Wednesday, May 12, 2021
A Pandemic Year for Women: For a community library and its members, what is lost and found in a lockdown
Sanju is 12 going on 30. He walks into the library with a swagger that’s picked up from the older boys. I find it hugely irritating, “Just be 12 na!” I mumble to myself. Sanju’s fulltime job is being impressed with Sanju. He is consumed with his own brilliance: I’m so smart, I’m the best. I came first in class, I’m the best. I can read in English, I’m the best.
He demands too much attention and is regularly surprised to discover that the rules also apply to him. His high-pitched complaints about other library members are not endearing.
This kid requires energy. The kind that a decidedly single and childless-by-choice woman resents giving. But he loves the library and spends all his time there. He reads well, he teaches his younger siblings to submit perfect book reports and is always buzzing like a bee around this space.
At The Community Library Project (TCLP) in Delhi, all are welcome. No fee, no kaghaz. Read, think, take books home, surf the internet, attend workshops, make art, make friends. I sometimes wonder if the library matters as much to me, as it does to him. I wonder if he thinks about it when he goes back home, as much as I do. Despite our differences, we have one thing in common - the library is our anchor.
On 25rd March, 2020 at 8PM, everything is unmoored. A deadly plague has travelled around the world to reach us. Deadlier still is the lockdown imposed suddenly by the Indian state. We have barely 4 hours to prepare for a new reality. Alone in my south Delhi apartment, dread fills me from head to toe. I am afraid for myself and my elderly parents. My fridge is stocked. I call my domestic help and tell her not to come. And then I reconcile to waiting.
For thousands of families connected to our library, the next few days, weeks & months are a trainwreck and the losses pile up. Daily wage & job loss, evictions and then the food runs out. Sanju’s school is shut. I don’t know it then but his family decides to leave the city like millions of other working class people. Not everyone at the library has the luxury to wait.
In the early days of the lockdown, my reality is virtual. If it weren’t for Twitter I wouldn’t know what’s happening outside the gated colony where I live. Op eds, breaking news and the endless march. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. In what feels like forever, I have no real responsibilities. For now I have money in the bank and my landlord has said I could go six months without paying rent. I post this on Twitter, it goes viral - my landlord is a hero.
As the days get hotter, I turn on my AC and refresh.
Social media is flooded with photos and videos of working class families making the unbelievably long journey. How much panic does one need to feel to set out on foot, for thousands of kilometers? Imagine knowing that no one in this city, not even the people whose homes you built, waste you collected or deliveries you made, would look after you in a crisis.
May 2020. Many families from our library community are in deep distress. Children I’ve known for years are witnessing the unravelling of their lives. Everyone who works at TCLP receives an excel sheet of phone numbers. We each call at least 100 members to check how they are. We try and aswer their concerns as best as we can. Our librarians become hubs of information, we make videos about how to get tested for Covid in order to get on a ‘shramik’ train or bus. Others connect with food relief organisations to distribute food packets in our areas and visit ration offices to find answers. We find every public service collapsing.
When one has never known material adversity before, a crisis like this is paralysing.
But as a library worker who is part of a collective, there is immense power as well. Library leaders search for ways to continue reaching readers. TCLP has never wanted to go digital but for the first time, it begins exploring online library resources that work in poor internet areas and don’t hog expensive data packs. Public school kids are ‘back to learning’ with Zoom classes. Ours will probably lose the year. They can’t lose their library too. We try to get as many members onto WhatsApp channels to send them read-alouds thrice a week. It is called Duniya Sabki.
We are in October now. I have no idea where Sanju is or if he’s receiving any read alouds. And I’m ashamed to say it’s because I haven’t thought about him in months. I’ve been swept up in the pandemic too. Family members have fallen sick with the virus, some seriously. Income streams have dried up. Everyday, we hear more stories of despair from the library. I’m too scared to hit refresh on social media. My library colleagues discuss what to do with all this frustration. We decide to build a ‘Justice Doctrine’ - a chronicle of our community’s distress, made of snippets of conversations we’ve had with each & every member-family. It is not just a place to park our rage, it is a scathing testament of how our systems failed us.
I have taken up yoga but not baking sourdough. There is still food in my fridge and I have even confessed, with zero self-awareness, that “jhadoo-poncha is fun yaar, so great for the glutes.” There’s another trip to the ration office. After November the free-ration scheme, meant for food-relief in the lockdown, will end. What will happen after that? The officials can’t answer. We are hurtling into the worst of the pandemic. November in Delhi is deadly. We hit an all-time high with new infections & deaths.
On 16th December 2020, I receive a Facebook message:
Give me reply
I squint at the profile picture. No! It can’t be. Sanju! But not 12-going-on-30 Sanju. He looks like a proper teenager now. A bit more serious, with a more serious haircut and just the last dregs of boyishness on his face. He must be posing, pretending to be an older man, I think.
Give me reply just mam
And just like that, as if the months of deadly lockdown never happened, I feel that old familiar annoyance rise up again.
Give me reply
I reply to him and apologise for not responding earlier. He asks if he can call me and another ‘mam’ sometime soon. I say yes of course. I want to know how he is, where he is. But then he vanishes again and the call never comes.
10 months after the lockdown began, TCLP’s libraries begin reopening. First at Khirki, then South Extension-Kotla and soon after, Gurgaon. As old members and new admissions begin streaming in, we exercise as much covid-control as we can. Our programs are running at half mast, we sanitise a lot and at any given time you can hear some adult saying “Beta, mask theek se pehno...naak par.”
Sanju messages once more. I figure he’s seen all the photos of the new libraries on social media.
How are you mam?
This time I ask him: Aap kahan ho? Aapka message dekh kar mai bahut khush hoon
Library kab khulegi maam?
Khul gayi hai. Aap kab aaoge?
Mai nahi aa sakta mam, gao me hoo.
Oh! Wapas kab aaoge?
Pataa nahi mam.
I don’t know what to say to that. The 10-second delay is characteristically too much for impatient Sanju.
Aap theek ho mam?
Haan, mai theek hoon. Aapko miss karti hoon. Saare ma’am aur sirs aapko miss karte hain.
Ab mjhe jana hai mam.
The cursor blinks as if someone is typing furiously on the other end. But the message, when it finally comes from this boy whom I haven’t thought about in weeks, is short.
Take care mam.
Monday, July 6, 2020
This is my first beer in two months and oh, if I only had the words to describe how gloriously this cold, life-affirming liquid slides down into my interior.
My head spins and I want to giggle at everything and nothing. This. Is life.
Then the phone dings: Ma'am aap free ho? Call karoon?
It's a kid from the library where I work. I've known this boy - young man - since he was what, 12? He's 17 now and a musician. A rapper with his best friend. They whip out 'flows' at lightening speed, they flood social media with their 'Coming Soon', 'Coming Real Soon', 'It's Coming, We Promise' posts every second day. The boys are gifted, they 'spin rhymes' that make me cool by association. Their raps possess an ease that makes me both proud and jealous. No one would guess it but they record their tracks by scavenging for quiet nooks in the chaos of their locality.
Our library used to be that but then came the pandemic.
Ugh but I'm so happily inebriated. I don't want to talk to kids.
"Ma'am aapne Sidharth-Garima ka naam suna hai?"
Nope. I've not heard of Sidharth-Garima. Is that one person or two?
"Ma'am unhone Ramleela ke gaane likhe the."
Lyricists for a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. Hm.
"Ma'am unka phone tha."
Ok ok, I'm up. I'm listening dammit.
The boys, whose work has spread wide enough for us to no longer have any kind of reliable contact-tracing, have been approached by famous Bollywood composers. The bigshots have lyrics that need to be transformed into a 'flow'. They've heard the boys' music (where? how? what is this miracle?) and would like them to try.
For some reason, the boys decide to call me - their only link to the glamorous world of cinema, I guess, myself having been a worldfamous screenwriter for documentary films that no one watches. "Kya karein ma'am?' What shall we do?
My buzz fizzles to piss. If the past twenty years have taught me anything, it's that young, hungry & talented artists without 'godfathers' rarely catch a break in show business. The boys tell me they've been promised 'credit' but no money. Of course, what a fucking cliche.
I'm paralysed. I don't know what to say. As an 'elder' who believes in their talent and is incapable of being objective about their work, I want to tell them to tell the Bollywood bigshots to fuck off if they can't pay. But I also know that calls like these don't come everyday. And as I struggle to give them the right advice I'm confronted by my past coming back at me in waves. It's as if the 20-year-old Me is standing in front of me, asking if she should take that unpaid internship to get a foot in the door or let it go because money matters and her work has value.
Both choices are wrong. Both choices are right. Especially when you're staring down the barrel of opportunity.
You only get one shot.
Or do you?
And my insides scream: THIS IS WHY I CHOSE NOT TO BE A PARENT!
It's too big. A young person handing me the reins of their life-changing decisions and saying: 'Tell us. We'll do what you say.'
I DON'T WANT THIS JOB.
I tell them to ask for more details (never be afraid to ask questions about a project, even if it's to Jesus himself) and get them to commit to 'credit' in writing on email. I tell them to walk that thin line between expressing keen interest in the job and holding firm for better terms. It took me decades to learn this. I know these boys will not be able to do it very deftly. They sound unsure on the other side, almost prepared to lose the job. Part of me wishes they'd ignore me. This could potentially be a huge opportunity (if it isn't a total scam), one that boys without studios don't often get. Will my advice steal their chance? Or will it remind them of their worth so that when success comes calling, it is real and rewarding.
I put the phone down wearily. My beer has made it to my kidneys and well past it.
Be grateful for that singular second when the chilled brew first hits your throat. No sip will ever taste the same. All I know is: Life is hard and I never want to be 17 again.
Saturday, July 4, 2020
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
My reason for freezing is I'm polite. I'd like to give the cockroach a chance to gather its wits and make its next move.
At this point, I should mention I haven't really had a human in my home for a couple of weeks. It takes me a while to tell myself that having roaches in the house is not good. In fact I haven't seen one in my house since 2016. I scroll through my database of insect knowledge - why exactly are cockroaches bad? They don't bite or chew through stuff. They don't carry life-threatening viruses (well...they might). Why am I supposed to take my chappal off and squash this guy?
I really don't want to take my chappal off and squash this guy. The cockroach-chappal-squash move is something we've all grown up with and somewhere it's become the automatic Darwinian response of south asians to all pests. But who said that's the only way to deal with cockroaches? What if we let them walk away? What would happen?
I must google this, I think, as the cockroach remains frozen, contemplating its power move. I must also add 'Cockroach killer' to my shopping list although I'm not decided whether to use it or not. Have I mentioned that no human besides me has entered my home in weeks?
Two weeks ago I was attacked by a swarm of wasps. It's not their fault, I'd barged in on them quite suddenly as they were building their nest on disputed property. According to the Indian constitution, I have rights over this building. According to natural law, the Indian constitution can go suck it. It was painful as sin. My arm and back swelled up to theatrical proportions and everything was very tragic looking (and feeling) for a week. The wasps got it worse. The ones that stung me died. The rest had to deal with me for the next 2 weeks as I set upon a daily routine of breaking whatever nest they'd built through the day.
Wasps are exceedingly persistent. To the point of being, in my opinion, stupid af. They will build no matter what. Like robots programmed to execute code with no regard for value of labour or consequence. Despite the fact that I break their construction every single day they return to rebuild. I've taken hits too. The glass lampshade they decided to construct on got smashed to bits because of my indelicate stick manoeuvres. As of today, they continue to build through the morning. At around noon, most of them will disperse (lunch break?) leaving one poor sod behind (to guard the fortress?). I will then sneak up with my stick (curtain rod) and poke at the nest until it falls. That poor guard wasp, the shit it must have to listen to every afternoon when the others return to find their hard work undone. GO SOMEWHERE ELSE, YOU FOOLS! I want to scream every single day. Do you think I enjoy destroying your homes and your chance to build a future, I yell at them like a serial gaslighter. But they never listen. It doesn't matter I guess. Soon the nesting season will be over and the problem will take care of itself.
Roaches, I can tell even without googling, are not seasonal. I suppose at some point I'll have to do something violent to them. I'm still standing outside the bathroom, waiting for Big Guy to decide where he wants to go. Just go anywhere please, I won't do anything to you tonight, I plead. I really need to go to the toilet. The bastard doesn't care (does he know what I did to the wasps? Is this revenge?) so I stomp my foot. Perhaps its Darwinian response is to scuttle when it feels the south asian chappal approaching. It makes a beeline for the living room. For now there is truce.
It's summer in a pandemic. The wasps will soon leave. The roaches are here.
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
It's always got one eye out looking for comfort.
Before the lockdown we would take walks, my anxiety and I. Now it's all downward dog this, chaturanga that. Breathe breathe breathe that newly purified air you muthaloving human, my anxiety chants.
Enough blood to the skull resolves the tightness.
We allow ourselves to become cliches.
We won't read the books we said we would and we won't stay awake as late as we'd hoped.
Cook once, clean twice, binge watch. Then turn them into monuments of functionality.
Things my anxiety doesn't know.
What this post is about it until the first sentence is written.
That it will eat 3 lunches in one day or nap from 2 to 6pm.
Or that this task will be abandoned in 3...2...1.
Making money? We don't do that anymore.
Write more than 3 lines at a time? We don't do that anymore.
Plan? Laugh. Out. Loud.
It's annoying, this brain-fart prose.
My anxiety shortens things. Sentences, breath, ambition. This blog post.
Sunday, July 15, 2018
So here's the bad news, we might have to dive in again. And again. And again, until we discover the meaning in our contradictions: compassion.
Because really, there's no other way. We tried judgement, it didn't make us better. We tried debilitating criticism - the self-talk nearly killed us. We held ourselves & each other to impossible standards. We only caused hurt in the end.
With compassion we might be able to tell the difference between mistakes, ignorance and Trumpian evil. We might learn how to discern what deserves our anger and what doesn't. Compassion allows room for confusion. But more radically, confusion, allows room for compassion. And maybe that's why we age at all.