All my life, I have shied away from unnecessary social interaction. Scratch that. What I really mean is emergency social interaction. Small talk is a tedious chore. “How are you?” “Fine, you?” “I’m fine, and you?” and so on, till one of us dies.
I’m hardly alone in feeling this way. We are usually so busy all day, rushing to meet targets, wringing our brain dry over projects, worrying about tomorrow, that when we see people we recognise on the street, we promptly change lanes. Life is hard enough without having to channel our last bit of energy into forcing a smile.
Naturally, when the State decided to announce a lockdown, I was not expecting to miss anybody’s company, except for the few best friends I have. In my head, it was going to be a gloriously lazy time, where I got to catch up on some TV series, play some music, draw some misshapen heads, etc. It was supposed to be the exalted me time that keeps eluding us as a people. From a point of privilege, it seemed like an extended summer vacation, minus the annoying sound of children playing downstairs.
It has been about two weeks since the lockdown, and all those fanciful ideas went down the drain in the first week itself. First, we ran out of eggs. The bazaar had its own calculated inflation. Papaya, usually Rs 30 per kilo, was being sold at Rs 75. Potatoes, onions and all other essentials met a similar fate. Even eggs had become more expensive overnight.
Also read: How the COVID-19 Lockdown is Changing Me
Our neighbour, one whose name I couldn’t bring myself to remember until that day, had bought six crates of eggs on the night before the lockdown was announced, at the normal selling price. She distributed them amongst us in the days to come.
Public transport (non-emergency) has been suspended for the foreseeable future. So, if one has to access shops far away, your only option is a personal vehicle – which we do not have. Our housekeeper’s husband dropped by one morning looking for my mother. He had just come by to tell her that he would be walking 4.5 kilometres to the Sealdah bazaar to get groceries for his house at a cheaper rate, and that she should give him a list too. Imagine lugging groceries for two households, across almost five kilometres, on foot, in the summer heat. Why would somebody voluntarily set themselves up for that?
Soon, I began to run out of cigarettes. The nicotine withdrawal made me jittery, and I would snap at people much more than usual (which is already a lot). I did not want to work or talk to anybody, and not a minute went by without me craving a smoke. One day, our housekeeper’s son came by to give me two packets of GoldFlake Lights. Somebody had opened their shop for a few minutes, and he had managed to sneakily buy them.
That night, as I became a significantly more cheerful person, I could not thank him enough for what he had done.
Neighbours, and people in general, don’t seem so bad now. A part of me wishes I saw more of them. This lockdown would have been so much more difficult if we did not have a safety net in the people around us.
In a gated community in Bengaluru, residents took to their balconies to play antakshari. An article in The Hindu reads, “Balcony antakshari was a suggestion that amused many. The one who proposed it explained the concept in tweet-sized instructions: ‘We just pick a time, get to the balcony and play antakshari for a bit.’ Yet another resident offered for her son to play the keyboard which would be attached to speakers.”
Alberto Gestoso, a pianist in Spain, plays the piano from his balcony, to soothe the neighbourhood. Aided by fitness enthusiast Simon Garner, a group of neighbours in London work out together, from their doorsteps. The programme is appropriately called ‘On The Steps‘.
Keeping entertainment aside, neighbours are saving lives too. In Malda, a poor man is living, quarantined, on a raggedy boat. The area is far removed from other houses, and long periods of time pass by before you spot somebody in a distance. Youngsters in the neighbouring area have teamed up to get him essential groceries, and deliver them cooked from a nearby house. Without this, he would have perished.
In times such as these, humanity commands a newfound respect. No matter how strong, how independant, how self-sufficient we may be, when disaster comes knocking down our door, it is only the unfailing support of good people that save us.
Maybe, when this lockdown is over, I won’t change lanes when I see somebody I know. However, the jury is still out on the idea of small talk.
Meghalee Mitra is a littérateur and hopes to change the world, one word at a time.
Featured image credit: Reuters/Francis Mascerenhas