Day 3 of enforced Coronavirus holiday: Sitting at home, it feels as if a smart bomb has been used to wipe out most life. And if, as I do, you live away from the main road, the illusion is complete.
There is birdsong, there are church and temple bells, and the azàan, rung and called by human agency, but at other times, the silence is profound and, till you get used to it, disconcerting. I think I will never get used to it. Even the stray dogs are quiet.
The thing is, Indians are habituated to noise. We live cheek by jowl, we negotiate crowds every day that would send every other nationality to its knees, whimpering in terror. Even the Chinese, who have massive crowds, but with dictated discipline.
Here, we fight with each other, we hawk and spit freely, we encroach into each other's spaces, we interfere, we indulge our inquisitiveness, we have opinions on everything that we want announced. We need one another, if only to affirm that we are alive.
Those others are missing right now, and it is finally dawning that this is going to be a long haul. And the silence will be a large part of it.
What does one do when faced with a situation unlike anything in remembered, experienced history? How much can you keep calling people to find out how they are when the answer is always “Okay, you?”
How long can you go for a walk that includes crossing a street to practise social distancing from another solitary walker coming from the opposite direction? Shoving your hands pointedly into your pockets when you do see the odd familiar face? Regretting not wearing a mask when the other person hasn't? Wondering what kind of dangerous history of socialising they are bringing to collide with your own pristine attention to instructions on how to keep safe?
Except for your help, those doughty ladies who come on regardless and refuse to take hints about staying home or coming in only three times a week because “where’s the dirt?” Or your watchman, who is in the vanguard of meeting all those who don't have the luxury of working from home.
Or the man who quietly continues to take out your garbage every morning, his only interaction with you a bell that rings and a huge bin thudding on the landing outside your door. His has been a silence that has gone unnoticed, till now. Now, you are positively chatty when he appears.
On trips abroad, the silence is a lack of noise, but to us, it is the same. On my first visit to Washington, back in the Eighties, I kept imagining that the wide swathes of empty roads were because it was the weekend. Then I would remember it was midweek.
The story was the same in London and Paris. Moscow was an even bigger sensory jolt because I went in winter. The snow deadened further an already dead landscape. Each time it was a relief to return to noise. Till, of course, it wasn’t.
This silence upon us is different. We don’t really know when it is going to end. March 31 is held up as a beacon, but can we call it hope? That depends upon what we decide to do on April 1. And you can forget the light-hearted pranking of April Fool.
For decades we have declared that if only we had time, we would go on a journey “to discover oneself”. But of course, there were always reasons why we went nowhere, especially not inwards.
Think how useful this time can be, how valuable the silence, provided we could get up the courage to see ourselves as we are, as individuals, as a society, a community and a nation.