By Parvathi Sajiv Kumar Apr. 07, 2021
College is supposed to be about new-found freedoms but here we are being mindful about every move we make. The hugs we showered on each other, after long breaks, have now become nods in the silent alleys of our campus. I hesitate to share my fried rice in exchange for fries with friends in the canteen even as we sit six-feet apart.
The streets are deserted, silent, unlike before, when they’d be filled with smoke and chattering. The smell of dust, collected over time, makes me sneeze despite the mask. There are people around, some peers, some strangers, all hesitant to get too close. I am back in Pune, the city of my college, but a year has passed. A lot has changed and a lot has not.
While classes haven’t begun offline, just being back on campus has opened a tap of emotions. Some I knew were buried deep down, and some that I recently discovered.
In one year, there has been a shift unimagined in the human mind. Suddenly, people in tiny boxes on screen feel more comfortable than those right in front of you. Navigating, through this sea of people, feels alien now. After all, I have spent my lockdown with bare minimum contact, holed up inside my home in Kochi. There was a sameness about each day that went by, replete with endless “leave meetings”, online games, and Netflix parties. Hours whiled away as I shifted from one screen to another aimlessly.
This made communication very two dimensional. I could barely keep up with the speaker in meetings, their body language amiss, and the several blinking notifications on our phones didn’t help. Much was lost in translating our non-verbal communication to the binary world. Returning to the analogous world means sifting through these conversations like before. Leaving my mind to focus on the other person in his full effect seemed like a Herculean task to me. I often find myself feeling restless, agitated, and impatient talking to another person these days. All I want to do is to minimise the person and fit him in a screen, open another tab and consume content mindlessly, maybe because it feels safer.
Sometimes being back in college feels like waking up from a dream where 2020 never happened.
Yet, as I see my old friends, it reminds me of comfort. Familiar faces, familiar smiles, and of all the things that have stayed put despite our world turning topsy-turvy. I search for normalcy in the mundane – having hot maggi and chai at our regular adda even if it means sanitising everything I touch; the smell of old monk rum intensifying as a friend runs to the bathroom to throw up; the hostel rooms lit with fairy lights, with “Shaam Bhi Koi” playing in the background.
Sometimes being back in college feels like waking up from a dream where 2020 never happened. Time is such a fickle concept… the last year is proof. Time stretched out like an elastic band but somehow contracted as well over the year. April 2021 seems to come by in a jiff but still took too long to reach. As I walk through the lanes of my college, I feel like my body doesn’t understand time. Despite a year going by, my body knows to avoid that pothole on the side of the road, to walk faster past that public toilet and automatically stop, and ask for the packet of milk at the local kirana as I did before.
Somehow a year only masked my face and not my muscle memory. This muscle memory might prove to be detrimental to how we navigate in a post-pandemic world. Our bodies seem to have shifted into normal gear with ease, but the same cannot be said about our minds. Still wary of the raging pandemic, anxiety and uncertainty are galore. Each time a person coughs or sneezes, my mind thinks of the dreaded C-word. I hesitate to share my fried rice in exchange for fries with friends in the canteen even as we sit six-feet apart. The hugs we showered on each other, after long breaks, have now become nods in the silent alleys of our college.
This body-mind disconnect creates a disjointed feeling between the reality I knew all this while and the reality I am in. There are moments when it feels easy to forget that we are still battling a pandemic, as we peek into the normal we took for granted. Those halls in the hostel which once heard the laughter of the girls and held midnight birthday celebrations stand deserted today. Everyday mischiefs such as sneaking food from the mess for a friend seem long forgotten. Those overcrowded college lifts where we exceeded capacity, now stand empty. The side glances and the accidental brushing of thighs with your latest campus crush are a distant memory.
As I walk through the lanes of my college, I feel like my body doesn’t understand time.
I wonder if things will ever return to the way they were. With our temperatures being taken at every nook and corner, it might be long before, we can just rush to class as we wake up late, or dig into a classmate’s bag of chips before heading to the next session. Despite the inside jokes with friends, making plans for trips post the pandemic, and helping each other finish assignments, we are still scrambling to breathe with ease.
College and campus life was supposed to be about new-found freedoms and carefreeness, not about being mindful of every move you make. My malleable self finds itself in conflict with the familiarity and uncertainty that has come to define student life.
There’s the fear of testing positive, being away from family, and the constantly changing guidelines… it’s a lot to deal with. But I also realise the more I step out and interact with people, even if it is for purchasing essentials, maintaining social distance, while masking and sanitising, the less anxious I feel.
It’s probably similar to when we first move away from home for college. We are unsure whether we’ll make it. And then life happens. We learn to cook, manage finances, and clean with our friends. Now, we’ll learn to live with the pandemic and find our way around it. We’ll probably make our mistakes, but we’ll hopefully emerge wiser and bolder with tales to tell. Like generations before us who survived conflict, we will be the class that beat the coronavirus. That’s a long way ahead.
For now, the silence of the streets remains; it’ll persist for a while before there is chattering around. The dust may lazily settle for a bit longer before it is cleaned. The people, still hesitant to be close, will find new ways for intimacy.
I am back in the city of my college, but a year has passed.