In a busy market, people mill about unmasked. Alarmed, I enter a medical shop to buy masks for everyone. They don’t keep any. I ask in other shops. None have it. It is then that I see: I am not wearing one myself. I wake up in a cold sweat.
I’ve have had similar types of dreams for over a month. It began from the time when a quiet, numb depression enveloped me. I couldn’t shake it off. Was it because I lived alone? Was I the only one to feel this? And why did these mask dreams repeat?
“Only those who can tweet have a voice,” AP blurt out about trains without water or food that ferried hungry, thirsty migrants that often reached the wrong state. “Would a plane carrying Indians from London to Delhi reach Timbaktu,” she asked, on the verge of tears.
Turns out AP had it too and so did many I knew. This light but persistent depression, the desire to recede into a shell, a sort of numbness in the mind, inability to fall asleep and when you do unable to wake up, propensity for erratic behaviour, listlessness, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate… in swathes of conversations, friends told me their symptoms. One called it the buzz you feel after being punched in the face, another called it the blankness after a hit in the gut.
Besides the usual anxiety, panic, depression, what I realise many of us are also experiencing is STSD – Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder. Though similar to PTSD, it does not arise from one’s trauma but exposure to knowledge about traumatizing events experienced by others.
Video of a dead man slumped on a chair still waiting for an ambulance as his wife wails behind; news of a brother ferrying his sick sibling to a dozen hospitals or a son trying doing that for his mother as both died in their arms; pictures of dried rotis next to the train track where 17 migrants were run over; toddler circling the body of his dead mother - these and many more events have induced STSD in a lot of us. And we’ve reacted differently to it. Some have found the courage to go out boldly while others like me have struggled even to stay within ourselves.
Is it the fear of death? Early March when the nation was asleep to what was coming, my panic was triggered by awareness of my comorbidities. Once when I had a cold, fever, and headache, I was sure I had COVID-19. There were two more scares. I even began composing a will I’d mail if I got worse. Now, I’ve accepted that I – and some I love – might not make it to the end of the year.
Despite that acceptance, what I still expect is dignity. Death is inevitable. But to me, dignity in death should also be. I want to know that someone, somewhere will fight for my life when my time comes. This is part of my social contract with society. This is the basis, the very definition of ‘civilization’ – this push towards eliminating big barriers that curtail life. Wars are bad precisely because it pushes to nullify this contract, leaving behind prospect for chaos.
What happens when that surety of the last stand for a dignified death is taken away from you? When you know you might die waiting for an ambulance? You begin a mental, emotional, spiritual freefall.
I see countries that have done so much better during the pandemic without spending too much but by operating with a sense of kindness, responsibility and most of all urgency in both.
In India, except for one Southern state and a few in the Northeast where COVID-19 has not yet reached, both kindness and responsibility are in short supply in the administration. In the state where my parents live, a key minister asked cremation grounds to be ready for excess capacity instead of replicating learnings from that southern state and working hard to prevent deaths.
I don’t want to name any person, party, or place because almost all have failed. The state that boasted of importing its governance model nationally, lies in tatters. My state with the highest foreigner footfall has the highest numbers. Even states ruled by the party whose young leader said he warned the nation months ago have malfunctioned. As for proud chests of ultra-nationalists - turns out it was filled with laughing gas and the pinprick of a tiny virus has made it leak so bad it’s causing all of us tears. That hasn’t stopped them trying to now pump hot air into their empty heads.
AKS – a poet whose evocating words never fail to move me – says he goes to his terrace to cry. He wants to seem strong for two younger sisters who live with him. “I want to pour the migrants pain in my poetry but I can’t seem to fight my tears to do so,” he says when I suggested he etch his anguish in poetry. Last week, in the market to buy provisions, he bought everything a street-child was selling – even when he could least afford it - because he couldn’t bear to see the child in the heat.
A nurse friend is afraid she’s in danger after a colleague succumbed to COVID-19 mainly because they don’t have enough PPE kits or N95 masks and are told to wash and reuse them. Her family left town and are upset she didn’t quit her job. A staunch believer, she keeps asking God for light and I want to tell her that her minor act of heroism is the light that often brightens my day.
A screenwriter friend can’t concentrate anymore and is looking for a way to leave town for good. Another who returned from abroad before lockdown, says this time she’ll apply for residency in her country of employment. “At least in western democracies you can criticise the system. Here – even during lockdown – people are being arrested merely for pointing out the truth,” she lamented. “A banana republic doesn’t even give you the dignity to critique the indignity heaped upon you.”
The trauma of friends from the minority community is deeper. Having seen how coreligionists have been falsely vilified post the outbreak by the fake news factory, they no longer believe this is a country that will do good by them. Looking at browbeating ‘patriots’, I can’t even get myself to lie to them.
“Look at what they’re doing to students,” KT cried when she heard of the arrest of a pregnant activist during the pandemic. KT isn’t an activist but says, “Worldwide, unless you’re an immediate physical danger to society – you’d be released from prison. Those over 60 have been released overlooking their alleged crimes. In India, forget releasing the old, they’re actually arresting them anew with courts acting like administrative branches of governments rather than a free body meant to protect citizens.”
When I looked out of my 6th-floor house early April, I could see people sipping tea in their tiny Mumbai balconies, socialising on terraces while walking furiously, some exercising, others doing yoga. Despite lockdown, the air was optimistic with spring exploding atop trees as orange-red Gulmohar flowers and bright yellow copperpod ones. Two months later, except for the occasional people – some gloomily watching the sun set into the sea, I don’t see many. The faces are weary, fatigue plastered all over them.
I can feel that fatigue manifest in me. I’ve grown both expectedly patient and inexplicably impatient at the same time. Things I tolerated without effort earlier, I don’t anymore. If this be the end – I seem to be telling myself - I am not going to spend it trying to please others. I talk to only those few I truly want to. A close friend in the persistent habit of dumping her family troubles on me, I cut off from her for a month. Another I rudely asked to lay off me for at least a few weeks.
Though a basic level of depression does not go away, I’ve learned to control its spikes. I don’t check my mobile first thing after waking when the mind is pure, fresh and raw. Impressions left on it then, haunts through the day. I spend mornings writing, reading or building castles in the air about my literary or scriptwriting career. I check my phone 2 to 3 hours after I’ve woken. And I’ve stopped visiting social media groups. Opinions of ill-informed idiots is an anathema during a pandemic. So are propaganda and lies peddled on TV. Though I miss running, I’ve become more regular with exercises I can do in the 6x3 feet free space in my room. Turns out there’s a lot. And I write. Furiously. Whenever my mind allows.
Most of all, I’ve permitted myself to cut off from people who aggravate me. They are clueless about how they do it. Most of us usually are. So I hold no grudges but I don’t entertain them either.
Most of India is opening up starting today when forget flattening the curve, infection and death numbers are spiking. As if after two months of fattening; we’re being led to the abattoir for the virus to slaughter us. I understand the helplessness of governments. More lockdown means more avoidable hunger deaths. Yet I don’t see the definitive post-lockdown plan to contain and fight the virus? And people? Many are so fatigued, they’ve become nonchalant, complacent. Friends from across the country tell me, they see many without masks in markets.
Since I don’t have younger siblings, I can admit to being afraid. I am scared that so far the dead have been unknowns, but soon it won’t be the case. I am scared that like in my nightmares, I will find myself and my countrymen without protection. Maybe this is what the mask dream was telling me – that in society either everyone has justice or no one truly does. Maybe this is also one of the vaccines we must inject, into the bloodstream of our ancient but waylaid civilization.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)