Silence in McLeodganj, Quarantine in Mumbai

With lessons from his time at a recent Buddhist retreat, a quarantined writer reevaluates his relationship with isolation.

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Human connections and social interdependence are at the core of the concept of isolation, where you depend not just on yourself but those around you to stay afloat. Photo by: Dmitry Rukhlenko/shutterstock

For the last 10 years, every evening spent at home has been marked by the same event—a group of raucous children and their ear-splitting play parties.

These children would, as children do, assemble in the garden that faces my first-floor home, screaming more than they play, locked in a fierce competition between each other to emerge the loudest. Squeezed between these screaming matches were variants of sports like cricket, football and relay runs. I have long surrendered to this collective adolescent might. I have cancelled off these few hours any important calls and dismissed the possibility of meeting deadlines in the evening.

For over a month now, none of these children have stepped out of their homes. The garden, grass overgrown and unattended, is now desolate. The benches, where chatty parents would sit and watch their kids play, have now been turned towards the wall. The swings in the garden, from which hordes of children would hang, are now tied up and clamped with an iron lock.

For an independent journalist, adept at working from home, staying indoors has not been as disturbing, as this deathly evening silence. Dare I say, I miss the cacophony? At first, I didn’t realise. But days into the lockdown, this sense of unease would creep in every evening. And the collective uncertainty facing us suddenly acquired the looming character of a personal foreboding. It was weird, and demanded a deep dig. So I turned to an experience from two months ago.

Silence in McLeodganj, Quarantine in Mumbai

Grappling with isolation before it entered the global vocabulary as the means to a medical end, the writer discovered some startling truths in the far reaches of Himachal. Photo by: Rafal Cichawa/shutterstock

In early February, before the pandemic became one, I had signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat called ‘Introduction to Buddhism’ in Mcleodganj—the Himachal town best known as the Dalai Lama’s home and the centre of the Tibetan community in exile. For those 10 days, we were not allowed to talk, nor make eye contact with others. Our phones were locked up, Internet, social media and the world outside entirely out of bounds. Our lives were folded into a strict routine: waking up at 6 a.m., attending discourses and meditation classes for six hours, shovelling in frugal dinners of soup and bread, and then off to bed at 9 p.m.

Our teacher was a middle-aged American nun named Venerable Drolma, a former mental health professional with a degree in Psychology. One of the fundamental ideas of Buddhism, she told us, was interdependence. Nothing has an absolute existence; every single thing is shaped by our perceptions, our ideas, our conditioning as well as everything that allows the object to survive. She pointed to a cup placed on her table, with intricate Tibetan design. That cup, she said, would not exist if not for the labour of the people that shaped it—from those who obtained the raw materials to those who assembled it, from those who transported it to those who finally sold it.  “If not for these links, this cup would not have existed here as a cup,” she said.

It wasn’t just the cup.

Our lives, like that cup, are intricately linked to one another, an invisible matrix that connects us and, as a result, holds us all together. We were all interdependent, and even if we don’t always realise, our lives would be unrecognizably altered without the presence of others. Like the cup’s, our existence, from the minute we are born, depends on thousands of people. People we will never see, people whose lives we will never know. From the farmer who toils to grow the grain we consume to the garment worker who applies the stitches on our clothes, from those who operate the assembly line for our laptops to the ones who make our phones, human lives are held together in delicate balance.

By locking us all down, the virus has sought to snap these very ties, the reassuring routine of a mundane existence. From newspapers to instant noodles—suddenly, the mundane is the premium that we are forced to recognise, and on wiser days, celebrate. Public discourse is now restricted to words that, like the virus, are newly born and yet have already taken over our lives. It has even changed the way we start conversations. My conversations with friends and family start with the same repository of functional questions: “How is quarantine going?”, “I hope you are following social distancing” and the works.

Under the nerve-wracking uncertainty that accents such conversations lies a lesson for our generation. All our lives, we are taught to “become independent,” a celebratory state that I realise more and more, is a delusion. Even our global politics suffered from this delusion. Two of the worst-suffering countries, the United States and the United Kingdom, have been swept by recent waves of populism, where the driving rhetoric has been of dismantling ties with global networks of interdependence.

Till the virus came along.

Silence in McLeodganj, Quarantine in Mumbai 2

McLeodganj, where the writer went for a Buddhist retreat in early February, is famous as the Dalai Lama’s home. Photo by: Alex Erofeenkov/shutterstock

The virus broke through borders, including those that took great pride in keeping ‘outsiders’ out. It broke through egos of strongmen who built their reputations of being the country’s guardians. It has also broken through economies, in many cases those which claimed they could survive without others. Across India, thousands of migrant workers hit the streets after the lockdown. Suddenly, urban, elite India was face-to-face with the mass of underpaid, undernourished Indians that has always kept the country running.

The pandemic broke through the delusion that we were independent. If anything, it has reiterated that our only way out is if we are all in it together. In fact, the fundamental idea behind social distancing is that here was a disease in which our well-being depended, not on us, but on those around us.

Facing the empty garden, now overtaken by weeds, I realise that as much as I detested the daily shattering of my quietude, their noise had become my normal. The protesting squeals of a young’un nicknamed Dhoni, who hated losing wicket, was normal. The wild celebration of a “goal!” well-scored was normal. The sight, too, played its part in helping me process stress and grief, over the years. I have walked past these howling children, attending to medical emergencies; I have seen them from a distance, driving off to my grandparents’ funerals. I have seen them in some of my hardest moments—and they have always been the same.

Science says that routines, although much maligned, offer us a sense of meaning and good mental health. This was my routine, till the virus broke it.

Now I wish for the children to be back soon, may be with a little less racket. May be, just a little.


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