Lockdown Diary of a Kashmiri Stranded in Pakistan

‘Over text, my cousins are sharing their experiences about the pandemic in Srinagar. They spend the time in the doldrums of lockdown. It’s boring, they tell me. Everything is closed, and they miss being at schools.’

Aashiq Hussain Andrabi

MARRIED to a Pakistani national, I’m currently on a visit to my in-laws. We live in a rented house on a street in suburban Islamabad. It’s the 45th day of lockdown here. Administration has announced easing of curbs initiated on April 1 and extended twice.

My wife and I are out to a local utility store to shop essential food supplies.

The store has drawn circles, squares on the floor outside store, to maintain social distancing, curb contagion, and protect its staff.

“That’s nice,” I said to my wife, gesturing to the safety precaution.

The salesman guarding and checking us out was not satisfied, however.

“Stand over there, where everyone stands while they wait to be called in,” he said.

I did. Almost three feet separated us, half the recommended social-distancing protocol.

Shoppers are standing at the cash counter for four or five minutes settling their bills; probably, since they’re hoarding food.

Also, when an epidemic spreads, so do rumours and misinformation.

While standing in the queue, I hear two men talking to each other.

“This disease is nothing but a bioweapon,” one of them says.

The other is sure the whole thing is a hoax—a story spread, so the public would accept “restrictive curbs upon their personal freedoms”.

It’s our turn now to get inside and shop. We get inside, the racks have been picked over, but at least the aisles aren’t crowded. I still found a bag of my brand of rice, a crate of eggs and a nice spaghetti packet, our new comfort food.

Aside from such weekly trips to the grocery, we’ve hardly left our house in forty-five days, and there’s a sense not only of being shut away from the world but of being out of it altogether—or adjacent to it, somewhere terribly familiar yet not quite the same.

As we step out of the shop, we meet a driver, who used to earn his livelihood driving a passenger vehicle from Rawalpindi to Lahore.

I greet him with Salam and smile. “Wa’aliakum Assalam,” he responds. I followed up with how he was doing during lockdown.

“I’m suddenly uprooted by the lockdown placing me in very precarious situation,” he laments. “I fear hunger more than the virus.”

Seeing the driver under severe stress and feeling the pain of the human tragedy that has unfolded to him, my wife takes out her wallet and provides some financial assistance to the distressed driver.

Though the public transport, offices, parks and public spots continue to be closed, on our way back I see boys and young men down the street riding their motorcycles, and the market swarmed by ladies and window shoppers busy with Eid shopping.

“I do not feel comfortable while shopping in a congested environment,” my wife comments, as we see some of the shoppers wearing the surgery room masks.

“Sometimes,” she continues, “you find what you’re looking for, though you’re also forced to make unnecessary compromises quite frequently. It’s better to buy stuff in a hassle-free environment.”

As we move, I see a huge crowd has gathered outside one of the shops. There’s no space for our vehicle to pass by. I lower the glass of my vehicle door and enquire from a bystander.

“Some women had come out here for shopping, carrying along with them little kids,” he replies. “Women police personal came to arrest them for failing to comply with the administration’s coronavirus lockdown directions barring bringing along kids below 10.”

I see the shopkeepers yelling in the faces of women police personal. It’s so weird. But finally, we manage to make space and move on.

We reach home, and within a few minutes, my wife, assistant professor, gets a call from her colleague.

I had to terminate the services of my house help,” I can hear the caller, “as I didn’t want myself and my child get exposed. My main issue was she might bring the virus. I just wanted to make sure that my home stays healthy and safe.”

We feel so bad for the poor domestic help.

“I’m hearing person after person losing their job,” my wife tells me. “I’ve a job, and I’m grateful for that, but at the same time, there’s so much of pain unfolding around me.”

With a heavy heart, as we start making preparations for iftari, she gets another call, this time, from a student class representative.

Mam,” I overhear the student say, “many of the students are complaining about connectivity problems. The students have also reservations about the quality and effectiveness of online teaching as they cannot ask questions in case they fail to comprehend a lecture.”

It makes me feel that the pandemic is giving birth to an epidemic of lost learning.

Over text, my cousins are sharing their experiences about the pandemic in Srinagar. They spend the time in the doldrums of lockdown. It’s boring, they tell me. Everything is closed, and they miss being at schools.

“I want to hug my friends. Google classroom and Zoom are just not going ever bridge that gap,” one of them says.

“Yes, we do a lot of connecting via social media, and that’s still happening, but that face-to-face and being with friends... we’re missing that,” he adds.

Closed schools are seriously creating more trauma for students, and I could feel that in the texts sent by my cousins.

We’re joined by my father-in-law. He retired as Assistant Professor and post-retirement, he runs a college.

As we get into a discussion, on how the colleges across are scrambling to close deep budget holes and some have been pushed to the brink of collapse after the coronavirus outbreak triggered financial losses, he says, “This crisis is causing massive disruption to institutional operations and institutional finances. There’re multiple hits on the revenue side and new hits on the cost side.”

According to him, the hurt is deeper this time, and the recovery period will be longer.

The coronavirus pandemic is turning daily life upside-down around the world. Domestic helpers, drivers, students and college owners are among those who suffer the most.

Even as life begins again with the easing of the lockdown, the multifaceted aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic will be felt for years.

To my mind, the unpredictability surrounding our future is bound to cause a sense of alienation.

For a society like Pakistan many, particularly the poor, labourers and least but not the last, the students will keep suffering for no fault of theirs. They’ve a little understanding of why this happened.

Like everyone else here, I’m having trouble thinking about anything other than coronavirus pandemic, and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send.

As I’m stranded here, due to the lockdown, I find myself thinking and talking about it constantly. It’s absorbing me and it’s with the burden of these unprecedented circumstances and the uncertainties that I’m writing this diary.

  • Aashiq Hussain Andrabi is a Journalism Student, Freelance Writer, Digital Media Marketer, Educator and a Scout Leader. He previously worked with the Directorate of Information and PR as Reporter.

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