Locking down in privilege
Should I feel guilty and stop being a consumer? What can I possibly sacrifice? Can I stop living my life because of a virus and its social impact on the poor? Our lives were vastly different anyway.
How ‘minimal’ is minimalistic when masses starve or migrate to death? How overbearing is the burden of the privileged entitlements in times of severe scarcity? Should the entitled be apologetic and stop being self-indulgent? Aren’t they way too habituated to sustain a social distance from the under-privileged, and that too with a sufficient swag of indifference? Is it even possible to feel the agony of the poor, as they walk in the heat with the bare minimum, while we sit in air-conditioned rooms and watch them on the flat screen with 4K clarity? One can be extremely helpless, guilt-ridden or worried. Others can donate or write another opinion piece or a policy paper, but is it even possible to de-class, or is it even desirable not to be a consumer any longer?
There is no specific key to unpack a host of embarrassing exposures during the lockdown. As I search for my singular key to get into my apartment, I realize that there are no easy answers to these questions. Answers are locked up, so are we. There are no duplicate keys to my apartment if ever I lose the one that I am holding on to. There is no road-side key maker available under the lamp-post. A single key without a key-ring relieves me from the burden of a heavy key-bunch. Living life lightweight makes it easier to be on the move. It makes it easy to arrive or to leave or to stay put. Am I at fault if I am just responsible for myself, and if I don’t have a pool of family members to care for or worry about?
There is no one waiting on the other side of the door as I key-in to quickly pick up a chilled bottle of wine. I am meeting someone, who also lives in the text tower. Thankfully, I am not answerable to anyone for my delayed entry. No obligations to let anyone know where am I headed in the middle of the night. Life is less constrained when you live alone. No inner voice dictates you to remain bothered with the likes and dislikes of somebody else in the house. I leave for now to return later at night. Uncertainty and anticipation continue to be exciting even in harsh times. And life is not all that asocial in a large quarantined housing complex even though we are not allowed step out of the gate for the next two weeks. Resident welfare associations are the new micro-kingdoms exercising absolute authority on our everyday lives. Do I have an option of not conforming?
Past midnight, after I return home, I desire the material comfort of my bed. I crave a hot shower too. Should I be repentant for the uninterrupted water and power supply? While ascending higher in the elevator, I am reminded of the uncle who loves to say, “You guys sleep so late. When do you even get up?” The lockdown has turned us even more nocturnal than ever before—delaying the already disturbed sleeping cycles by another four to five hours. A friend recently approved of this call-centre like sleep-cycle by saying, “Come on, how does it really matter when you sleep, if you are fulfilling your eight-hour-quota”. Work, meetings, evaluations and exchanges have gone online, anyway. Devoid of the physical office space, there is no office time as such, unless your boss loves to see you first thing in the morning, or unless you are a corporate slave—always under the tyranny of answerability. For many others, the temporal separation of work and home have gone for a toss. As an honest tax-paying citizen, should I be apologetic about my salaried status? Should I feel sorry for the unexpected and uninterrupted time to read and write and think from home, when so many others are too far away from home?
Poor on the maintenance, the elevator keeps stumbling like the economy. The twelfth floor seems further up and away from the ground than usual. A rush of pleasant breeze hits me as the elevator door opens. Summer is slightly delayed this year. I key-in. I know my space inside out. I can visualize everything without light. I still switch them on—the gloomy yellow ones. The warmth of the dim yellow makes me feel at home. The floor seems dustier than usual. It hasn't been mopped with water in a while. And it is exhibiting severe disappointment with my dry-mopping efforts, particularly those portions of the house that I rarely visit. Should I be remorseful for being able to retire in a relatively big house at the end of the day, all by myself, when millions are finding it difficult to return home?
Should I be ashamed of an uninterrupted view, when the majority of the urban dwellers look into their neighbour’s balconies? I walk out onto the terrace. As I lean on the roof railing, I am surrounded by the darkness of the windows that populate the concrete towers. Some early risers have already gone out for a jog. This is the best time to defy the lockdown ban on walking in society. The Taj-expressway vanishing into the horizon is silent. On a pre-COVID night, it would be oozing a steady sound of the rolling wheels of the heavy vehicles. The cumulative buzzing sound of the air-conditioners is filling in the void instead. The world is sleeping only to wake up to an increased COVID-count.
The spatial organization has suffered a bit. Things at home have become more fluid—flowing into one another—as I have become reluctant and lazy during the lockdown. Things remain scattered. The visual of a couch stacked with heaps of clothes remind me that I dislike ironing. I don’t mind carrying the crushed look for the time being until the dhobi returns. There are these small dependencies in life, no matter how self-reliant you think you are. For instance, you may not mind doing the dishes and cooking a full course meal, but you may dislike cleaning the oily patches and greasy stains in the oven. It is a good time to do away with curry and kadai and shift to oil-free roasting in an electric oven. Good time to replace jeera and dhania with oregano and parsley—eat from the foil and dispose of it afterward.
The thought of food makes me hungry and reminds me that the fridge is devoid of anything fancy. Danish cheese cubes have given way to desi Amul spreads. I am fine with both global and local, and I am not vocal about either. I cut up an imported apple and lay out the pieces evenly on a white plate bought from the Karol Bagh crockery market and squeeze some terrace-grown lemon on it. I am accompanied by some loopy tracks from Porcupine Tree’s In Absentiaas. Then I go for a shower. As I sink in into the aqua comfort, I doubt which one is an augmented reality—my earned privileges, or the visuals of the migrants’ hardship on a 65-inch LED—made in China? Should I feel guilty and stop being a consumer? What can I possibly sacrifice? Can I stop living my life because of a virus and its social impact?
Our lives were vastly different anyway. Though death is inevitable for all, and productivity is essential for growth. With job losses, pay cuts, and EMIs breathing down one's neck, one could lose all the pleasures of accumulations in no time. Or one could figure out new ways of holding on to one’s material possessions irrespective of our class positions.
It’s time to get a good night's sleep and get ready for another self-made brunch—followed by some afternoon reading and writing—followed by late-night use and abuse of the locked-down body—with some binging and media-gazing thrown in between. Cheers!
Sreedeep Bhattacharya is a sociologist with Shiv Nadar University. His book, Consumerist Encounters: Flirting with Things and Images, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.