Yeh to hona hi tha. It had to happen. As the coronavirus crazily bared its fangs to pummel more people sending them to quarantine or isolation centres, some of we journalists anticipated that the pandemic would hit us too. In a different way. Nothing scares journalists more than the fear of getting shut up and shut indoors. So our worst fears have come true. Many of us have been asked to work from home.
Try as I do to conform to the new commandment necessitated in the wake of the epidemic, it exasperates more than excites me. And it is not without reason. Not used to turn home, sweet home, into an office, I try to make sense of the blurred line between home and office.
The first hurdle to deal with in this imposed “exile at home” is the wife’s rage. Her rage at seeing me not following the routine that I have followed for years. I am aware how she gets upset if I sit with my computer for more than what she believes is permitted to a man who has an office to work at.
“Ghar ko office bana liya kya (Have you turned home into your office?)” was the line she would hurl at me angrily as if sitting at home doing “nothing” but writing was a cardinal sin. Now that I am forced to stay at home and write, she has mercifully directed most of her angst towards the deaf but deadly coronavirus. “Mardood ko India mein bhi aana tha (why did this moron had to come to India too),” she grumbles, putting a plateful of sliced papaya beside my laptop even as I surf news on the Internet.
Since schools too are closed for a week or so, it means the kids—two teenagers and one child—are in-house storm troopers. With plenty of time at their disposal, this bunch of boundless energy is just uncontrollable. Nobody has discovered a chain yet to fetter raw energy. Sibling rivalries apart, the three sisters noisily fight, quarrel, argue over inconsequential things. Only when you keep the school-going kids at home you realize how much patience do the teachers must be needing to keep their pupils quiet and classes in order.
Since it is hard to have silence in the hall which also has the Television set, I try to “isolate” myself into another room, away from the diverse distractions outside. “Writing is a lonely occupation,” writes MJ Akbar perceptively in his latest book “Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle against Jinnah’s Islam”. How true? I marvel at the multi-taskers but I am yet to come across a soul who writes even as he or she converses with a companion, makes love, sleeps blissfully or listens to Parliamentary debates animatedly. You need silence of a cemetery to make your thoughts form sequence and fingers dance on the keyboard, don’t you?
As I write these lines, wife breezes into the room unannounced only to announce that ‘nashta tayyar hai (breakfast is ready)’. Oh, why do I need to be told that I have to eat too when I am working? And working from home? Does anybody ask me in the office that I am hungry, thirsty or sleep-starved?
So I break for the breakfast. Hardly have I picked up a few morsels when the anchor on a channel announces that the number of coronavirus infected people has gone up. Nothing could be more unappetizing than this. Having forced some food down the throat, I grab a cup of coffee and return to my workstation.
From the room’s window, I can see the sky is clean, the sun shines, trees are green but their leaves mellow as the mercury rises. A crow has come quacking, trying to perch on the windowsill. Is it an intruder? Why has it come uninvited? All these questions come to mind. But then who invites birds to feats just as Donald Trump was invited to a fabulous dinner at our regal Rashtrapati Bhavan recently? Birds too are God’s creatures and cannot demand or seek food like we humans do, I try to reason. I get up, go to the kitchen, bring a loaf of bread and throw some crumbs towards the crow. She feverishly grabs some of them in her beak and flies off. Perhaps she has a baby back at home to feed.
I concentrate to write a story. Hardly have I begun the intro when the doorbell rings. I know that wife is not home as she has gone to the neighborhood grocer to complain that the ata or flour that he delivered the previous night is of poor quality and he must replace it as soon as possible. The kids are playing in the building compound. So I must come out to answer the doorbell. The man at the door is a courier boy with Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s maiden book “The Other Side of The Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan” I had ordered from the Amazon. Sameer is a shy Kashmiri boy, a former colleague at The Times of India before he moved to the “Indian Express” and then to the “Hindustan Times”.
Going by Christophe Jafferlot’s comments on the book jacket, it “offers a comprehensive portrait of Pakistan.” Well, I will say more about the book only after I have read it. But, before that, I will write the review of friend and colleague Manimugdha Sharma’s “Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India”. A student of history, I immensely liked this book which not only tells us why Akbar was great among the Mughal emperors but also why some of his policies are relevant in today’s India.
After receiving the courier, I return to my chair. Moments after I have resettled, the doorbell rings again. This time it is the washman with a bundle of laundered clothes. I receive that too and shut the door behind me. How difficult it is to be home and work? I envy those who are habituated to work from home.
So what do I miss while I am forced to stay indoors and work? A lot. I will be lying if I say I am not relaxed at home. But then that is what a journalist, especially one who works for a daily newspaper, must hate. Mr Zeyaul Haq, a Delhi-based veteran journalist who once worked with the “Times of India” in Lucknow and who was kind enough to take me under his wings when I desperately needed an anchor would regale some of us young trainees with interesting anecdotes about journalism and journalists.
Once he said that there was a great editor at “The Pioneer” who gave a fresher an assignment. Those were pre-Internet days and reporters typed their stories on typewriters. So he expected that the boy would return to office and report. But the fresher, instead of coming back to office and submitting his report, went home and showed up only the next morning. Angry but also sympathetic to the new recruit who obviously didn’t know the rules of the profession, the editor called the reporter to his room and calmly said: “Dear, a breaking story is not your partner that you will take to bed with. It needs to be written for the next day’s paper.” We had a hearty laugh.
I miss that urgency, the adrenaline rush which grips you when you are working against a deadline. Evenings at the newsroom are chaotic. I like that chaos. That pressure which pulls out the best from us. Journalists are not some babus for whom procrastination is a rule rather than an exception.
And then I miss the evening snack–bread butter–and going out to the vending machine to fill my cup of coffee. The late veteran editor-author Vinod Mehta called tea “oxygen” for journalists. He was trained and worked in another era. Now coffee has more takers than tea in newsrooms.
My wife is back and it is already afternoon. And it is lunchtime. Story can wait; food cannot. Especially when the “home minister” is around.
*Senior assistant editor, The Times of India, Mumbai. Source: Author’s Facebook timeline