This has probably happened to you. You were watching Emily In Paris last week and felt a ripple of unease. Not just because Darren Star has made a baffling show but because it is a world unmarked by the pandemic. Then you reminded yourself it was just TV and perhaps tried to laugh a little.
This has happened to me too over the last few months and I didn’t think too much about it. Then last week a whole new thing happened. I was remembering a particular day at work in Delhi and felt inexplicable anxiety about this innocuous memory from a decade ago. It took a few beats for me to understand that I was anxious because a part of me was confused that everyone in my memory was huddled together, brushing past each other, sitting shoulder to shoulder. That part of me couldn’t understand how everyone was being so careless. Until I reminded myself that this was 10 years ago. I know our memories are unreliable and strongly coloured by the present but this was the first instance of my present self walking around in a memory like a time-traveller befuddled by the strangeness of the past.
What do you call your life before the pandemic, life before March 2020? I feel an urgency to think of a name for Before, a good retronym. A retronym, to refresh your memory, is a name that becomes suddenly necessary for an ordinary object or phenomenon because its existing name has become muddy in meaning. For decades, a phone was just a phone. Then we needed the word landline to differentiate it from the shiny, slightly rounded thing we carried around like a pet. So also snail mail, tap water, acoustic guitar or that big one, offline! How nice it is to have a short and easy word to describe all of human civilization that existed, exists and perhaps will exist without its electronic pets. I urgently want a word that neatly encapsulates our life before because the virus has gotten to everything—like viruses used to get to floppy disks back when a floppy disk was an object, not just the origin of the “save” symbol.
I want that word for our pasts, not just to art-direct my daydreams better. Let me be honest. I most urgently want this word not for our rosy, vaccinated future but for the present. Linguists and cognitive scientists have found over and over again that language or languages influence the way we think and function in the world in subtle and complex ways. People whose languages use cardinal directions (like north, south) more commonly than left or right are less likely to get lost in a building. Because of the way their language is, speakers of Spanish and Japanese are much less likely to remember who caused an accidental event than an English speaker (they do remember who caused an intentional event though).
I want this word for our pre-corona lives selfishly because I am hoping language will enable people living in denial to put a damn mask on. These people are unwilling to reorganize their lives to protect themselves and others from a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world and disabled countless others. Much like people who think that if a sexual harasser hasn’t harassed them then “he is not that kind of guy”, many people seem to think that unless they themselves start feeling an unnerving fever and breathlessness, what is this corona? For these folks, social distancing or wearing a mask is an occasional thing. They understand that some people, other people, are compulsive about these things but they don’t judge, haha. Meanwhile, there are oxygen shortages, hospital bed shortages, ventilator shortages everywhere in the world except nations in sub-Saharan Africa, which were well-prepared for a pandemic (Rwanda, which has a population of 12 million, has so far only recorded 32corona deaths. Senegal, which has 16 million people, has just over 300 registered deaths).
Then what about our maskless world, organizing weddings, RWA meetings and west Delhi underground nightclubs? Are they in the grip of a shared delusion? Not the transmission of delusional beliefs and hallucinations from one person to another in an actual psychiatric illness sometimes known as folie à deux, but a metaphorical version of that illness. Where people smile at each other and share the belief that they won’t get corona from their friends and neighbours. Where people imagine that incredibly incompetent and egotistical political leaders must have legitimate reasons to jail someone for a tweet. Where people think that if they have not been asked what their caste was, then caste is over. Denial is a cosy place to live in.
We don’t know who we will all be when these pandemic years pass. But it would be nice to have a word to crystallize the knowledge that everything has changed, we have changed in our secret selves and we are going to be in this place for at least a couple of years more. I am looking for that word. Let me know if you have found it already.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released last month.