As I stepped off the minibus that took us from the mind-numbing quarantine to campus, the first sensation to encompass me was qualia—the exalted and conscious sensation of feeling alive again. Of enjoying a warm handshake or even a hug. Of finally meeting and talking to my varsity friends. Aah, to feel the joy of random, real-life conversations—by the roadside, as you walk someone to their dorms; or realising how similar you are to someone standing in front of you in the canteen queue. These are real people, in all their breathlessness and unpreparedness and fumbling, finally unrestrained and unfettered from the confines of their Zoom screens.
The shackles of the mystery virus that sent the world indoors are finally coming off. Everyone is emerging from their rooms, fresh and a little tired, but glad to be waved at. The obsession with planning out our lives years in advance is the one thing the pandemic has made us regret. And unpredictable interactions are how I’m learning to navigate my friendships now.
The transition from the blazing north Indian summer, from an intense city like Delhi, to being welcomed into the arms of the relentless rain that governs these hills of Pune was one of the better things I had to adjust to. The green lawns that we had been mockingly using as our Zoom backgrounds were suddenly ours to meet and touch and feel how the rain droplets settle into our palms when we stick them into the grass.
I’ve found a new happiness in softly patting the campus dog as he hesitantly drifts into sleep beside my chair. Not to mention the curious case of the cat that visits my room every other weekend, sometimes snuggling into my blanket with her chin propped up against my knee affectionately and at other times, prodding around in the storage room until we come cooing after her.
Here, walking at night is the norm, and not just as some shallow rebuttal to the unfair threats of a city street, but because genuinely and passionately, the roads here at night are alive. They aren’t always beautiful. But sometimes they are magical, with crickets singing in high octave, a cacophonous lot trying to turn the evening into an open-air opera. You walk on moss-covered tiles only to discover a mouldy frog in your shoe; but I didn’t wait to find out if it was the prince himself.
Beyond the trek is the mild rain, gently caressing the face and body and cleansing the soul. No matter how we distract ourselves from the loneliness of being constrained to the comfort of our house, there is something incomparable and unspeakable about how there will always be more to experiencing life alongside nature.
There is also something to be said about learning in a classroom alongside others. For one, it isn’t as lonely and a quick glance of the people’s faces is usually enough to reassure me that this is all equally daunting to everyone. I suppose, it must be liberating for teachers as well to not be sentenced to days after days of talking to black screens and blank faces, and it shows when suddenly I can’t keep track of all these hours I want to attend.
Of course, there is the fact that now classes bleed into each other, the ink of the poem we read in literature class seems to drip down into our discussions in history, which further pushes into lunchtime because it’s this way that we’ve found ourselves digesting the complexities of academia.
My mind is still filled with questions from the summer sometimes, because I haven’t completely understood how two hours and a suitcase were enough for me to leave and even now laundry feels uncertain because who is to say this isn’t my last one?
But nevertheless, there is comfort here all around me, the buzzing of the mosquitoes at night is as intrusive as ever and every day at four I will find my friends crowding for chai, and I try to remind myself that time isn’t very real to any of us anyway. I feel like I’m finally learning again, learning also to reclaim my space in the world, the one that shrunk like clothes left too long in the dryer under the heat of these summer months.
One well-washed mug at a time, I am taking up space and releasing the cloud of suffocation that Covid left in its trail.
(This appeared in the print edition as "College Diary")Prarthana Aggarwal is a student of Mahindra United World College of India, Pune