An Indian woman’s experience of isolation downs and ups on Irish shores.
By Mehar Luthra
I was about to leave and take the bus to the university when I got a call from one of my classmates. An older Irishwoman, she asked me if I needed her help with anything and implored me to give her a call if I did.
Thoroughly bewildered, I thanked her and asked why she sounded so worried. RTE had just broken the news: Ireland was now officially in lockdown. I had, of course, anticipated this but there was momentary shock still; eclipsed, however, by immense countervailing gratitude that this kind lady’s first thought was concern for a stranded Indian girl. I reassured her that I was well and living in a secure apartment with a nearby grocery store.
In a country that had only ever shown me smiles, banter and kindness, I was preparing to hunker down and weather the storm.
But still for several days I would sit still in the bedroom of my apartment as the unseen divider raged on outside the curtained windows. I made to-do lists and pondered whether to stick around or go home. Everyone I saw asked me why I had chosen to stay back in Galway and hadn’t raced home to my family in New Delhi. But one thought recurred over and over: if I did go back home, I would simply be sitting in the bedroom of another apartment (this one shared by my parents and sister) and I would still be doing the same things I am doing here. So why would I drag myself through traumatised airports and risk infection just to go and sit beside a different curtained window in another city ravaged by the same virus?
It’s curious. Before I made my unhasty choice, every person I encountered suggested the same thing: stay where you are. The universe, in all its simultaneously unwavering and perpetually varying wisdom, had decided to nudge me to stay put.
But neither did I leave my heart in India. I had feared that I would be crying tears of regret every night into my pillow, missing the company of my oldest friends, weak in the solitude. But no. I did cry into my pillow sometimes in the early hours of the mornings, unable to sleep, heavy with exhaustion and the heartbreak of a carefully planned-out summer shattered. But then I would have done the same into the pillows that I left behind in New Delhi too, wouldn’t I? Regret, I was not open to.
Now, hysteria and doom did come in gentle waves slithering through the letterbox studded in my front door. They peeked out from behind windows and verandas and underneath the empty and cold oven in my kitchen. I begrudged my body its daily need to be fed, it’s urgent imperative to be stretched, fed, comforted and entertained. Dating apps were useless and my laptop looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to empty buckets of words into its hungry void on days I could barely formulate coherent thoughts.
Why did I have to eat and shit and breathe and hydrate? It seemed unfair somehow that I could not count on oblivion when so many other things and routines had been wiped out.
And my mouth remained bare of lipstick, my shoes unworn.
I spent many days under the covers, simply wishing I could stay under and hibernate as bears do.
During long nights spent willing myself to sleep, the bathroom light from under the doorway anchored me like the North Star and pulled me out of my own head with its swirling thoughts and bubbling worry.
Spring came knocking on our doors and tugged at our sleeves, even in Galway. It seemed like the rampant new season hadn’t received news of its cancellation. Flowers bloomed defiantly, leaves latched onto branches and the pathway to the grocery store began to line itself with cheerful tulips. Birds reclaimed lost lands and cats sunned themselves on shining roofs.
I took my coffee on the tiny, square balcony that gives over roads, filled now with car after car passing by in a hurry. Where were these people going? The virus was stalking us – were they running away? I now felt warmth and a gentle breeze in a land that had only ever given me winter.
Some days I was productive and could almost remember routines that had seemed endless to me only a few weeks beforehand. I stretched, and performed sit-ups, push-ups, leg raises and ab-crunches – until my body sang with soreness and the delight of tested muscles. I read great tomes, lost myself in my writing and sucked, as reward and vitaliser, at my coffee until not a drop remained in my oversized, cheerful yellow mug. I waged war with my skin and exiled pimples and blackheads. Didn’t they know there was a lockdown in place? Go home.
I called people incessantly, perhaps as a reminder to myself that I still had friends and people I could count on. I devoured comedy movies and revelled in the twin pulls of irritation and gratitude when I spoke to my parents who couldn’t help but worry and fret. I embraced moments of sympathy and gushes of affection for my parents. Mothers and fathers must live in a cloud of self-inflicted anguish and anxiety, even without this novel plague.
I retreated into a shell for days on end, reappearing with a thwarted zest for conversation and camaraderie. It was becoming easy to resign myself to the blanket of powerlessness that covered me and my life, a dome which had descended on my hopes and dreams. Much harder was to find joy; and the urge to express hatred, love, ambition. Or even hunger. My anxiety packed a suitcase and settled down to wait in the corners. Its roar began to sound farther and farther away until I could tune it out and go about my dinner. The world was at a standstill, but at least we were all halted together. I quaffed almond milk, got used to soda bread, spread untold masses of cheese on my roast potatoes and passed whole afternoons looking out at the declining Atlantic sun and asking myself what the hell I was doing in this mad, foreign country. I was okay but only just. Like you I hope.