I walk down the dimly lit hallway, heading back to my room after using the bathroom. There is not a sound to be heard as I pass the doors lining each side of the corridor. Most of the other students have returned home since the college was shut, and my room’s location at the end of the building only seems to reinforce this.
As I reach my room, I notice a friend coming up the stairs. We talk for a while, and unlocking my door I repeat what I have already told five people today – that I have no plans of leaving London. My laptop awaits me on my desk; an essay lies unfinished. I am about to start on the conclusion when my phone rings. The identity of the caller is no surprise – my mom, for the third time that day. It’s a miracle she’s still awake, it’s well past midnight in India. The numerous calls have ostensibly been to reassure me not to worry, but in all probability to alleviate her own worries.
What follows is not so much a conversation as a one-way dissemination of information, with me periodically acknowledging my continued presence on the other end of the line. My parents have decided to send me to San Francisco, to an old family friend’s place. They have decided that it is no longer wise for me to stay in London, that if I cannot travel once my accommodation contract ends I will have nowhere to stay; that the city is soon expected to enter lockdown; that Europe is the epicentre of the pandemic. Ideally I would have returned home to India, but I am a US passport holder – and India has banned entry of foreign nationals. My dad books me on a flight for the day after tomorrow while I am still on the line.
As I hang up I lean back in my chair, surveying my room and marvelling at the number of things I have managed to cram into the limited space. I do hope the remaining students in the hall enjoy Indian snacks. My mind is swirling with thoughts as I return to the essay; it is around midnight when I finally finish editing it. Tomorrow will be a long day, and I should ideally get as much sleep as I can.
Of course, life is not ideal and I end up watching a Satyajit Ray film that has long been on my list. Just as I am drifting off to sleep, my phone begins violently vibrating on my chest – mom again. I glance at the time: it’s around three, I suspect she has been up all night. Only half-awake, I am informed that my parents are thinking of putting me on a flight today afternoon. I try mumbling a few words of protest, but my mom seems convinced that one extra day will be the difference between my boarding a plane and the suspension of flights. My original ticket is cancelled and a new booking made – I am now scheduled to depart from Heathrow in ten hours time. I put my phone down, look around my room again and groan. I should have taken my chance to sleep.
My two huge suitcases are retrieved from beneath the bed. I start emptying my closet, but I soon realise that the clothes were the easy part. The sheer amount of things in the room begins to overwhelm me, and I start to regret stuffing my drawers with anything and everything under the sun. I empty their contents onto the floor and sift through heaps of belongings I can scarcely recognise.
Eventually, I retrieve two massive plastic bags from under the sink and begin filling them with waste. This is helpful; I calm down as the number of things strewn across the floor gradually decreases. I add my contribution to the growing mountain of waste leaning against the overflowing trash bin outside the hall, and decide to take a quick shower before resuming. I realise that I have disposed my body wash in my haste – and after briefly considering fishing it out of the trash pile, better sense prevails.
The rest of the packing is significantly easier. Along with the two huge suitcases, I also fill up a large donation bin in the basement. My room looks naked, the walls stripped of all their pictures and posters, but I do not have the time to take in the poignant sight. It feels as though I have cleared an entire habitat by the time I drag the last suitcase down to the reception. The alarm I had set last night rings at nine; the thought of all the lost hours of sleep invokes an oddly comforting laughter within me.
It is 9.30 am before I know it and I soon find myself making my way towards Paddington Station, back bent against the wind as I drag two suitcases along. My arms are throbbing, and the typically dreary London weather does not help matters, the raindrops pounding down on my neck. The dome of the station shortly comes into sight. Largely empty, the Heathrow Express thankfully keeps its promise of transporting me to the airport in 20 minutes, and upon arriving at Terminal 5, I find that it is a far cry from its usual bustling self.
Sinking into my seat on the plane, I have never felt as accomplished as I do at this moment. The last ten hours were undoubtedly exhausting but also slightly exhilarating. There was a sense of thrill to my adventure, one I am not likely to have again soon. I notice the flight is largely empty – the rows of unoccupied seats seem unnatural, limp pillows and blankets wrapped in plastic lying unclaimed. Yet I have little energy to process all that has just happened, having been awake now for over 30 hours. I manage to exchange a few messages with my mom before promptly passing out.
It has now been a month since I arrived in San Francisco, the city of my birth. On the way home from the airport, I could identify a few landmarks – at once familiar for the memories they brought back and unfamiliar for their abandoned look. Keeping up with college assignments has kept me engaged, but the two weeks I spent in self-isolation also gave me the opportunity to reflect, to engage more closely with happenings back home.
It has dawned upon me that the very fact that I could fly halfway across the world between two developed countries at such short notice represents extreme privilege. Scrolling through Twitter, I have been confronted with images of migrant labourers in India walking home from cities to their villages after the imposition of a national lockdown. One 12-year old girl – just two years younger than my brother – had travelled a total of three days from the fields where she worked before collapsing and dying just an hour from home. I cannot imagine how she took the decision of trekking 150 kilometres through forests with an irregular supply of food and water – I have never known such desperation, and perhaps never will. Reading about her, I felt a brief but sharp pang of guilt at having complained about dragging two suitcases in the rain for fifteen minutes to Paddington Station.
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I have also come to realise that it is not a simple binary between the developed and developing world. Many domestic workers in India have also been staying at home amidst the lockdown. Back home, this means my brother has taken to doing the dishes and cleaning the house – with mixed results, to put it mildly. My parents are in the kitchen full time, constantly bombarding our family WhatsApp group with declarations of how one’s cooking is better than the other’s. Clearly, the moderate increase in workload and slightly less comfortable lifestyle for much of urban middle class India pales in comparison to the existential crisis facing many of the country’s underprivileged. There exist many different Indias within the borders of the sovereign state the world knows.
Technically, all of the population is equally at risk from the virus but as with so many other things, it is the most vulnerable sections of society that stand exceedingly exposed. While the government has operated special flights to evacuate Indian students studying abroad – and its efforts must be duly appreciated – migrant labourers attempting to return home have been sprayed with bleach and disinfectant at state borders. The government has asked citizens to stay off the streets, but what of those for whom the street is home? Construction workers who built large parts of our cities are being forced to take shelter under bridges. And in places where provision of food for the general public is being made, understandably huge crowds of people have hindered social distancing efforts.
My time in self-quarantine has starkly increased my awareness about both myself as well as the world I live in. While I remain in limbo, uncertain of when or how I will be able to return home, I am nevertheless infinitely grateful for the many privileges I enjoy during this difficult time for India and the world.
Tridib Bhattacharya is a first-year undergraduate at SOAS University of London where he studies International Relations and Economics as a merit scholarship holder.
Featured image credit: Tomas Gal/Unsplash