As days turn into nights and then further fold themselves into exactly similar looking more sets of days, I sit in my room in this new house in south Delhi, a rented accommodation, staring at my laptop, while zoning out boldly. My mind wanders, drenched in varying shades of Zoom fatigue, to a grey place which has constantly been populated by covid-19 and work-related tensions. Inside this place, amidst the knotty terrain, I amble, hazily drifting, from one isolated corner to another when a sudden peal of laughter from outside wades its way into my dazed subconscious. I am jolted back to reality.
It's 5pm and the kids in my society are out and about, cycling and playing tag. Wearing vibrant coloured masks, spectacles (and I imagine braces) they indulge in a dance of absolute perfection. The game is socially distanced and allows me to dip my toes in it, helping me activate childhood memories and really clue myself into their solid, present thrum.
It’s almost winter now, what with the second week of December bringing in the much-needed winter rains. A deadly, deep quiet has enveloped the neighbourhood. The parking lot behind my house has turned into a morgue for unused, unmoving cars and a morass of dead leaves. Crickets drone around at night, dogs staple garbage bags between their feral teeth, digging for the end of winter in those bags. The mornings and afternoons here still see a steady jam of people. Around noon a lanky boy comes just to crack a can of beer, blast some Punjabi music inside his white sedan. On most weekday mornings, a woman in her mid-thirties paces up and down the lot, talking loudly on the phone. A set of gentlemen, often wind-up arguing over parking space, after cleaning their respective cars. Humanity’s fragilities expose themselves in the most banal ways.
In the evenings, as most people recede into their drawing rooms, slink into their couches, taking in the noisy evening news bulletin or something equally vulgar through their smartphones, this parking lot sees a palpable shift in energy. Children from the society throng the vast space riding their bicycles, paddling around, chasing each other in circles. Then, they dump their two-wheelers like an afterthought, in the centre of lot, to play eye-spy or any one of those ridiculously old-school outdoor games that I had already written off long back.
Playing street games, these slip of girls and boys, while obeying social distancing rules take me to my childhood in Kanpur. I hated sitting at home so profusely that I would just rather hide behind parked vehicles on the street outside for hours. In the ritualistic game of eye-spy I would find a dimly lit cavernous corner of a neighbour’s house. When my friends would tire of finding me, I would jump at them from the behind, scaring the living lights out of him. He would run to hit me and by some silly miscalculation, a missed step, we would end up colliding head-to-head. His forehead bumping with all its ferocity against my upper lip. I would bleed for fifteen foolish minutes before giving up and wanting to go back indoors.
The way these children pant after a round of eye spy, makes me wonder how much harder it must be to breath while running with those cotton masks on. But their voices so full of vigour, danger, threat and casual venoms. Sprinting around in shorts and sock-less shoes, these drifters in their half-sleeved, still November attires, hold and capture my attention for a long 45 minutes every evening. Their mirth anneals happy shapes into my mind, soul and heart, all of which now exist with a coronavirus-shaped hole.
I allow my mind to be ambushed only if for these 45 minutes and soak in their chirpy, hopeful stances. I put a pause to everything else that I am doing and mentally partake in the joys of these piddly little games. Sometimes, I walk over to the edge of the balcony and take in the gasps, shrieks and paddling noises. Their exposed ankles, gap-toothed smiles, chipped cycle handles, and variously coloured masks bring in the glory of everyday colour. When on odd days, my mental clock tells me that they are late even by a handful of minutes, I goatishly scan the parking lot for a throb of their presence. In this life which has now become a gutter of broken routines, and jagged edges tired of trying and failing to keep up, of cancelled dreams and a plethora of grieves to pick from, I find hope in the cliched cacophony of these seemingly careless children.
On windy late-December evenings, as the wind picks up outside, I close my laptop, put my head down on the desk and allow my senses to bathe in the auditory pleasures of the outside world. With the winters setting in, the dull, static quiet echoing deeper and farther than before, I try to lean in into the sounds of the trees. A slow whisper, a gentle hiss, a quiet whooshing, their shapely silhouettes gently swaying as if to a song. The peepal tree right outside my balcony stands in a melancholy trance. Some of its waxy leaves singing more loudly than the others. Larger, leathery in texture, and thicker, its leaves make a noise that is a touch denser and plentiful than its peer leaves. Butterflies make their slow homes on these spread out peepal leaves. Their dervish dances, attracting predators like lizards, spiders and bees, bringing in more forms of life to the area.
I try to reach at the kaner tree, its succulent yellow flowers dancing restless and fidgety in the wind. It looks forever condemned to quiver in the wind forever. The thin, dirty leaves moving, gently shaking in the wind, rarely falling off. Listening to the trees during the rains always takes me back to an old, strong memory. Come to think of it, trees and their napalm shadow had always had my bases covered wherever I lived. The amaltas outside my house in Pune, with its more pared-down leaves, made for an individualistic sound against the wind, shining brightly in the west Indian sun. The south Indian sun beaming down on the neem tree at my balcony in my house in Coimbatore. A canopy of trees has always followed me wherever I was, whether knowingly or not.
On some nights here, I listen to the Kadamb tree in its generous gaiety from my bedroom window. These trees, upon close observation, sometimes seem to be sharing a secret among them. These gentle evenings conjure up a mystic environment, creating a mood board, a definite shape, casting their wide net as I sit down to read or write. The music of wind parsing its way through these trees, as they rustle up a small storm and stray cats watch manically enchanted, waiting to catch a prey among those dead leaves.
I have tried to imbue my locked in evenings with the rhythm of these sounds. The murmuration and susurrations of trees, the cacophony of birds (eagles, grey hornbills, crows, parrots and what not), the cackle of teensy little children and last, but not the least, the calls of the vegetable, fruits, and chips vendors. In this, I try to create a semblance of the old normal, where I could be a part of the crowd, dipping in and out of the participatory dance of the everyday.
Neighbours have always been mere presences that I have known of. All facades, shadows, silhouettes. Never a face, never a name, never a body. Living in a close remove, I was looking to belong somewhere else. My life had been a luggage room, a series of doors opening and closing, moving from city to city, often finding company in fellow waifs. These memories return in fragments as I sit on a Sunday morning, feeling the fleeting, feeble sun on my face. The muddy earth outside my upper ground floor balcony is calling at me and I look for music in the mundane, finding in it a place of richness and possibility. The birds are calling. Its morning and I should attend to these new routines. These birds remind me no matter what the situation, if I keep looking up, I will find my own pocket of wonder and beauty. Like the grey hornbill on one weekend, a whisper of all-too-common crows on another.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional. Her work has appeared in Popula, the Los Angeles Review of Books, 3AM Magazine, among others