At home with Kalidasa during the pandemic

ASAD LATIF

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the candle-lit dinner tables on love. The circuit breaker short-circuited timeless rituals.

The hug that led to a kiss entered forbidden epidemiological territory.

Sight and sound went virtual, the smartphone became the only matchmaker and lovers cursed the unwanted longevity of the day.

Once the circuit breaker ended, they rushed out to see one another as they had never done before.

The erotic economy of Singapore was restored to its familiar place in the ordering of personal affairs. Touch, which love requires, became a tangible gain once again.

What was taken for granted became a precious, if precarious, recovery of a lost self.

Meanwhile, domesticated lovers, those married or in partnerships, grew tired of their enforced proximity, I imagine. Working from home is not the same as loving home.

Stepping out expands personal space, whose daily-enlarged frontiers enrich the significance of return.

To be stuck even in one's sovereign abode contracts the capacity to relate to other homemakers - spouses, children and in-laws - with the freshness of a day experienced in the office or during a trip by car or on the MRT.

Like others, expatriates in Singapore are coping with the decentring effects of Covid-19.

For Indian nationals, as for Chinese, American or any other expatriate community, the burden of Covid-19 is doubled by worries about people back home, particularly the elderly.

Although I am not an expatriate any more - I arrived here in 1984 and became a citizen in 1999 - I can empathise with the fears of those who have two sets of family: One here "at home" and one "back home". (For those with grown-up children living in a third country, the burden is trebled.)

I used to straddle those two homes once, living at home in exile from my parents even as they lived at home in exile from me. Home itself was a form of exile. How quixotic, how ironic.

At least my wife was with me. I tremble at the thought of spouses or partners whose expatriate lives have been cut in half literally by the pandemic today.

Are they not like the exiled nature spirit pining for his beloved in Kalidasa's Meghadutam?

The paean to the cloud-messenger invokes rain clouds that "cling enamoured to the sky in all directions".

The yaksha, employed to keep gardens beautiful for a rich lord, neglected his work, probably while enjoying his young wife's embrace in the rains.

No one can "bear to leave a woman, her loins bared/once having tasted her body's sweetness", Kalidasa declares.

Thus, the nature spirit asks the cloud to convey his love to his wife, who lies outside the realm of sight, sound or touch.

The cloud-messenger carries away his delirious memory of joy to the waiting eyes of his beloved, herself intoxicated by hopes of his return.

So, which was the yaksha's home? He did not belong obviously to his place of exile, nor could he be physically where he belonged, with his beloved.

Home, therefore, was no other than the clouds that were free to roam from land to land, from hope to hope, from poem to poem, from song to song.

Clouds mocked borders in their passage. They played no part in the quarrels and fights of men lying on either side of a border.

Their benediction of rain was available to all during monsoon, which marked the unity of the seasons amidst the fractious and changing affairs of mortals.

Even before the pandemic struck, I used to see foreign workers, be they Bengali or Tamil, look up to the skies as I passed them by. Certainly, local workers, including myself, looked up to the skies as well, but the sight was not the same.

To those like me, the skies belonged to Singapore. To the foreign workers, the skies belonged to Singapore's distance from Bangladesh or India.

I dare say that it was the same with foreign workers from Malaysia or China. It is just that I used to see primarily Bangladeshis and Tamils on my way to a place of work to which I am affiliated.

With Covid-19, looking up to the skies has become an act of existential insecurity. Almost every worker fears for the future.

There is, first, the gnawing fear of disease. Then, there is the fear of losing jobs. The difference between local and foreign is that, job or no job, Singapore will remain home for Singaporeans.

It might be an uncomfortable existence for a while, but the geographical coordinates of being will not change.

For expatriate workers, job loss involves the possibility of involuntary repatriation and unwanted return home. They had come here to care financially for family back home.

To return empty-handed is a double insult to oneself, as home-maker and as wayfarer.

Even for professionals, studied in the ways of success, jobless return destroys earned status.

For manual labourers, it removes food from the plate. Singapore's work permit-holders do not need to fear enforced eviction from the land of their economic dreams, but labourers elsewhere are at the receiving end of coronaviral history.

Even within India, the epic sight of migrant workers walking to their villages across hundreds of kilometres rekindled memories of the Partition of 1947 and the violent transfer of populations from one "religious" home to the other.

In the case of the exodus of workers from cities, caused by a lockdown which was necessary but created economic havoc, the transfer was from one economic home to another.

The walk was within the same sovereignty of territorial India, but that economic nation had been ravaged by a disease that knew no religion or politics.

Although from a vicarious distance, I followed the fortitude of those workers, my comrades in Indian time, as some carried daughters and sons in their arms or laps and others carried even fathers on backs unbent by the weight of history.

Kalidasa, where are you today? What are you up to? It is time for a new poem.

Certainly, your cloud will be the universal home always, always the messenger from one person in love to another anywhere else.

However, your unfortunate yakshas are no longer nature spirits. They are men of flesh and blood looking for a home in which they might live with dignity and love.

They love women as much as women love them. Their children recognise no world greater than the love of the parents who brought them into this troubled world.

Kalidasa, not even a virus can destroy your world of completeness achieved between body and mind. In that completion, may we all find rest.

"Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam": The world is one family in Sanskrit. Prove it again, Kalidasa.

tabla@sph.com.sg

Asad Latif is an editorial writer for The Straits Times.

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