On Absences: Missing Everyday Mobility and Magic in a Pandemic

Chehre pe shahr ke gard-e-malaal hai,
Jo dil ka haal hai, vahi Dilli ka haal hai.
(There is a dust of regret upon the city,
What ails the heart also ails Delhi).

– Malikzaada Manzoor Ahmad

In this pandemic-afflicted world, many absences are gnawing at our senses, demanding their presence be profoundly felt. Touch – instinctive, tender and reassuring – has been the first casualty to fear and anxiety.

And then there are absences relating to social connection in community and public life. Five months later, we have been moved to dwell on how our lives have and will continue to change shape and direction and fit into new moulds.

As people discuss what they most yearn for, I have found that my mind, to my surprise and amusement, is thinking of metro journeys.

How am I missing something as banal as a daily commute – those pointless hours lost, sacrificed at the altar of industrial capitalism? Before the pandemic, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that the impersonal steel and glass of a metro train could inspire the romance of belonging. Wasn’t romance about the enchantment of connection and desire? What kind of connection has ever been forged on a metro journey? But I now wonder if, in treading from task to task, I have wilfully blinkered myself.

Late last year, on the Yellow Line headed towards Vishwavidyalaya, I ran into a trembling, tearful college girl on her way to campus. Biting her nails, she gestured at my bag. As I reluctantly removed my earphones and looked at her with concern, she asked me if I was carrying a laptop. If yes, could I help her with sending one email to submit a very crucial assignment before noon? Please?

As fellow metro-travellers would appreciate, one is used to cultivating a stony indifference to their surroundings during the daily commute, mostly for vigilant self-preservation. So, I found myself rather unwilling to partake in this adventure on a perfectly uneventful weekday. But something about the girl endeared me, perhaps that she reminded me of my own chaotic, procrastinating undergrad days, and I found myself softening and replying in the affirmative.

Everyone in the compartment was looking on curiously when the lady in the next seat stood up and calmly urged her to sit. Could it be that fellow passengers were also rooting for us to succeed? Booting my computer, I felt the stakes increasing. In those moments of pressure, I found that my laptop and internet were quite capable of efficiency, it was only me they betrayed in an hour of need.

Also read: The Language of Traffic

As the mail was still leaving the outbox, my station arrived and both of us had to scramble out in haste. Out on the platform, just as my screen informed me the mail had been sent, the girl squealed in relief. Then, in one swift motion, she launched at me with a hug, grabbed her bag and dived into the train seconds before the doors closed, yelling out gratitude and embarrassingly age-inappropriate blessings of a long and healthy life.

Somewhere in the recesses of my heart, this incident – the absolutely random, awkward, serendipity of it – made my day. Thinking about the indefinable things the pandemic has taken from us, I think of days like these, that make your eyes a little clearer and smile a little wider. What does one call it, if not romance?

I think of film montages where sullen, workaholic protagonists move around in public transport like zombies, among a sea of lifeless people in dull monochrome, as a melancholic song drones in the background. Given the demands of urban working lives, it is easy to take city commutes for granted, but the pandemic has upended the casual flippancy with which we occupy public spaces. An embargo on unfettered movement has enforced a relative stillness. This stillness is useful, because it affords therapy, urging us to reflect on earlier ways of being in public.

As I set new routines to cope, I also find myself trying to retrieve the old ritual of daily commute from the perception of lonely, empty monotony.

Also read: The Siren Sleeps Now: The Dulling of Mumbai’s Magic

Even amidst the frenzy of rush hour, it has helped me decompress, given structure and purpose to the day. Being a woman has to do with this dawning realisation too, since the very right to occupy public spaces on our own terms has been hard-earned and navigating them an art of skilled negotiation. It is certainly exhausting, but the sense of autonomy it imparts is indescribable.

So, when I find myself thinking of absences, the background hum of an ordinary metro journey floats into the foreground and comes into focus. How do I describe what it is that I miss? An in-between, liminal space of zoning-out, daydreaming, relaxing to the uneven rhythm of movement; growing accustomed to the odd cadence of the overhead announcements, being wary of sandighd vyaktis and laawaris saamaan; streams of whispered conversations and muffled, overlapping music from earphones, the tapping of laptop keys, the rustle of newspapers, aluminium foils, candy wrappers; giggling schoolgirls in tousled uniforms taking selfies, and apprehensive rural women in brightly-coloured saris walking gingerly on sleek floors; courting couples stealing one more minute before catching trains in opposite directions; children wriggling free of mothers to explore the compartment by themselves, and raucous street theatre-wallahs with their misshapen kurtas and decorated daphlis; college girls in hijabs and those without discussing love-lives, deadlines, the latest web-series; nuns with rosaries and henna-haired aunties with shloka notebooks and a dozen shopping bags….

A vignette, a snapshot, before it recedes into the background again, of a public culture clumsily cobbled together in the metro ecosystem. And within it, a sense of familiarity and comfort, almost like muscle memory. Maybe magic has always existed in the mundane, we’ve simply conditioned ourselves to overlook it. Hopefully, when the pandemic is behind us and we begin to shed old skin, we can relive these small quotidian joys again.

Amaal Akhtar is a historian, writer and editor based in Noida, currently living in transition. She has previously written for LiveWire, The Hindu and The Indian Express.  

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty