Lessons the pandemic taught me
I am used to this early morning hubbub in the bedroom that would slam the brake on what could hardly be called a full night's sleep. It's worse than the high-decibel buzz rising from the multitude on the platforms of Chennai Central.
A dyed-in-the-wool bad sleeping position. Lights that were not turned off in the washroom or the foyer. Garbage bags that were not disposed of. A brutally manhandled toothpaste tube that was not accorded its rightful last rites. The workstation that was not shut off. The balcony door that was not closed. A half-empty soda can that stood in solemn silence like an abandoned lighthouse. A greasy ice cream wrapper crying for a lick of love. Shoes that were kept outside to breathe. Towels and T-shirts that hang from dining chairs. The NYT front page with a discourteous stain of tea on its masthead. A tangled headphone cosying up to its inseparable owner. A mangled tablet strip that was not shown its right place. Unused ketchup sachets salvaged from the KFC box. The money plant that was not watered with a drop of prayer to win the next Big Ticket. A blackened banana skin that was tossed into the bin but missed the target and landed in a sea of crumpled paper balls. She has problems with all the good signs of my healthy living.
Ever since we both started to work, our bedroom has been like a monorail station. One train has to vacate for the other to pull over. By the time I am home and bed-ready, it's time for her alarm to wake up the entire neighbourhood except her. Her fingers would slam the snooze many a time before she shifts out of the Parking mode to Auto Drive. Remember the dual language Dubai Metro announcement for passengers: Al abwab toghlaq, Doors closing? Bulletins in a similar vein - Coffee ready, Idly on the stove, Make your chutney, Don't flirt etc - would reverberate through the house like a Shakespearean soliloquy. Since I have sorely learnt it takes two to tango, I would feign sleep and wait for her parting words, which the Bard would roughly translate like this:
Give every woman thy ear, but few thy heart;
Take each woman's censure, but reserve thy love.
"I'm off. Close the door, darling,"
"Don't you have the keys? Lock from the outside as you go."
"Don't know where the goddam thing is. No time to look."
"You're a sadist. You just want to ruin my sleep," I would say as I sleepwalk to shut the door.
"Oh my God, don't walk like a zombie. You're holding me up. I think I'm late. Can you please drive me to school? You are up anyways, no?"
There was a self-induced circadian rhythm in our life that suited our career, interest and passion. Life chugged on like a train, programmed to stop and go in cycles of time. People boarded and disembarked from our life as they wished. During the weekends, we were like two empty trains parked in the yard side by side, our engines calibrated and lubricated at our favoured waterholes. We lived life by the day. Past and future never occurred to us.
And then the Covid-19 pandemic put a spoke in our wheel. Life was thrown off the seamless rhythm that had come to define our routine. The alarm never went off in the morning. There was no school bus to chase. There was no one to cart around. The tea wasn't made and idly never cooked as she took time to pamper herself with an oil bath. Cosmetics jostled for space alongside rheumatoid medicines on the dressing table.
"What's happening? No breakfast, newspapers not picked up, but you have found time to dress like a queen?"
"God is great, darling. Everything happens for a reason. The pandemic is here to teach us some lessons. Lesson one is what you have just learnt. Do it yourself. We both started to work from home simultaneously. Let's be equal. We aren't superior to each other. The distance to the kitchen from you and I is equal in whichever way you measure it. I have an e-class at 8am, so don't wait for me."
"Okay, but why this sudden cosmetics craze?"
"The e-class protocol demands it. In a physical class, I'm only judged by my students. That's not the case in a virtual classroom. I'm watched by their parents, siblings and a whole lot of guests who come to their homes. Listen, you need to help me groom our living room so that my students don't see the mess you make in your much-advertised Paradise after Midnight."
"But this is the place where my words flow. This sunny corner environed by everything turquoise. This ivory-white writing desk. This nostalgic view of the old quarter. This breeze that smells the past. This rickety balcony door that plays the accordion. Please don't intrude. You can always do it from the bedroom."
"My bedroom is my private space, not meant to be a classroom. Also, WiFi does not reach there."
"Buy a WiFi extender, ma'am."
After a day's debate, she let me share the space until I get a WiFi extender and move out. But there were riders. No music, no video, no hauling, no eating and drinking, and no hanging of clothes from chairs.
"My supervisors, principal and technical staff all can monitor my class. You shouldn't be a blight on my frame."
As I sat beside her - enough social distance maintained - untangling an ugly oxymoron in a news report, she elevated the ambiance to a physical classroom. She was like a bewitched Bolshoi Opera artist. Her voice began to reverberate across the room. The chanting of "Good morning, ma'am"; "Good afternoon, ma'am"; and "Thank you, ma'am" elevated me to a world of innocence. It was a journey to the past. A journey to the makeshift classroom of the burly English teacher Ashokan Master at the Tagore Memorial Lower Primary School in the sixties.
I am no more a writer. I had mutated into a student who'd just toddled into his maiden class. As I watched how she hopped from Grade 1 to Grade 10, managing each age group with the sound, style, softness and strictness they deserved, I realised what it takes to be a great teacher. She was a mother when she taught in Grade 1, a sister in the middle class and a friend for seniors. The behavioural shift in pupils from lower classes to higher classes was confounding. The realisation that life corrupts man saddened me.
That's the moment I breached our space-sharing accord. I stood up and started to sing from William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
"Who told you to sing Blake, you stupid boy?" she shouted. "Get out of my class."
I came out, walked to the bedroom and shut the door behind me. She knocked past midnight.
"Were you working all this while?" I asked, as I shuffled things in the bedroom to make some creative space for myself.
"I teach 10 grades, which means after my teaching hours, I need to study 10 books, write 10 teaching notes, prepare 10 worksheets, make 10 question papers, and correct scores of answer sheets.
"That is pretty long. But you can't do this everyday."
"I have been doing this all my life. You never saw it. It took a pandemic for you to realise what your wife does at her workplace - and back home when you are away in the office. This pandemic is an eye-opener. It has empowered man to value woman."
"True, we have been forced to rediscover each other. It's also time for some mutual idolatry. Shall I tell you something? I was late to realise you are a great teacher. I was watching how the kids enjoyed your classes. Kids are a teacher's barometer."
"You have been a slow learner, Raja. You never passed my tests."
"You know something? This is amazing. The new hairdo, the mascara, the bindi. A completely new you."
"I'm still thinking why Magpie skipped the class today."
"You know something? You look so gorgeous in this red outfit."
"I'm still thinking why Adnan couldn't spell the word 'Flirtatious'."