Even as we seek each other to restore our balance, we also resist being reformed, fighting for autonomy and the right to be wayward within the safety of our relationship
My husband Afzal and I have been long-distance partners many times before but being away from each other during these weeks of lockdown has been something else altogether. He had gone home to his village in east Uttar Pradesh to spend two weeks with his father and just when he was ready to return, the lockdown was announced, leaving him stranded 900km away from our home in Delhi.
“It’s a good thing Papa is in the village," our daughters would reassure each other during the early weeks. “At least Dada is not alone by himself as the news and rumours about the covid-19 virus spread every day. Otherwise we would have worried about Dada and felt helpless about it."
I also wondered whether we were all better off not being under the same roof in the initial weeks. Our daughters and I tend to float around the house seeking our own corners and doing our own thing most of the time. Afzal’s way of being home is gathering all of us together and making us pay attention to each other. He will ask for the phones to be put away and the dog to be sent outside so we are not distracted by our extra-familial affairs.
He replenishes himself by being with people. I need to be by myself to recover from being social. I rely on him to draw me out and put me in the centre of things. He often needs me to make him rest from his hyperactive travel and socializing.
Even as we seek each other to restore our balance, we also resist being reformed, fighting for autonomy and the right to be wayward within the safety of our relationship.
Like all long-married lovers, we oppress each other a great deal. We feel sorry about it too. Separated by several intimidating districts of Uttar Pradesh during the lockdown, we are left with no choice but to improvise ways to maintain the texture of our relationship. He offers me unsolicited advice at unexpected moments and I go silent on the phone for longer than usual pauses.
“I know you are not agreeing with me," he will say.
As I scroll through various apps on my smartphone at various times of the day, I realize there is a new way to define love. Love means watching a vile video on one’s WhatsApp feed and not sending it to your beloved. Love also means watching the next-level vile video on one’s timeline and sending it to your beloved to make sure you stay connected. We don’t want to make each other anxious, yet we don’t want to be isolated from each other in this time of anxiety either.
As the urgency to stay safe during the pandemic was quickly overtaken by the shock of witnessing the humanitarian catastrophe of daily-wage labourers stranded without food or wages all over the country, our conversations with each other changed drastically. I began working with a network of volunteers to provide food to poor and homeless people across India. He reported the crisis from a rural perspective as he teamed up with the local administration to distribute food packets to the poorest communities.
My colleagues filmed migrant labour spilling out of the city with their babies and bags on their shoulders, determined to walk home despite the lack of food and transport and the threat of police action. He told me about groups of exhausted migrants streaming along the highway next to his village. One helpless group had been rounded up by the police and quarantined in the village inter-college.
I sent him the list of things we were packing in the dry ration kits and he reported with pride that he had done his research in the kitchen and had an identical list. In fact, their ration kit included potatoes too.
To maintain familiarity in a fast-changing world, we bicker at regular intervals. He complains that I don’t watch the videos he forwards and delay reading the poems he sends. I tell him that my WhatsApp fingers are going to fall off from overwork and he should be satisfied with the red heart emojis I send him in response.
I want to tell him to come back soon because mosquitoes have entered our bedroom and the garden hose is broken and there are plumbing issues I don’t want to deal with. Also, it will be nice to have tea together and go for a walk when dawn breaks. And argue about whether the dog is looking sad or I am just projecting my feelings on her.
When the lockdown is extended up to 3 May, we realize the month of Ramzan will start before he is able to return home. Our youngest child, not yet 12, tells him on the phone that she wants to fast with him this year. She draws a portrait of him with chalk and sends him a photograph of it from my phone. His face is dotted with stubble in her imagination.
“How does she know I haven’t shaved for days?" he texts me. I send him two emojis in response—a smile and a red heart.
“Listen," I say to him, “this lockdown experience is supposed to be a time for us to recalibrate our needs, right? It’s a chance to separate the essential from the inessential."
“Yes," he says.
“And fasting in the month of Ramzan has the same goal. So this year you get a double opportunity to become a better person by the time Ramzan is over. Are you going to take it?"
“Yes," he says, leaving us to hold on to an unexpected moment when we seem to have nothing to argue about for a while.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.