In two months from now, it will be 13 years of leaving home for me. For the likes of us, that word home has an ever-shifting meaning. Till 17, it was the comfort of four people in one entire floor of a three-storeyed house in a small town. The next three years, it was a two-seater hostel room where we had to make do with a crippled ceiling fan in the 48-degree June heat in Delhi. Then it was one bed in a room shared by three girls, where food was part of the Rs 5,500-a-month PG rent. Home was also a 'modified' garage, converted into a one-room set, where sunlight never got in and the gloom never got out.
Then, I climbed up. Up to the fourteenth floor of an apartment complex, where balconies are many and sunlight in abundance. The meaning of the word home moved along with my belongings. I have a roof over my head. I have a broadband connection and I have a store where I can buy ready-to-eat meals from. There is nothing to complain about.
(Representative photo: Reuters)
Since March 17, when our office work moved into our homes, I have stopped and counted my blessings many, many times. On most days, the nine-hour shift extends to 10, 11, 12, and the pings never stop. The exhaustion takes care of the sorrow, if any. The sorrow of not being able to be home. Home, in that small town, where my parents keep their eyes glued to the newly created WhatsApp group for a reply from me. The messages are nothing serious. Sometimes, a 'when did you start work today'; at most others, an update on the latest meal. "Wow, the readymade paratha looks just like the one I make," from Ma. Dad, who I call Akko, occasionally sends a short story he has written while being home during this lockdown.
A long gap in between messages doesn't worry them. They have figured out how to check if a message is 'seen'. The worry creeps in when a message is left unseen for long.
Home, under this lockdown, has shrunk into a mobile screen. A phone call, a text message, a random incident from the past, an old photo... anything that keeps us connected in these strange times.
At times on the group, there are photos of families walking on foot, mile after unending mile, to go back home.
My parents never say that they want to see me. They know I will most likely brush it off as unimportant at this point and ask them to take care of themselves.
They say you understand the true value of something only when you have lost it. Strike that. Make it only when it has been taken away from you.
Ever since I started working, my visits back home have reduced with the passing years. What used to be a bi-yearly affair in the first year or two, is a once-in-two-years, maximum-a-week occasion now. By June every year, my parents would start asking me to book my tickets. Durga Puja is still many months away, I reasoned with them, but the conversations in the months in between were all centred on that: have you booked your tickets? Most years, I would try and go home those four-five days of the year. Some years, I could not. My parents never betrayed a hint of sadness. A bit of disappointment, maybe, but never sadness. They knew what the reply would be: It's too busy at work. My father, who was also a journalist, would reply that he knew what it was like.
All of those phone calls, those conversations come back to me now. Nothing has prepared any of us for a situation like this. When you've moved out of home in search of a better future, you refuse to accept that the future, at this point in time, is just a concept. None of us know what is going to happen in the days to come. The house I live in - this new 'home' - comes for a rent. The life that I have built, working year after year, suddenly seems so pointless. Yes, there is the satisfaction, the gratitude of still having a job. Of having a roof over my head, no matter who actually owns it. I go to bed on a full stomach most days. On others, it is mostly laziness, and not lack of food. But the uncertainty is maddening.
Working in the business of news comes at a huge cost. Especially in times like these. You cannot cut yourself off from what is happening in the world from Milan to Mumbai; Madrid to Murshidabad. You see the graphs going up, steep, before hitting a plateau and rising again, exponentially. A country announces they had a good day because the number of deaths dropped to below 100. Another says their Prime Minister is out of the ICU, so things aren't that bad. When our basic understanding of the good and the bad are juxtaposed against life and death, the dance of numbers becomes hard to digest.
Back in Bengal, on the surface, everything looks fine. Only seven deaths, the number of positive cases still only about a few hundred. Then it starts looking too good to be true. There are worries: are there enough tests? How is it possible? News trickles out of the state only if the news needs to. Knowledge helps you prepare for the worst. Ignorance is supposed to be bliss. But not with a pandemic that has thrown our lives off gear this way.
As journalists, we don't even have the option of switching off. It is a rare luxury that people in my profession know how to respect.
A migrant worker carries his son as they walk along a road with others to return to their village, soon after the nationwide lockdown was announced in March. (Photo: Reuters)
When life starts taking a toll on you, you turn towards home. You know that is the one place where you will certainly find a place to stop and rest, if not answers. That is precisely why so many people, infants in their arms, their lives packed in bags balanced on their heads, set out to complete journeys that look humanely impossible. The want, the need, to go back home is visceral, lockdown or no lockdown.
It is why so many of us, years after having moved out of our homes, are frantically looking for the hope of a date when this lockdown will be lifted. To be back among our own. The blows can still be dealt with. But the uncertainty?
The uncertainty of being able to see the faces of my parents, in flesh and blood. Of being able to hold them. Of being able to listen to them talk. Of just sitting beside them. Of going to sleep knowing Akko will wake me up in the morning, as Ma scolds him: 'Let her sleep a little longer. She is at home.'