Ra has convinced me to start reading more in Tamil.
But by far the most exciting thing has been reading academic papers for my history research project, which I’m tentatively titling ‘Physicality and Desire As Expressed in Tamil Bhakti Poetry’. I read two papers today : on embodiment of devotion in Andal’s verses, and the sacred geography of Tamil Shaivism, and I’m very fascinated about the findings therein. This fits right in with my broader intellectual preoccupation with the body as a framework of study in itself, with the associated tangents of space, culture and performance.
Family reactions to this intellectual excitement have been on a spectrum from ‘I don’t understand’ to shooting me quizzical and faintly amused looks to saying ‘If you want any poems, tell me now itself’. Of course you can guess who the last one was. But I have very high ambitions for this, and as is evident, love talking about it.

 


Growing up in the time of such complex political and social uncertainties has to be the most confusing and unenviable life situation ever. I feel like I’m in the grip of a humongous existential crisis, thinking deeply about the point of existence itself. The ongoing turmoils aren’t making things any easier.
This is complicated by burning questions of belonging. I find myself caught in between places and environments, increasingly ambivalent about where I ‘belong’. A college dorm shared with a fellow student is not home. It is an extremely urgent and transitory environment; after I strip every inch of standard furniture of the vestiges of my identity, somebody completely new will occupy the void.
Then there is home. But there has been a gradual realization that home is also, in some sense, startlingly temporary. When I ‘come back home’, it is will be for a maximum of 2.5 months at the end of the semester. I’m practically living out of a suitcase at the moment. I do not belong in the physical contours of home in the same way that my sibling does, coming back from school to that safe space every day. For him, home is the natural environment, where he ‘belongs’. When you occupy transitory spaces, where do you really ‘belong’?
People say home will always remain home no matter what. If you’re speaking about emotional landscapes, sure. But what about the physical space itself? This is in a lot of ways, a permanent dislocation (word borrowed from dad). After 3 years, I’ll come back home- but then I’ll again leave to study further, occupying yet another transitory space. Even if I come back to this city to work and stay at this house, it will be fundamentally different: I will occupy my own worlds hereafter. How easily has ‘live’ turned to ‘stay’!
I guess this is why they say ’empty nest’- the chick flies away. It may, and mostly will return; but this return will not be for forever. It has already, irreversibly, ‘grown and flown’.
Appa says every growth involves dislocation. My rational self understands this, but what about the pain and the fear of leaving people and places behind? A few months ago, I wrote that ‘leaving has allowed me to thrive’. I think I believe that now more than ever. But behind this thriving are the invisible hopes and anxieties of a young girl coming into touch with unfamiliar situations and feelings, of growing into an adult.
This journey of growth is fraught with disbelief. It is painful and scary, especially when trying to navigate these trying times. Most of the time, I doubt that I can do it; I desperately want to run away. But there is something to be said about the fact that so many people have managed to do it before me- that means I could too, right?
For now though, writing is a solace. The written page acts as an invisible confidante, a comforting space to confront one’s deepest emotions. Once you put something down, it is real. It exists independently. While this can be unsettling, it can also be liberating. There’s also the hopeful possibility that ten years down the line, I will read this and indulgently shake my head at my younger self!

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