Unlockdown Diary: The unifying effect of the pandemic

by Diana R. Chambers

The Star of IndiaAfter a thirty-year gestation, my novel, The Star of India, was published by Penguin Random House India in late April of this year of the plague. Even as the virus rampaged brutally through China and then Italy, I was finishing copy edits, reviewing cover design and marketing plans. But by mid-March, I feared the book might not see the light of day. Like most of us, in every corner of the world, I faced crushed dreams, heartbreak. There would be no pub date, no anything.

We were under Lockdown.

Yet the Penguin team persevered. Valiantly. In the end, the novel was a digital release with a print edition to arrive when life turned safer.

Would it turn safer? Would the virus keep us on tenterhooks forever? We were all so anxious, and no one could peek beyond today. All we knew was: we must #stayhome.

Fortunately we had our digital lives. I had professional obligations: pre-publication events and interviews. More time was occupied by my role as Provision Officer for my family; I searched diligently online for flour and toilet paper. I began to hoard rice and beans, nuts and dates. The shortages made me anxious, too.

In the last days of April, my anxiety grew ahead of The Star of India launch. Light-headed, I awoke at 5 a.m. California time to join in at 6 p.m. IST. The Facebook interview was conducted by Stutee Ghosh, so lively and easy to chat with that I need not have worried. Yet oh, I longed to have the print book in my sweaty palms.

Did I imagine that clutching my newborn novel would give me a sense of reality amidst all the unreality? A sense of control? Was that why I chose the writer’s life—my power to maneuver my characters through time and space? Of course, I knew better, but Covid underlined the point: we have no control. Worse, we can not hug.

As to all that time I had to read? I could barely focus.

Then I received word that my former yoga studio was offering Zoom classes—every day. After moving to another town, I hadn’t really connected with a new studio. Never mind, I was too immersed in my latest novel. And then, there was a shoulder injury, and I became president of a San Francisco-area writers organization. In any case, over the next few years my decades-long yoga practice fell away. I missed it terribly. I sat too long at the computer, and my body didn’t feel my own any longer. I injured myself further. But, I’d told myself, I was dedicated to my work.

Now, hungrily, I grasped the opportunity to return virtually to Enso Half Moon Bay, an airy, artist-owned space nestled against the Pacific Ocean. Although I couldn’t hear the surf through my computer monitor, I could see the wood fire and the familiar surroundings. I was coming home to yoga. I was stretching again. Breathing. Meditating. I had a schedule, something to get up for, at nine every morning. Throughout these perilous three months, I haven’t missed a day.

Yoga has gotten me through Lockdown.

Do I still have anxiety? Yes. Do I still long for a good hug, even a handshake? Yes. Do I fear the risks of air travel? Yes. Do I still long to travel—to France, for a new novel? To India, as ever and always? YES.

One thing I know: I can’t let my yoga practice go again. I love my work but will never allow it to stand between me and what is even more essential. The asanas are important, but so is simply following one’s breath.

Equally so is staying connected to others. During these months of intense isolation, I’ve been communicating regularly with India, by email and chat, voice and video calls. In one, with a Mumbai director, we agreed on the pandemic’s unifying effect; we have been oddly brought together, everyone sharing this horrific yet unique moment. A contradictory sentiment was voiced by my film/TV agent, also in Mumbai, that we have never been so separated—immigration shut down, borders closed off.

Both thoughts are true. We are all experiencing a fraught, fear-filled moment and, still, no one knows what will come tomorrow. As we begin to step out of our homes, we must be more mindful than ever. At the same time, climate change has taken a back seat to health concerns, yet this remains our one and only world. Perhaps this shared experience will remind us that we are all in it together.

We can only hope. As to that longed-for print edition, my publisher has just informed me that I may be holding a copy of my novel in my hands before fall. Somehow life goes on.

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