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17 Month Lockdown (… and counting!)

No, you read it right. The title is on point and perfectly accurate. Neither a mistake, nor a typing error. Neither a joke, nor a futuristic prediction of how long this imposed lockdown is actually going to last. So do not write the title off, or get to planning the remaining 12 months, now that 5 months have elapsed. This is a word for word personal account over the past 17 months, which does not have a clear end in sight yet and is as real as it gets – without zooming into the minute details to spare you the complexity and burden of getting entangled in the contexts therein.

We are living in unprecedented times, extraordinary circumstances, with an absolute and sudden turn of events, leading to drastic upheavals in the way of life of people in any and every aspect, be it financial, social, or most importantly mental & emotional. With the pace of life, freedom of movement, services at hand that we took for granted and thought would never cease, but only improve and increase - all of this being eviscerated in one moment, as if Thanos snapped his fingers and sealed our fates, however irreversibly this time! Thereby, living under these imposed conditions, for many – in isolation, with limited or no social interactions, diminished or finished financial resources, dwindling health and struggling health support systems, the past 5 months for the world under a lockdown have been incredibly challenging. Especially, because of the suffocation, choked and trapped feeling that we feel in the four walls that seem to close in, people that we may not be getting along well with, anxiety about the uncertain events that lie ahead and events happening all around that leave us feeling helpless. The only difference for me personally, this has not been the case for 5 months, but for 17.

While I sit here in my corner, typing away, I have utmost empathy for people who have had it worse and in no way do I put my narrative above theirs, if anything, its just my story and 2 cents added to theirs! While the lockdown for the world began in the fateful month of March in the highly ostracised year of 2020, my entrapment began exactly a year before that! Returning home on a high, having worked like a machine - balancing a highly physical day job, an internship, a Master’s degree with twice the number of subjects taken on, to finish the degree earlier than usual, planning and executing a permanent shift, closing chapters and making arrangements to open new ones and lots more that this move entailed, I got back from down under Australia with a lot of vigour, high spirits and commitment to work hard and set right a lot of things that were amiss back home and formed the reason for my early return. However, here is the thing with plans, they never work out the way you want them to.

Looking forward to a hard-earned downtime, reconnecting with family and friends, gorging on delicacies and street food I craved for, for months, the decision was made to take it easy for some time. As with other habits, good or bad, I had become so accustomed to working excessively hard, being on the move constantly, doing all of my work by myself, such that these things refused to wear off and that became the alarm bell to get back to work, thus signalling the start of the job hunt from scratch. Confident of my previous work experience locally, newfound skills and experience internationally and being a fresh post-graduate, I dived in looking for opportunities to get back into the game, only to discover that it was not really much of a job hunt, but a witch hunt that I had gotten myself into. Right from the get-go, whether the snarky comments or the rhetorical statements, questioning my decision to return, or the general lack of enthusiasm to help out, barring a few who did go the mile, this search seemed quite jinxed. The few instances that led to some face time with prospective employers, threw open the Pandora's box in the context of the fight for relevance at multiple levels, which is a whole discussion in itself and I plan to write on it very soon and I promise you it’ll be an eye opening, yet relatable piece. Starting from doubts over my relevance in the local context, to being overqualified in some cases and everything in between was sprung onto me over the next few weeks, which began the constant hammering on my mind, as to whether returning was the right call and despite a complete profile, what was it that I was missing.

Substance over form, is what we are taught as a principle as part of our curriculum, but when it comes to practice in a real-world scenario, its nothing more than a joke. Understanding that, I embarked upon completing one of the qualifications that I had gone far too deep into, but couldn’t complete due to factors beyond my control – ideally just a qualification, but to the society here, a milestone, a status symbol and for me – a roadblock, an entry-barrier. Having returned in the end of March, it was now August and I had practically been home for as much as the people world over have been this year. Took this on like another one of the countless challenges encountered over the past few years and gave it my all, in an attempt to steamroll through the supposed last obstacle. Not knowing how I had fared and in anticipation of the results, the job hunt juggernaut rolled on and with it the multiple rounds of screening and testing too. The workaholic in me, badly eaten up within, in the 8-9 months that had gone by, was literally scavenging through the scraps, waiting to take on anything that came my way. BIGGEST MISTAKE!

After 6-7 rounds over a month’s time, got myself into a firm, the lesser I say about, the better, to avoid washing dirty laundry in public and unfortunately held back from opening up about, by some slyly drafted contracts/paperwork. This experience, which is more apt if I call it an ordeal lasted for roughly 2 months and made me question every element of my being, destroying possibly every fragment of self-confidence I had consciously worked up and built over my 2 years abroad, amongst other things, just the thoughts of which take me to a dark place that I rather not revisit! Detoxified myself on getting out of after an uphill battle, the horrors of which continued for another few months, after which I found some closure. The only good thing that happened amidst this was the positive outcome of my exam, which even if I couldn’t celebrate as I had imagined I would - for almost a decade, but still brought in a sense of satisfaction, achievement and relief – which by now I hope you guessed - was again, only temporary!

Nearing 11 months of my partially self-imposed, partially inflicted - exile and torture, thought of daring to be brave again, muster up the courage, start afresh for the umpteenth time, as every motivational quote, video, book or elder in the family or a friend suggests, got back into the ring. This time feeling a little more complete, little more confident, knowing for a fact that I had filled in the gaps in my armour, with the local and highly regarded qualification over and above an international one and collected some local work experience too, to avoid any kind of lapse or unwanted judgement and trying to believe in myself deeply, despite that wafer-thin confidence as a result of the past 2-4 years being incredibly cruel. Putting myself out there in ways I never would have, very different to what I had worked up and learnt back in Australia, or even knowing the lay of the land here, here I was, a neatly wrapped package, waiting to be picked up. Little did I know that the shop itself, that is, the world as a whole, was itself going to go under and shut itself down.

Exactly 12 months to my return, practically 10-11 months of it, physically within the confines of a small, city house, while the mind, an open one, a creative one, conditioned by the recent global exposure, couldn’t make do with the prevailing reality. Expectations outlined that this would be one of the best and most successful spells, setting up a promising future; reality dealing a blow with exactly the opposite. The psychological turmoil even in absolution and not even considering the relative successes of peers, juniors and others, was of such a high magnitude, that it induced acute physical pain and sheer paranoia, but thanks to the naivety around mental health in our surroundings, keeping the exteriors serene, topping it off with a smile, replying to texts with an, ‘I’m alright’, or getting on video calls with friends with a cosmetic, made up sense of calm - was the order of the day. All of these contradictory emotions, a childlike exterior but a tormented interior, just hacking away and tearing, shredding the mind apart.

All of this before the actual lockdown for the world because of Covid-19 had even begun.

I do remember having a satirical smile within my head, when just a month down, people would complain of feeling stuck, suffocated, trapped, bored and not knowing what to do with themselves before even understanding the gravity of the situation we were about to face, before I looked down at my phone to realise that it had now been 13 months for me. That internal grin just fizzled out almost instantly. Like I mentioned before starting off, I have complete empathy with each person, as it has been difficult for every single one, no matter how privileged or not, as the battle was physical for some, financial for some more and certainly a mental one for most. Thus, I stand by it and will not be offloading any of my struggles during the overlapping lockdown period, except the ones I have mentioned already, which only intensified and grew graver with each passing day.

Ranging from growing fear to venture out and thereby sinking further behind closed doors, to bidding my chances of getting to work anytime soon a strong goodbye. Putting on hold certain life events and/or celebrations to digging into savings made over time and stressing over the uncertainty that still hangs above all our heads, the level of anxiety and helplessness only rose with the passage of time, with sharp peaks periodically owing to major natural disasters across the globe adding the absolutely unnecessary fireworks, quite literally. The romanticising of the pandemic and healing of the world as a result of it, did soften the pain a little and make one question about their actions and priorities, but that soon wore off too, as it was always going to, with the ‘chalta hai’ (shit happens) attitude that we almost involuntarily bring on after major life altering events.

I am a big fan of stand-up comedy, but never thought that God up there, would chip in with his set and have such great comic timing. 17 is my favourite number for a variety of reasons and its been exactly 17 months to what I fear now calling ‘my routine’ or ‘my normal’, but in all fairness has been nothing short of a lockdown - putting to test, most, if not all of my capabilities and faculties and who knows how much longer it is going to persist or what more is in store.

Made a conscious call to not paint the slightest shade of being a victim and if unintentionally gave that impression, I extend my sincerest apologies. Whether starting a gratitude journal or using this wordplay and art to get through the dark, doing every bit as humanly possible, as someone near and dear recently reaffirmed for me that we humans are a very resilient species and will always bounce back. So here’s to try and live by that statement, holding on and bouncing back - stronger, sharper, fitter, happier and kinder to everyone, than ever before. Cheers!

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