“…How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown,
like a rolling stone…”
Needless to say, surviving COVID-19 hasn’t been easy so far. It’s harder when one is particularly used to living like a raccoon in the midst of garbage and dust wherever they go. Most people don’t believe me when I say this, but if someone cleans out my closet or arranges my bookshelf, it becomes physically impossible for me to find anything even if what I’m looking for, is staring right into my eyes. I figured it wouldn’t be the same once I left my hometown three years ago for further studies, but clearly, I was wrong.
Ever since the lockdown happened, I realised that I have to make this major lifestyle change. The regular dirt that I happily let stick to the sole of my shoe, and carry around on my shoulders, cannot be my companion anymore. It hit me hard and is still a bit difficult to accept as I have always associated the idea of home with soil, the kind that floats in the air in fragments, mixed with dead skin cells, pollen, plastic, gas and much more.
But the other aspect of why I never paid attention to details and engaged in a thorough sweep of the entire room is that I intend to live a life where I don’t look for a home, but simply find one wherever I go. There must always be an eternal cycle of ‘coming from’ and ‘going to’ which would hardly allow time to invest in maintaining a rigorous routine of a thorough cleaning.
The pandemic in this sense kept me on my toes, scrambling to find that extra time for dusting, sweeping, mopping, washing, and sterilising…in that order. For a lot of women, this is a full-time job at other people’s homes, and the irony is that they can’t afford to spend the same amount of time doing exactly the same amount of work in their homes. There, they have to be a lot quicker and mindful of all the other chores to do, lined up after that.
My solitary confinement has triggered my class consciousness in many ways, one of which is that I am unable to find the time to clean despite having bottles of detergent, soap, and disinfectants at my disposal. And when I do find the time, I spend a considerable amount of it going over the detailed plan laid out in my mind on exactly how I want to execute it. I am living in an office space where the materials required for me to get the job done have already been provided.
The domestic help who is in-charge of this work hasn’t been coming for the past two months now. Who knows if she uses some of the same products to clean her place. This is a thought that had never occurred before, but when it did, I was suddenly uncomfortably aware of my own class privilege.
The women who wash our used utensils, and clean our toilets – how well versed are they in terms of sanitation protocols during this lockdown? Did we ever stop to think whether we could be doing something more than just transferring cash to them or providing them with kits consisting of masks and sanitisers? They probably live in houses that give shelter to at least ten people, and use a shared washroom. How were they supposed to maintain social distancing or isolate themselves in that condition. How were they supposed to minimise the risks of community transmission by staying at home?
When I was suddenly left all by myself in this 1BHK flat, during the lockdown, there was a feeling which said that I had to step-in to do what was necessary to keep this place as dust-free as possible. An unexpected rush of memories hit me. Memories of Gita Mashi (auntie in Bengali) from my childhood came flooding in; how drops of sweat would gather on her forehead while she used to rock my cradle, how I would jump at every opportunity to learn about Nepal from her, how I’d sneak up to her and land a kiss on her cheek and how she would promptly move away, requesting me to wait for her to clean up first.
Even though we had nothing short of love for her,
even though she was always considered to be family,
she never allowed herself a seat at the table.
I wondered if she had a laid out plan on cleaning,
when she came over to our place every single morning.
Did she make mistakes as I did?
Could she afford to?
Some days, I know that I simply let myself go. I don’t change my clothes, I don’t do laundry and I turn a blind eye towards the dishes all piled up. Living alone has its mega advantages, with no one to look after, or being looked after by, other than myself. I can afford to schedule my day any way I feel like. On some days, I’ve spent hours typing away on my computer, without noticing the thick line of dust gradually gathering on the top of the fridge. On others, I have spent hours not replying to emails, scrubbing off every little particle of filth I could find sticking to the kitchen sink.
The catastrophe that has hit us, has also opened up multiple avenues for introspection. I realise now, how difficult it truly can be, to live with OCD. I realise now, how women are always under tremendous pressure from the society to make the house look ‘presentable’. Even in a world without the COVID-19 virus, the responsibility of reaching every nook and corner of the house to get rid of cobwebs, even washing the piece of cloth used to do away with the oil spills and other daily hassles in the kitchen, falls on the woman.
Growing up, I don’t ever recall my father sharing this workload and I have never observed it happen at Geeta Mashi’s place as well. When Geeta Mashi used to clean, her strong hands seemed to be made of iron. The same hands would also make me sweets while we binge-watched Bollywood movies on her television in the tiny room under the stairs that used to be her space, exclusively. The hands that made the sweets seemed to be softer than the morning dew resting gently on a blade of grass. The room she lived in, with her partner, was spacious, full of sunlight and fresh air. The one I stay in now has plenty of both, but not enough.
As I pick up the mop every day, I sigh a little and with it, a bit of happiness is let out, as I now know I really had it all when I was with her. Her nickname for me, Tita (meaning bitter in her broken Bengali), is the one I eventually grew up to embrace. I wonder now, how she must have felt being away from her family all those years in a land where her kind was always discriminated against. The local language she could speak very well with an accent, and how I fail to do so here, is something that COVID-19 times made me reflect upon as well. What was her understanding of a place of belonging?
Now after almost two decades when I finally have the right questions to ask, she is no longer around to answer. To me, Geeta Mashi was home, the hammock she made out of cotton sarees for me to sleep in, her obsession with tacky ‘80s Bollywood blockbusters and the delicious pakodas were everything I could ever ask for. It didn’t matter that they lived on the ground floor, right beside the garage space. There, I could be me, completely safe.
One persistent thought that I could never shake off and that haunts me even more now is how do I find somewhere that I can truly belong. Maybe because even though a lot of where I’ve lived seems like home, it really is more alien to me than I would have liked it to be. As I gathered from Dylan’s song a long time back, I am a rolling stone. There is no way I can let moist moss make their way into my being. Just like the learning from this one year journey will never reach a halt as long as I keep going.