My lock-down days

by Aleesha Joykutty

2020 gave us many sad tragic events to remember.  This year recorded many deaths, worldwide dilemmas, outbreaks and natural phenomena. The coronavirus outbreak that started out as a mysterious disease from Wuhan, 176 passenger deaths in the Ukrainian flight crash, the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, death of legends like actor Irfan Khan, Rishi Kapoor, basketball player Kobe Bryant. But with the Australian wildfires, Indonesian floods, locusts attack, Cyclone Amphan and now Cyclone Nisarga, nature has started taking its fury on us. Amidst the increasing tensions, our life has also undergone a change.

Watching news 24/7, counting the death rate every other second, hoarding supplies and behaving as if an apocalypse will occur, it was difficult to bring our lifetime to a standstill and that too in Mumbai.

Pre crisis, most of us lived busy, non-stop lives. We yearned for free time. Many of us now have more time available for reflection. After all, today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future, we find ourselves in a time of stillness, away from the hubbub of normal life.

1. Recording audio books for our blind friends

‘Let’s record’ is a non profit initiative to make audiobooks available for blind students. Many times the education of blind students comes to a halt due to unavailability of audiobooks. This was started by a bunch of college students under NGO ‘Saathi’ of Fergusson College, Pune when the lockdown started on March 24th 2020. This has re-awakened my once lost reading habit. Sitting at home, I virtually travelled from snow capped alpine mountain ranges, waterfront gardens and Chinar trees of Kashmir to uphill roads, chestnut trees, pine trees, bustling hill town of Mussorie to the paddy fields, granaries, Muslim fakirs, Hindu desaiahs and Yelllamma Jogathis of Shiggaon village in Karnataka. I wish to review some of the books I read.

I hate politics, but by compelling myself I read the whole book! ‘1984’ is a political prophecy book written in 1948 by George Orwell. It is referred to as one of the definitive texts of modern dystopian literature, a powerful warning against totalitarian regimes and extreme political ideologies. This book remains one of the most hauntingly terrifying portrayals of the future of mankind. A future where everything belongs to the state and none is free.  ‘BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU’, ‘THOUGHT POLICE’, ‘THOUGHT CRIME’, ‘TWO MINUTES OF HATE ‘, ‘COLD WAR’, ‘BROTHERHOOD’ phrases were gifted to English literature by Orwell in this book. An interesting 2050 prophecy is also written. Big Brother, the entertainment TV show was inspired from the ideas of Big brother, mass surveillance of this book.

‘Calling Sehmat’ is a thrilling saga of a spy, who in the service of our nation, gave all of herself so that we can live in peace. Sehmat Khan, the daughter of Hidayat Khan and Tej Khan, was a chirpy, innocent, creative, introverted and sharp minded woman who studied at Delhi University. Her family lived in Kashmir. Her father and grandfather were spies. She married Pakistani Army Officer Iqbal Syyed to provide the Indian intelligence with valuable information during the Indo-Pak War of 1971. India was able to save INS Vikraant, India’s sole aircraft carrier from an attack by submarine PNS Ghazi. It took 8 years of hardship and research for the author Harrinder Sikka to come up with such a heroic book, now made into a motion picture ‘Raazi’ starring Vicky Kaushal and Alias Bhatt.

‘To all the fine things we take for granted

To butterflies and buttercups

To chestnut and pine trees

To early morning and birds

To fine breakfasts and ice creams

To roads we never noticed..‘ 

– Road to Mussoorie by Ruskin Bond

Ruskin Bond came to my life through my English textbooks. We had a story about his grandpa and his love to keep unusual pets like Python,  monkeys etc. At that time, online book reading was not rampant and I eagerly waited to read his stories. This quarantine came as a blessing. It’s time to read his books and revisit our childhood. His stories are filled with positivity, optimism, life affirmative themes, celebrations of daily life situations, understated humor and his tremendous zest for continuing to look at life from his famous Mussoorie hillside window and keep spinning tales.

Sudha Murty’s books can be read by anyone from a 10 year old to a 90 year old grandma. When once jokingly asked by Shri, Shashi Tharoor, as ‘Why do you hate the dictionary? ‘ ,  she replied,  ‘If normal working women, housewives had to read the book, they can’t carry the dictionary along with them to their kitchen stove!, so I write in simple language so that the common masses are able to appreciate it.”

“Putting women first” by Dr. Rani Bang is about the lives and times of ordinary people of Gadchiroli village in Maharashtra and social medicine. Gadchiroli is known for being an underdeveloped and Naxalite area. Dr. Abhay Bang and Dr. Rani Bang set up a clinic for the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH) and practiced medicine that caters to the Madia Gond, Raj Gond, Pardhan and Halibi – the dominant tribes who reside there. Here she encounters many humorous yet thought provoking  issues, health problems and superstitions narrated by them. For example,  the consumption of tendu patta gum helps in contraception. The alternative treatment provided by the quacks and village tantri is listed. To induce abortion, a stick is inserted into the vagina. The book builds an indigenous expression of development, one in which the ‘fundamentals of healthcare,  interdependence and sustainable  economies are permanent.’

2. Reading unfinished books

These books were bought by me at an age when I wasn’t capable of understanding what socialism, secularism, and revolution meant. I read half and left. Gandhiji’s autobiography “The story of My Experiments with Truth” is a must read for every Indian. Every citizen must firm their own unbiased opinion of the Father of our Nation and reading his own works will help one do that. This is one of those rare books which the reader either loves or hates, there is no middle ground.  Every school going kid is taught to unthinkingly sing his praises. School textbooks present him as faultless, almost divine. This book will revolutionize our thinking and present Gandhi as a man – imperfect and humble. His experiments range from elocution classes to getting rid of his shyness and fear of public speaking, to dancing and singing lessons. He nevertheless took allopathic medicines but experimented on diet and hydropathy.

3. Cooking

‘Cooking is about creating something delicious for someone else.’ This lockdown period gave me time to enter this less frequented kitchen. I tried to get round shaped chapattis, curries, breakfast items, flavored rice, cutlets, varieties of cakes -apple cinnamon cake, banana cake, coffee cake, mango cake etc. Exotic and less heard of local delicacies like besan ladoo, marzipan, momos, rasgulla, Maggie, bhel, sandesh, puddings etc. As this is a lockdown time,  I made recycled food items like kanjivellam soup (rice starch soup), watermelon rind thoran etc. However, failures were encountered when I made Oreo cake (cake felt like vattayappam,  it wasn’t fluffy),  Butter chicken (poured a huge bowl of curd instead of spoon), Mysore pak ( my brother told me, ‘let’s make avalosunda and eat’ ), Rava cake and bread chili. Due to the less availability and increasing price of coconut,  we substituted coconut with peanuts as the Maharashtrians do!

Each household has a personal story to tell about this delicacy. No matter which part of India you belong to, halwa brought by the Arabs is their go-to dessert to satiate one’s sweet cravings. Halwa can be made with anything- vegetables, fruits, or flour. Bombay Halwa or Karachi Halwa is made using flour. Thinking about the ‘Aluva‘ which we used to buy at the Kozhikode railway station enroute to our hometown brought back sweet memories.

Pudding is a British invention brought to India by the Romans in the 1st century BC. It is made by boiling a mixture of eggs, milk, flour and fruits or syrup for flavor in an idli making vessel.

Amongst other things like Tagore and Victoria Memorial, the Bengalis take immense pride in their large selection of mishti or sweets. Mohan Bhog, Lobongo Latika, Rasgulla, Bhapa Dou,  Malai chom chom, Kalu jaam or kala jamun, Payesh, Raj Bhog, Chanar jilipi, Shor Bhaja,  Lady Kenny, Mishti Doi, Sandesh, etc. are to name a few. To bring back my Kolkata memories, I made Rasgulla- soft round mithai made of homemade cottage cheese called chenna and dipped in sugar syrup. Sandhesh is a dry milk sweetened.

Momos are delicacies native to Tibet and Himalayas. It is a plain flour based, steamed dumpling, filled with vegetables or meat, and served with red colored spicy and watery momos chutney. It resembles our kozhukattai except the sweet jaggery coated coconut filling is replaced. 

Rasgulla.

Every dish has its own history and a story of survival.  It was legendary that during the 15th century famine, when flour for making bread became scarce, the German Senate ordered bakers to create a replacement. Using eggs, sugar and almonds, the clever bakers came up with Marzipan. It is made by Goans during wedding and religious feast days. Our neighborhood aunty was a Goan who made many Goan delicacies using coconuts, cashews,  rice, fish, meat, and kokum like Goan fish curry or Xitti Kodi, shark Ambot Tik, Goan pork vindaloo, Sorpotel, chicken Cafreal, Feijoada- red beans with pork, Sorak, Patolea – that looks like our kumbilappam, Fish Recheado, Sannas- resembles idli, Perad or guava halwa. Goa was a Portuguese colony prior to 1961 hence the Portuguese influenced most of their food and its names.

Likewise, Sushruta, the ancient Indian physician, first used spherical balls of sesame seeds as an antiseptic to treat his patients. From there, the ladoo gradually began taking shape. I made besan ladoo, a favorite among Maharashtrians using chickpea flour, sugar, and ghee.

4. Participating in contests

A cooking contest was organized by Malayali Samajams here to make people utilize their best time of lockdown. My dad had the golden rare opportunity to taste the peanut chikki made by my brother, dry fruits kheer made by me and broken wheat kheer made by my mom.

From dressing up my brother as Jesus Christ for him to say eight beatitudes for a catechism assignment, helping my mom to understand the zoom app so that she can attend the catechism teachers online conference, I didn’t realize that lockdown would help me get closer to my family.

5. More time

Gone are the days where even 24 hours wouldn’t satisfy us, and we would crave for more time. It’s not like that nowadays. It’s time to enjoy a good night’s sleep of 8 hours without thinking of beeping alarms, hospital wards,  history taking of patients, surgery classes, ward postings and college lectures.

No queuing in front of the common bathroom with a bucket and clothes in one hand while one brushes the teeth with a foaming mouth and sleepy eyes.

No more bombarding my brains with missiles of medical topics, but I can sit leisurely and understand,  imagine,  absorb and study in my comforts.

More time to spend with our parents and help them get familiar with new apps and technology.

More time to talk to our relatives and friends in Kerala who are constantly worried about the cyclone and corona cursed Mumbai city.

And finally more time to dream about our May month summer holidays we enjoyed in Kerala! The beautiful lakes and coconut trees that signaled that we reached Kerala were seen from windows of Netravati train,  the chants of chai wallahs and coffee walas who sold drinks,  banana fritters and dal vadas that we bought from the platform. Watching anxiously, longing to meet the faces of our grand uncle who became relaxed and happy after seeing us alighting at Kottayam railway station. The Kottayam to Kattappana route via Vagamon tea plantations was a mini picnic to us filled with U-pin roads,  lush greenery,  fresh cold air, small waterfalls complete with KSRTC breakdown and the nauseating feel due to the roller coaster ride uphill! Finally we reached Kattappana at midnight and saw our cousins eagerly waiting for us in the tharavadu house. Then for 1 month, it was time to go on field trips, play and swim in the ponds, catch fish with a towel, savor the dishes grandma made for us and help grandpa in the field to pluck black pepper, coffee and elaichi.

6. Acquire new skills

By learning a new language,  it gives us an edge over others and counts for a meaningful addition to our career. So, I started learning Latin through an app and google. I chose Latin because Latin is one of the oldest languages of this world and it’s a dying language ! The number of Latin speakers is diminishing.  Also Latin is the mother of other languages,  many words have taken roots from Latin like vaccine (from vacca meaning cow in Latin),  quarantine ( meaning 40 days ) etc. Many medical terms too are of Latin origin. Also Latin was used by great scientists and inventors in early days,  it was the elite’s medium to communicate.

Gardening helps relieve stress and keeps you busy. One also does a bit for the environment especially during these times. I decided to plant mustard seeds,  fenugreek seeds, mint and beans in pots filled with compost made from used tea powder,  onion and banana peels,  egg shells and other waste. It refreshes you when you see morning dew drops resting on tiny mustard leaves.  It also makes you long  for the next day to see the sapling growth.

Art is a natural form of expression and can be calming and meditative.  It soothes our mind and is a creative way to express yourself. Not everyone is a talented artist, but each one can utilize their 1% talent gifted by Him. So,  I made many mandalas,  zee tangles and warli drawings which are quite simple to draw.

Mandala is the Sanskrit word for ‘circle’. They are geometric designs that hold great symbolism in Hindu and Buddhist cultures representing different aspects of the universe. Used as instruments of prayer and meditation, they are painted in temples, walls, textiles etc. The circular design says, life is never ending and  everything is connected.

Zentangle is a non-representational and unplanned art form created by Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts that increases focus,  creativity, self confidence and well being. It’s benefit areas include phobias,  addictions, pain management,  conflict resolution and workplace burnout.

Warli painting is a style of tribal art created by tribals from North Sahyadri range in India (Maharashtra). Originally created inside the walls of their huts, it is now

 world famous with patterns being created on textiles,  walls and showpieces. The Warli tribe made walls using branches,  earth and red brick that gave the painting a brown background and were painted using rice paste, water and gum .

 7. Studying

I know it’s not a fun idea for everyone but with our colleges conducting online classes, one can’t help. To make the most of the beautiful weather right now, I study with full focus sitting near the balcony window glancing outside in between reading those black and white pages.

8. Praying for the world

The last but not the least thing we can do while sitting safely in our homes with roofs over our heads and food on our plate, is pray to God to leave His protection and love amongst the frontline workers working tirelessly, be it the white collar doctors or the sanitation workers.  This virus has indeed taught us that every job has its own dignity and might. We can’t live by omitting any section of our society.