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The covid-19 extracurricular Olympics

Sometimes our relentless productivity feels like we are in denial of the fact that we are living in the middle of a pandemic and the world might never be quite the same again

Kolkata police are singing a ‘coronized’ version of a Satyajit Ray song, advising people to stay at home.
Kolkata police are singing a ‘coronized’ version of a Satyajit Ray song, advising people to stay at home.

I reached my personal low point during the Great Covid Lockdown when I woke up one day to discover a video of actor-turned-fitness guru Milind Soman’s 81-year-old mother doing one-legged box jumps in her sari. I had made a lockdown resolution to wake up early every morning and do 50 rounds of Suryanamaskar. That resolution had lasted precisely two days and I had cheated with 30 Suryanamaskars on Day 2 anyway. Now I had been put to shame by an octogenarian.

I had assumed the lockdown was a time when the frenetic world would finally slow down. In some ways it has. The streets are eerily quiet. The Himalayas are visible from Jalandhar, more than 200km away. A nilgai wandered down the road in front of an empty mall in Noida and a bear strolled around Gangtok. The birds are returning to the moringa tree outside my window.

But no one on my social media timeline has got the message. We have turned work from home and quarantine into extracurricular Olympics. We are baking Japanese milk bread from scratch, practising the piano, learning Spanish, signing up for Tabata masterclasses online and writing the next King Lear, all in between having Zoom meetings and WhatsApp video conferences. School friends have Zoom get-togethers where they sing old Bollywood songs. Someone’s yoga class is having a Suryanamaskar challenge. Even the Kolkata police have discovered their artistic side as they patrol the streets singing a Satyajit Ray song—a “coronized" version advising us to stay put at home. One friend is proudly showcasing his improv Kolkata pesto, made despite a “severe paucity of White ingredients". He used water spinach instead of basil, walnuts instead of pine nuts and local Bandel cheese in lieu of Parmesan. I can only marvel at his ingenuity and suffer from pesto jugaad envy. Another has beautifully photographed his halibut with pine nuts alongside some black lentils and savoy cabbage with mustard and bacon. Someone has baked her first Dutch baby pancake and finally gotten around to making Delia Smith’s lemon surprise. I have dutifully liked them all, ashamed that I had not even managed to make the Dalgona coffee that everyone else seems to have mastered.

Once I was the overachiever in school, the annoying child who finished his holiday homework within the first week and then worked on the 1,001-piece jigsaw puzzle. Now I just sit and stare enviously at the busy beavers all around me. I had not foreseen that I would be caught in the middle of a pandemic of corona overachievers and that the more I flailed, the more I would fall behind.

I too had aspirations. There was that second book I needed to write, old family photographs I planned to scan. I told myself I would finally master the Halasana (plough pose) and impress yoga ma’am. Perhaps I could finally give intermittent fasting a shot. I could brush up on my German, read that Bengali book I had bought at the last Kolkata Book Fair, organize my bookshelves, lose the love handles.

Instead I am sweeping, washing dishes, cleaning up my own mess in the kitchen, trying to rustle up meals and waiting at the door so that I don’t miss the vegetable cart that trundles past once a day. And I still cannot manage to do everything in one day. These are admittedly luxurious problems to have in a nation where thousands have been left stranded by the lockout, crammed into shelters, quarantining atop trees or trudging along the baking hot highway trying to find their way home halfway across the country. I, at least, am safely at home with a well-stocked kitchen. I am not even alone. There are others pitching in, taking turns to cook and clean. Still the day just turns into a daisy chain of chores. I installed and deleted an online Scrabble game. It was too stressful.

I have discovered a new way to kill time. Instead of idly doom-scrolling the internet reading stories about the pandemic, I go to an online grocery and play “Let’s load the basket". It’s a race against time. By the time I go to checkout, half the basket is unavailable. The site taunts me saying if I only shop for 103 more, I can get free delivery. I rush back and wonder if I really need some vacuum-fried tangy tomato sweet potato chips and then discover there are no delivery slots available anyway. I have still not managed to get any groceries delivered but the grocery chain sends me perky messages every day encouraging me to try again. I do. I think of it as part of nation-building. However, I have discovered a live cam of baby goats. As a stress buster, it beats yoga hands down.

My social media mocks me with its emptiness. I dug into the archives and found a video of two beautiful red and black butterflies I had caught in the middle of flutter-by sex. It was a National Geographic-worthy video, I felt. I did post it. The last time I checked, it had garnered 206 views but only 34 likes. What kind of world do we live in where 172 people viewed two gorgeous butterflies having a fleeting romance and could not be bothered to hit “Like"? Verily, a plague is upon us.

Thankfully, I now realize I am not alone in my inadequacy. Though they cannot boast about it on social media, there are others like me lurking in closets, hiding from an avalanche of viral challenges and how-to videos. As Anne Helen Petersen, the author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, tells The New York Times: “We’re so used to making every moment of ours productive in some capacity. Like I’m on a walk, I should listen to this information podcast that makes me more informed or a better person." And like little hamsters we cannot get off that treadmill. A brand management guru in the US tweets that if we don’t come out of this quarantine with either 1) a new skill 2) starting what you have been putting off, like a new business 3) more knowledge, you didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline. Over 15,000 people have liked his tweet.

I am trying instead to recalibrate my life. On a warm summer afternoon, if I feel my eyelids grow heavy, I allow myself the luxury of a guilt-free afternoon nap. I try and not take it personally when the fitness app tells me pointedly, “Sorry we missed you at the Circuit Training masterclass you signed up for." There’s always another session tomorrow.

One day I saw a mongoose in the empty lot behind the house. I stood there for a long time, trying to take a picture as I watched it dart around, stand on its hind legs, its head alert. A friend saw a civet cat in the tree opposite his house. He wants to buy it ripe bananas. When we talk to each other on WhatsApp, we check in about the mongoose and the civet cat. Come to think of it, these sightings too are a gift of sorts in these bleak times.

Sometimes our relentless productivity feels like we are in denial of the fact that we are living in the middle of a pandemic and the world might never be quite the same again. Hard as it was to imagine our world being shut down, it’s almost harder to imagine what it will feel like to open it up again. We may no longer shake hands or have jobs to go back to, we may never go out without a mask or sneeze without causing instant panic around us. And while the rest of us will have learnt to make Dalgona coffee at least, all I might have to show for myself is a fuzzy mobile click of a mongoose in a straggly backyard.

I hope it will count for something.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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