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Quarantine diaries | London: Love, loneliness, tulips and social media

Being a millennial student away from home during the pandemic means coping with a host of worries, from an excess of memes to the risk of losing residential status if you stay away too long

A deserted Westminster Bridge with the London Eye in the background on 24 March, after Britain ordered a lockdown.
A deserted Westminster Bridge with the London Eye in the background on 24 March, after Britain ordered a lockdown.

I have felt homesick for close to a decade.

At first, it was acute—a sharp, stinging missing. Slowly, though, as I found that I could pinpoint two places on a world map—two places that felt like home—this pain softened, even transformed into something else: a feeling of often being not-quite-here, being elsewhere.

Shuttling between cities, and continents, means tons of time spent texting across time zones. It means long-distance relationships, digital-only relationships. It means loneliness too.

As a fourth-year PhD candidate (don’t you dare ask how much of the thesis is done), a freelancer and an introvert, you would think I would have a handle on this work-from-home, self-isolation situation by now. That I would be an expert at making excuses, cancelling plans, staying indoors. Reader, I was not ready for all that C-talk.

It started with waking up to more WhatsApp messages than my anti-social self is used to—from friends, family, and family I no longer call family. “Are you home?" one asked. Which one? I wondered. Returning to India after 18 March was not an option as my home country had extended the travel ban to Indian passport holders. Besides, as an international student in the UK, I risked losing my residential status if I stayed away too long.

A friend had taken to cooking: bottling bright-green pesto, building the “Highlights" section on her social media with “Quarantine Cooking" recipes. If we are in this for the long haul, she wants me to help her write a cookbook. I asked if, in exchange, she would assist with my thesis. She has left me on read.

Day 1, in the kitchen: How many peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches are too many peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches? Day 3, at the supermarket: Will three tubs of hummus suffice and see me through this?

Another (non-reader) texted: “You can just read and read and read—and lose time now." But I didn’t have a “self-isolation TBR pile" to post on Instagram. Instead, I found my relationship with the books on my shelves rejigged. It felt imperative to only read life-changing, mind-blowing, canon-shifting stuff. A bucket-list book list of sorts. I began, rather belatedly, with Eley Williams’ 2017 book, Attrib. And Other Stories. Sample this, from the opening short story, The Alphabet: “what’s a sentence, really, if not time spent alone—".

Between books, I placed bets in my mind on which old white male writer—who, let’s be honest, should have stopped writing three books ago—would write the “coronavirus novel" (this following his “Brexit novel", of course).

A former flatmate now pursuing a PhD in San Diego slid into my DMs: “I do not have any more capacity for home confinement. I came from two months of confinement six months ago." She, of course, meant Kashmir.

Here’s another C word: clownery. Turns out, the two countries I call home are united through it. In one, many people think we can clap away coronavirus. In the other, as Musa Okwonga warns in his satirical article for Byline Times, “You cannot sing Rule Britannia to a virus." As I type this, the UK catches up, cracks down and goes into a three-week lockdown.

A flatmate who works at a florist’s brings home a bunch of tulips. They droop quickly, drown. Excess of water. I call them “Tulips for the End Times". I read Olivia Laing, on loneliness, in The New York Times, over and over again: “Love is not conveyed by touch. It moves between strangers; it travels through objects and words in books. There are so many things available to sustain us now, and though it sounds counterintuitive to say it, loneliness is one of them. The weird gift of loneliness is that it grounds us in our common humanity." I then text this passage to everyone I know.

I also really get into the C-word memes. I dedicate a folder in my phone’s photo album to save screenshots of them. I tell myself it’s digital archiving. My mood shifts and moves, pendulum-like, between the melancholy and the funny. Chaotic Energy in the Age of Coronavirus. What a time to be alive. You mean I have to cope with the crippling anxiety and a global pandemic? Cool cool cool.

In the midst of this, a phone call: “I know you are far away from home, that I am asking you to leave yours. But I hope you can think of this as your home too." Love is not conveyed by touch. He’s working on a poem, he adds. About our pandemically beautiful bubble. If this is truly the arrival of the apocalypse, the world could always use another artist, I say.

Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prizes at SOAS, London.

'Read more quarantine diaries from Indians across the world here.'

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