COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: A different view to refresh the senses while in isolation

Sometimes all that is required to refresh the senses in isolation is to find another chair. For two months at home I've sat on my blue couch every day, eating, thinking, watching TV, scribbling notes, talking, but then I wearily said, enough. Life needed to be looked at from another angle.

So I shifted to my white chair near my balcony, half-turned it around and changed my view of the world. Now I can search better for squirrels, feel the kiss of the sun and have discovered that there are diverse shades of white on a cloudy day. Suddenly I no longer feel stuck in the same place.

As dawn stretches its shoulders and light leaks in, I open many of my windows. If I can't always go out, life can still come in. From my new vantage point, I can hear the living better. A small dog with an oversized bark, neighbours murmuring and birds debating.

Single people are their own eccentric entertainers when locked in too long. I have declared myself a wizard with Windex and the Federer of the feather duster. I discovered that cutting onions very fine is a type of culinary haiku that is beyond me and I can't remember what a kiss feels like. Oh, well.

I surf Twitter, read newspapers, switch on Anderson Cooper for 15 minutes in the morning and someone else briefly in the evening, trying to balance knowledge against burnout. I visit YouTube because I need something to laugh at. Levity might be a thin armour against anxiety, but it's something. Else failing economies, mortgage payments, pay cuts, job losses and lack of companionship can wear away at resolve like waves relentlessly washing at rock.

I am aware, as each day opens with woeful news, of my good fortune. I have a job, and it's not stacking shelves at a supermarket or driving an ambulance, all jobs of continuing risk. On Friday, the checkout lady at my grocery shop half-joked that she needed Pampers since the line of customers was long and her work unending. These are the new soldiers, who barely get from us even a salute.

I'm not like millions worldwide confined in a crowded room where the whole idea of social distance must feel like some laughable, upper-class perk. I'm not a woman imprisoned with an abusive husband. And I live in a country of clarity and calmness, unlike places where religious bigotry has infected even the pandemic.

People are saving me in ways none of them even know. My daughter sends me daal recipes because she's a child of hope. My neighbour, Tara, knows I can't cook and leaves chicken curry on my doorstep. Then she'll call me from downstairs on the phone and wave. Her smile is like the morning sun.

My journalist friends from India and I gather for frequent night-time conferences on WhatsApp video to check on one another, mourn, reassure, tease. In the ordinariness of our chatter lies normality, in the anticipation of our call is found comfort. I am single but never alone. What of those who have no one to call?

My mother, in her small Indian town, sets herself down at her dining table as still as a woman sitting for a portrait. On our video calls, I drown her in instructions and she lets my worry wash over her without too much complaint. One of my brothers who lives in Devon often joins in. He was once a wildlife biologist and is now an effortless raconteur who can make the arrival of a fox in his garden sound like a Tarzan adventure.

The New York Times saves me with its reporting and The New Yorker with its charming variety. In the latter, Robin Wright explores the boundaries of the human spirit in isolation and writes of Nelson Mandela, at Robben Island, who could travel the length of his cell in "three paces". We know nothing yet about enduring.

It leads me to read about Poon Lim, a ship steward who lived 133 days on a raft and sang folk songs, and Valery Polyakov who spent 438 consecutive days in space. Suddenly we are students of the stoic and the solitary. Laura Penhaul, who rowed across the Pacific Ocean for nine months with three other women, once said: "Everyone has their own Pacific to cross." We are in the middle of ours and cannot see land in sight. So we must keep rowing.

People save us by offering us distractions, by leading us on expeditions of the imagination. My friend, Paul, sends me a series of adventure documentaries, two of them on climbing. One is called Zabardast, another The Pathan Project, and in the latter a climber talks about the mystery of starting up an unknown wall. It makes me pause because we are all, even if reluctantly, explorers right now.

Mostly, of course, my granddaughter in Melbourne saves me with her innocent cheer, with her insistence that she does not have "corona-vitus" and by finding herself a large empty box. She made a breathing hole in it, wrote "Singapore Airlines. Coming to Singapore" on it and then jumped inside. One day, flights will resume and my parcel will arrive.

Till then, I sit patiently. Thankful for my chair with a view.

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 12, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: A different view to refresh the senses while in isolation. Subscribe