Modern lulla-byes

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on March 20, 2020

“Quite a change, huh?” I say to Bins. We talk on WhatsApp, ten-and-a-half hours apart. “Change from what?” he asks. It’s morning on his side of the planet. He’s standing in the backyard. A tailorbird is stitching furiously in the background: whi-choo!-whi-choo!-whi-choo! The construction crew in the neighbouring house is hammering steel.

“From last week,” I say. On my side of the planet, it’s the dead of night. The herd of elephants that lives above my head is asleep. Outside, no traffic at all. The small city of Elsewhere is in lockdown. “The US has suddenly acknowledged the seriousness of the coronavirus threat. Restaurants have been told to shut down for a week. Schools are closed. Even funerals and wakes must be curtailed: Mourning families have been requested to limit participants to 25 or less.”

Bins gives a loud yawn. “Ohh... woooah,” he says, grumpily. “Look, we’re all in the same mess. Virus, virus, virus. It’s going to last for months, or maybe not so long! Maybe only for three weeks, eh — after which WE’LL be dead!!” Bins is always at his most cheerful in the morning. “Whatever it is, I suggest let’s not talk about it? Please?”

“Okay, but...” I begin. “Yes, yes,” he says. “We have to talk about something, but not THAT. We have to find other things to talk about. Like books. Or articles. Even movies — if they are good ones — but no TV, no radio. And since this is my idea, you go first!” On my side of the planet, I roll my eyes. He can’t see me: We both prefer the video-free approach to conversations because then we can both wear headphones and wander about, making coffee or playing Spider Solitaire (him! Not me! Never me!) while chatting. Still, I roll my eyes because it’s so typical of Bins to suggest something that requires me to do all the heavy-lifting.

“Okay,” I say, “I saw a funny Spanish movie called Toc Toc —“ “Called WHAT?” asks Bins. “Toc Toc,” I say. “It’s the Spanish term for OCD. Seven people with different neurotic tics meet in the waiting room of a famous psychiatrist. They’ve all been given the same time for their appointments.” “Stop!” says Bins. “Boring. Next?”

The Farewell,” I say, “a salty-sweet movie about an expat Chinese family whose grandmother has terminal cancer.” “Nu-uh,” says Bins. “Next?” He’s back inside the house, at his desk. I hear his laptop chime. “Okay!” I say, irritated now. “How about Junkyard Planet, by Adam Mintner? It’s about the billion-dollar trade in trash.” “Sounds great,” says Bins. “Keep going.”

It’s a fascinating book, about what happens to the piles of stuff that gets discarded as trash. “For instance, waste electrical wire is shipped to China and turned into 2.7 million tons of copper,” I say. From the other side of the planet, a soft snore. I smile ruefully. Time for me to sleep!

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on March 20, 2020

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