[Column] A bird in a gilded cage

Vishal Onkhar is still in India, staying inside and listening to the birds chirping. He urges everyone to persevere and wait the disease out at all costs.

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Day 69 of quarantine in the year of our Lord 2020. The memes are turning into reality. Life is a blur and I stumble through the hours in a daze, as if in a waking dream. I have lost track of time, and know only daylight and darkness. I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I am a little man in an Impressionist painting – no face, no features, no form – just a smear of paint giving the illusion of a person.

The silence, punctuated only by the soft clacking of my keyboard, is comforting

All joking aside, this is not the vacation or the start to my Ph.D. that I had in mind. Whatever my plans to re-acquaint myself with my coastal hometown of Chennai, they have been swept up by the waves and dashed against the rocks. I haven’t left the house since I got back to India, although I have taken to joining my cat as she peers out of windows overlooking the street. There are no vehicles on the roads, and I can hear the chirping of birds and the scurrying of squirrels if I listen closely. I watch as the falling leaves swirl in the gentle breeze, and I am reminded of that iconic scene from American Beauty. The silence, punctuated only by the soft clacking of my keyboard, is comforting.

Sustenance isn’t an issue; food and drink are aplenty. I’m also able to do whatever I want indoors, within reason. And yet, there lingers a muted sensation of being trapped within the confines of four walls. It isn’t stifling by any means, but neither can it so easily be brushed under the carpet. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be a pet or an animal in a zoo.

‘All it seems to take is a little sunshine and a bit of denial’

I suspect that other folks are grappling with this feeling too. Instagram is awash with posts of people making light of the quarantine – content which belies the truth, in my opinion. All it seems to take is a little sunshine and a bit of denial about the risk for people to throw caution to the wind and venture outdoors for a picnic in the park, a stroll in the woods, a dip in the ocean, or a bike ride through the countryside. Understandable, given that living in close quarters with friends or family for extended periods of time can lead to some flared tempers, but it is unfortunate nonetheless.

I am more astonished to learn that many businesses have not yet imposed a ‘work-from-home’ policy, and continue to make employees report to the office – employees who are perfectly capable of fulfilling their duties from the comfort and safety of their homes. Even more perplexing is that some staff in organisations that have taken these pre-emptive measures are showing up for work nevertheless, citing uncompelling reasons such as reduced productivity and boredom at home. A case in point is our very own TU Delft. Small wonder then, that the number of new coronavirus cases isn’t falling as sharply as we would like.

I realise I say this from a position of privilege, but we must endure and wait the disease out at all costs. Unless we start to take the quarantine more seriously and refrain from venturing out of our homes unless absolutely necessary, I fear we are looking at several more months under similar conditions – an outcome that is entirely avoidable. It’s in times like these that the canary bird in me which usually sings for freedom remains conspicuously silent.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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