As someone who works with templates, I am well aware that the template of life as I knew it has changed drastically post the pandemic outbreak. Mornings are very different nowadays. Eight months ago, every morning, my wife and I would brush, change into walking clothes and leave for a walk — a stretch of close to four kilometres. We would see a few faces every day; we would smile at some in greeting. But there came a time, when even for this you needed permission from the police or you would run the risk of landing up in a thana or quarantine centre.
On our way back, I would stop at the local marketplace and pick up fresh vegetables and milk, sometimes fish. Of late, a new young man has taken up a spot in the bazaar. He calls out the names of Bengali dailies in an insistent high-pitched voice — Anandabazar, Anandabazar, Bartaman — but he sells milk and bread. It has taken me, and perhaps many others, time to figure out it is a sales pitch; it is his way of telling everyone that he has fresh supplies.
Buying vegetables is no longer the long-drawn investigative exercise it used to be. Now, there is a constant fear of catching the virus. There is no letting down one’s guard even for a minute. The other day, I was inspecting a pile of potatoes when I felt a hand on my shoulder; it was another buyer. What might have earlier led to a friendly chat about vegetable prices irked me now. I kept thinking, “Virus, virus, virus.” It is the same in the fish market too. I find it impossible to focus on the rohu or the chingri when there are people crowding around. I keep thinking, “Virus, virus, virus.” And I end up shouting, “Can you please move away? Don’t you know we need to maintain a one-metre distance?” People, however, stare at me as if I am the mad one or the one speaking some foreign language.
But the most template-altering change has been the work-from-home situation. After the initial novelty wore away, working from home turned out to be more hard work than the work itself. Meal times shifted, even menus changed — smaller breakfasts, no more lunch out of the box. I picked up a kitchen skill or two. Most significantly, workspaces had to be carved out — one room for me, one for the son.
In time, my wife scuttled away to another room; apparently the noise level from my work calls is too much. That’s the other thing — these days, it feels as if my whole department has moved in with me. New words have entered my lexicon — SSL, VPN, Zooming.
Equipped with a piece of gadgetry, a login and a password, I can remotely connect to my office desktop. It is almost as if I was there, in office.
But almost is not quite the same as the real thing. There are many missing pieces, for instance, the shouts from colleagues to check on the picture selection or size or layout. And though we are calling and video-calling and messaging all through the day, the inability to get immediate feedback by walking up to X or Y or Z is difficult to get used to. And then there is the fact that everything, beginning with the Internet connection, is in slow motion.
Working from home means doing the work and negotiating a steady stream of home chores through the day. Now load the washing machine. Now empty it. Now look out for the milk on boil. Now open the door for the man delivering the jar of drinking water. Now go down — we are on the second floor — to collect the groceries purchased online. Oftentimes a neighbour will request I shift the car so he can park his. And as you are pulling the key out of the ignition, should you notice the overcast sky, dash for the clothes drying in the balcony. Through all of this there is the continuous washing of hands, on and off of the mask.
In the new template, some new things have come into focus. I find myself observing the natural beauty around my house more often. I stare away at the palm, coconut and jackfruit trees from my bedroom window. I watch the birds flitting from branch to branch. Earlier, I did not have the time, or the interest. Now I savour the tinkling of the ceremonial bell and the bellowing conch from inside my home and outside. If I am in the balcony, I can hear snatches of conversations from other apartments and also neighbouring buildings — two people discussing the lunch menu, health bulletins. Sometimes, long after, I find myself wondering if so-and-so was feeling better, if the cauliflower-potato curry turned out fine. And then inevitably the phone pings alive; time for another video call. It is a new template of life and I am not complaining.