Reexamining ‘Strange’ in a Pandemic

Aakriti Kuntal is a poet and writer from Gurugram, India. Her work has featured in RASPUTIN: A Poetry Thread, Selcouth Station, Poetry at Sangam, The Hindu, The Bombay Literary Magazine, and Ethos Literary Journal among others. She was awarded the Reuel International Prize for poetry and was a finalist for the RL Poetry Award.

Corridors of light swim in the wayward tint of Delhi summers. Evenings are thick and tuft, a damp cloth on the forehead of day. Time resembles itself flawlessly now, each day mimicking the last. A dry, oniony smell floats through this condensed dough of time. I sit on a black, leather stool enjoying the sickness of summer, its salty breeze.

People are back again on the jogging pathways, briskly walking, hurrying in circles, relieved from the burden of thought, absorbed in the sap of life. They wear masks, black, wiry vines strapped to their ears and wrapped around their mouths. It reminds me of the television shows that showed the horrendous gas masks from the wars. I distinctly remember the restlessness it left me with as if the world was a large gas chamber and we were enclosed in its slate nightmare. It is strange how quickly though we can become accustomed to the strangest of oddities, children playing in masks, couples, old and young, walking. Nothing about the sight provoked any normality or burned the boundaries of comprehension. It had all submerged into the new reality. The strangeness was how okay it seemed, how comfortable the mind was with this sight, how something that was once unusual or even disconcerting was perfectly normal now. Perhaps, normalcy too is just a state of the mind, a state of comfort and sedimentation induced by the environment, our perceptions, and preoccupations. It is perhaps the idea of change, the unsettling feel of it, the disruption in the inertia of our lives, our values, and the continual system of our being that we consider strange. But a pound, a touch, a flick and sooner or later even the most dynamic and cataclysmic alterations are simply accepted. Survival takes precedence over all other instincts.

Men, I suppose, after all, adapt to everything, no matter how uncanny it may have once seemed to the mind. The mind, on the other hand, can convert something very humble and ordinary into something distinctly peculiar and the strange even stranger. Thought has that ability, to re-engage reality, to make it a stranger all over again, to stun the senses and our cocoon of reality.

Mother says on the phone that the times are distressing. ‘What a strange new world God has created… Why would God create such an illness, let it cauterize mankind?’ People keep saying that, over and over, God has created this pandemic and it is a test, a punishment, retribution, so on and so forth. I don’t know what God has or has not created but I certainly am unable to find much resonance in these thoughts. I don’t know how to think of the virus as an inherently evil thing. It is what it is just as we are what we are. We simply contradict each other in existence.

Before the virus arrived, knitted itself into the stem of our lives, everything was still contradicting everything else; climate change, plastic, the disrupted food chain, the never-ending list of what establishes our dominion over the earth, greed and power, instinct and survival. Many pronounce it as the end of the world and the sad part is how irreversible it seems and so monstrously large for any one individual to truly rectify. It seems like it requires altering almost everything about our lifestyle without a socio-economic ecosystem to support it. Yet again, this is the nature of things, death and rebirth, wars, plagues, and ice ages. Perhaps, it’s just me consoling myself, no more able to bear the overwhelming anxiety from all that plagues the world and the encircling social media critique that can barely be lived up to.

I return to the discordant tunes of the evening. Listening to music, gargling vowels in my head, thinking of cooking, small activities here, and there. Things that work as a duct tape over the larger, unseemly carcass of being. Sometimes I miss the late-night car rides and the accompanying sight of chalk-white flowers, reading a Rilke poem on a bench while relishing the half-baked smell of ten thousand foods in the suburban Delhi market. I inhale the lemongrass soaps while pondering whether showering is spending too much water. I wish to escape. When my legs get queasy and the ankles ache from restlessness, I sigh, and return to the nothingness of things, their blatant vacancy, only to remember that retiring is not an option. While we cannot evade the darkness of our personal and combined realities, I suppose we have to continuously reinvent our meaning of life in order to survive.

Now that you're here

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  1. A poet comments on the pandemic from India, reminding how alike we are in this experience, how challenging it is for all of us to change our way of thinking and feeling. Surely Aakriti Kuntal points to the to the way we are similar the world over in our response in this divisive year.


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