Slo-mo days and restless nights

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on July 24, 2020 Published on July 23, 2020

Masked out: The smell of baking used to float like a gas balloon outside every bakery in town. With my mask on, I can’t smell a thing except my onion breath   -  ISTOCK.COM

The familiar cues that inspired a writer are gone; in pandemic times, little things give joy

Without language we are nothing. We can’t make sense of our emotions unless we name them; feeling without words is meaningless. When externalities change, language too metamorphoses and mutates, like a virus. Our inner life is pure wordplay.

Nowadays, phrases get stuck in my head, like words in a song, perhaps a Bee Gees/Boyzone song: “It’s only words/ And words are all I have...” The phrases help me make sense of the world around, the inversion of things as we know it, my neuroses. Here are some of them.

The mysteries of thin air

Poets and novelists have a close relationship with thin air. One wakes up and waits for the penny to drop. One stares at the blank page, waiting for the minivan of words to arrive. Often the van is late, but it arrives nevertheless. Writers make physical objects on paper by plucking these items out of thin air. These days, the writer is cautious. The air is infected. Dirty. The writer wishes that the virus would one day vanish into the same thin air.

The mask that masks smells

Smelling is an important part of writing, evoking memories or just putting one in a good mood. I always write better when the smells of evening cooking — mustard seeds frying and popping — waft through the house. The smells of the Indian city can go from stinky to divine. It’s what I miss during my evening walk. Dehradun, where I live, is a city of bakeries. The smell of baking usually floats like a gas balloon outside every bakery in town. With my mask on, I can’t smell a thing except my onion breath.

Turning clothes on a clothes rack

This is our first pandemic monsoon. One of the pleasures of working from home is that one can go out on the terrace every few minutes and turn one’s underwear like sausages in a barbecue. One plays games with the sun. One tries to checkmate the rain. The rain always wins.

Did I kill a snail?

I see a centipede crawling on the wall. I reach for my vacuum cleaner. I think of the Samuel Jackson line from Pulp Fiction: “And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.” The deed done, a thought crosses my mind: Did I just kill a baby snail? I’m such a terrible specimen of the human race; can’t fix the coronavirus but goes hammer and tongs at a snail, the most harmless of god’s creatures. Paranoia will kill us all.

The snoring granny

As the virus waxes and wanes outside, my 93-year-old granny sleeps like a log, blissfully unaware of the goings-on. The Alzheimer’s now acts like an N95 mask for her mind. She’s the grand old steam engine rattling through the night, plumes of smoke billowing from her formidable nostrils.

My father bought a truck

The corrugated tin roof of my room has sprung a tiny hole. On nights it rains heavily, the water drips into my ear, irrigating whatever grows inside (I sleep on my side). The hole is a metaphor, I tell myself. One chink in your armour and the virus will get you. I flip sides on the bed, from the Pavilion End to the TV End. I dream that I’m a superhero, walking around town in a PPE outfit and a mask, my face shielded by a visor, hunting down the serial killer that has taken over our lives. I dream that we are in the middle of yet another lockdown and the strap on my rubber slippers has broken. I strut around the house wearing boots. I dream that my father, the proud owner of two yellow Nanos, has bought a truck.

My friend’s children

In the evenings, I drink and yearn for conversation. I call my friends. They are busy with their only child. All my friends have one child. One child is a major achievement these days; my grandmother had seven; I have none. My friends try and make me feel bad about this: We have a family; you have too much time on your hands. I tell them about a couple I know who’ve just had their second child. Sometimes I invent couples who’ve just had their third child. I feel better when I say this; I hope they feel bad. I think they do.

Ambulance? Who cares

The sound of an ambulance once served to remind the healthy ones of the fragility of existence. Its piercing wails struck fear, as we made way for it on the clogged roads of our busy lives. Then, we forgot about it in seconds. These days fear is a constant presence, looming over every human transaction, permeating every breath we take, every surface we touch. Bah ambulance.

The little things

I’m watching this Indian show on Netflix called Little Things. In the first few minutes of the first season, I spot the protagonist reading my bookEunuch Park. It’s a blink-and-miss appearance, but vain authors don’t miss such insignificant details. My book has made it to Netflix... as a prop. It makes my day. In pandemic times, it’s the little things that give joy.



Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

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Published on July 23, 2020
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