We are in the midst of a 21-day lockdown in India, announced in response to the frightening spread of COVID-19 infections in the country. This means that we, at least a lot of us, are exercising social distancing, and physical distancing when stepping out to quickly pick up essentials.
I have always been a home body. Past trauma has deeply informed my introverted behaviour. I can manage well in social situations but I run away from them quickly and take weeks to recover. So, this social distancing does not dampen my spirits catastrophically. At least, it hasn't yet!
I am also extremely privileged. I have a home, a caring parent who lives with me, food to eat, safe water to drink, and a bed where I can safely sleep. I have immense class and caste privileges as well, key factors that decide survival, respect, safety and dignity in India. In a crisis this unprecedented for our generation, all these advantages matter when you reflect on how you are coping and how solid your support systems are.
While in lockdown, the ones isolating have to look after their own homes and sustenance. Freaking hell, right?! We all need to pitch in for the cleaning, the cooking, the shopping, and the contingencies. Many among us are handling the full load for the first time in their lives.
In my home, I am the cleaner and Mom's the bafflingly enthusiastic cook. A typical morning scene at our house nowadays is of us standing with our backs to each other, me bent over the sink, washing and she focused on the stove, cooking.
My mother is a wondrous creature. A survivor of unspeakable violence, she has never lost her capability of making the silliest jokes and laughing at them herself. This particular morning, as I shuffled into the kitchen, she greeted me with the loudest "Good Morning!!". I stared at her - what is she made of?
I pick up the scrub and start with the vessels as she keeps chatting and making sandwiches. I adore sandwiches! I can eat them all day, even at the risk of an acid reflux. Our lockdown supplies have been coming from a small convenience store close by. As supplies have been erratic, it is best (and right) to make do with what we have and be grateful. Mom, the nutrition police of the house, is not too happy with the white bread, and the brand of the bread. She does a "tsk" and a few seconds later, starts smiling wryly.
How things have changed. Mom grew up poor. They had a home but money was always extremely low. Being raised by an alcoholic father didn't ease the strain one bit. The father, tough and unpredictable, blessed the kids with irregular moments of attention that the kids held on to with a collective fierceness. Mom still recalls those moments when he was good.
One of those moments came floating back up in her memory as she spread the soft potato filling on to the white bread slices on this day. Bread used to be a treat for them. Her three siblings and her. She was raised in Kerala and in those days, 'bread' was not in their vocabulary. They called it 'rotti'. It was a cheap, unsliced loaf that was reserved for special days, usually a Sunday. The kids' excitement would rise the moment a loaf of rotti would enter the house. The arrival also meant that there would be chicken. Tough, desi (local) chicken that would be used up comprehensively and made into a nice brown curry. Rotti and chicken. Mom smacks her lips at the memory. "It was hilarious. Our ears would be aware of the boiling in the pot throughout and we would all peer in with curiosity as the rotti was sliced. It was such a sight for us!"
Bread. My family's collective privilege has ensured that we have some to eat today. As our advantages rise, we tend to get more particular, more finicky, more rigid. We feel more entitled to what we deem better. We refuse to change, we refuse to adjust.
In times of a pandemic, when millions face deprivation and an uncertain future, a simple packet of bread is a small reminder to be grateful. It is a reminder that many of us come from pasts of severe deprivation ourselves. It is a reminder that we have built a world so unequal, that the basics remain out of reach for so many, while so many others create stadiums-full of waste. It is a reminder of the long roads many of us have to travel to get to a point of having a living wage, a home to come to.
A simple packet of bread in your home must make you think where you are today. Because that packet is anything but simple.
- With loving inputs from Sharada Manorama, whose daughter I am.