I have been a compulsive planner since my teenage years, dividing my day into neat sections and allocating all my tasks a fixed time. Many have sneered at my meticulous planning, gently chiding me for failing to “experience” life; some have sympathised, sensing in my proclivity a gnawing sense of insecurity. But for me, planning my day (often down to every toilet break) is not about optimising efficiency, but about clarity.
It’s about asserting a small sense of personal control over the shifting sands of time.
I just tripped on an idle twig on my walk along the grassy slopes adjacent to my student dormitory at the University of Sussex, succumbing to my habit of getting distracted by my thoughts. And thoughts are aplenty right now. The coronavirus pandemic, which is sweeping across the planet with none of the discriminating features that characterise its victims – has thrown my schedule into disarray, and sent all my plans into an indefinite tailspin.
As a student of journalism, I had a catalogue of interviews and shoots lined up for the next month, all of which now stand suspended. Accustomed to crafting my daily itinerary every morning, I woke up today to find a vacuum instead of the usual swarm of classes, meetings, readings, and the concomitant cluster of a rigorous post-graduate course. Although the United Kingdom is yet to enter lockdown, my university has cancelled classes for the time being (they will potentially shift to online classes later) and has advised against venturing out for any assignment.
As I side-foot the twig in a vain imitation of Lionel Messi, I realise I don’t know what to do with all my time.
Or maybe, I do. In fact, I have already started doing it. It has already begun to hit me.
Panic, it is here. Standing forlorn in the middle of the slopes with the sun playing hide and seek, I feel the panic making headway, as all my dextrously designed plans are consumed in its wake.
What am I going to do with my phone buzzing every second minute with the latest update from the ‘corona-verse’? Should I turn off the notifications? But what if there is some good news, or rather, some emergency information?
Am I supposed to binge-watch and binge-read and embark on a self-enriching journey over the next few weeks (possibly, months)? If yes, where to start and where to end? Like a child floundering in the dark for the handrail, it seems my heuristic mission cannot get underway unless someone shows me the light with a thoughtful list of recommendations.
I open WhatsApp to a spate of texts – “stay safe”, “have you seen the latest government travel ban?”, “read this, imagine if this conspiracy theory were to be true!!”, among others. All remind me of the crisis at hand. I pocket my phone and carry on walking.
I was supposed to return to India soon, over the Easter vacations. And yes, I had planned every single day of my vacation back home. So many people to catch up with, so many stories to share. And then, the Ministry of Health from the Government of India announced on March 16 that all air travel from the UK (among other places) was banned between March 18 and March 31 (a duration likely to be extended).
I had less than 48 hours to cancel my previously booked tickets for the end of March, book a new flight, pack my luggage, inform my colleagues and professors, stockpile essentials and head home – with the lingering fear that I could be quarantined for two weeks upon reaching India.
Prone to planning in advance, there was only one response I could have mustered in this scenario, and I did: I gave up.
Abandoning all hope of getting home anytime soon, I resigned myself to the possibility of staying cooped up in England and waiting for normalcy to return.
Ever since Europe has emerged as the epicentre of COVID-19, I have been panicking – in bouts, in breaks; sometimes at length, sometimes for a few seconds. How will the disease shape the rest of my year? How will I finish my course and land a job before my visa expires? Would the UK government be considerate enough to extend my stay, so that I can manage to start earning and scale the peaks of the mountain that is my student debt? What will the next few months look like? How long will this unnerving limbo last?
Bereft of all my original ideas and propositions, is panicking my only plan?
I am sitting in the shade of a tree, nestled into a quiet pocket on the slopes where my panic-ridden pondering has led me. A toddler dribbling a ball almost as big as him runs past me, reminding me of the days when I used to do the same in the concrete corridors of my house in Kolkata.
I feel sucked in, not by panic, but by the indescribable mechanism that suddenly makes one confront a question one has avoided for years.
Why do I need to have everything planned? Can’t I let things be for a while, and simply go with the flow? Can’t I let go of my compulsive drive to have everything figured out before it happens? In my bid to control time, have I surrendered myself to it?
No, this is no half-baked anagnorisis, this is simply a rare moment of introspection in the hustling paradigm of my life, which I had acquiesced as a journey to be run at full-tilt, with every footstep thought out and accounted for.
But maybe this is the right time to realise that not all of life’s magic can be mapped, that I don’t always need a plan in order to prevail.
The panic will resume, I am certain. Maybe it will trigger itself once I head back to my room and thumb my way through influencers turned epidemiologists spouting advice on social media or when I read about the lacunae in global leadership for the umpteenth time in a conscience-cleansing editorial. But panic will no longer be the only thing staring back at me through the void of my plans. Jostling with that panic will be a promise – the prospect of gradually unshackling myself from the fetters of fastidiousness, learning to leave room for life to unfold as plans unravel.
I will myself up to my feet, only to comprehend that I have travelled a bit too far into the grasslands. But that’s alright, I have all the time to inch my way back. As I unlock the door of my room, I feel at ease for the first time in weeks.
Something refreshing, it seems, happened during my walk. Something beautiful, perhaps. Something I hadn’t planned for.
Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.
Featured image credit: Unsplash