COLUMN: PANGS OF ISOLATION

Updated Jun 08 2020

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“All writers live in a dolphin-like progression, above and below the waterline, of isolation and intense conversation...”

“Write that down and send it to me,” I tell my poet-friend Ruth. We are having one of our intense conversations — we often talked by the canal near my flat or chatted in her garden, but now we use the phone. We last met with other friends in March; we all read our work in progress to each other and were going to converge again that month. But then our city changed around us. The elderly went into isolation before official lockdown began. People stopped shaking hands or taking public transport. In early March, I had a call from the institute where I teach to say that classes were suspended.

With the official announcement, we became strangers to our own city. The bookshops and cafes shut down and we weren’t allowed to visit each other’s homes. We rediscovered the telephone. I’ve lived in London 50 years this month and watched the city change; but now we’re in a looking-glass world. People wander the streets in pairs, buses still run, grocery shops are open. My sister, who came to see our late mother, is isolated here with her son and can’t travel to join her husband and daughter. A nephew is separated from his wife and daughter who can’t come to join him. Shahbano, travelling back to Karachi in mid-March, was told a few hours before her departure that she couldn’t board her PIA plane without a certificate; she had to go away on another airline as lockdown in Karachi was enforced. (And who knows when I’ll see my birthplace?)

There’s an uneasy tranquillity where once there was bustle. In my village-like neighbourhood, long queues crowd the pavements outside the little post office and the big supermarket. I am often suffocated by news of crashes, locusts and dispossession in my involuntary and repetitive confinement. Yet, I return with a sense of gratitude to the emptiness of my apartment after going down to give money or a sandwich to the young homeless man who’s been sitting, since March, on a corner of the street where I do my shopping. (He vanishes at night — where does he sleep?)

The weather is unpredictable; a wintry spell in May, followed by sunny days. When leaves fall, it seems to be autumn. But these leaves are green, not yellow. Ruth photographs birds in her garden. She’s worked on her novel. Since my mother died in April, I haven’t written. I read, I listen to stories. True stories. But literature is not the ultimate antidote or panacea. I correspond with friends abroad. Letters, messages, texts have more meaning for me today than books; they bridge my distance from the people and places I miss most. In February, I told an audience in Lahore that displacement and nostalgia were self-indulgent terms for the nomad’s life I led: I’d visited Pakistan five times in four months and felt ‘at home’ in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. Just a few weeks after my return, our worlds were in upheaval. My words became redundant as airports in Pakistan and elsewhere closed down.

There are still those true stories that console. Muddasir crossed India — from Aligarh to Srinagar — on a three-day journey, after two months of anxious waiting at his hostel, with tests along the way. He reached home and family before Eid. On another epic voyage, Geeta left Chennai — where she was stranded for months — for Paris, from where she flew to the United States. Friends fled their emptying university hostels in Islamabad and Faisalabad for Chitral, Swat, Sukkur, Southern Punjab; some in time to work in sugarcane, cotton and rice fields by daylight. They listen to recorded lectures and work on their dissertations at night. Some relish the peace and relative safety of their homes after the bleakness of lockdown in the city; others long for the activity of the campus. Many of us are writing. But we don’t just miss places; we miss the safe lifestyles we took for granted and feel we may not regain.

My walks between spells of reading and writing have become tedious. I’ve trodden the same pavements over and over, and can’t venture far from home on a bad left leg. Even the quietest of us has a need at times for ‘intense conversation’ with a live companion. I start to want company after four solitary days. (Nothing like people — Kamil wrote from quarantine in Chitral — to cure other people.)

This week I walked down a broad pavement with Adnan, who, like me, is waiting for a flight back to Karachi once international travel resumes. Strolling along at our required distance, we talked about what we do when we’re not working online. He’s been reading Altaf Hussain Hali’s memoir of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, and is impressed by how the poet who lived through another kind of plague — the great uprising of 1857 — displayed in his letters, diaries and late poems, his own style of modernity in a time of impending and crucial change.

The many gardens we passed on that sunny Tuesday afternoon were full of flowers: yellow roses are blooming in profusion this May. Looking at the photographs I took that afternoon took me to a day in 1977 when, at a concert in Haymarket, the great singer Subbulakshmi, to our wonder, performed a ghazal by Ghalib:

Ishrat-i-qatra hai darya mein fana ho jana
Dard ka hadd se guzarna hai dava ho jana
Hai mujhe abr-i-bahari ka baras kar khulna
Rotay rotay gham-i-furqat mein fana ho jana
Bakhshay hai jalwa-i-gul zauq-i-tamasha Ghalib
Chashm ko chahiye har rang mein va ho jana

[The joy of the drop is, to become obliterated in the sea Pain’s passing beyond the limit is, [for it] to become a medicine,

To me, the bursting and unravelling of the springtime rain-cloud is, Weeping and weeping, in the grief of separation, to become obliterated, The glory of the rose bestows a taste for spectacle, Ghalib, The eye should, in every aspect, become open]

I hear echoes of the poem and I search for release from this captivity, and its burden of longing, in the silent space between the rain cloud that bursts and dissolves in the pangs of separation, and the plant-colours that fill my eyes when I pause, for a long moment, to look.

The columnist is a London-based novelist and short story writer

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 7th, 2020