Musings: Reading and Working during Isolation- A Litany of Thoughts by PRERNA KALBAG & NISHANT SINGH

In this personal essay, Prerna Kalbag and Nishant Singh muse about the changes in life post the pandemic and how reading and working has changed during isolation.

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The world has halted. The clocks have stopped. Perhaps for the first time since the advent of the Enlightenment, humanity is in headlong retreat. Every experience of going outside, even for such mundane things as getting groceries, is tinged with the terror and the superstition that the first Men who sailed the seas must have felt. An invisible Gorgon stalks us everywhere, her evil eye is warded off by a diligent ritual of cleansing and sanitization. This fails many times, as people still succumb to the horrid unknown, un-understood illness. Yes, the promise of Enlightenment, which was deemed to have been a mirage a century ago, has finally, completely disappeared, as humanity has once again embraced the irrationality that had been deemed by smug college professors as “medieval”.

Yet, we live. We must live, and we must work. If only because we have absolutely nothing else to do. 

Most of my time these days is spent reading and writing. This seems futile, but it has gripped me like a fever. I cannot shake off the thought that all my time should be spent learning and bettering myself. I frantically turn the pages of classics, devouring books one-a-day like a gourmand who has lost control over his hands. I highlight, underline, take notes, and plot out my Br̟hatkathā. I am seized by the spirit of the medieval Bengali writer Gun̟ādhya, who according to legend wrote his great novel in his own blood, in a fit of frenzy, and the spirit of Michel de Montaigne, who wrote his famous Essai locked up in his library. I seek out books, discard them, only to return them a few hours later as my mind becomes fixated on a minor footnote I looked at absentmindedly. I am possessed by the desire to be productive. 

To create.

I think one part of me earnestly believes in this enterprise. Believes the doxa that crisis produces great art. But another part of me also knows that I’m doing this because I crave a routine. I crave my own boulder that I can drag to the top of the hill till the end of time, and to take solace in that task alone. To immerse myself in a task and forget the chaos outside for only a moment. This is hardly a new impulse. From The Decameron to The Masque of Red Death, there are ample stories of the aristocracy fleeing pestilence and resorting to a bacchanalia to drown out the wails of the dying poor folk trapped in the crowded cities. However, lacking access to the traditional accoutrement for such a debauchery, I have simply substituted them for books and chai, and maybe a few bowls of Maggi every week.

To a distant observer, my behavior over the last three months would perhaps resemble schizophrenia. I am liable to agree with them. Time has fractured and shattered into a thousand fragments. No sense of coherent narrative remains. Only an experience, followed by another experience, followed by another. The fabled Norns, who weaved the fabric of destiny, seem to have gone on strike, leaving me to pick through the yarns and try to make sense of them. 

What is it that is eating at me? I suppose it’s the yearning to be seen. Before being shut in, I reveled in the idea of doing things for the sake of doing them. I prided myself on my desire to possess knowledge because I genuinely liked learning. I immersed myself in the arts because I liked it. I believed in knowledge for the sake of knowledge, or art simply for the sake of art. Most of these beliefs were unravelled and shred to pieces in the process of working towards my Master’s, but I still nursed one last hope of possessing an inner identity that had nothing to do with anyone else. I am who I am, not because anyone else wants me to be. This belief contributed majorly towards my belief in myself, and my drive to accomplish goals that were set by me. I relished such an isolated existence, believed that by cutting myself off from the world and focusing on my work alone, I could live a simple, uncomplicated life. I have understood since then how mistaken this notion was. I found myself craving the presence of other people: friends, mentors, even strangers on the road, who occupied the periphery of my vision. I yearned for contact. Perhaps my frenzied activity was an attempt to moor myself back into a familiar relationship with the world, to convince myself that I still had some control over my world.  

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

The mirror plays a special role in homes affected by the quarantine: the perforated edges, the flash of an afternoon sunlight, the hazy glint. The mirror reminds you of what you deeply miss about being locked in: the state of being seen. I remember asking my mother, a freelancer, on multiple occasions: “What do you need to dress up so much for? Who’s going to see you anyway?” The cruelty and absurdity of my remarks have begun to hit at me in a new way. Because, you see, I too have begun to dress up in my period of isolation, only to gaze at the reflection that peeps back at me from the mirror. I have begun to take pictures to show no one.

Trapped in a house, locked away from the world, the mind inevitably turns to the ideas of Insiders and Outsiders, something that has assumed considerable significance in other arenas as well, as countries interrogate their identities anew. According to Sartre,

“Man creates himself only by acting out in the external world. Instead of being a thing in-itself, Man on the other hand must actuate his being.”

A human being is never an essence, despite their attempts to create something, a core, that sets each person as an individual, as unique. Sartre argues that human beings can understand each other only through the gaze of the other. It is only when we are perceived by others that we become conscious of our own existence. Through this, we also begin to perceive ourselves as others perceive us. What are we without the gaze of the Other? What is the Outsider without the Insider yes, but what is the Insider without the gaze of the Outsider? Plenty of thinkers have attempted to answer what the creation of the Outsider does to the understanding of the Self that resides on the Inside. After all, as Europe began conquering and setting up colonies in the Far East and the Caribbean, there began a greater flourish of the practice of cartography, which led to an understanding and definition of Europe itself, and of its boundaries. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf speaks of what the existence of a Woman as the Other does to a Man; particularly how the Man needs the shrinking and downsizing of the Woman to enlarge his own sense of self. We can think of countless real-life experiences that reflect this: Masculinity exists in relation to Femininity, Wealth exists in relation to Poverty, Heterosexuality exists in relation to Homosexuality. When these binaries are blurred or broken, we face the threat of a total erasure of identity. We double down on our routines, stubbornly cling to them, in an attempt to hold on to some semblance of “normalcy”. Yet the realization seeps through: We exist in these very interdependent, relational spaces afforded to us by the Other. The staying apart, or the forced shutting in, has brought most of us to the painful realization that we indeed are nothing without each other. And if the very damaging idea of Binaries sometimes results from such interactions, we must entertain the idea that such concepts also come about by the idea of the self-dependent individual. Of course as many of us are able to come to a mutual understanding, we’re beginning to see that such a category of person has no existence.

There are ways of checking in on each other in fragments that I now rely upon. The conversations in fits and starts for instance, or the occupation of spaces that exist between temporalities. I call my friends in the middle of the night, forgetting dates and days of the week. The clock on the side of the wall is sometimes hidden behind the vastness of the curtain, perhaps of its own free will. There are lovers who discover newer ways of accessing the Touch of the Other, and this craving for a reflection of myself is something that seeps into my everyday activities. Anxieties take on larger, more urgent tendencies. My movements have become deliberate, more pronounced. I complete my tasks with more care, but also abandon them halfway through. Writing sometimes terrifies me as the night falls in sudden lapses. I know it is night when the sun stops falling in through the window, when my neighbour strolls around on his veranda for an after-dinner smoke. I know it is morning when the floor gleams near the window. My senses have become heightened to smells and sounds: the harsh breeze brings with it newer tidbits of conversations from other homes, so near yet so inaccessible. I spend longer hours gazing in and out of consciousness, or as I have begun to understand it, it’s all part of a new kind of consciousness. I live between the tired embraces of the digital world, filled also to the brim with pangs of isolation, of people much like me. I hear voices and doze in between yells.

I have no idea how all this will end. Will my great story ever be written? Will I learn a dozen new languages?  Who knows? This is a time of great change. A time when history has re-started with a vengeance and the subalterns are at the barricades, demanding change and retribution for the wrongs done to them. My questions seem almost pointless in that perspective. I live a strange disembodied life. Half my heart is with the people navigating their way through this nightmare, being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The other half is with another person, who has kept me grounded and sane these last three months. 

Yet, I read. With a strange passion. Perhaps I am living out the maxim that Slavoj Zizek gave in an interview:

“When the times are tough, you read”.

After all, Lenin and Krupskaya also spent their time reading Hegel as the First World War raged around them.

Authors’ Bios

Prerna Kalbag has just completed a Master’s degree in Literary Arts from Ambedkar University Delhi. She is interested in diverse fields such as art history, sociology, sociology of law, critical theory and media studies.

Nishant Singh has just completed his Master’s degree in Indian History from the University of Delhi. He is interested in Art History, Aesthetics and the Politics of Gestures.

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