In a new column, 'Category Error', Amruta Patil marries news-triggered observation with fiction, history, philosophy, against the backdrop of an Indian high rise.

Read more from the series here.

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1 | Stages of Collective Grief

In B603, breakfast conversation picked up where post-dinner conversation had left off. The writer’s beloved, also a writer, wondered about how soon he could break away from the current discourse to talk about things unconnected with the pandemic. How much longer, he wondered, before one could get back to incomplete social revolutions, non-reactionary art, uninvestigated gossip, unfinished businesses of every stripe — without the world at large being injured by one’s “insensitivity”. Don’t people need a break even from bona fide misery?

His partner, the writer, had identified the condition correctly as ‘collective grief’ all those weeks ago, when she received the first “we shall overcome” messages in the wake of the pandemic. She predicted some days of heroic bounce and altruism, to be followed by conspiracy theories and bravado, then a slow, long retreat into quietude before people staggered out, resigned and reeling from loss of foolish hope, ready to take on whatever waited.

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The trajectory of collective grieving is not very different than that of personal grieving. To try to snap others out of it before time is almost like changing the subject around a person who is telling a story about someone freshly dead.

2 | Hijabis, All

Never forget how quickly the outlandish becomes fully normal.

Ten weeks ago, the only non-medical people to bundle up so ferociously were complexion-conscious female scooterists in Pune and undertrials being led away by police under the media gaze. Eight weeks ago, medical masks in dire short supply, clumsy white cloth diaper-ish masks started appearing on street corners. People worked through their awkwardness, raiding wives’ cupboards for dupattas and stoles; looking up “Ways of Wearing a Hijab” YouTube videos by Arab women with immaculate foundation and eyebrows. Last week, fear gave way to ugly-mask-fatigue — If I must wear it, could it please look good?

Just before lockdown, the mother of the cellular biologist in C301, Atlantis Co Operative Housing Society had traded in her beautiful hand-operated metal-body Singer sewing machine for an ugly and compact plastic-body model. With her son living out of his pathology lab now to avoid putting people at risk of infection, she had given herself fully to her sewing machine and hoarded-too-long salwar kameez cut pieces and cotton sarees.

The origins of face-covering apparel was practical — to protect from dry, burning heat or biting cold. The word ‘hijab’ means a veil or curtain that creates a literal, metaphorical, spatial separation between its wearer and what is around her. Pressing down on the foot pedal to rev up the machine, the lady at the sewing machine thought, Woman and man, bigot and non-bigot, this faith and that —

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Forty-two orders had already come in for ‘3 for Rs. 99’ packs of face masks. She ensured each pack contained one mask in the red-orange-pink scheme, one in blue-green, and one in a breezy floral block print.

3 | Life in a Metro

1947 and 1951 born, respectively, theirs must be the last generation of urban middle class Indians whose personal lives were negotiated by two things: 1) an absence of opportunity and 2) terror of causing turbulence. The aeronautical engineer in apartment D501 knew it was too late to landscape-design his own conjugal life, but given the unusual phase they were living through, he thought it was a good time to address some fundamentals with his wife and bring about some forgiveness, some perspective. Her shame and moral outrage at their daughter walking out of her marriage ‘for no good reason’, had been explosive.

Life is short, he wanted to tell her, human beings are flawed and foolish, but most things are not the end of the world — only the end of the world is. A man of sidereal approach, the aeronautical engineer broached the topic with a Hindi film — Life in a Metro. Within half an hour, the overlarge cast and plot twists gave his wife a splitting headache. He persisted, pulled out ballpoint pen and paper, and proceeded to draw up a map with Virgo meticulousness: who was whose spouse, who was whose boss, who was whose passing fling, who was whose friend.

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The map didn’t keep her from hating the film for its loose moral fiber. But knowledge brings you eyes even if it doesn’t bring you peace. When she stood in the balcony later at night, she saw the neighbouring buildings as tableaus of complexity: hidden lives, openly-lived lives, lives never to be fully lived because, too late.

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Writer-painter Amruta Patil is the author of graphic novels Kari, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, Sauptik: Blood and Flowers, and Aranyaka: Book of the Forest. On Instagram: @amruta_gauri

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