New Delhi: It has been a month. Of life slowing to a crawl, of going back to the basics, of recalibrating equations with family, friends and colleagues and waking up, as if from a dream, to the vast inequalities and commonalities that underlie Indian society.
India went under a lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus on March 25 after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement the evening before. In the days since, 1.3 billion Indians, wealthy and poor, in the heartland and in distant corners, have faced up to the fear of a pandemic spreading across the globe.
No one was spared the anxiety of the lockdown, extended till May 3, that kept most of India behind closed doors, not corporate biggies in gilded mansions, not the middle class inside their homes and not part-time domestic workers in claustrophobic tenements.
That was the equaliser, but the inequalities also hit home almost immediately. As India went quiet and millions snuck into their homes to wait out the lockdown, migrant workers and daily wagers, stranded miles away from home, stared at an uncertain future without money, food or jobs.
Most middle and upper class families found it challenging to spend so much time with their immediate families, and many isolated without them spiralled into depression.
The journey of getting used to a new way of life – without domestic help, without the necessity of dressing up to step out and just staying cooped up indoors -- has been out of the ordinary, equal parts good, bad and ugly.
According to Preeti Singh, clinical psychologist at Gurgaon’s Paras Hospital, the lockdown has encouraged people to differentiate between a need and a want and helped them “prioritise their requirements”.
“It has helped people realise that one can survive with a minimalist lifestyle, and the futility of all the materialism that drives the world,” Singh told PTI.
From these 30 days -- that will go down as one of life’s markers, an always-to-be-remembered month -- emerged innovative ways of social interaction, celebrations and even mourning in keeping with the need for social distancing.
It has been an extraordinary time of looking inwards to rediscover reserves of strength and sometimes hidden talents, said many people.
Chetna Beniwal, a customs inspector posted in Madurai and now with her parents in Gurgaon, said the lockdown has been an opportunity to discover the joy of simply talking with her family.
“Due to my work, I hardly get to visit home so I have actually been enjoying staying with my parents. I have realised that when you spend more time together, you get to know the small issues of the house,” the 28-year-old told PTI.
For some, the challenging part was to spend most of the day confined at home with a close relative, even if one hugely loved, be it parent, child or spouse.
“I am finding it hard to be around my father 24/7,” said Kolkata-based Indrani Paul.
“I have realised that staying within the walls of your own house can be as difficult as staying 10 hours in the office. It is as good as being under house arrest,” the 29-year-old said.
Families, however, have come closer too.
Mahender Sahni, a Delhi-based plumber, was in his village in Bihar when the lockdown was announced. He hasn’t earned a rupee since March but said he has become closer to his sister, who has been helping him and his wife out with ration and food.
“She has been very kind to us,” the 56-year-old said.
Jammu-based Kamla Devi, 71, said she is happy her sons can spend time with their children but the future of their restaurant and catering business fills her with anxiety.
“All bookings for weddings in the last month had to be cancelled, and our employees need to be paid. We are extremely anxious about the days ahead,” she said.
She is also lonely and missing her friends.
“What I have missed the most is going to the park for my evening walk and chatting with my friends. I am spending more time on WhatsApp and phone calls these days,” she said.
According to Singh, Kamla Devi’s loneliness is not uncommon in these trying times and can be seen across all age groups.
“Mental health has taken a hit with increasing cases of anxiety, depression, mood swings, obsessive compulsive disorder among others. There are also cases of alcohol abuse, increased anger issues, domestic violence, and marital discord,” the doctor said.
In times like these, “lack of emotional support often leads to a sense of hopelessness”.
At least 30 people have reportedly committed suicide due to the fear, anxiety and panic of being in isolation.
The extended lockdown has put normal life on hold, even treatment for illnesses, regular medical check-ups and health problems other than COVID-19.
Ricky Sharma’s brother ended up with a gum infection after he was unable to see a dentist.
“My brother had intense pain due to his wisdom tooth but no doctor agreed to see him. Eventually, a local chemist prescribed a medicine. But it hasn’t been of much help. He is still in pain,” Sharma, an IT professional in Gurgaon, said.
According to Shweta Sharma, a psychologist at Gurgaon’s Columbia Asia Hospital, there are challenges in surviving a lockdown but it is also important to look at the positive aspects and take some of them forward in a post corona life.
“This lockdown made people recognise the true value of relationships, and team work while sharing household responsibilities. Pollution -free environment, and consumption of homemade food have been the valuable perks of this lockdown.
“These are also things that must continue after the pandemic. Perhaps, work from home can be accommodated in our routines to regulate pollution, and save resources, and exercising at home must continue, as should a certain amount of ‘me time’,” Sharma said.
Actor Rajeev Khandelwal who was in his holiday home in Goa when the lockdown came into effect, said his biggest takeaway has been that one “should not be dependent on others for his/her happiness”.
"It should not be a borrowed happiness. One should not feel frustrated if they cannot step out of the house, if there is no one around them. One should be able to spend time with oneself. It is important to find things to engage with to find happiness.”
Lubdhak Chatterjee, a Kolkata-based filmmaker, said the most difficult thing to come to terms with has been the “fragile” nature of human life as well as the “collective lifestyle of the modern world”.
“This has been a more challenging reality to accept than just being restricted to my home, and the process is psychologically draining. In fact, this might be just the begining of a long process and thus it is important to accept and adapt accordingly,” he said.
COVID-19 has infected almost 2.8 million people across the world and claimed at least 1,95,000 lives. In India, the death toll has risen to 775 and the number of cases to 24,506, according to the Union Health Ministry on Saturday.