life, (at a distance)

What I fear most is that once this is all over, nothing will have changed. That there will be no revolution. It terrifies me that life might return to how it was, before this, and I will not find as much in it as I have imagined. I am haunted by these thoughts, I do not want to go back, I think what I have been missing has always been missed.

When I hold my fears against those of the majority, I see the depth of disparity in experiences of this pandemic, and perhaps of life at large.

It has become common, and perhaps too common, to refer to this present moment as uncertain, and unprecedented. I would like to suggest here, some things that are quite certain, and fairly typical about the times we are currently seeing through. They are simple and known things - but I find it necessary to retrace them, as evidence. I do not pretend to have the answers, or to be removed from the systems I criticise.

Of one thing I am certain: the impact of the virus is not indiscriminate. It does not proportionally affect all human life, it is not an equal global phenomenon, and we are not all facing this pandemic together. The spread of coronavirus COVID-19, has only solidified that our normal has always been abnormal.

While those of us with roofs over our heads and easy access to food have been inside, self-confining in spaces that are ample and comfortable, the world outside has stopped performing.

Empty hoardings hold up a blank slate to us, a mirror, a broken grid. I imagine people hired like hitmen, climbing billboard structures at hours well beyond curfew, slashing and stripping the frames naked. They left hurried ragged trails of vinyl behind, hanging limply like a bad haircut.

As the breaking of grids continues, power structures solidify. We wait rigidly before our televisions, awaiting government directive, performing a forced nationalism. But there is no respite, information is released in strict measure - if at all.

People seem to occupy streets with all the authority of a beaten stray dog. They make a slow, hurt journey away from the urban landscape. The police figure, with his lathi, now has the permission to continue the reduction of human to pariah. You will obey.

Despite the inundation of the media, there is so much silence. There is silence where there should be truth. Millions of lived realities assume the shape of a gaping hole, or a pixelated memory. So many linger in the present, awaiting death.

Of these things I am certain. But I also insist that these are not new problems. This is typical, magnified but typical. I don’t know that I saw it as clearly as I do now, and I admit this with pain.

Early last month, my dadu passed away in Delhi. I was in Bombay at the time, I hadn’t left my apartment in 70-something days. It had been a few months since I had seen him, I can’t remember how long. Dadi would bring him down to Bombay to escape the cold months. It was too hard to care for him while fighting the winter.

Dadi sent me a photograph over Whatsapp. Although I deleted it almost immediately, I haven’t been able to shake the memory. It was a picture of dadu just after he passed. He was strapped in his wheelchair, stiff, and more gaunt than I remembered him. His cheeks were sunken craters, eyes closed, mouth open as if gasping for air. The photograph looked oversharpened, with noisy edges and anaemic colors - the result of dadi’s cheap smartphone. I did not want to see him this way. I told myself it wasn’t him, not anymore. I was reeling in my hurt, I wanted to drown in the way he laughed when I played tabla on his balding head. I still know the feeling of that shiny skin, slightly oily and smooth like wet silk. Dadi did not call me as she usually did, I called her, although I did not want to. I was hurt and furious that she had subjected me to that version of my dadu. When we talked, she repeated the same question over and over. What should she do with his body?

I think dadi needed me to witness her pain, to make it mine. It has been a long time since a photograph moved me that violently. The file is no longer in my phone but I do not need to have it, to see it.

With the help of some friends we got travel permits and drove from Bombay to Delhi to be with my dadi and perform the last rites. It took two days of driving to arrive. We rested the night on a farm in Sirohi, sleeping under open skies. It had been months of being inside, I was drunk on a fresh breeze and falling stars. So far out into the world, after being so far in. The ease of our movement deeply unsettled me, its sharp contrast to the journeys of people who walked home across the country. When we finally got to Delhi, I realised it had been more than 10 years since I had been there. But I still remembered the way light fell through the jali of dadu’s balcony.

It has been almost 3 years since I have taken a photograph I care about. When we began driving, I began to make pictures again. I think I needed someone to see what I saw, someone to bear witness.