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There He Is: Children's Spatial Agency during the Pandemic

In this short story, Rahul Singh elucidates on the monotonous routine of young students during the pandemic and their minimized spatial agency.


I had barely opened my eyes when I saw my mother and aunt talking in hushed tones in my room.

My mother caught me waking up from my sleep and said, ‘He’s awake. Come on, love, go wash

your face. We are going out to get some grocery.’


I moved my body out of the comfort of my bed and asked, ‘Do I have to go out, mummy?’


She nodded putting on her blue surgical mask and throwing a thick wallet, and a bottle of

sanitiser in her enormous tote, ‘This is our only chance at stepping out for a quick walk and the

morning sun will be good for you.’


I rolled my eyes and turned the knob of the tap. Once my face was wet with enough water and

my lids had properly opened, I said, ‘It is boring and unnecessarily crowded! I have my online class

too.’


‘This little boy makes too many excuses as though he’s already doing some serious job,’ my aunt

retorted taking out strands of her hair from the tight ponytail. I hated seeing her always in my

room, dressing in front of the long mirror which had stickers of Spider-man all over. Often, she

complained about the smallness of her room but she never volunteered to exchange it as her room

opened to a balcony where, I knew, she sneaked to smoke countless cigarettes.


My mother never cared if my room was really mine. When I was in seventh standard, I had got a

black chart paper, folded it into several halves until it resembled the size of a nameplate and

engraved my name on it in gold lettering. I had got my parents, my aunt assembled before my room

and explained to them the significance of the nameplate and my room that belonged to me. They

had listened to my instructions seriously. Next day, when I woke up, I saw our help collecting

crushed papers, fallen hair, plastic wrappers and the grains of dust by using it as a makeshift

dustpan. In less than a day, my hard-work had turned into a collection of the house’s garbage. My

mother shrugged when I mentioned it to her and said, ‘I need to rest now, son. I am tired after the

day’s work. You take a paper from your copy and write it again.’


My father finished a call and locked the door behind us. We walked out of the gates of our

residential complex, nodding at our neighbours. Earlier, I had noticed my mother smile but now

smiles were replaced with nods.


As we walked, I began thinking of Anuj from tenth standard who had made online school life

difficult for us juniors with poster-making for the upcoming Earth Day celebrations. There was a

time when I liked him and aspired to be as assertive and intelligent as him. That was when we met each other at school. Behind the screens, I only felt irritation when I saw his face pop in between a class to make an announcement, ‘The ninth standards are advised to make posters. I will divide you all in groups… one for slogan writing, one for collage work…’ He went on and on until the teacher had

to mute him and ask him to leave. For a change, I liked my teachers more.


‘Hold this,’ my mother said passing me a packet of bread and a cold slab of butter. My aunt was instructing the shopkeeper, ‘No, you give the mayonnaise and not this garlic cheese spread.’


At the shop, a long line had begun to form. My mother was inside the shop grabbing bars of

dishwashing soap and getting rice measured on a scale. The shopkeeper asked her to step out but

she ignored him and complained about the Dove soap that was missing from the shelves. I heard

people talking amongst themselves in queues throwing orders at the assistants of the shopkeeper for

sugar, tea, sanitary napkins and refined oil.


The atmosphere around the counter of the shop became intolerable with the heaviness of sweat

mixing with the strong odour of the sanitiser on an early May morning. I moved away from the

counter and let an uncle behind me take his turn.


I scanned the other children standing next to their parents, wondering if I could recognise any

behind their masks. The sight of the clustered queue made me breathless and I turned toward the

road watching two dogs sniffing a wall splattered with grainy, yellow liquid. My eyes stopped at a

couple in jogging tracks walking a black labrador. A repressed yearning to have a pet, walk it, and

care for it consumed me at that moment. I smiled under my mask and toyed with the idea of

mentioning it to my parents once I got home.


My aunt shouted, ‘There he is.’ I sighed with relief seeing them step out of the store with bags bunching out of their hands. The queue stared at my mother and aunt with irritation cast on their faces looking at all the goods they were carrying home.


‘Now, we won’t have to go shopping for at least a week,’ my mother said handing me a small

packet where I could put the bread and butter.


‘I can’t believe they ran out of pasta and canned olives, di. I have been craving pasta. I can’t wait

for college to reopen and to go out with my friends,’ my aunt spoke making the passerby notice her.

I said, 'This lockdown and curfew is a joke. Did you see the crowd? I am sure all of us have got it

now.’


They didn’t respond to me and returned to their conversation of the chicken burger they’d try in

the evening. I swallowed the insult of the ignorance and walked. I focused on the lanes ahead and

avoiding people walking as much as possible to not get the virus. Outside walks, mostly, meant

walking to get home as quickly as I could by being away from others. It wasn’t the case before, of

course. I’d run around the lanes buying a stick of wafer from one shop, a sandwich from another,

and a cone of strawberry ice-cream from the van that stood at the head of the lane. Since the past

few months, I avoided all these shops and only missed them when my parents would not allow me

to order a tub ice-cream online.


We stopped at a butcher’s shop to buy minced chicken. The smell of rotting entrails and the sight

of flies hovering over the blood soaked puddle made me recoil with nausea. The butcher said,

‘Please don’t stand there, son. It hasn’t been cleaned yet. The person who comes to pick up the trash

got the virus.’ I crossed the road and said, ‘I am waiting on the other side.’ My mother and aunt didn’t care and instructed the butcher.


I wiped the sweat off my forehead and turned to the wall behind me. It was grey with posters of

some political party asking to press the button on a symbol. I raised my finger and pressed at the

wall. I smiled at the symbol and tried to decipher the name of the party. I never understood

government and politics. Often, I heard my father and aunt argue over dinner about politics. I tried

listening to it once attentively. In an hour, I heard my mother waking me up to eat the dessert. Since

the lockdown, conversations of politics had become frequent in the house and I searched for places

to avoid hearing their argumentative voices. I found none and sat in my room scrolling through my

Facebook, tagging my friends in online classroom memes.


My father opened the door and began spraying sanitiser on us before we entered. I stepped

inside, peeling off the mask from my face and ran toward my room shutting the nameless door. I

took a cold shower, meticulously cleaning the soles of my feet, the palms of my hands and my face.

Having ensured no part of the virus could be alive anymore, I stepped out into my air-conditioned

room and got ready for the long day of online classes.


I switched on the computer and logged into to the Google Meet. Classes began. Faces popped on

the screen. Instructions were given. Pages were filled. My father’s ageing computer that was mine

now made loud noises after getting heated up. I struck at it twice with my notebook, blowing airs to

cool it. The sound disappeared. Anuj came and left. Earth Day posters were rejected. Lunch break

began and ended. I liked the distraction the computer had caused. I wanted the whirring sounds to

return and to cool the computer again but Classes resumed, and after two hours they got over. At

four, I googled, ‘Where to buy dogs?’


My mother entered the room and asked, ‘Why are you on the computer when your classes are

over?’


I said, ‘I want a dog, mummy.’


‘Shut the computer and leave the room, I need to sleep now. You father is working in the

bedroom and there’s too much noise there,’ she said and dropped on the bed.


I nodded, controlling the tears that had gathered around my eyes. I had the urge to run, as far as I

could- from my family and the uncaring loudness of the house.


This story attempts to portray the helplessness children feel due to the limitations posed by the pandemic on their imagination and their experience of childhood. For us adults, the experience has

changed too, but our age and experience prepared us to some extent to deal with this shift.

Children, however, as I have observed in my neighbourhood and my family, find it difficult to

navigate this situation. On one hand, they find it a great opportunity to be at home and avoid

the routine of school. On the other, the constant presence of family and adults have suffocated them

with lesser alternatives to entertain themselves, unless facilitated through adults. I have tried to use

the agency that fiction often allots a writer, to take the role of its narrator and portray their

emotions. An essay, or a mere narration from an adult’s perspective, would fail to capture the

nuances through which a child negotiates her/his social space. Here, I am reminded of Man Booker

Prize 2020 winner The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who has written a novel

on grief from eyes of a ten year-old child and has done so in an immersive manner where she

weaves both the agency and helplessness a child feels in adult-driven social environment.



 

Rahul Singh is a postgraduate student in Sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata. Besides sociology, he reads literary fiction religiously. His book reviews have been published at LiveWire and  NewPolitics. His academic blog 'Understanding Kinship and Childhood through K-drama' was published on Doing Sociology. His short story  'A Queer Carnival' has been selected as one of the ten winners of Tweak India StoryTeller contest and will be published in an anthology in 2022. ‘The Commotion’, his short story, will be published in Muse India Literary Journal in the January-February 2022 issue. His social media handles are @rahulzsing (Twitter) and @fook_bood (Instagram).




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