Some months ago, before the second wave of covid-19 unleashed its fury upon India, Sushmita Sundaram, a 34-year-old communications professional based in Bengaluru, had mustered up the courage to live a little. After a year of tiptoeing around her home with obsessive caution, she decided to step out and get a coffee from her favourite neighbourhood joint.
“I felt the adrenaline coursing through me as I ordered at the counter,” Sundaram laughs. “It was euphoric.” So much so that she blanked out for a few seconds at the till—until the barista gently reminded her to swipe her card. The last time she had experienced such a high was when she booked herself an app-based taxi to go for a medical appointment during the pandemic. “Calling the driver, giving him the PIN before the ride and then being out on the streets after months—it was overwhelming for the senses,” she says.
Also Read | Do we even want to return to the office?
Living with her 64-year-old father, Sundaram had made up her mind to isolate strictly as soon as the pandemic became a reality. “I was paranoid I may be a carrier and infect him, so I was prepared to stay home for at least a year,” she says. “Accepting the binary of ‘outside is unsafe’ and ‘indoors is safer’ took off the mental load of dealing with the dilemma of going out or not.” But recently, after getting the first dose of the vaccine, she finally admitted to herself that she had reached a “breaking point”, mentally. “The challenge, for me, now is to figure out how to go out safely,” she says, “though by the time I get my second dose, the third wave of the pandemic will probably be upon us.”
As Sundaram grapples with her cautious optimism, the mood elsewhere in the country seems to be buoyantly upbeat. The lockdown-induced staycations of last year have given way to crowded beach holidays in Goa and retreats in the hills, despite the deadly landslides wrought by a heavy monsoon. The desperate appeals for oxygen and hospital beds on social media have been replaced by periodic outrage over images of reckless tourists, like the one of crowds on the streets of Manali or Shimla, provoking even the Union health ministry to issue a dire warning against the dangers of “revenge travel”.
“Humans are able to cope with stress to an extent; it helps them grow as individuals,” says Hvovi Bhagwagar, a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist. “But at this point in the pandemic, people are simply strained. They have had enough and are willing to take risks based on their vaccination status.” Bengaluru-based psychotherapist Sabina Rao adds, “This is normal human reaction to an abnormal situation.”
Bhagwagar says this pattern of public behaviour is akin to the scenario that prevailed at the end of the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918-20. As the “Spanish flu” receded—after killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide, as opposed to the 20 million who died in World War 1—in came the Roaring Twenties, a decade of heady decadence in the US epitomised in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby. Its aftermath in the subcontinent is poorly documented, adds scholar Chinmay Tumbe, whose latest book studies the pandemics that shaped India and the world from 1817-1920. “The Spanish flu did, however, introduce the concept of public health in colonial India and the designation of the sanitary commissioner was changed to public health commissioner,” he says.
A century later, Americans remain quite as gung-ho as their ancestors—a recent survey by business consultancy Deloitte found that 40% of the population, across ages and income groups, was planning a leisure trip in summer—while affluent Indians, who never had to rely on their public health infrastructure, are behaving no better (Lounge reported in April how this class became “super-spreaders” with their brazen indifference to public safety). Sadly, and terrifyingly, our pandemic, unlike the 1918 one, is far from over.
In times of mass tragedies like pandemics, public amnesia acts as a coping mechanism against trauma and loss, The Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote in January. “The bereaved cannot console themselves that the dead made a sacrifice for some higher cause, or even that they were victims in an epic moral event, because they did not and were not,” he argued. “To die of the Spanish flu or Covid-19 is to have suffered the most terrible bad luck.”
But the obverse of this phenomenon is equally real. Two months later, contemplating the “fog of late pandemic”, journalist Ellen Cushing bemoaned her long period of isolation as one that entailed forgetting of another kind. “What do people talk about when they don’t have a global disaster to talk about all the time?” she wondered. It’s a sentiment that rings true with those who continue to think of the pandemic as a serious threat, watching others throwing caution to the wind with alarm and consternation, even as they strive to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
“Personally, you may be making certain choices to stay safe but you cannot always control the way other people’s actions are going to affect you,” says Niyati Dave, 29, a curator and art historian. “The public and private are bound to overlap.” The pandemic forced Dave to flee Delhi, where she works, and isolate with her family in Mumbai. Living in an inter-generational household, with chronic health conditions of her own, she stayed firmly cloistered in her bubble. But during the lull in cases before the second wave, Dave went back to Delhi, and even started working from her office in the densely populated Khirki village, until it became all too clear that yet another lockdown was inevitable. “On my last day in office, I remember attending an art show,” she says, with bemused wistfulness. “A colleague and I stepped outdoors to eat a chicken sandwich in a corner.”
Falguni Patel, communications head with a fashion startup based in Ahmedabad, recalls a similar interlude of socialising in her otherwise careful life, last December. “I had gone to an architectural event with all the precautions,” says the 40-year-old self-proclaimed extrovert. “I felt really awkward as I tried to socialise with my mask on.” Patel’s brother, a doctor based in Vadodara, Gujarat, had forewarned her of the inevitable lapses in public behaviour that we are witnessing now. “On the one hand, I see people enjoying vacations and partying and think, ‘You all are the third wave!’” she says. “But I also get that the human mind can’t continuously deal with tragedy for over a year—at this point, people would rather live in the present and deal with the future whenever it comes.”
For Soumya Swaminathan, who works in the education sector in Chennai, the future indeed is “a big question mark”. The 28-year-old endured losses in her immediate and extended family during the pandemic which left her deeply shaken. “When I see people moving about, doing things, I feel as though I am living in a different world,” she says. Isolating with her mother at home, Swaminathan has stepped out only a couple of times during the last year and a half—once to get her eyes checked; another time to have her laptop repaired. “My childhood best friend got married and I didn’t attend the wedding as some 300 people were invited to the reception,” she says. “In ordinary times, it would have been unthinkable for me not to be the bridesmaid.”
Once she gets the second dose of the vaccine, Swaminathan may travel to Bengaluru to see a close friend, depending on the caseload at the time. But she is unsure of the protocols of pandemic life. “Do I give them a hug? Should I tell them to wear a mask? Should I keep wearing a mask while I am staying at their home?” she says. “I see a different world out there now.”
A new world
That last statement would probably resonate with Akshita Deo, 28, though in a radically different context. Currently living in Mayurbhanj, Odisha, Deo was educated in Kolkata, Singapore and New York before she found herself with a job in Mumbai. The outbreak of the pandemic brought her back to her roots, to her sleepy home-town, “a bit like Shah Rukh Khan returning to India in Swades”, she chuckles.
The Deos, who are erstwhile royalty of the region, own a 200-year-old palace, now converted into a luxury home-stay. Living there, away from her hectic work schedule, stressful commute and the buzz of metropolitan life, Deo found herself spending her days trying to keep the small commune around her safe from the virus. “The stimulant of city life is so hardwired that it took time to unlearn certain long-formed habits,” she says. “As a high-functioning individual looking for external validation, it was difficult to let go and find stillness.”
Deo says she is forging more authentic connections with her people, the land that has nurtured several generations of her family, and her cultural heritage. The pandemic has made her forget the life that was, forced her to reflect critically on the hustle-and-grind culture she had internalised and ask hard questions. “Do I really want to go back to living in a shoebox in a big city and spend half my day in commuting?” she says.
Indranjan Banerjee, 27, an art curator, also speaks of discovering new possibilities during the days of isolation he spent at home in Kolkata, away from Delhi, the city he works in. “I have started what I call ‘deep housekeeping’ within me,” he says. “I want to know myself better, be more mindful about the way I use my body, especially as a movement practitioner.” Having recovered from covid-19, he is also closer to the trauma of the pandemic than many others. “I am learning to enjoy the slow time,” he says. “My priorities have changed.”
For Khushi, 32, who goes by her first name, there has been a similar recalibration of aims and purposes after she lost family members to the virus and was not able to say goodbye to them due to covid-19 protocols. Coupled with her experience of volunteering during the second wave, it has been a transformative phase. “The staggering volume of SOS calls I attended, day and night, shook me,” says the PhD student from Delhi. “When I see people heading off to places like Goa for fun, I feel more angry than scared. Do these parts even have the infrastructure to take up the load if the masses fall ill?”
Khushi accepts that society moves in a loop, from crisis to normalcy to a new calamity. “Someday we will all have to get back on track,” she admits, “but how many are going to make that transition with caution?” As clinical psychologist Becky Kennedy recently wrote in Time, physical vaccination alone may not be enough; we need to also get ourselves emotionally vaccinated. We have to “prepare for future feelings and … (learn to) pre-regulate the feelings by surrounding them with understanding, empathy and care”.
It may take us a generation or two to account for all that has been chipped away by covid-19, Khushi says, but in the meantime, we need to start demanding more accountability from the state. Without the bulwark of our collective memory, we will only be hankering after the slippery “new normal”, instead of the solid foundations on which a new world could be built.