I would pace slowly, one irritating step at a time and snarl at anybody who would dare to ask “kya kar rahi ho?“. Caged in my matchbox, I craned my neck every morning to take in a deep breath, my nose on the lookout for the familiar smell of fumes, roadside food and everything else in between.
I furiously baked to post on Instagram then set aside my Dalgona coffee dreaming of cutting chai that more often than not burned the roof of my mouth. For the first time, I gave up on taste and cooked only for sustenance. It was an unbearable chore that my lazy limbs grew weary of.
I began to romanticize travelling in Mumbai locals during peak hours. It was an adventure like no other and boy did I need adventure in my life. As somehow who was happy in her own litter corner, I began craving human interaction. A handshake sounded positively exciting. The cacophony of people yelling at the top of their lungs to communicate with the vendors in narrow bylanes, once overwhelming, suddenly seemed so melodious. It was akin to an old lullaby that I longed for.
Crossing off every day as it passed listlessly became unnecessary when all I was doing was existing.
And then in September 2021, the unthinkable happened. Scared, elated, excited, joyous, paranoid, happy, hesitant… I decided to take the first step back into the world. It was time to leave the nightmare behind and embark on something truly exhilarating. A road trip to Bhandardara. Motion sickness, pandemic and a thousand other concerns aside; I was ready. I wanted to conquer the mountain of self-doubt, wrestle my fears, snarl at naysayers and brush away “well-wishers’ opinions. The world was my oyster or whatever the vegetarian equivalent is. Nothing could stop me.
And so off I went embarking on my first trip after the pandemic. I wasn’t prepared for what was yet to come. Blissfully unaware, with FOMO and a camera in tow, I was going to explore the unexplored…
I met my driver Saif, a young fellow hell-bent on making me fall in love with EDM during our 5-hour drive. I met Jijatai, who served me weak tea and Parle G during my stopover. And I met Anish who helped me complete my mission of, well, exploring the unexplored.
I spent three carefree days. As carefree as you can get with a mask, social distancing and a giant bottle of sanitiser which my mom made me promise I would diligently finish before I returned. I had a picnic breakfast in front of Arthur Lake, clicked enough photographs to make my memory card angrily flash “memory full” and allowed my belly to lead my decisions when it came to food.
Conversations, however, forced me to stop and take a few moments in between my bouts of joy to think about people I fleetingly met. Seemingly living far away from the tentacles of COVID, they were being crushed by its impact.
Jijatai bemoaned the fact that her family’s appetite had quadrupled even though her chai business had come to a standstill. With YouTube at their fingertips and having access to the family’s sole mobile phone, the kids spent many happy hours looking for lockdown recipes.“You don’t how it hurts to say no to the kids when all they want is food,” she said while making a hot cup of tea for me. I was the only customer she had for the day.
Saif spoke about the crushing debt and the vicious circle banks were running around him as he fought to keep the ownership of his car, the only possession he had that could help him eke out a living.
Anish, a young college graduate, lost his job and came back to this village to do odd jobs. “I can show you every corner of Bhandardara and cook or take you boating and hiking, lift your luggage. Hukum sarankhon par,” he said with a genial smile.
Living in my gilded matchbox, I had the freedom to switch the TV off when the news got overwhelming. I could take a day off from Work from Home and watch squirrels play if I chose to. I could follow all food trends and cast them aside dreaming of plain dal khichdi with thecha. And I could dream of escaping anywhere or nowhere. The world was my oyster but it wasn’t theirs. Their world remained confined to daily struggles, with seldom rays of hope that would inspire and spur them into action to work towards a brighter future.
I came home charged with energy, feeling overwhelmed with the conversations yet excited to do something. I was going to change the world.
Wait…that sounded difficult. I was going to change lives in Bhandardara. Ok, that did not make things easier. All right, I would change the lives of these three people whose stories stayed with me. There, now that sounded like a well rounded, doable plan.
But like the many hobbies I took up during the pandemic, this, too, spluttered, fizzled and gave up on me. But it left me with stories that I decided to share with you.
And maybe I, too, became a story that they shared with their families. Of a crazy girl, with FOMO and a camera in tow who heard us out and then disappeared as randomly as she entered our lives.