Last July, I took a flight from Mumbai’s T2 and flew to Bagdogra to spend the rest of the lockdown with my parents in a sprawling tea estate in the Dooars. I was accompanied by a hastily packed duffel bag of my most precious belongings and mild PTSD. The past four months—from March to July—had been tough, what with being locked in a Bandra bedroom with minimum cooking skills and maximum workload. To give an example, I once ate a raw tomato for lunch, gulped in mouthfuls in between back-to-back Zoom calls. Even then, despite my growling tummy and weakening brain cells, I laughed, telling anybody who’d listen, the contents of my meal. There was also the involvement of a certain stubborn garden rat, persistent fungi and a soaking almirah—things I’d rather not get into now to avoid summoning repressed memories.
The circumstances that led me to the airport and back home hadn’t been smooth. While the onset of flights had brought hope, there was still a hurdle—the tea plantation had tightened its regulations, mandating institutional quarantine for all outsiders. The below average accommodation reserved for the purpose had become overcrowded, said my dad, giving me details of the parties the quarantined people were hosting on the premises. Needless to say, these developments kept me on a diet of burnt granola and undercooked pancakes for an additional one month.
Meanwhile, my very enterprising mother had been busy. She’d been getting after everybody she could get after, to allow me to come home. She even went to the extent of drawing a map of our house for the local medical officer (I pity him for having been subject to my mum’s wrath), proving that I would be quarantining in a completely different section, away from the rest of the property. After multiple tries, he complied, perhaps tiring of my mother’s persistence. God had finally agreed to conspire with us. And I took an Indigo flight home.
As my cab drew up the back gate after the three-hour long drive from the airport, my mother stood waiting by the doorway. The raging pandemic made sure there weren’t any hugs or kisses exchanged. Unconditional Love retorted by serving steaming hot rajma-chawal. I had been transported to heaven in a matter of hours and have been comfortably coddled there ever since.
After renting a Bombay apartment with a writer’s income, graduating to slightly larger “matchboxes” every appraisal, living in the annexe of a Burra Sahib’s bungalow can be overwhelming. One never quite gets used to all the help. Or the sheer scale of the property. Waking up at dawn on a feather-soft bed facing wall-to-wall windows overlooking an expanse of green is consistently surprising. Not to mention the on-call mug of tea that appears by my bedside every morning. The spotting of a new and often exotic species of bird never fails to elicit inexplicable joy. Nor do the hot meals, many of which are whipped up by the cook under the trained eye of my younger brother, a chef.
I discover the joy of indulging in slow-cooked biryani and succulent pepper chicken. Of multi-course meals on special occasions. Of tall, chilled glasses of smoothies, blended with chickoos, bananas and peaches handpicked from our backyard. Of hot cake straight out of the oven. Eating is no longer an activity spent in front of a laptop watching a ‘Friends’ rerun. It’s now a family affair punctuated with laughter, arguments and my mother’s attempts at warding off awkward silences.
As I recuperate gastronomically, nature decides to show off. This is perhaps its attempt at a warm welcome. There are psychedelic sunrises and fluorescent sunsets. There’s the clatter of crickets and the buzz of bees. There are squirrels noisily bounding on the tin roof at night. There’s that deafening thunder and blinding lightening. I note how nature’s cries vary with the changing seasons. I take in the bursting gladioli in the spring, and the watery hydrangeas in the monsoon. I witness the occasional band of monkeys causing squeals and cries in the household (“Protect the pineapples!”). I join in the tensed activity when wild elephants, trumpeting loudly, cause a ripple of fear, horror and excitement.
Oftentimes, I feel like I want to reach out and touch the beauty. But I can’t. Like one of those dreams when you are chasing something, but somehow can’t catch up. I have felt this way in places that are too beautiful to fathom. Places that are so magical, it hurts. Is this why we take photographs, I wonder? So that we can be active, for once? Engage with the scene? Interact with it through shutter speed, exposure, frames, and filters? I feel mesmerised and trapped at the same time. Mesmerised because I love what I see. Trapped because even rolling on the lawn and climbing a hill don’t feel enough. They just tire the limbs without tiring the eyes. And when it comes to beauty, all our senses want to be tired. We want to climb the mountain while also admiring its view from afar. We want to run in between tea plantations while also observing it from a vantage point. We want to float on the lake while also having a birds-eye view of its expanse. We want to actively engage all our senses at the same time to truly drown ourselves in the view, to completely derive the joy of the universe. And even when we do, it somehow isn’t enough. There’s still a dull longing, one that doesn’t know how to fulfil itself.
After the initial few months of absolute awe at my new-found elevated lifestyle—not having to mop the kitchen for starters—I gradually find myself having bouts of restlessness. I have the uncomfortable feeling that life is passing me by. That time is running out. That while others, in cities, are living, I am in a time warp, where things stand still. Like I am in a limbo. Like this tea plantation is a desktop wallpaper and I am a tree stuck to it. Unmoving. My world has begun to consist of screens, my folks, fictitious characters in shows and the occasional wild animal. The surrounding greenery, when I am on a deadline, becomes just a pretty painting to appreciate during breaks. And once the work starts and the deadlines loom, the plantation fades to the background, like a photograph hanging on the wall of an office.
Sometimes, I need to force myself to look out of the window. To drag myself out of the door. The emails compete for attention. The words “need by EOD” cut short my cycling trip. There are days when I am not stepping out at all. I am pulled into the dystopian world run by technology where between 10 to 6, I am staring at my laptop, making decks and sending briefs. Working remotely from the middle of a plantation looks great on social media. But, there are days when nature can’t compensate for the joy of a good old laugh with a colleague.
I often feel like I am the only one experiencing this surge of emotions. This dissatisfaction with life. This frustration. This unfathomable helplessness. This obsession with the time before. What keeps me awake at night is the fear that I might not make it to the end of this with my mental faculties intact. It’s discomforting to feel discontent when one is so incredibly privileged. It feels wrong to complain. I often feel like kicking myself in the gut for these negative feelings. What gives me the right to crib? I hold my thoughts in for fear of being judged. Or, at least, I try.
As we prepare for the third wave of the virus, the future seems all the more uncertain. One minute I can’t wait to break free and live on my own again. The next, I can’t imagine having to pick out food bits from the drain, breathe the dusty air and look out into concrete. What bothers me most is the nagging feeling that the past year has undone years of progress I’d made, managing independently in Bombay. I have grown dependent on luxury and comfort, and on my parents’ support.
My gratitude feels privileged. My privilege unnerves me. And this whole essay, on re-reading, feels tone-deaf. I feel guilty for being too happy. I feel the same for feeling frustrated. Maybe, going back to the city, living life within my own means, paying rent and managing meals, will help sort this conundrum. Maybe, all I need to do is eat a raw tomato for lunch again.