Thursday, 4 June 2020

This lockdown is a memory

Yengkhom Jilangamba

We have been under lockdown for a few weeks now; it has been a few very difficult weeks, very surreal, almost unbelievable. Who would have thought that the whole world could come to a standstill – well almost!

Once you realise that the door of the flat, our home, has not been open in days, no-one has rung the bell, the severity of it all becomes real. But trapped within these four walls, you also hear a lot of what is happening in the world, perhaps more than one should, and definitely more than what is happening in your very own neighbourhood.

Online news, especially those which come via social media, do not come merely as information but as screams. Almost every piece of news is bad.

One of the first casualties of this pandemic and the concomitant lockdown, personally, has been the inability to focus, or read anything except ‘news’, or think and articulate coherently; to not be worried, not be afraid.

Fear is a strange thing. It grips from the inside; once you are contaminated with fear, everything, everyone has to be treated with suspicion. You can’t trust anyone, obviously, but more than that you can’t trust the door knob, the lift in the building, any surface, the vegetables; and most importantly, you can’t trust the air you breathe in.

Fear consumes. Irrationality is just a minor ramification. Panic is merely a heightened stage. It feels as though all the readings that one has done has come to naught. It is a strange condition. One is forced to reassess everything. There is nothing certain anymore.

People say that one’s memory of life flashes before the eyes in a series of images just before death. I am almost certain that this is not true. Or, at least there is no way of proving it. To compare what we are living through with a flashback before death is perhaps a bit unnecessarily dramatic. But in times like this, I find flashes of memory come back. I am not sure why – perhaps it is borne of our confinement.

Lockdown is about containment and restriction, and it’s especially about making mobility impossible. All of the new words and phrases we’ve so quickly adopted relate to space, or the limitations put upon it – travel ban, stay-at-home, closure, shutdown, isolation, quarantine, lockdown.

Each is a different version of how access to spaces and places can be removed with limited, if any, consultation.

Not to be able to have access to common, familiar spaces makes one feel terrible. I feel the pain and anguish of the many not able to do what they are habituated to doing.

We have been cooped up in a flat without being able to move out into the hills, or the banks of the river Brahmaputra by which we live, or move around for daily chores. This new, unforeseen condition of having to confine ourselves is terrible, irrespective of whether or not one knows the rationale of its implementation. Even though I am one of those who travels very little, I feel the pain, anguish, anxiety brought on by this sudden isolation.

I teach a course on violence and I have been thinking about it for years. I have also grown up in a land marred by violence. I can't help but notice the violent nature of the response to this pandemic.

This experiential part of me believes that these restrictions are not so exceptional even in normal times. After all, histories of enclosure, plantation, and our contemporary gated colonies are illustrations that not everyone has the same right of access to places. The connection between this lockdown and all of those other restrictions put on spaces is one of enforcement with actual or potential violence.

As someone who grew up amidst the political turmoil in Manipur, when counterinsurgency was the dominant mode of governance, I feel a deep sense of déjà vu.

It is as though our little world of encounters between the rebels and the State’s armed forces, gun fights, combing operations, arrests, protests, general strikes, bandhs, curfews have not only come full circle but have also become amplified to be applicable to the whole world as a way of dealing with the pandemic.

It is as though we are living through the nightmare of my childhood, yet again.

It may be having to deal with our son who is four-and-a-half years old, whose school has been shut, who has not been able to step out or meet his friends, or roam around in the neighbourhood, but is instead stuck inside.

It may be the stories of children who have had to suffer enormously because of the lockdown, many without a place to call home.

Whatever the trigger is, I keep thinking about through this lockdown – my childhood in Manipur even as we lived through other lockdowns.

On the brighter side, while people in different parts of the world seem to be struggling with this particular solution to the pandemic, which is the lockdown, I feel consoled that we have had so many rehearsals of this in the past. If anyone ever wants to develop survival skills on how to live with damaged lives, they should take help from the veterans of those who lived through protracted conflict.

This is not, of course, to belittle the threat that the virus poses, the loss of lives, the emotional turmoil, the consequences of economic hardships, and other forms of suffering.

Perhaps the threat from a virus that has brought the world to a standstill and armed conflict are not the same. They are not even useful comparisons. The only connecting point that I can think of is fear.

We are all gripped by the fear of the unknown. We go to absurd precautionary extremes to avoid infection. Just as in the past, we live every aspect of our lives gripped by fear, going to every extent possible not to be caught in the middle of an encounter or a frisking operation, or a bomb blast.

The result of a wrong move in both cases can be deadly. And the worst part is that it does not even have to be willful participation in the act. A simple mistake is all it takes to be on the wrong side. Everyone knows that precaution is not a guarantee of anything but then one does not stop trying. This is what makes living in situations like this exhausting, all consuming.

The agent of fear is different but the experience of fear is comparable. There is also a similarity of making a whole population immobile. In addition to the curfews, protests and general strikes, Manipur has also seen frequent blockades.

And as I lie awake in a neighbourhood gone silent of construction noises and music and everyday life, the memories come back of other long nights: the sound of the howling dogs, muffled voices in the dark, the low humming sound of vehicles, the sound of boots on dirt road. And, through all of this, the worried elders of the family putting up brave faces as though there was nothing to worry about.

This is what we have been trying to do with a four-and-a-half year-old in the house – to act brave and not be consumed by the fear of the virus, and the stories.

All this is my way of saying that we have lived through this; that what is happening now is not completely strange; that there are crises other than the pandemic. There are also stories of love and solidarity.

As survivors, it is important that we remember those stories as well.

Yengkhom Jilangamba is a historian. Currently, he teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UWA of Aii.


UWA Public Policy Institute