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City City Bang Bang, Columns

Birds in a Pandemic?

The city is alive with the sound of birds. Who knew that in the vast embankments of concrete we call home, so many birds too nest? Social media is full of people making this miraculous discovery. On Twitter, we are being reminded of what the word means in English. A distant song being played a few apartments away, a few streets away or a few kilometers away wafts through. The 14-hour Janata curfew is still underway as this article is being written, but the sound of one’s breathing was never quite this loud, certainly not in the bustling metropolis one calls home.

Cities are never silent. We have never really experienced the quietude of cities. Buildings in repose, roads agape, the city in still life is a new experience. The silence of the big feels a lot different than the silence of the small. Silence in the middle of the day feels quite unlike the silence of midnight or the stillness of dawn. Nature is vast, magnificent and silent, and today so is the city. The city is frozen in incomprehension, arrested mid-stride. This is the city, not as hub, but as landscape.

There is something profoundly terrifying about the situation that we find ourselves in. We are helpless against an invisible enemy and our only option to fight it is by retreating into the tightest definition of ourselves- our home and immediate family. We are tied to our homes, imprisoned by our own touch and breath. The outside world has to be distrusted, and very carefully navigated.

Equally, there is something profoundly liberating about being confined forcibly at home. For once, it is perfectly legitimate to put our own interests first and not have to compete with other responsibilities that otherwise give us a sense of significance. Our health comes first, our family is what is most important, and this time around one gets to acknowledge this and act in accordance with it.

We do have work to do, but it is by having not go out to work that many of us have realized how little work we really do. Everyone is busy of course but stripped of the things that we choose to call work, what remains, the things we really need to do turn

out to take a lot less time than they did. Unless of course, one is in video or conference call meetings. All meetings whatever the format waste approximately the same amount of time.

There are some who will have the opposite experience. They will work filling whatever crannies of time they had. The line between work and home has been blurred for a while but for some this thin wall will crumble completely leaving them at the mercy of their many digital devices. But for the rest, working from home will be work, but with a very different flavour.

There is nothing we can do about the fear, for we are crouched against possibilities we cannot escape and cannot fully control. But in between the waves of panic, there is an opportunity to savour this freak chance we have received to legitimately do everything that has been denied to us in the name of responsibility. We can read, we can cook, we can go for long walks, listen to full albums, dig up old films, play computer games, call up old friends, write that book that we have told everyone that we are writing for the last many years.

For what we have today is an unexplored land that is neither home nor work, not routine everyday life nor exotic holiday. We are suspended between familiar concepts and it is in this liminal space, like all others, where rules can be relaxed and new codes of behavior be invented. It is noteworthy that we enjoy the most freedom in spaces that are neither this nor that. The beach is a great example of the inventive ways in which we use the in-between. What is matter-of-fact beachwear is shocking underwear five meters away.

The outward has an inflated sense of self-importance which is very difficult to resist. we follow its dictates, whether it comes in the guise of work, or even play. Going out for work for social gatherings has always been surrounded by an air of ceremony. We need to get ready to go out, we prepare in some form, we make the effort to travel, we follow protocols of behavior once there. The inward on the other hand, is available to us only in an exotic form. We have to become mindful, breath rhythmically, chant in a suitably rarefied language, eat extremely specific kind of foods if we want to make an inward journey. What we have today is the opportunity

to go inward without the accoutrements, the necessary heavy baggage that other accompanies it. We can doze, feel the summer drone around us, space out, potter around meaninglessly, listen to birdsong, clean cupboards simply they are there and so are you. We can go on an inward journey that does not have to be meaningful to be enriching.

Of course, if days turn into weeks, and who knows months, things might well change. The city might itch in uncomprehending impatience, the home might close in on us. The birds will feel screechy and the flowers will in any case have died. But eventually the darkness will lift and what we will carry with us is a new kind of knowledge about ourselves and the city we live in. we will know that within its metronomic countenance lies another quieter deeper city which we can access if only we can bring ourselves to. The city will never be the same again, nor will we.

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