A few weeks ago, I woke up one day thinking I was in my own room in Lahore. I lifted myself planning to go see my parents in the other room, only to realize I was actually in this shoebox of a room in New York. Separate and away from every single person dear to me. The reality confronting the world really tends to amplify the distance one is at from home, and distance too feels like an apocalypse. Every night I am confronted with the dilemma of whether grad school worth being away from my family for, only to be sequestered in a small room dunya kay doosray konay main.
Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t easy being away from home but my longing was rendered bearable by the sense of purpose which had brought me to America and the open possibility of visiting Pakistan. But with campuses shut down, classes shifted online, and the airspace closed, I feel as if I’ve been pushed into a blind alley. What am I even doing here? I am separate from everything and everyone to and with whom I belong, and life is at a standstill.
I float somedays, somedays I falter. Sometimes I am gripped by the fright of never being able to see my family ever again, mostly I am clutched by the anxiety for their health, and sometimes I am seized by the utter dread of never being able to let back in to complete my education here even if I do manage to visit my family in Pakistan.
Time feels like an endless, vast stretch that I have to trudge through. The past seems too distant, the future too frail, and the present too precarious.
A present which asks us to retreat from the outside world, and to recede from the rest of humanity. Lanes, streets and markets that were once hustling and bustling are to be empty, people avoided, to be steered far from. Don’t venture too close to others, don’t shake hands, don’t stand too near, don’t touch your face. Socially distance. Isolate. Ordinary acts have become fatal risks to our lives, and those of others. Apprehension and unease stalk the smallest of acts which were embedded in our living and thriving.
A close friend left New York for L.A. three weeks ago, and unlike every time we met, I could not hug her goodbye. It felt strange, cold, glum and incomplete. Another left abruptly for the safety of her family, all in a matter of three days (a fracture that I am still reeling from). I remain unaware of when I’ll see those two again.
Fear accompanies human contact, human proximity, human interaction, human touch; an extraordinarily colossal and profound rupture of normalcy and life as we know it. At this point, I don’t even remember how it all started, how we went from the first reported case of coronavirus in New York City to 60,000 cases and 3,000 deaths (as of today); the epicenter of the pandemic.
I think of my worries and then I think of a world beyond myself. I think of those for whom this moment truly is qiyamat. Those for whom qiyamat comes and goes daily, as the rest of us sit cloistered and cosy. Those who are losing their livelihoods, roofs, unable to know how they’ll manage to put together the next day’s meal. Exposed to sickness, poverty, vulnerability everyday, but more so today. I think of the inequalities and disparities this crisis is exposing, compounded, aggravating and the appalling ignorance of narratives which are calling it an “equalizer” and declaring “humans are the virus”— clearly or willingly oblivious and impervious to the cannibalistic system that enables such devastation and those who hold the power to drive it.
To be cooped up too is a privilege that is unaffordable for most, and to be safe inside is yet another for not every house is a home. Even in a crisis of existential proportions, privilege is omnipresent. We may all be in this together, but not equally.
Back when I was preparing to come to America, I decided to pick the room with a bed facing the window. My claustrophobia compelled me to think that waking up to the view of the outside world, sunlight bursting through, would be pleasant. My window looks out to the avenue across from my building and the surrounding neighborhood. A study table and chair are placed right next to the window, a space where I often find myself. One of my favorite things to do, day or night, was to gaze out of the window while sitting there; witnessing the people out and about, doing errands, carrying groceries, jogging, walking their dogs, running into one another. But now, up at odd hours, I look out the window and it’s dark, still, silent, and eerie. Not a single person in sight, not a leaf moves. If it isn’t for the one or two cars which appear once in a while, it would be hard to tell if the window opens to a still image or an actual world outside. I tend to get scared looking outside my window now; an open window fills me with greater trepidation and terror than no window at all. If anything, it gives way to loud, terrifying sirens which continually occupy the night. Reminders of the refrigerated trucks lining the roads across New York City. I quickly pull the shutters down. And my heart is weighed down with it. I am constantly reminded of a conversation I had with a friend last month, when we could never even imagine what we face today: what is the value of locating dystopia in the future? Dystopia lurks in the present.
Sometimes, as dawn nears, I hear the chirping of birds. And sometimes, from my window, I can see the two white weeping cherry blossom trees which have bloomed across the street. Emblems of spring, now a spring forlorn.
Abu commented on a post of mine some days ago, writing that “this physical distancing is defied only through love, affection and empathy for humanity.” And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
I think of it when every single day when I see my wonderful flatmate, without whom I would not be able to endure any of this. It helps to hear another voice in the morning, a familiar thud and shuffle of steps in the apartment, a comforting presence, a companionship in crisis. We laugh together while we learn how to survive together in an unfamiliar, uncertain world.
I think of it when I am grateful for that one neighbor in my apartment building who randomly starts playing their piano across the day. And the neighbor who practices drumming in the evening. (I am even grateful for the couple which was arguing at the top of their lungs at 6AM in the morning right underneath my window). I don’t know who they are, where they are, but their seeming anonymity and invisibility is drowned by the reminder their music offers: that there are other people around, and that while we may be distant, I’m not really alone in this.
I also think of it when I receive messages from people close to me, from people I have hardly interacted with but who check in with concern and worry. I think of it when I video call friends in the city and back home. I think of it when all of this keeps me from sinking; all of this, which transcends physical distance and leaves me touched.
I pray for all of this to get easier, to get over. And I hope that when it does, that we never take anything for granted again: to meet someone, to greet an acquaintance, to gather in numbers, to brush past another, to stand next to someone, to behold a face, to hold a hand, to embrace. To be close to people. The crowds and the cacophonies. The ruckus and the rush of life, a life with a place among people, a life with people. Knowing the present is all we have, and we are all we have.
I hope when all of this is over that we can remake our worlds rather than recover the one crumbling before our eyes, having crushed far too many.
I hope I get to meet you and you get to meet those you cherish in better times; in health, in happiness, with greater humility, with greater forgiveness, with greater care, with greater gratitude; with a greater, kinder, better, and an unbounded love.
And to the cherry blossom trees, I hope we see each other again not from a window, but under the wide window of the open skies.
– Hafsa Khawaja