“What Am I Doing Here?” The Guilt that Comes with Every Outing in the Time of the Pandemic


“What Am I Doing Here?” The Guilt that Comes with Every Outing in the Time of the Pandemic

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

A couple of weeks ago, I did something I had told myself I wouldn’t do until the pandemic was declared over “by science” – watch a film inside a theatre. It felt like a needless accessory considering so much of entertainment can be harmlessly screened at home. It may seem like a pipe dream now, but earlier this year, the pandemic’s end seemed like a possibility, one that was too tantalising to not make long due plans around. It’s the hope that kills you, they say. It’s the hope that breaks your will too. For the first 3/4th of the pandemic, my resolve remained absolute, my discipline unwavering in the wake of those setting worse examples around me – flocking to Goa, pubbing, and whatnot. It was a mark of uncelebrated pride, this sense of responsibility I tried to stay true for the longest of time. Eventually, though, the pandemic wore me thin to a point where I chose the guilt of taking the odd risk, over the certainty of chancing nothing at all. This guilt, I have now chosen to live with as my only way of making through, if not past, these unprecedented times.

It’s hard to pinpoint what brought about this transformation, this withdrawal from a regiment I had wholeheartedly adopted most of last year. I guess it begins at home, in the company of people who don’t pay as much heed to the paranoia surrounding them. Everyone has friends who are either too cautious or too casual. A fresh mind, motivated by the near possibility of vindication chooses to listen to the former, while a tired one is eventually seduced by the wantonness of the latter.

The first cracks began to appear after it became impossible to wake up to the same windows, walls, and sky. A first short trip in October became a carrot too hard to resist. That said, I still tried to plan according to a pandemic – a place where there would be no people, a route where we would neither stop nor socialise extensively. From one form of isolation to another. A month later, however, temptation finally razed to the ground this wall of conformity and regiment I had built around me.

Marriages have never been my thing, neither are crowds, even in a normal year. But months and months of enforced solitude perhaps made me vulnerable to the temptation of seeing faces I would usually avoid. Maybe it’s the things that you cannot have, I told myself. It was also perhaps the warm, rather unlikely coincidence of many old, forgotten friends being in one place that I ended up attending, not one but two weddings in a week. I oscillated between elation and guilt, between caution and carelessness. And I can’t lie but it all felt perfectly worthwhile. All of these instances, however, occurred back home in Shimla, where safety and support are far more palpable than the loneliness of the city life. Also these choices were brought upon by either frustration or mere coincidence. Neither, I can now say, were avoidable. Things, however, escalated rapidly on my return to Delhi, the city of my work.

My mind needs to see space and my body needs to walk through them to tune itself to a kind of normalcy.

Without consequences, carelessness can morph into bravery, even a kind of presumed immunity. From guiltily accepting my vulnerability to strutting it around like an attitude, a carefree rebuttal of the circumstances this world finds itself limited by, my metamorphosis was complete. From weekly football matches to stepping out to eat, the guilt, though still there had become too weak to warrant attention it had previously commanded. It felt natural, the way humans learn to master mundane tasks perhaps the mind and body had somehow mastered the virus, overcome if not its effects then at least its implications for the way we live. This confidence is obviously emboldened by luck that has so far sheltered me from infection. In March, despite having witnessed everyone’s exaggerated Goa shenanigans I went on a week-long trip in Kerala. On returning, I took the ultimate step in indulging the non-essential, go watch a film in the theatre – something I don’t do a lot of anyway. The deserted halls ironically, made it easier.

To be honest, I’ve seldom let my mask or guard down when stepping out, but I haven’t yet been able to do it without the sense of guilt that I will eventually be caught out. “Should I be out? Am I being irresponsible?” These are thoughts that haunt me every time I step out.

As much as it troubles me, I see it as the lesser weight to carry compared to the burden of being locked both mentally and physically. My mind needs to see space and my body needs to walk through them to tune itself to a kind of normalcy. I’ve lost the moral ground from where I could accuse people of not taking the pandemic seriously. In return, I have gained some moments of reprieve and a whole lot of self-reproach for not sticking to prescribed limits. This is not to say you should do the same, or risk your lives, trying to live the one you are missing out on. Both are worth living and exercising caution for. I just tested my luck but I may not do it again.