Cocooned

“When you find yourself cocooned in isolation and you cannot find your way out of darkness…

Remember this is similar to the place where caterpillars go to grow their wings”

Necole Stephens

Butterfly concertina (Photo Credit: Rohan Mathias)

One fine morning, we noticed the hordes of butterflies migrating. For some reason, I had never paid attention to this phenomenon but these slow months under enforced lockdown has made me more aware of the surroundings and this sort of migration was new to me. A friend, also a crazy butterfly enthusiast, told us stories behind it. His eyes lit up talking about these delicately beautiful creatures and his birthday happened to be around the corner. So what better gift than something to do with these winged wonders.

For a few months now, I have been thinking of working on a concertina, only thing missing was the subject for it. And here I had few butterflies to draw. Both put together became a butterfly concertina. My apprehensions of using any kind of colour has been dominant as ever but what fun would be butterflies without colours. In the process of research for what species to draw, a whole new section of the natural world opened up for me.

Needless to say, most of us are going through a tough phase in life dealing with the pandemic and the roadblocks that come along. All of us cocooned in our houses trying to stay safe yet that doesn’t mean the confines of the walls doesn’t affect us mentally. Nature comes to rescue again! Cocooned for a while until we emerge out of it with wings.

Negotiations with knees

I haven’t always shared the best relationship with my knees. In the last five years, my knees have crashed from full functionality to bare minimum and then have gradually improved to the present state which is capable of doing most things. The full functionality meant classical dancer for 20 years, martial artist, trekking up every mountain/hill that could be spotted and a solo biker perpetually on long distance rides. As I approached 30, I decided to give running a marathon a shot. Before I could reach half way during the prep, my knees were not happy. I slowed down and restarted multiple times. Yet the knees gave way eventually.

On a friday morning, as I lay in the MRI room for two hours getting both my knees scanned, my anxiety knew no bounds. Then, of course, the long wait for the reports and the consultation with the Ortho surgeon. At this point, I couldn’t walk on uneven surfaces without significant discomfort to the knees. Less than a year ago, I had climbed the cliff side Himalayan monastery in Paro, Taksang Monastery, without a problem and here I am waiting in anticipation for the fate of my knees. An hour later the report was out and my family of doctors poured their energy into it declaring that both knees were equally damaged and I cannot jump, jog, run or hike. Bottomline is anything that increases the load on the knees apart from regular weight bearing jobs is banned. The anxiety in the MRI room had tested me in ways I had no clue and tears came streaming down when I heard the things that I enjoyed the most had to be stopped. I didn’t know until then what caused it. It was already a lot to handle. The physical restrictions at the age of 30!!!

Finally I went to see the Ortho surgeon. For the initial few minutes he quietly sat looking through the reports. It appeared like he was going to declare a death sentence on me anytime. After what seemed like forever, he raised his head, removed his reading glasses and, as a matter of fact, informed me that both my knee cartilages were damaged upto 60% and cartilages did not heal. And 10% more damage would lead to surgery. I was screaming out of despair in my head yet the initial outburst in front of the family had helped keep my external calm. The surgeon also declared that this was a very common problem in flat footed young females who are physically active. Wait!!! Why didn’t I know this yet considering I am aware of my flat feet. Too late to wonder all of this. Damages are done. 

He prescribed specific exercises and anti-inflammatory tablets and I left the hospital with a sullen face. The silver lining was the doc was surprised that despite the extent of damages, I had not resorted to painkillers yet. That gave me hope. But for the next 2 years, I continued having swelling around my knees on and off and I always carried a pair of knee caps. The perpetual state of negotiations with my knees was taking a toll on me. I had convinced myself that I can’t do much physically with the state of knees. To an extent that I refused to go out for walks blaming the uneven pedestrian paths of the cities. 

I was tired of the enforced diet restrictions to control every growing weight and intermittent working out sessions. My self confidence was hiding behind new layers of fat. Fast forward to 3 years since the fateful day inside the MRI room, I took up walking, first slowly and then faster along with some amount of yoga that wouldn’t make me fold my knees too much. And the lockdown began. I happened to come across the Nike Training App and I haven’t looked back. It has been 4 months now and I have graduated to high intensity, advanced levels workouts without any trouble and have successfully lost the extra kilos I had put on in the last few years.

The ongoing fat loss and muscle built up pushes the confidence as an individual a notch higher. I have a long way to go to reach my goals and I still can’t run. Maybe I won’t ever run a marathon but I am glad I hadn’t given up hope. Maybe someday I will fulfill the dream of climbing the hills and mountains to sit and enjoy the view from the top.  

Justified or not?

We are living through extremely uncertain times. Lives have been suspended in most cases and we are all waiting for ‘normalcy’ to return. There is no clarity on how long this kind of life is going to go on and if what we knew as normal is ever going to come back. The present state is the new normal. Apart from the immediate fears and uncertainties, few of us already know that the short lived memory of our race will help most of the population to recover in a year’s time and go about their lives as if nothing ever happened. The minority of the population who will never be able to forget the deep traumas and wounded souls that will come out on the other side of it, will suffer for the rest of their living days. 

The minority here are the frontline warriors and casualties. It is not only the healthcare or the essential workers but also the families and friends who have endured a loved one’s suffering or loss. And there is another category of people who have screamed at the top of their voices to follow the basic rules of handling the virus and stay safe for their own sake and the community’s sake. To all the nay-sayers, I hope it was as simple as you learning your individual lessons. But because of the absence of the tiniest sensitivities or empathy, others suffer. The slightest carelessness can lead to life threatening complications in an otherwise perfectly healthy person and this somehow seems a very difficult proposition for the majority of the population to understand.

In one case, the last message said “my oxygen levels are sinking further and I will get on a ventilator. Talk to you later”. Unfortunately, there was no later. The wife continued her home quarantine, and never got a chance to say a final goodbye to her husband. Only a burial that she witnessed over a video call. No one held her while she mourned the loss of her husband to this unpredictable virus even though he was winning the fight against cancer. 

For another acquaintance, the treating doctors said, “there are signs of improvement in your husband’s condition, yet the danger of crashing is still hanging around”, a fortnight gone by and she is still waiting for her husband to come out of danger. Despite being a doctor, she cannot predict her husband’s state and she has no clue what to tell her 5 year old daughter.

Another friend got a call from his younger brother in the early hours of the morning, complaining of shortness of breath and that he was tested positive 6 days ago. His whole life flashed in front of his eyes and he quietly apologised to his kids for not being there to see them through their teens or adulthood. His only mistake was he assumed the pandemic was a hype and he wouldn’t be affected by it but now he was trapped in an apartment alone in an unknown city, far away from home and was probably not going to make it. He was saved, though after a week of hospitalization and timely pumping of steroids into his system. No one knows what long lasting damages (both mental and physical) he will come home with. 

There are many more stories of suffering and there are equally high numbers of instances of our race attaining new heights of insensitivity and stupidity. Literacy has never mattered in such times. And common sense has become a rarity. Comparing the present pandemic to the Spanish flu, a century ago, doesn’t make any sense because we have better resources to handle health issues now yet our collective IQs have taken a nosedive into the ocean of complete idiocy. Four months and counting… I live in morbid fear for my senior citizen doctor parents who are bound to continue their work and the critical care specialist brother and sis-in-law who attend to their moral and professional obligation of dragging people out from the clutches of death. I can’t seem to escape the endless nightmare…

Tryst with South East Asian stories

As I grow older, I venture deeper into my roots. I have lived away from my hometown and family for more than 15 years now. My fleeting connection to the family stories has come back to bother me in recent times. My maternal grandmother passed away when I was 10 and grandfather when I was 15. Hence, knowing them as an adult was never an option. Whatever I know of them is through stories that my mother has passed on which were as scattered as one can imagine. I realised it is probably a very cultural problem in Asian families where parents shoulder the responsibility of children until they are adults and protect them from the difficulties they have dealt with as parents or adults. In most cases, like mine, we as children of our parents don’t even know what makes our parents the individuals they are. What was their childhood like, or their fears and worries as parents, or if they ever wonder what their lives would have been had they taken the road less travelled? We will never know it because Asian parents think it is either not worth sharing their stories or they wouldn’t want to burden their children with the tough pasts they had. Such was the story in a book that I read recently.

It is ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ by Amy Tan. I had never heard of this author but I was willing to give it a shot. On a rainy afternoon, I started reading this book and couldn’t put it down. It felt too close to home. An Asian mother working hard to bring up the perfect child without the taboos that she left behind in China yet making sure that she passes on the cultural values from the homeland. Battling her own traumatic past and searching for her identity as her memory fails, and simultaneously trying to protect her daughter from any of the past influences.  She tries to make sure her daughter doesn’t grow so deeply into the American life that she forgets her roots in China. It sounds like a typical immigrant family with their share of problems but the endearing way of storytelling was what drives home the emotional intensity. I can’t say I feel differently about my mother and grandmother but our family stories are being lost in the modern day races to make ends meet. I am glad Amy Tan decided to finish the book on a high note. Else I would have been plunging deep into the troubled waters of our westernised society and the lost traditional values. 

I read ‘Norwegian Woods’ almost a decade ago. Followed by ‘Kafka on the shore’ and ‘The Windup Bird Chronicle’. All the three held my attention through every page. Haruki Murakami is an excellent narrator and being a South East Asian, one relates to the stories very well. But at the same time, I stopped reading Murakami because it drained me out emotionally. I love reading fiction but the price I was paying for Murakami’s books was a lot to handle. It was as if the moment the book begins, the narrator has plunged his hand into your rib cage and grabbed hold of your heart tight enough for it to crush into pieces. And that stopped me from venturing into Murakami and other SE Asian authored books.

A decade later a visit to a friend’s place led me to borrow two books by Ishiguro and ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’. A week later I went to the same friend’s house to return the book and she gave me another Japanese author’s book ‘Asleep’ by Banana Yoshimoto. The emotional aspect deeply intertwined with the superstitions and typical Asian values was more like hearing one of your aunts tell you this story on a fine evening over a glass of wine. My re-introduction to Asian writers almost a decade later felt like coming home. I hope I see Ishiguro through to the end along with many more that are waiting to be discovered. 

Street Art

Walking along the streets of any major city of the world, one cannot miss the graffiti on the walls of buildings or boundaries. Traditionally, graffiti has been used as a form of a protest and in a lot of cases it is still the same cause and in others, it has been beautification for the arterial roads of cities. For instance, a small city in the eastern part of India, that happens to be my hometown, hosted the Men’s Hockey World Cup in 2018. I couldn’t get enough of the vibrant graffiti on the walls that added an aesthetic value to all the major roads leading to the venue of the world cup.

In an attempt to learn sketchnoting and getting faster and better at it, I am trying to be a regular at the virtual sketchnote hangouts. This time we discussed the street art in some of the major cities of the world- Milan, Berlin, Phuket and Cairo. The walls have posed as large canvases for conveying messages of love, peace and harmony in various forms. Abstract or concrete, pictures or words (calligraphy), many of these forms and more have been used for graffiti.

Ocean will never be the same

It has been a while since I devoured a book at a stretch without thinking about a break. In fact, the thought of taking a break for lunch was an unpleasant one. As I began the book, “The ocean at the end of the lane”, I was expecting a version of fictional autobiography. I am not sure what that means but that is what I have understood from the innumerable interviews and conversations I have heard of Neil Gaiman in regard to this book. This was supposed to be an accidental novel that came into being while tugging at the strings of nostalgia.

I tried hard but by the end of a marathon reading, I cried. It was deep melancholy intertwined with a strange sense of peace but that feeling was so far off it seemed like I floated in a void without a sense of reality. The book wasn’t only tugging but yanking emotions in directions that I didn’t know existed or felt. The roller coaster of emotions ran through fear and peace, joy and sadness, guilt and worry but through every bit ran an underlying sense of belonging.

I will probably go back to the book again if I ever think I have lost my empathetic being. But right now I cannot thank Gaiman enough for such a heart wrenchingly beautiful narrative.

Birthday in lockdown

A lot of people (family and friends) that have had their birthdays during these lockdown months have wished this year away. But the husband is one of the rare individuals who has found his love for nature once again, in different aspects of nature, apart from wildlife during this period of isolation – the skies – clouds, stars, moon, storms are a few of them. In between the sunrises and sunsets before the stars shine brighter in the sky, the animal diversity gets some attention. I attempted a timeline of his day, during the lockdown era, as a birthday card for him.

Learning a new skill

Two months into lockdown and wondering if life is going to be back to ‘normal’ ever. I started working out like a mad person to keep my mind off from the highs and lows of nothingness. One good thing– the workout has helped achieve goals that I have been procrastinating for the last 3 years. The 10kgs weight loss that I had been planning (more hoping) has finally made some headway. A little over 8 kilos lost. That is a significant loss considering my laziness and the obvious mastery of procrastination.

That wasn’t enough to keep myself occupied throughout the day and like everybody else I was doom scrolling in the initial days of lockdown. But social media has helped in certain ways. I bumped into people who do ‘sketch noting’. I had no clue such a word existed and that there is a whole bunch of people in the world who do this for a living. Discovering this way of recording was as amazing. I am still learning baby steps and I am yet to find an optimum balance of what to put-on the paper while sketch noting. But it works perfect for a person like me who is scarred by the pursuit of perfection and hence never gets anything done. At least this way, I managed to put my imperfections on the paper yet convey the required message. Added a couple of sketch notes from the learning sessions with Rob Dimeo who generously spent his lunchtime teaching people how to go about sketch noting from scratch.

Webinars galore

I talk to my parents twice a week. They are doctors and too busy with their work and social life. I have no complains, in fact, I love the fact that they are such busy bees, because I have no clue what we might talk about if we have to call each other everyday. Thankfully, they have brought us up to be totally independent because that is how they love their lives, not only in their professional lives but social circle too.

Recently, I called her mid morning to convey some message from an uncle who I spoke to before that. She cancelled my call and I sat wondering what is keeping her so occupied on a Sunday morning during the lockdown. I got a call from her few hours later saying she was busy with a webinar. My jaws dropped. Did my technologically challenged mother tell me that she was attending a webinar? This is someone who uses a smartphone to receive calls and for WhatsApp.

In the past couple of months, my mother has figured out how to download and use Pinterest, Zoom and many more apps. Also learnt how to pay the utility bills online. That I think is adaptation to the situation at its best. I have always appreciated my mother for her ability to adapt with the changing times but she might not have bothered sending that gene my way.

The research and the knowledge that is shared freely now is exponentially higher than what happened in the pre-pandemic era. I wonder if a pandemic is the only way that would teach us to be humane and shed the materialistic skin that we have wore for a while. The insane amount of stress on the whole mankind has exposed the best and the worst aspects of us as individuals and as a society.

The ongoing pandemic has changed the way the world works. Every sector that could possibly manage things online, has shifted its functionality onto the virtual medium. And that adds to the stress of everybody who handles interactions better in person rather than over video calls or worse, chats. Assuming that a millennial can handle these better than the senior citizens is misplaced. Even though every age group has a part of the population that is hyper social during normal times, the absence of human interactions physically around each other is harrowing for the same group.

The new ‘normal’ is not so normal for most people but as a species we have evolved for better survival and we will continue to do so. That doesn’t mean we would succeed right away but might stumble along a bit until we succeed or perish.

I have always loved the Darwinian theory of “Struggle for existence, survival of the fittest.” His observations were based on his studies of the natural world where he probably counted humans. But I don’t think he ever imagined his theory at play in the rawest form aimed at our very own existence.

Life during a pandemic

I was approached by one of the science communicators from the team of Indian scientists who have gotten together to spread awareness and bust myths around the CoViD-19 pandemic. They have been working hard to make the presentation of facts and precautions to be taken in creative ways to appeal to the public. They have also added in as many languages as possible to increase their outreach. I illustrated one such story. https://indscicov.in/for-public/popularization-resources/going-out-and-returning-home/

Abdul goes shopping for the family

Abdul woke up in a panic: Arre! I am going to be late for that strict Ajit Sir’s class again! He’s definitely not going to let me sit for the final exam now! 

He then sleepily realized there was a lockdown; college was closed and he was at his parents’ home. He turned over to try to go back to sleep. The one room house was already bustling with activity—Ammi had started making tea for everyone, Dadi’s knitting needles were already click-clacking, and Abba was doing his namaz. He might as well wake up, he thought, as he couldn’t sleep through all this commotion! 

As he brushed his teeth, Abdul thought about how much he missed the hostel room that he shared with Satish – a room which was probably bigger than his parents’ house. He thought of the endless conversation about politics he would have over chai with friends. And the general sense of independence he felt when he was at college. They closed the college and hostels almost three weeks ago and he had to take two jam-packed trains and a three hour shared jeep ride to get home! It was a tense few days for everyone, and for a moment, he tried to relive the happiness he felt when he finally got home.  

“Abdul, it’s so late. I told you I need mutton and tomatoes from the market today. Go get them soon! The shops will start closing,” shouted Ammi. “But be careful. Wear a mask. Don’t touch anything. Stay away from people…” Ammi had already started with her long list of precautions and instructions. 

“I am almost out of my BP medicines. Can you check if the medical shop has got stock yet?” Dadi added.

“OK OK I’m going. But I am not going tomorrow. Or even for two more days after that. So tell me everything you want now!” Abdul replied. 

“Beta, buy me a newspaper, no? Buy me tomorrow’s also if you can find it!” Abba added with his usual humour. Everyone, including Dadi, groaned. But they all know that his silly jokes were what was making this whole situation feel slightly normal.  

Abdul’s elder sister was out of the country, but would call every night and give them new instructions. She was the one who had designated Abdul as the person to go out of the house and get essentials. “Everyone else is old and is at a higher risk” she had said, adding “What else are you doing at home anyway?” Most recently, she had instructed him to wear a mask whenever he goes out. 

Abdul picked up one of the washed masks that dadi had stitched out of an old dupatta. “Wear that shawl I’ve kept near the door for going out.” Ammi pleaded. “It’s too hot Ammi! I am not doing that anymore. I will just wash the clothes I am wearing out as soon as I get home.” said Abdul as he put his slippers and left.

Abdul waited in line in the round chalk markings, first outside the medical shop and then the vegetable shop. Good thing he still had an unlimited phone plan — at least he could catch up with his friends from college while he waited. 

He finally got to the butcher’s shop where there didn’t seem to be anyone else around at the moment. As Karim Chacha was cutting up the mutton, he shouted questions at Abdul from the back of the shop: “Everyone OK at home?” “When do you think this lockdown is going to end? You must be reading all the news on your phone, no? What are they saying?” Abdul put his phone away. It was nice to talk to someone in person outside his family, even if they were shouting across the shop and the conversation was muffled by their masks. “Ya ya, everyone at home is well. Just a bit worried, that’s all. I don’t know about this lockdown Chacha: seems like this is going to go on for a while. Not sure what the plan is!” Abdul replied. He lingered a few minutes and chatted with Karim Chaha about the current economic scenario.

When Abdul got back home, Ammi had left a small mug of water, soap and a dry cloth outside the door. He removed his slippers, washed and wiped his hands. He then dipped the cloth in soapy water to wipe off the cardboard box of medication. She had also left a clean handkerchief and bottle of hand sanitizer which he used to wipe his phone. (He had got a good scolding from Ammi last time he came back and forgot to do this. She had proceeded to threaten to take away his phone altogether.) 

He came in and handed the mutton and vegetables to Ammi. She started washing everything thoroughly before storing it away. He placed the medication box on a table, and then went to take a bath and wash his clothes and mask. 

Abdul came back to the table, carefully opened the box of medication and transferred the pills into a small glass bottle. His Dadi was old and he was very worried about her getting COVID-19. He threw the cardboard box into the dustbin near the main door. He then washed his hands and the outside of the bottle with soap to be extra careful to get rid of any remaining viruses before handing her bottle: “Here’s your medicine Dadi. Stock came yesterday.” 

As he was hanging out his clothes to dry on the common balcony, he realized that he had forgotten Abba’s newspaper. Never mind! “