What it’s like for a 30-something girl to #WFH in the middle of nowhere

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.

—–

Can I pass off my Instagram feed as a journal?

“I’ve started journalling”, said my friend, proudly. It was more of a text on a WhatsApp group, but considering us millennials are notorious for being petrified of ringing phones, and instead, prefer the safety (and unaccountability) of a screen, it amounts to the same thing.

Another friend piped in. She has always journaled, she said, and had recently, added an app to the mix. Apparently there are journalling apps these days (and they are not free, mind you), that allow the lazier ones to simply click buttons or icons to denote their mood, activity and the like.

I was impressed. A few years ago, I had tried keeping a bullet journal. Just after the craze picked up. It worked really well for the first couple of weeks (January, 2017, was it?), until I forgot all about a “new year” starting, and got into the grind, and pretty much forgot about it.

Two years later, a good friend gifted me a bullet journal that she had designed herself. It had a beautiful brown paper cover, one of those “sustainable design” types, was pocket sized, and had neatly defined spaces for goals, dates and such, on the pages.

I never used it.

Today, as I sit with my second mug of herbal tea in hand, under an umbrella, basking in the warmth of a November sun, I think about how much my life has evolved, even within lockdown. And how, my Instagram feed is proof of it. Like a visual journal.

When Lockdown started, I was living in a two bedroom apartment in Bombay’s Khar. Where after the initial excitement of working from a beanbag in my sun speckled room, which we had then thought was only for a matter of three weeks, turned into a laboriously long four months, when time lost all meaning.

I began to document my experiences through illustrations.

It was exciting, I admit, in the beginning. It was a real challenge. I thought to myself, “If I could get through this on my own, I could get through anything.” 

Before, I go into my experiences, let me give you a bit of context. I can’t cook. And no, it’s not like I haven’t tried. Or that I have always been averse. Or that I don’t want to be perceived as someone who cooks.

I am grossed out by kitchens. There, I said it. The smell of onion and garlic on my hands, tempering spices and bubbling curries, raw meat and stockpiled potatoes, turn me off. I’ve never related to people when they smell the waft of a bubbling pot of chicken curry from a neighbouring flat and find it tempting or talk of it as a “good smell”. 

Maybe, if I lived alone, and my kitchen was in a bright sun splashed open space, with stainless steel everything, and gleaming surfaces, I’d be more enthusiastic. But the thought of even entering my tiny, cramped Mumbai kitchen, flooded with the stench of damp, rotting onion peels in the wastepaper basket, a clogged drainpipe, and musty, sun-starved shelves was enough to make me lie on my bed, foetal position, stomach growling, and unable to move to cook a meal.

I know I sound spoilt, silly and lazy.

I didn’t realise the severity of my “issues” until fellow anti-cooking enthusiasts starting posting pictures of flans and banana breads, multi-course Indian meals and envy-worthy cheesecakes, artfully designed focacias and stuffed chicken breasts, on their social media handles.

Clearly, I was in the minority. 

At one point, the constant barrage of home cooked food on my Instagram feed turned into “toxic” content, enough to spiral me into sadness. I once even deactivated my account because I couldn’t take one more appetising-looking, lockdown-learned sourdough bread staring at me coyly from the screen.

Why couldn’t I feel the same enthusiasm as my peers? Why did my kitchen scare me away? It’s not like I don’t love food or anything. I adore a creamy hummus, dream about a lemongrass-scented Thai curry, crave a well-marinated lime and curd drenched chicken breast and enjoy a wholesome, multi-ingredient salad. Then why wasn’t I able to muster up excitement to cook? Or when I did end up cooking, why did everything taste terrible? It’s not like I could never cook. As a boarding-school bred, perpetually hungry teenager, I’d rummage around my mother’s bookshelves looking for recipe books, to put together elaborate meals at home. I used to live to eat then. Today, it’s the opposite. Maybe, it’s got something to do with that?

If you scroll through my Instagram feed and look for my posts during those initial few months of Lockdown, you’ll find me on a particularly rough day when I cleaned shattered glass and threw away curdled milk, a surprisingly happy day when I ended the workday with a much needed cuppa, relished while watching a particularly gripping episode of Netflix’s Fauda, and on a comparatively low day, that spelled out my feelings of being unreal and intangible.

Things took a turn for the worse when the monsoons started in Mumbai. My home fell apart. Dampness was a permanent fixture. And the smell of fresh, sun-sanitised interiors, a luxury. I began to sink deeper and deeper. At one point, I’d be woken up in the middle of the night with the sound of a large garden rat trying to claw its way into my house. The cement-dust just under the area it was digging was a dead giveaway that I wasn’t imagining things.

I began to feel like I was made up of air, that I wasn’t solid anymore. I was fluctuating. I felt unreal. Maybe staying locked up in a space can do that to you.

People say there is no higher power. No God. No one watching over you. But, my experience this year proved otherwise. Just at the precise moment I lost all positivity, my mother called me with some important news: she had managed a way to bring me home. The medical officer on duty, after much conversation, had finally approved my return. All I had to do to be worthy of this favour was to quarantine strictly in a secluded area within our compound. Doable.

In a matter of 24 hours, I packed whatever I could find into a bag, locked up my favourites into a cupboard, and flew back home, before anyone, including the government, changed their mind. Luckily for me, I landed just a day before the West Bengal government decided to ban all flights from Mumbai. I had made it. I was fortunate.

The next few days were spent recovering, sipping on endless cups of ginger-tulsi tea with home made oat brownies, along with lots of love from my mother. It had been a tough few months: I was only too glad to be home.

It took me a while to get over my time in Bombay. Funnily enough, I seemed to be suffering from a mild bout of PTSD. The thought of that rat clawing its way into my Bombay bedroom would involuntarily send shudders down my spine. The memory of my growling tummy when I couldn’t muster up energy to cook or even order; the dripping of rainwater into my room; the smell of fungus on my favourite sarees; the dampness on the walls, my towels undried for days; the sight of a cockroach in the bathroom that scared my flatmate and myself from using the loo that night; the frown of the building watchman every time we went down to collect an order or to complain about the odd water or electricity problem; the despair at discovering that yet another carton of milk had gone bad; the arrival of a meal from a takeaway joint in dubious packaging: all of these memories, would serve as a reminder to be eternally grateful for the life I was now leading in my parents place.

Home for me turned out to be the complete opposite of what my experience in Bombay had been. I could wake up without fear of what new perils the day might bring. Without the need to sleepily scramble out of bed and roll into the kitchen, dirty rag in hand, all set to mop the counters and floors, before making my morning cuppa. I could simply expect tea in bed, along with a side of chirpy conversation from my mum. I could expect wholesome, hot meals laid out on the dining table. I could walk freely outdoors, without a mask, because there were no crowds or people. I could cycle in between fields of tea bushes, the sun on my face, the skies an azure blue. I could go for long walks, letting my mind roam free, reevaluating my life choices, and introspecting. I could expect an environment of unconditional love, jolly holidays, elaborate birthday celebrations, and lots of giggles. But, what I really cherished most was an opportunity to live with my parents for the first time since 1998, when as an 8-year old, I went to boarding school.

Sure, I missed Bombay. But Bombay for me was centred around work. I missed everything about work though: waking up for it, dressing up for it, even pushing crowds to get a seat in the train for it. I missed mutual appreciation comments in the Vogue bathroom. I missed rushing into office, and heading straight to the pantry for my mandatory black coffee. I missed being frantically called for a meeting in the conference room, when I had spent an extra five minutes downstairs near the fruit seller. I missed gossiping with my colleagues. I missed random middle-of-the-week drinking plans. I missed the hustle and bustle of the local trains and the arguments between fellow train travellers on the much disputed “fourth seat”. I missed a lot.

If you scroll through my Instagram feed, and read through the captions, you might not get the little details of my daily life over the past year. But you will definitely gauge my fluctuating moods, emotions and the dramatic change in lifestyle over the course of 2020.

Is my Instagram feed a journal? In the conventional sense of the word, no. But, if a journal means a record of your life over time, then I’d say yes, my feed accurately captures 2020.