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 | Faraway Too Close

Her husband, meant to be travelling for a week, had been stranded in another country for close to two months. The precise, moody hour at which she pined for him most acutely — dusk — did not correspond with pining hours in his time zone. For him, it was lunch time. The Odissi dancer in Apartment A101 of Atlantis Co Operative Housing Society was reading about the great number of Chinese women who had rushed to file for divorce as soon as lockdown was lifted in their town. The article listed familiar marital irritants:

Money (too little), screen time (too much), housework and child care (not evenly split). 

Chinese women seeking speedy divorces left the Odissi dancer unmoved.

Her apartment was a gaping maw of emptiness and she felt kinship with the Natya Shastra’s emotion-suffused Vipralambha Nayika — heroine separated in love. Or with the sculpture of graceful Patralekha, stylus poised over writing slab; contemplating, no doubt, what turn of phrase would urge ‘faraway’ to turn into ‘so close’.

It used to be that when the Odissi dancer painted on winged eyeliner, strong mouth and red fingertips before a recital, her personality altered. When the game face was washed off, so was her desire to be seen. Today, when she shed her garment to take a selfie for her husband, there was no make-up. All contouring was of natural light. Light pooled in her eyes in such a way that the two black flecks in her left iris showed. Remember me like this, said Vipralambha Nayika

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2 | Internal Exile

Granny in apartment B602 had been in lockdown for better part of two years. She had her faculties intact and was mobile still, but so slow. Four months ago, which seems like a lifetime ago, the baby of the family — prickly teenager who did not shy from confrontations — had insisted they take the old lady out for ice cream, rather than bring packed ice cream back to her room.

It is to make life easier for her, chimed in the father and mother, too much in unison for it to be a guiltless response. The prickly teenager shook her head, She wants to go. You don’t take her because she takes eight minutes to put on her chappals.

The parents, good people both, felt oddly gutted. Eight minutes to put on her rubber chappals, yes, and ten minutes to walk from room to the elevator, five minutes to go from elevator to car seat, five minutes from car seat to sidewalk. Instead granny went into lockdown. Even the most caring amongst us are slaves to velocity, outsourcing defecating pet dogs and shuffling parents to hired hands who stand around with hourly-wage patience, clutching leash or elbow.

How can you bear being indoors so much when your brain hasn’t gone slow or blank yet, the prickly teenager asked. The crone’s eyes glittered, as always — mirth or rheumy-tears?

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The wise lead themselves into internal exile before anyone else bundles them off kicking and screaming.

3 | Man With No Pants On

Of late, watching pornography had become unbearable to the IT consultant in apartment E203. It was a repeated reminder that people had other people in bed with them, while he did not. More comforting was watching cam girls –who, for a fee, eat cereal in front of you like a sleepy girlfriend, or shower or flash their nipples etcetera, all in front of a web camera.

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Even under normal circumstances, cam girls were like creatures inside a snow globe, their hard-nosed business acumen offset by deep existential aloneness.

But ennui is gangrene upon Eros, and the IT consultant soon tired of cam girl streams as well. He started checking into random webinars instead. If someone — anyone — said they were going Live, he showed up to check out their living rooms and bookshelves, to send High-Five emojis and Burning Fire emojis in the comments field, and to tell people it was his birthday (it was not).

One TV presenter turned on his web cam without adjusting the frame to hide the fact that he wore no pants. One journalist appeared on a DIY version of her slick show with bad makeup (TV-worthy makeup doesn’t translate under other kinds of light), a shadow of her old over-sure self. Another journalist conducted an entire interview with a limp towel hanging in the backdrop. A subject matter expert apologised repeatedly for a pet dog barking behind her. Focused, discursive people got distracted for a second or two because of someone calling out from the other room. 2020, decided the IT consultant, would go down as the year smugness dropped and public people became identifiably human again.

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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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