You must have heard of Newton’s first law of motion: A body at rest tends to remain at rest. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Bodies will continue in their current state, whether at rest or in motion, unless acted on by a greater outside force. Simply put, this means that an object doesn’t change its state unless an outside force changes its course. On some level this also holds true for people’s lives.
Most of us continue on a particular life trajectory (whether we chose it or it was chosen for us) till a big outside force causes us to change tracks. Many of us have experienced feeling stuck in an unhappy relationship, career or another aspect of our lives but struggle to make a change, in spite of all our best intentions. Yet, major life events- getting fired, losing a loved one, a marriage – pushes us to finally examine those areas and make sweeping changes. It’s not a surprise that most life changes are made after such major events happen to us.
Think of our life as a river…
It flows in a pre-determined path and no matter how many stones you throw in it, it will only cause ripples. The river’s path remains unchanged. If a big enough boulder is thrown in its path, it’s forced to change its path and move in a whole new direction. As far as boulders go, boy was this pandemic a big one!
It changed the course of my life and made me come back to Bangalore from Thakurganj. I have to admit, the biggest allure of the fellowship, for me, was the chance to leave city life (and Bangalore specifically) behind. Now it feels like I’m right back where I started. What felt like a temporary state is now stretching endlessly in front of me. With every moment, my field experience seems like a dream I had and not a reality.
I know from experience that when you stick with something for a while, life has a way of convincing you that this is exactly where you needed to be in the first place. You start adjusting to the new normal. I can feel it happening now. The longer I’m at home and my family gets used to having me physically around, the more it normalises the idea that this is where I should be. Not just for them, but also for me. With every passing day, the talk at home is surely switching from ‘when I’ll go back’ to ‘if I’ll go back’. And the everyday mundane takes over conversations far more than fellowship experiences or insights. My loved ones wonder why I’m obsessing over going back to my field area. But that is just me trying desperately to hold on to the path I chose for myself. And I’m struggling…
It’s not just me. Ever since this pandemic and the resultant lockdown began, I have had several similar conversations with people wrestling with similar feelings. For some, it has been a blessing, pushing them to give up unsatisfactory jobs or relationships and even pursue long buried passions. Some have even started new careers. But conversations with my peers from my field area tells a whole other story that’s eerily similar to mine. One which can potentially set them back years in their own lives. It is drastically altering the course of many a life, not necessarily for the better.
I’m not talking about the loud sweeping ones – people losing livelihoods and getting stranded or displaced because ultimately, due to sheer necessity the migrants will have to go back to rebuild the lives they left behind. This is subtler, more quieter change, perhaps less noticeable but no less alarming.
Despite the traditional outlook of their society, I know a fair number of women (in Thakurganj, Bihar) who fought with family and friends alike to stake a claim outside the home. They went against tradition and created a life that is not confined to marriage and housework. Now, stuck at home, many find themselves back where they began. Their days are now reduced to only doing housework – more than their fair share at that. And the longer they are at home, the more convincing it becomes to the family that their place is at home. The longer they stand in the kitchen, the better that image (that only this her domain) solidifies in the collective memory of the family.
One young woman tells me mournfully, “With every day that passes, I find it erodes the image of my former self a little bit more. Not just in the eyes of my family, but also my own”. Where once she managed multiple learning centres, now she is not even allowed to go to the corner Kirana store. Some days she rages, but there are days where it feels like she has made peace with her lot. Those are the days that frighten her the most.
Young students everywhere are stuck in a limbo after their 12th, with no clear picture of when or how colleges will open their doors for admission. This has been especially hard on the young girls in Thakurganj. With no possibility of online classes and so no fresh admissions, they have been stuck in a place of not knowing if college is even an option anymore. A seventeen year old, who was looking forward to pursuing psychology says how hard it’s been to not have any college courses to look forward to.
The hardest part, she says, has been watching how the talk at home has started veering away from which stream to choose to which groom to select. The homely setting has opened a gateway for marriage to come calling sooner than she wanted or expected. The longer her parents watch her manage the home, the more that image is normalized for them and to an extent, even for her. And the drive of going to study further diminishes with every passing day.
For still others, it’s more subtle but no less de-humanizing. Where once they were treated as respected members of the society whose opinions were well regarded, now their opinions go unheard even if spoken. My favourite chai place there is run by a woman. One who made the most delicious chai and pakode, but also one who had advice for everyone and who everyone respected.
Now, at home, the image of that businesswoman is eroding and there’s talk of handing over the chai shop to her son if and when they reopen. And no, her opinion on this was not even asked for. Where once she walked like a queen in her domain, now she is stuck playing second fiddle to her spouse and son. “I am making peace with it, beta” she echoes on the phone listlessly. They watch the gender roles set like concrete on their feet, the very roles they wrestled out of.
If the pandemic was the boulder, then the normalisation of their new roles is like the forest cover that creeps in to cover the tracks till its former path is all but erased. Like it never existed in the first place.
WIth the pandemic stretching in front of us now, I wonder, has it already covered up our past life tracks.
And if not how do we stop the encroachment?
Or do we let it take it’s natural course and hope that like the ruins of yore, the essence will remain underneath, just waiting to be discovered again?