A Sketch of Rose Apples and Cats During Covid-19 Lockdown — by Saima Afreen
May 17, 2020
Under Covid-19 confinement, Saima Afreen presents a non-fiction piece written in a literary style that allows the writer to venture far beyond the subjects of its title, into an introspective engagement with her experiences and memories to the greater visions before her, in a ‘mind state’ of lockdown that is relatable to many yet communicable by few. The writer provides articulations that oscillate between poetic imagery and literary prose to shape an experience of preventive pandemic lockdown from the Indian cosmopolis, traversing into a territory outside of solitude and well past the quarantined self.

The rose apple tree in the tiny garden in front of my Banjara Hills house looks burdened. The fruits glassy and green. Their mouths rouge red. Wounded like this world, these times. And the only clocks documenting these chronicles are inside our chests, beat by beat. The rest appears farcical. Absurd. Non-existent–an ice-cube forsaken in a deep freezer rusting with the routine of a kitchen. Its silence is broken with the hum of the electric chimney, the stove beneath looks distant in the pale light. A piece of chilled aubergine hisses on the griddle. Vegetables are rare now. The sack holding three kgs of potatoes and onions is gold. The fruit have disappeared. Vendors don’t frequent these streets anymore. The rose apples on the blue plate look luscious. A contrast to the Bagru print on its borders. The knife slits the glass, a pear-ish scent escapes. There’s a storm outside. The disinfectant the GHMC workers sprayed a while ago dissolves.

The Saptaparni tree just outside the gate drips leaf by leaf. A ginger cat, which keeps me and the empty four-storeyed house company, jumps on the shabby ground trying to find shelter on the staircase. A soft rain falls silently on the back of the animal and on the blue bogeys of a train, which carries thousands of migrant workers to their homes. To uncertainty. To, perhaps, death. But at least that would come amid their loved ones. Otherwise their tired-hungry bodies are just part of the national statistics, an estimated 100 million in a country of 1.3 billion people, says a recent Reuters report. A few more digits in a huge gallery of data. No one knows the exact number, an exercise put into limbo for the past 40 years thanks to bureaucratic negligence. Their abandonment is put inside a bracket, the government’s ‘good deed’.

The sense of abandonment looms large with the short supply of essentials, the increasing number of Covid-19 positive people, red zones, closed inter-state borders, medical personnel fighting with the threat of the disease on front lines without enough PPEs and deteriorating sanitary facilities, the layoffs, the un-announced pay-cuts, and amidst all an upsurge in the communal polarisation in the country of passing on the blame of 30 per cent of the cases on the Markaz Nizamuddin congregation which began way back in early March when the lockdown hadn’t begun nor had the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. The Union Ministry of Health said on March 13 that ‘Covid-19 isn’t an emergency’!

Foolishness layered with more foolishness, blind hatred. And this has infected memory more than blood. A poisoned memory which will speak to the blood of the future generations urging them to carry the apocalyptic times ahead, manifesting into more horror, chronic diseases, broken relationships and a sense of impending doom refusing to melt away. A danger the world has chosen to ignore. A field of mass melancholia that needs to be addressed. I get to know more of it through Dr. Gaurav Deka, a regression therapist and trauma-resolution expert, whom I interview for the newspaper I joined more than five years ago. My face remains unlit in the newsprint the next morning. I am just a name. An abandoned island.

Incidentally, I read ‘Basti’ by the legendary Intizaar Hussain borrowed from a booksmith. This wahshat is more mysterious than what remained in the post-Partition Hindustan. What will a post-Covid world be like? Or those streets that were pulsating with NRC and CAA protests just a few weeks ago? The house offers its quietude to the thumb-size sunbirds frolicking on four Molsri trees in the neighbourhood park, that the balcony overlooks. In the 41°C degrees Deccan heat, the silent gated community on the other side of the house with its manicured lawns looks like a glossy poster. The other house facing the house I live in wakes up post sundown with an aglow wrought iron lamp fixed near the metallic flight of stairs. The light falls on it, shattering its shadow into lace patterns. There you have itthe golden spiral. Everything drowns down there. Even the night. A big empty balloon breathes. Shahar ek khali samandar hai Christopher Nolan ka… Each face is a forest, a decaying synonym of autumn. The shed leaves crunch, the stories don’t leave a Hansel and Gretel trail.

The mirror is too full of summer leaves, of the flame of gulmohar. It swallows my face, opens its mouth and asks my name. The girl has no face. The girl has no name. Therigatha and ‘Claire de Lune’ muddle in her head. Her spine is a staircase, each breath deposits its documentation on the steps. A repository in flesh. DNA always appeared as a harp carried forward in blood. Broken clefs cling, sink their teeth into hearts that are already tombs. There’s blood on the knife, the secret language that metal always carries. The minty-green fruits sparkle with the scarlet droplets. The electric kettle fumes. A spoonful of TGL Co.’s strawberry and aloe white tea remains in a jar. The Persian lattice design printed inside the cup turns greenish with the blush of the beverage. Blood again. Rose Moon of April. A message from a fellow reporter mentions ten more cases. Nothing wakes her up. She walks as if the grey marble underneath her feet were a dream.

The phone on the tea-table glows. M is trapped in a red zone of Delhi and sends an audio on WhatsApp saying: “You are greater than the sum of your being. Wake up.” He continues with Kierkegaard, the human construct of this world, and everything seen from an anthropocentric view. She listens, and doesn’t. What does she feel? She’s in agony. The artist with a capital A of Cummings is in agony. Is the koel in agony? No, it feels pity for the human world before it flies off to sing elsewhere. I remember our housekeeper the late Chanda Bibi talking to a black cat after an earthquake jolted the eastern part of the country. She’d sit face to face with it. The animal would sit patiently, its eyes blazing emeralds in the power-cut. The old woman would say salaam to the cat asking it to convey her agony to the other worlds that the animal supposedly frequented. The 5 pm sunlight turns lemony. The cat with its ginger fur is now at the window. I decide to offer it a misrah:

Apni hi wahshaton ki mehfil mein mehmaan hoon main

—Saima Afreen

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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/saimaafreen/" target="_self">Saima Afreen</a>

Saima Afreen

Saima Afreen is an award-winning poet who also works as Deputy City Editor with The New Indian Express. Her poems have appeared in several Indian and international journals, including Indian Literature, HCE Review, Barely South Review, The Bellingham Review, The Roanoke Review, The Stillwater Review, The McNeese Review, The Nassau Review, The Oklahoma Review, Staghill Literary Journal, The Notre Dame Review, Honest Ulsterman, and Existere, among others. She received ‘Writer of the Year Award, 2016’ from Nassau Community College (the State University of New York). She has been part of several literary festivals and platforms such as Sahitya Akademi Poets’ Meet, Goa Arts and Literary Festival, TEDx VNR-VJIET, Prakriti Poetry Festival, Hyderabad Literary Festival, Betty June Silconas Poetry Festival, Helsinki Poetry Jam, Pulse Radio Glasgow, the University of Stirling, the University of Westminster, Waterstones Bookstore Canterbury, the University of Kent and elsewhere. In the autumn of 2017, she was awarded the Villa Sarkia Writers’ Residency (Finland), where she completed the manuscript of "Sin of Semantics", her début poetry collection. In 2019, she received the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in Creative Writing at the University of Kent (UK).