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The sound of silence: An Indian muses on life in a New York ravaged by COVID-19

With all dreams of travelling to India for the summer reduced to just that, Manhattan resident Shweta Ganesh Kumar says the prospect of an Indian grocery delivery is now the highpoint of their days

Published: 14th May 2020 09:44 PM  |   Last Updated: 14th May 2020 11:24 PM   |  A+A-

(Photo | Sagar Rajgopal)

It seems like ages since my family and I confined ourselves to our small Manhattan apartment. On March 8th, we received an email from our elder child’s school informing us of a school closure, as one of the teachers had tested positive for COVID-19. The school was shut two weeks before the rest of the city shut down or paused as they called it, giving us the time to gather our thoughts and basic essentials before the panic set in.

We live in the East Village in Manhattan, a neighbourhood known for its artists, musicians, writers, Bohemians and a varied food scene that boasts of fulfilling pretty much any food craving that you might have. The neighbourhood is far diverse than many in the city – both in terms of the ethnicity of those who live here and their economic status, as well.

As an Indian expat family who has lived in many parts of the world, it has been one of the only places where we felt at home as soon as we moved in. The sense of belonging that we have felt here has been unparalleled - be it at the grocery where random strangers would advise you to come back for the grapes the next day to get them at a better rate or at the playgrounds, where children from all backgrounds would happily play together.

Much like the rest of the city, here too the soundtrack of the day was a mishmash of many tongues loudly conversing in the streets set to the background of traffic and jazz playing from the park, fire trucks urgently driving past and buses wheezing to a stop before heading onward again.

As COVID-19 started spreading through the state of New York, first in the suburbs and then the city itself, the authorities started announcing social distancing measures that became increasingly stringent and rightly so. Starting with the museums and schools, then the non-essential work places, then eating in at restaurants and bars and later playgrounds and even dog parks – everything was shut down one by one.

The only time we were allowed to go out was for groceries or to pick up food. We were also allowed to go out to walk or run, provided we wear a mask in crowded areas and the caveat that we were not feeling sick. The best policy was and is to stay at home, as much as possible.

The first order of business in our household was to designate a permanent workspace for my husband. A space where he would not be interrupted by the chaos of having an eight-year-old and four-year-old at home full-time.
Once that was set up in the bedroom, I moved to figuring out online school for my elder child. Thanks to her school that had been preparing for this eventuality, this was relatively painless. From live classes, lesson plans and activities, the next few weeks were all about understanding when enough was enough.

One of the challenges of this sudden dive into homeschooling is the complete lack of knowing when we need to draw back. Can an 8-year-old show the same enthusiasm for a full day of homeschool as she does for virtual school? And even if she does, is this kind of learning really effective? What would serve her purpose better? Questions that we are learning answers to on the go. For the truth is, there is no one-fits-all answer to these questions that we have never had to address before.
 
And then there is our younger child who started off by getting upset because he was seeing his teachers and friends online. ‘All I want is to go to school, Amma. When can I go?’ A question that I’m sure children around the world are asking their parents. A question that none of us have an answer to.

Life in shutdown means that we needed to designate grocery days and have an idea of what we need to stock up on. My husband, being the one who cooks, took up grocery duty. Once every ten days, he walks down to the local supermarket and picks up our grocery (mostly perishables and snacks for our children), while maintaining a six feet distance from the closest human at all times. There was never a question of stockpiling because he could only buy as much as he can carry back home that is a couple of blocks away and up the three flights to our walkup apartment.

And for our comfort items – the idli batter, the ParleG biscuits, the tea leaves – we rely on our Indian grocers who have always been online. A couple of weeks ago, they informed us that stocks were running out. They shut down for a couple of weeks and reopened with a single ordering window. With the vigour of a former video game enthusiast, my husband sinks down into his armchair to make sure we get the slot that we need with at least a few of the items that we crave to make this bearable. A bottle of mango pickle would be nice. Bru coffee? Even better.

For now, with all dreams of travelling to India for the summer reduced to just that, it is the food that comforts us. Even if the deliveries will be wiped down with Lysol before they get to be kept away, the prospect of an Indian grocery delivery is now the highpoint of our days.

My husband still goes out to run. After hours and hours of being shut in a room with his headphones and laptop, he needs this to clear his head. Twice a week, he laces up his running shoes and runs down the eerily empty streets of this once bustling metropolis and along the bridges that were choc a bloc with residents and tourists alike not too long ago.

I resolutely stay at home, thinking that I can ride this out. My children and I dance this way and that in front of the TV, matching moves with a dance app. I download fitness apps on the phone and modify jumping moves with those on my tippy toes lest I inconvenience the neighbour downstairs.

And outside spring waltzes in, drenching the trees with enticing cherry blossoms as tulips sprout from the ground in dazzling hues. Winter has slowly exited leaving in its wake sunny skies and pleasant days that we can only enjoy from behind our windows.

The news is increasingly terrifying, with thousands of COVID-19 deaths reported in the city. I realize that my anxiety skyrockets in direct proportion to my news consumption, so I shut it down. I gently ask people to stop calling me with news about the tragedies engulfing the city, the country, the world. I have zero control over all that is happening and I am helpless and the only thing that I can do to wrest control or some version of it, is by putting a limit to the news that I consume. 

The news makes me painfully aware of my privilege at being able to stay safe at home to consume the news. The privilege of getting to hold my children close and not have to worry about the next meal or rent when millions out there struggle to keep their head above water. The news needles me with guilt about the plight of our frontline workers – medical and essential – who tirelessly strive to keep us from utter collapse. And so, I limit my consumption purely to be able to function as a parent for two young children who depend on my reaction to this crisis to guide their own.

My need for human connection varies. My day remains incomplete without speaking to my parents in Kerala and messaging our friends in the city, but at the same time spending entire weeks with my children without switching off makes me yearn for me-time or just silence, even if it is for an hour.

The city complies by lapsing into a silence so dark that the birds sing late into the evening, as if bewildered by it all. Till it strikes 7 in the evening, when for a few moments the city erupts in a chorus of church bells, cheers, singing and applause for the medical fraternity and essential workers who soldier on with the scarcest of resources, before it wraps itself in a blanket of stillness again.

Sometimes, I end up standing by the window looking out into the street wondering when this will end, if at all. On one of these days, I see two familiar head shapes on the street. Our friends from a couple of blocks away have ventured out for their first walk in four weeks. They are masked but their eyes smile as they see the four of us yelling out at them from the window. Talking through the masks is too painful, so after a couple of waves they walk on. My four-year-old bursts out in tears. He wants to go on the walk with them and does not understand why he cannot go out if he is not sick.

The days start blending into one another. My birthday comes and goes. Then Vishu. We celebrate both. A lock-down version of it and it is good. Somehow, everyone has time on both days to call and catch up. It took a lockdown for that to happen, but I’m still grateful.

It is not all gloom and doom. There are days of belly laughs and giggles as we give ourselves up to the many distractions that TV and the Internet have to offer. The happy days matter so much when all of time is now an amorphous mass and these days are a reminder of how everything starts to seem normal if they stay that way long enough.

Just before I sit down to write this piece, I go for a walk in the park in front of our house. It is my first time outside in weeks. My shoes feel alien. I wear my jacket and my mask and my glasses fog up as I breathe. I touch nothing and walk past the barricaded children’s playground and basketball court. I see squirrels and sparrows and runners and other walkers in the distance.

As I turn the corner to our house, a woman walking a dog calls out to me. "I like your yellow mask! Very cute." I smile behind the mask hoping she can see it reflected in my eyes and thank her as I walk on.

We will overcome, I think to myself as I prepare to shelter myself within the brick walls of my home once again. For no matter how long this night turns out to be, dawn cannot be too far behind.

Shweta Ganesh Kumar is an award-winning blogger, bestselling writer and full-time mother. She writes mostly for grown-ups but she loves spinning tales for children, as well. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in more than twenty anthologies and online literary magazines in more than four continents. You can read more about her life and work at www.shwetaganeshkumar.com

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