In mid-May 2020, the day the lockdowns were partially lifted in India, there was a sense of levity: everyone a shade hopeful, if unsure. Finally, I could step out to buy beer—in the first weeks of the pandemic, stress prevailed, but alcohol helped. Booze softened us, making it newly important. The Delhi government, though, had deemed alcohol nonessential. Dry, tired, and strung out after a sallow spring, that afternoon in May marked my first trip out of the house in more than two months.
The roads were empty, a layer of dry leaves covering the concrete beneath. Policemen stood on roadsides looking for anyone who broke social-distancing rules. When I reached the neighborhood liquor store, I saw it was shuttered, and learned that privately owned liquor shops had not yet been allowed to reopen. Walking in the scorching afternoon sun, I made my way to an unfamiliar store, and around the bend of the road saw a serpentine queue of men, half a mile long. Haggard, tired, fed up. The social custom in this part of Delhi is that women can jump to the head of any queue. I took advantage but was afraid of the men: They didn’t look in the mood to entertain any more delays. I bought four cans of beer, along with a bottle of cheap whiskey made expensive by a “special corona fee,” the 70 percent tax on liquor imposed by the Delhi government.
On the way home, I walked through an empty market, vacant parking lots. The concrete radiated a familiar heat, but the sky above was a startling blue. With the lockdowns in India, particle-pollution levels dropped by nearly 60 percent in Delhi.
That evening feels ages ago now. I stay locked in as the country ravages through a treacherous second wave. This time around, my apartment is stocked with plenty of pints, but the bottles stare at me as if in resignation. There is no motivation to drink, no way to get lost under these brilliant skies. So instead, I simply wait.
Living through the 2020 and now the 2021 lockdowns reminds me of 2016; I had moved to a South India city, Coimbatore, in the state of Tamil Nadu, on a job assignment for an English-language newspaper. I had been hired to write local and national features, but I did not speak or understand Tamil, the official language. An acquaintance agreed to let me move in with her in her small apartment until I found a place of my own. Within a few weeks, the city was overtaken by the jallikattu (bull-taming) protests: Coimbatore became a hotbed of reactions to the government’s ban on jallikattu. Unexpectedly, it was unsafe to take public transportation, so a colleague came to pick me up and drop me off each day. Shops and establishments closed. Outside in the suffocating January heat, thousands of protesters shouted slogans in a language I did not understand. The police stood and watched the crowd—twenty-two thousand people—pulse with rage.
I bought water and groceries for a week, maybe more. Inside, alone, I hid behind Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction, drank too much coffee. Through the coming days and nights, I lost the will to read, to sleep or even eat. I was often late to work, and when there, I didn’t interact with anyone. I felt adrift; I craved human touch. A heaviness settled inside me. Every day, I came back to an empty apartment, while the city grew pregnant with nervous energy. Finally, I decided to move to Delhi, to be among friends.
Then, as now, I had an awful awareness of my physical place in the city, a feverish itch in my toes to step out of my confining apartment, to try to escape the tightness that seemed to constrict the world. But that crowd five years ago, looking back, seems a little less threatening. There was solidarity coursing through it. Strange, that so many could gather to raise their voices together in protest. While I had felt so unsafe in the unintelligible crowds then, there is no safety in this quiet loneliness.
This past February, I hired a cab for a pandemic-fatigued trip with a friend to the Himalayan hills in Himachal Pradesh, down the Old Manali road. It was a drowsy afternoon, the summer heat landing thick on the windows. My friend and I drifted in and out of sleep as our driver wound along circuitous roads. Listening to old Hindi songs, I started counting the Semal trees on the roadside, perched on the hills. Also called silk cotton trees, they blossom at the end of winter: leafless trees holding vibrant clutches of big red flowers.
For the first few months of the initial lockdown in Delhi, back in 2020, unable to step outdoors, I made a habit of spending an hour on the terrace of the house each evening. From there I saw a large Semal tree in the lane beyond. The sight of its red bulging flowers brought a semblance of joy to my days. Around the same time, an unprecedented crisis unfurled in India. Between March and May, millions of migrant workers who’d been stranded without jobs, savings, shelter, food, transportation, or any organized support system in the wake of the pandemic began long treks home on foot, along with their families and sparse belongings. This exodus resulted in nearly a thousand non-COVID-19 deaths, including ninety-six workers who died on trains. As I sat at home, helpless and angry at the situation, an eight-hour drive away in Kanpur my mother prepared meals and packed them in lunchboxes for my father to give to workers resting at the nearest highway.
As my friend and I rode through the hills this past February, we didn’t know that a massive second wave of infections was building. By the middle of April, dread tightened around us, and again migrant workers by the hundreds began fleeing cities like Delhi and Mumbai, flocking to railway and bus stations. A painful refrain of the year before: the brutal lockdowns, the bold Semals, the vast swathes of grief, the waves of death. This time, I am in a new house, without those blossoms. Every day the crickets outside my room are loudest after sunset. This time last year, at the turn of the season, at the turn of our lives, they were silent. [VQRTrueStory by @anandi0102]