by Shaguni Singh Sakya

“Freedom at 40s,” this is the decade when women are done with the highs and lows of marriage, have kids of manageable age and have some personal time and savings to indulge in. It becomes the perfect time to think of “me” or as the millennial saying goes “love yourself.” Women of my generation grew up thinking we have to love others; so we spent our 20s and 30s being the last woman standing – the perennially considerate wife, mom, daughter, daughter in law and all other roles that society thrusts on us. But with everyone chanting the new mantra, I too felt entitled to climb on to the “love yourself” pedestal. So, I charted out a package for the decade outlining how I would gear up to prioritise me above anybody else.

But just when I was ready to take off on a journey of self-love and discovery, the pandemic hit. So, my 2020 dream of following Julia Robert’s cross continental journey of Eat, Pray and Love, took a totally different twist. Eating happened in my kitchen, yoga and praying happened in the confines of my room, and love happened with the self not the “freedom at 40s” version but with “locked down at 40s” avatar.

The first few months of 2020 were a novel experience. Much to the absolute delight of my husband, I became a full-time homemaker for the first time in my life. His dream of me being the typical housewife doing all the household chores finally came true. The fear of letting in-house helping the early days of the pandemic was the heights of paranoia when there were just a handful of Covid cases. But that’s what happened especially after my mother with her new found smart phone skills, read that Bollywood stars got infected via their house help. This left me no option but to clean, cook and do the washing every day. A few days into this, I collapsed wondering how in the days of yore, our grannies did it all. They were the true superwomen. Thankfully my husband came to the rescue and took up dinner cooking duties. And much to their irritation, my daughter was given sweeping duties and my son was given laundry and mopping duties.

The early days of the first lockdown was a revelation on how efficient of a homemaker I was. I churned out new dishes by the dozen, baked like a maniac, scrubbed the bathroom and even managed to upgrade myself to a higher level of twisting, turning, and balancing by squeezing in some time for yoga. Baba Ramdev preached if you could do 200 fast kapal battis continuously and hold your breath for a minute, then your lungs become so strong that Covid would not affect you badly. For the first time in my life, I found myself religiously following the Baba’s advice.

My friends were also in the same zone of being the full-time homemakers they had never been. It was an empowering feeling to be a good homemaker. We all made the best out of the lockdown time and everyone discovered their hidden talents – baker, gardener, cook, home organiser and thousands of other things that keep you occupied inside.

But outside the confines of our homes and friends circle, social media was creating its own online pandemic. Every day a new quack discovery of how Covid spreads was creating paranoia amongst certain members in my family. Some of the crazy antics I witnessed amongst family members included sanitising currency notes and drying it in nanglos like gundruk or titaura; religiously popping homeopathy pills used for cases of arsenic poisoning distributed by the Marwari Sewa Samiti who claimed it was for covid prevention; and consuming a jungle of Ayurvedic concoctions– turmeric, black pepper, rock salt, guava leaves, guilo, neem leaves, tulsi leaves – all grounded and mixed to make immunity booster drinks. Age old tonics are always good for prevention but the only thing that made sense to my mother and aunts were swallowing a whole forest. They also kept busy seriously studying and it seemed like they were all pursuing master’s degree in Covid studies through FB posts, YouTube videos and Ramdev’s daily dose of online drama. Their discoveries were above and beyond scientific evidence and their rationale would have thoroughly confused Dr. Fauci and made him run for his sanity. If psychoanalysis of social behaviour during the pandemic is studied in future – a special chapter should be dedicated to behaviours of South Asian moms and aunts.

2020 whizzed past with on and off lockdowns; Dasain and Tihar celebrations happened virtually, kids became zombies attending classes in bed and teachers even in their most serious attire didn’t look any better.

Everyone zoomed in and out of meetings, scrambled to get some grooming done, and party animals even club hopped for a brief time. It was a haze of a year that passed somehow with a few whiffs of sanity from time to time.

With quiet New Year celebrations, we welcomed 2021, hoping all would slowly fall back to normalcy. Nothing could have been more wrong than thinking positive. If in 2020 we managed to discover our latent talents, during the 2021 lockdown, we lost it all! Motivation levels sank to near zero because of the looming threats. The experience of the second wave was horrible as shortages of resources lead to increased death rates. This contributed to people’s fear climbing to uncontrollable levels, but even amidst such crisis, the paranoid shenanigans of some family members still managed to give us some light moments. One uncle was scared to even walk in his own garden if he saw a neighbour outside. As soon as he saw someone even at a distant, he would run inside like he was literally being attacked by the spiky Covid balls. The thought of him running made us all crack up.

In contrast, there were some fearless family dons who were in constant denial about the severity of the pandemic – the self-made Covid theorists and the conspiracy theory believers. Family Viber groups were the grounds of online ballistic outbursts. There were the toxic negative thinking types, the over the hill positive thinkers, the over finicky ones who would spray every object in sight, and the intellectuals who only read scientific journals. In the cacophony of forwards and shares, no one made complete sense. But what became apparent was that all of these antics were simply signs of anxieties being experienced.

Two months into the second wave, it seems like the “locked in 40s” life will continue with imminent new waves predicted. Putting aside the Eat, Pray and Love journey, I’ve settled for Buddhism classes, history studies and writing. Buddhism has opened up a deeper understanding of the self – the objective self and the inner self. The millennial mantra of “self-love” sounds so immature now. Buddha’s teachings on the concept of “Anatma” (non-self and impermanence) and “Aryastya” (four noble truths) has set me on an inner discovery path.

Trying to understand religious philosophy is a challenge of its own, but while I ponder on Buddha’s teachings internally, my aunt gang continues to amuse externally. They are now doing research for the third wave and will soon likely be receiving their doctorate on Covid studies with the highest honours. No one can beat their dramatic logic that reads like an Indian TV serial. As one of them recently announced to the others, “Covid is a war between humans and the virus, be stronger than the virus, bring out your immunity swords, sharpen them and fight!” And in my mind, I see them on the battleground slashing their swords to kill spiky green Covid balls like the over hyper Bollywood drama queens… Cheers to Covid her stories – to our moms and aunts who make us laugh even in the worst of times.

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