Thursday, March 19, 2020

Turbulent times

When news of a disease rapidly making its way through China first spread, we tapped the headlines on our phones, made a clicking noise with our tongues to express our dissatisfaction and forgot all about it. As usual, our thoughts said it’s a problem they’ll find a solution to. It doesn’t concern us.

The virus, however, was determined to prove us wrong.

Soon enough, there was a case reported in Saudi Arabia. And other countries I can’t recall right now because I hadn’t lived in them, and what transpired there was none of my concern. But things in India were quiet. And later, the patient in KSA tested negative for corona. We went on with our lives.

Then we blinked and it was everywhere.

 Whole sections of China were going into lockdown mode. People living there couldn’t leave, citizens abroad couldn’t go back home, and some were stuck in limbo, having to fly to countries they had never stepped foot in their entire lives because they weren’t allowed back in China.
More and more countries said they had identified their first cases of corona.

Still, life was the same. College continued like nothing was out of the ordinary. I did my homework, and studied for upcoming tests.

Then, Kerala found herself a victim. But our state government flung into action immediately, testing carriers of the virus and taking all precautions to ensure nobody else caught it.

For a minute, everyone held their breath. And then the government said we were finally in the clear, and people cheered.

Meanwhile, Italy found herself thrown into a state of panic. The virus was there, and it was brutal. Her death toll kept rising, and rising, and it didn’t stop.

We were working like a well oiled machine when suddenly, things went out of control. A family of three had just returned from corona-stricken Italy, and hadn’t told anyone. Instead they’d attended several large gatherings, including a wedding, after they had arrived back home in Kerala, thereby possibly infecting a large number of other people.

Until then, my family and friends had been watchful, but not very cautious. Just wash your hands, they said. You’ll be safe, they said.

But now, suddenly trapped in a situation where everyone was a suspect, we were starting to become more vigilant. Classes carried on, but there were warnings given to students who intended to travel to the region where the family who caught the virus lived.

My family started to talk about it more and more, as with every passing day, the virus dominated the news. Everyday, a new government would pop up in the headlines, with a new patient, and more and more schools and offices would be shut down. 

My parents said, they should close college for a week to be safe. Dad, living alone in Saudi Arabia and worried about the situation in Kerala, strictly told me to cancel the plans I had with my friends to watch A Quiet Place. It was the first time he had ever stopped me from going out and having fun in my whole life.

It was the second day of exam week, and we were sitting in class during lunch. It had been a half hour since Sreya and Sesha had gone to the canteen; they hadn’t brought food from home that day. Sreelakshmi was showing me David Dobrik videos on my phone when there was an incoming call from Sreya. 

“Check the news,” she said.

I was suspicious. Sreya and Sesha were twins, and they equally enjoyed the occasional prank call. I asked them twice if they were trying to pull our legs, and they insisted they weren’t.

“Just do it,” Sreya said. And then she hung up.

I pulled up Manorama news on my phone, and the latest headline said that another case of corona had been discovered in our state. It was a three year old, who had just returned from Italy.

And then Sreelakshmi and I heard the murmurs in class. People were bristling, huddled around benches and looking at their phones intently. This wouldn’t be out of the ordinary most of the time, but not now. There was an energy in class, something strange.

“They’re shutting down college for three weeks,” someone said. 

And then we scoured the news again, but there was nothing. It was the same.

Ten minutes later, the twins were back. They had heard the rumors on their way back, and called us then.

I checked the news again for an update and there it was: two minutes ago, a new article had been posted stating that the government had ordered educational institutes (except for students of medicine) to be shut down for three weeks.

“Does it include professional colleges?” Sreelakshmi inquired. 

I checked again. It did. So we officially had a three week leave, too.

Twelve minutes before, the chief minister of Kerala had announced the decision. But the news, once it was out, spread like wildfire in second. Hostelers started dialing numbers straight away, making transport arrangements so that they could go home immediately. Information circulated Whatsapp, my inbox getting flooded.

And that was it. That was how the corona virus had impacted our lives. No one, not even my grandparents could recall a lockdown like this on a large scale, just because of a virus. Previous cases like the nipah virus had been dealt with immediately, and life continued.

Nipah didn’t go out of control. There was never a pandemic. But there is now with corona.

And as I sit here writing this, I can tell you that the number of cases have grown. Theatres have been shut down, and A Quiet PLace won’t be coming any time soon. Word is that restaurants will be closed down too, soon. The situation is predicted to get worse, and rumors now say that college leave will be extended by two more weeks. Kerala was the first state to be hit with the virus, mainly because international travel among Keralites is so incredibly common. But other states have now joined the list, and Maharashtra has the most number of cases. China has managed to wield control again, and the number of domestic cases has reduced exponentially. In fact, Italy’s death toll has surpassed China. 

And we watch the news and Italy’s streets are empty and cold, like a ghost town. The squares are eerily quiet. Residents stay home, but keep their spirits up by singing in solidarity from their windows with their neighbours. Europe has found itself battling the disease. Saudi Arabia closed its airport and cancelled all travel to the holy cities. 

Even instagram has changed, in a way. Most celebrities and influencers now post photos of them staying indoors, advising everyone else to do the same. And the memes. They remain, with corona as the subject. Even with the early unification of people online, talking about art and love and politics, this is the first time I’ve seen something impact so greatly with everyone that it’s a part of their captions, or their photos, or their jokes. Google has a link now that says “Do the five: Help stop coronavirus” underneath Search. Youtube displays a notification from WHO when you open it. And simply searching covid-19 online shows an SOS alert in red, with helplines underneath and an overview of necessary information.

And everytime someone astronomically successful and famous contracts the virus, like Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, and Idris Elba, the conversation amplifies. 

Like a Twitter user elegantly put it, we’re living through a future history book chapter.

So, maybe after a while, if things get better, people who didn’t lose their loved ones or their livelihoods to the virus will carry on again. And we’ll talk about how the world panicked and slowed for the first time in ages. How world leaders didn’t implement and carry out safety measures, and how many of them ended up contracting the virus themselves. How America ran out of toilet paper. How masks and sanitizers became trendy. How Netflix was urged to reduce streaming to stop the internet from breaking.

This blog has been recording important events of my life for nearly ten years. But this post has been the most somber one so far. And, I’d like to think that years later, I can come back and read this again to remember the impact the virus had on everyone, just in case we start forgetting and diluting the impact it had. 

Perhaps, the most iconic thing to come out of this was the message one got when trying to call someone on the phone. You’d dial the number, put it to your ear, and a heartbeat later, there would be the sound of a man coughing loudly, and then a robotic voice speaking about the important measures to be taken to fight the disease. This was a part of a government initiative to spread awareness, and the call wouldn’t be placed to the receiver until the voice was done talking. If the coughing noise of a strange man hadn’t scared the life out of us trying to call our friends and family and caused us to hang up immediately, maybe we’d have listened to the rest of the message. 

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Thank you, Chetta

“Pass it through the window.”

Lina’s outstretched hand was trying to grab the pencil pouch bag Akshara was extending to her. Our classroom was visible through the window on the wall perpendicular to the balcony we were standing upon. If you reached out, you could just barely high-five someone in class. But right now, we were on a different mission.

Lina grabbed the pouch, but it was only when its contents fell out that that we realized it hadn’t been zipped close.

We screamed for no reason from the first floor, watching the pens that had fallen out bounce onto the ground. 

Eva’s face was the physical definition of oh no, especially since it had been her bag passed through the window. It was safe, but half empty. 

“I can’t find my ID!” Eva rummaged through it, and came up empty-handed. She took off back to class to check if she’d left her ID there.

The rest of us peered down below, and watched a couple of boys walk briskly into the building. We hissed to get their attention, and one of them looked up.

“There’s a pen there.” Lina pointed in its general direction. The boy grabbed the pen, pocketed it, and continued walking nonchalantly, leaving us with our jaws on the floor. 

Everyone slightly panicked. It was basically our fault- we had encouraged Akshara to take the risky move of passing us Eva’s bag through the window, and now we’d screwed up. It was especially embarrassing since the only purpose of the bag was as a prop for an impromptu tik tok video.

We were berating the thief and looking down helplessly when he turned the corner on our floor and walked towards us. “Chechi, your pen,” he said, offering it to Lina. She was at a loss of words, since we’d just been cursing him a few minutes ago, and also because he’d called her chechi, a term used to address our female seniors. 

To us, it seemed like he was our peer. But no one rectified his mistake. Lina took the pen gratefully, and he was on his way back when he ran into Eva. Eva, who hadn’t been present for the events that had taken place but had seen him walk to us and return her belongings, ran up to him and said “Thank you, Chetta”, chetta being a term used to address male seniors.

All in all, we were thankful. Eva had her ID and bag back, and we resumed our video. But it was still funny to think of how surprised he must have been if he realized we were in the same year as him.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Save the Earth

Let’s face it- concern about global warming was laughable until a few years ago. It was an obligatory subject in textbooks, and appeared occasionally in newspapers. The general assumption was humanity still had several years to implement measures before it was too late. 

The time is ticking, and somehow, the needles have picked up pace. The consequences of our actions are now catching up with us, and taking their toll on other inhabitants of the Earth as well. 

The most fascinating part of our thinking is the one that allows us to believe that we have authority over every other species on Earth. It is the one that will subsequently lead to our downfall, lest we start being more pragmatic than selfish. 

It is unfortunate that millennials and Generation X will have to start taking global warming into account while thinking about building families. Overpopulation is a grave issue with far-reaching effects. Eventually, our descendents will face a despondent future alone- that is, if we do not face it first instead. 

Research has shown that the best ways to reduce a carbon footprint would be to turn over a new leaf and have a vegan diet, reduce air travel, and start walking more. Already, a revolution has begun- statistics show that more people than ever have altered their diets and started consuming less meat, and more greens. Veganism is on the rise. 

While veganism is moving up the graphs, something else is dropping- birth rates. Some women do not want to have kids, others are sacrificing chances at motherhood for a better planet. To give birth in an unstable world seems like injustice against someone who did not have a choice to be put here, and many do not want to carry that guilt. 

Religious and social customs, however, will disagree- having a child is more of an obligation than a choice. However, religion will not save the earth. Only action will. 

If we truly want a healthier planet, we need to stop exhausting and degrading our resources. Overpopulation means bulldozing more forests for land, and larger consumption of existing natural supplies. It means higher crime rates, and growing demands for employment. 


The futures of more than 150 million orphans are already set in stone, and perhaps by giving up having our own children, we can give them homes instead. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Vienna Diary

Vienna is popular for many reasons: it's been ranked as the world’s most liveable city several times, it’s home to the oldest zoo (Schönbrunn) and ferris wheel, plus it’s Austria’s capital.

But what really got me enthused was that it’s also known for its cafes. Coffee in Vienna definitely lived up to its reputation, and it ticked another box from my invisible list. 

The train station was five minutes on foot from Haus Wasserzeile. Our landlady had two adorable dogs, and I got to meet both, which made my stay all the more wonderful. 

A specialty of Haus Wasserzeile was that residents had their breakfast together at a large table. Chatting with fellow guests, who also happened to be from outside Austria, made mornings more animated. 

Vienna was more lively compared to Salzburg and Innsbruck, with restaurant hunting becoming a lot easier, and street performers adorning pathways. The four days we spent there went by quickly, and soon enough we were back in Riyadh.

We also had a very memorable visit to the Schönbrunn zoo. The aquarium was fascinating, and I got to see polar bears for the first time. The zoo’s history, however, is blemished with tragedy; the world wars took their toll, and its inhabitants suffered greatly.

The Schönbrunn palace on its own was huge. There were several tiny craft shops selling a wide variety of stuff, and we got an elegant owl made of wood, along with a ring and necklace for me. I liked the ring so much I took multiple photos of my hand. 


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Innsbruck Diary

After our Salzburg tour, it was time for our next journey,

The dazzling photos I had seen online of the picturesque little city made me eager to visit Innsbruck. Snow capped mountains were prominent in every snap, and towered above.

Our ride from Salzburg to our destination was heavenly. Views of meadows, farmhouses and towns outside the train windows made the time fly by. Soon enough, we were at our stop.

From the Innsbruck railway station, we caught our bus. Like in Salzburg, our hotel here was also away from the city. What made it more interesting was that it was located 2000 metres above sea level.

We were to get off at Kühtai, and the bus ride there gave us a glimpse of dreamy, serene Innsbruck. My feet were itching to get off and take in the riveting scenery myself, instead of how I had been doing for too long- through a computer screen.

Bus travel between Kühtai and Innsbruck had a benefit-  guests had free access to the bus pass.

The next morning, we visited a skiing resort, 2020 metres above sea level. It was a popular skiing destination, and was packed with visitors. We stood by and watched skiers fly effortlessly down the slopes enviously.

The rest of the day was spent visiting popular tourist attractions within the city like The Golden Roof and Triumphal Arch, and meandering through Maria-Theresian street. The Golden Roof was made of more than 2,000 gilded copper tiles, and shone like fire in the sunlight. 

Eventually, it was time to go back to our residence, and get ready for our trip to Vienna the next day. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Salzburg Diary

After a five hour train journey with a train change in Munich, we arrived in Salzburg.


We had our eyes glued to the window through the entire bus ride, taking in the sights of the quaint city and the tall, rocky Alps. Mom was especially ecstatic about the the tiny shops selling a variety of things.

Our lodging was a little far from the hubbub of Salzburg. We got off at our stop, and then it was a short walk to the Boutique-Hotel, Essigmanngut.

The view that met our eyes was incredible. It was the kind of thing I had only gotten to see in movies; large green, rolling meadows framed by the ranges, old-fashioned houses with sloping roofs, and no one around for miles. It was a windy day, and the trees were swaying with sunlight filtering through their branches. We had never seen a place so serene.

We did face one issue however- it was difficult to locate restaurants nearby. It took us a while before we finally identified a group of them, hidden away from the main street.

This problem resurfaced even when we were in the city the next day. Eateries had no sign boards outside and no distinguishing features from other buildings, which was rather puzzling.
This had never been an issue in any of our previous travels, so Google Maps was absolutely imperative here.

Having a wiener schnitzel (Austria’s national food) was high on my to-do list, so I made sure to order one. It was a toothsome dish, and it was great to eat and relax after our busy morning of visiting Mozart’s Birthplace.

Mozart’s Birthplace offered an intimate look into the life of one of the greatest music composers in history. Original handwritten letters, musical instruments and models of household objects contemporary of his time were all on display, giving us a glimpse of his era more than two hundred years ago. It was a truly informative visit.

We also saw the Hohensalzburg fortress, mounted intimidatingly on a hill. Sphaera and Petersfriedhof were in the vicinity as well, Sphaera being a sculpture representing modern art and Petersfriedhof being a cemetery where some scenes from the movie Sound of Music were shot.



Saturday, April 6, 2019

Bye Bye, School

Phew! Class 12 exams are finally over, and I'm done with my schooling.

The past few months have been nothing but hectic. Now, I can release that breath I've been holding.

The day after the last exam, we arrived in Heidelberg, Germany. We had lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant we’re extremely fond of, but discovered that the previous chef had left, so the food wasn't as tasteful as it used to be.

Later, Dad left to attend an SAP event where he was to receive an award, while Mom and I went for a walk and made sure to visit the bridge monkey. We aren't the superstitious type, but that doesn't mean we're ready to take a risk.

It was a cold, windy day and we ended up shuffling back to our hotel after a while, thinking about going out later. Despite the weather, I bought a gelato because nothing was going to stop me from getting one.

The rest of the day was rainy, which left us disappointed. We watched raindrops hit the wet cobblestones mournfully from our hotel room window. The streets were mostly empty and illuminated, and the skies were grey.

Bedtime was early since we had to catch our train in Mannheim to Salzburg, Austria.