The pieces of our material worlds, the nestling of our identities sewn into their seams — shift, turn and transform in significant ways with each turn of change in our lives. It has then, perhaps, not been unsurprising to observe that elements of our material realm have developed into new meanings; some expanded, some reduced, some imbued with a layer of our personal mythologies, and some infused with a sense of collective turmoil. In our first theme of this series, we wanted to look at how the material realms of our readers recast themselves as a response to the pandemic.
Henri Lefebre once wrote, “The everyday is the most universal and the most unique condition, the most social and the most individuated, the most obvious and the best hidden.” The positions of things, objects, curios, trinkets, all find themselves simmering in a cauldron of the everyday; the mundane, the often overlooked, the tangible avenue of our interconnectedness with the physical. The pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns have pushed us into understanding our transformed realities from the insides of our homes, for those of us who can afford it. The spatial closeness and intimacy with the inanimate company surrounding us have propelled a surge of tender curiosity and a purposeful-looking at the objects we choose to touch, hold and use.
We are discovering and rediscovering our objects now; some objects continue to hold stable meanings, some seem to have an added layer of perspective — be it the nostalgia of human warmth or the exhalation of a new-found routine. Apart from our reoriented understandings of masks, medicine boxes, everyday elements like our beds, curtains, and windows, seem to now carry additional coatings of life on their surface. This has inevitably led to online simulacrums, connecting our lives in isolation by peering into windows, showcasing the everyday lives of cities around the world — we find this on Sonali Ranjit and Vaishnav Balasubramaniam’s quarantine project WindowSwap.
While the following submissions posit within themselves subjective narratives, we also wanted to observe an undercurrent flowing through all of these submissions — they are embellished by documentations of our time here and now. What kind of materials have we held closest to us? Why do we hold these particular objects? How has its functionality amalgamated with sentimentality? We don’t assume that objects are simply vessels to be projected onto. The point of attaching photographs and visual interpretations of these objects was to gaze at them, as both representatives of the pandemic and spaces for pondering on their own dynamic individual histories.
Documenting through objects has been a growing, cultural investigation for decades now — we continue to understand our past increasingly through material findings. “Objects can give us an insight into a time period that documents cannot,” saysAlexandra Lord, chair of the medicine and science division at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Active material archiving throughout the pandemic and amidst our currently fumbling, warped sense of time, reminds us that there is something hopeful laying ahead of us; days when we will look back upon this preservation and meaning-making as the excavations of a bygone time. Perhaps, it also reminds us of our deeply human tendencies. Most of all, our ability to weave and unfold stories around us which capture the essence of 2020’s seemingly incessant isolation, invasive and discovered discomfort, reinvented comfort, and shifting material boundaries.
Powered by a Wooden Spoon
One of the materialistic ingredients helping the survival of my soul during the pandemic has been the wooden spoon. Before the pandemic, stepping out to chat over good food, with a known and lovely stranger was one of the breaks needed to ensure daily simplicities of life don’t get mundane. But what about now, when Corona still feels newborn and doesn’t seem to want to fade away and retire? I am still a no-no for venturing out and being at cafes; I have seen people being at restaurants from my car window.
So in my case, what about the food that added more warmth to the conversations while just talking is happening over phones and video sessions? That’s where the wooden spoon came in more revered than before. It helps me stir up pasta that makes my gut feel outdoorsy. It gives the occasional break that I need, to cook non-regular stuff. I bow to the grocer who is so close to home and brings the world to us, in a safe and sanitised way. The only thing stopping it from being an ultimate experience is the plastic packaging. If that can be done away with, I would be a guilt-free foodie. And that is something to look forward to.
lock the door. sit in a corner. open YouTube. see a tall man play a tiny ukulele. write down the tabs. calloused fingers pressed against the fretboard of the four-stringed instrument. mindless strumming. this is an attempt to grab whatever solace i can attain from this tiny structured routine i have created for myself. momentary comfort (for when you don’t have a void to scream into). i see the same four walls everyday, i wake up to them, sleep between them, exist solely between them (& on the internet). i never find them closing down upon me, they’re resistant to change, blissful with their stagnation. it taunts me, my brain craves change and when i see the same 4 white walls, i experience hot white anger.
emotions fizz on my tongue like cheap carbonated drinks, i wish i could name them, and use it to create a false sense of familiarity amongst people who also exist between 4 walls & on the internet. the bleakness of isolation goes well with the monthly excruciatingly painful pang of existence. i play an amateur version of a classical piano piece. once. twice. thrice. many times. momentary comfort which is somewhat equivalent to sitting in a garden with your friend has been achieved. i feel okay to go on with my day again.
strange times. extraordinary times. the new normal. call the past few months whatever you want to but words don’t seem to do it justice. in a period where everything seems to be constantly changing, a few things that have brought me immense joy these last few months is my eclectic collection of earrings. with the need to dress up, put temporarily aside, even the simple act of wearing earrings felt like a big deal. i look in the mirror and feel more hopeful, in my weird mismatch of pyjamas and jhumkis. these earrings have been gifted, borrowed, thrifted and lovingly carried with me from Pune to Mumbai and now back to Sharjah. they’ve seen new beginnings, marked them so many times and seen people come and go into my life. my earrings, as simple and innocuous as they seem, let me know that things will constantly change. a content creator i like sums it up brilliantly, “the uncertainty will not hinder me from making bold, courageous choices.” this current period is just part of it. but once this is over (whenever that may be) I’ll put on my earrings and embrace the change, like I’ve done uncountable times in the past.
The project sprung out of my observations from everyday happenings in my house, my grandmother’s house or while completing errands during the lockdown period in my city, Jaipur. From my grandfather’s monthly medicine sanitized and scattered outside on the table before they are put inside the drawer to the eggs scattered on the towel after being washed at least twice. From the hurriedly put aside petticoat on a small table to protect it from rain to a piece of kancli (blouse) drying at my maternal grandmother’s place. From a used mask lying on the road becoming an everyday sight to plastic gloves being used every time you step outside. Through these pictures, I try to show glimpses of different ways of objects being used, some have been altered due to the pandemic and some that have remained the same.
I left for home in March with the assumption that I will be able to go back to Pune in a week or two. All I packed was four pairs of clothes, my laptop and a few other essentials. I could not leave Mumbai for five months and everything that makes my space feel like home was not with me. One of these things was my point and shoot camera which is always with me. Not having it for such a long time meant that I had to use the DSLR camera which I am not so comfortable using because I really wanted something to do with my time. After getting bored of clicking too many pictures of flowers on our plants and the birds that visited, I needed some inspiration.
On a really quiet afternoon, I decided to walk around and click a few pictures of the house. I found myself arranging things and exploring the corners of my home in a completely different way. It was a fun way to interact with the things that I see every day but don’t pay much attention to. Over a few weeks, I got more comfortable using the camera and got to engage with, cherish and see the home I have been living in for 17 years, in a different way. And on top of that, I have a collection of images and videos that will remind me of the endless afternoons I spent photographing my home because of a pandemic.
this journal’s journey with me started in January 2020. this year has so far been the best and the worst I could succumb to and the only thing that has seen it all, physically with me, is this journal. it’s been 9 months since the pandemic hit our country, where three months I had spent staying in my very huge hostel in Pune with only 8 other girls, managed to come back home to Kerala where i had to spend another 28 days in quarantine, away from family. for someone who loves having her favourite people around her, i have seen a lot of difficult days in that period. the new norm of staying away from people grew onto me in those four months and the only thing I touched to communicate directly to was this journal and it has been cathartic to me when other sources failed to comfort me.
i keep it by my bedside because I somehow feel safe having it near me. honestly, i carry it everywhere with me and sometimes read the old pages and smile because it brings me a lot of emotions: sometimes warmth, reassurance, craving to meet a numbered few, fear, anxiety but most importantly, hope. the cover has seen cleaner days but now i somehow like the dirt on it because it reminds me of how chaotically messy something can be with its insides filled with nothing but wholesome, beautiful material.
It is a little difficult to make your own space in a different environment, but add to this already arduous task the challenge of settling into a completely new house. In this tumultuous period, I have moved back home from college (for what I thought was going to be just a couple of weeks) into my parents’ house which was an unfamiliar setting already. From there to a brand new apartment and emptied out my college home in the middle of this.
These six months have been taxing but also invigorating at times. One of the first things I bought when I got here was this table, compensating in a way for the table I left back in Pune. I’ve tried to smush in as much of my clutter as I could manage without having things falling over themselves but it gives me a sense of relief knowing that I managed to carry around a piece of me whenever I go.
What made it extra homey were the bits and pieces I carried home from Pune, trying to fit whatever I could within a 20kg weight limit.
I know you’re supposed to have a separate space for work and leisure but I think I can make this suit all my needs, be it long Netflix binges or strenuous zoom sessions, sporadic journaling endeavours and my wavering attempts at beginning my assignments 2 hours before the deadline.
The first time I tried to recollect about an object that has been a constant in my life, my mind betrayed me and became a blank canvas. It’s only the next morning when I sat down to do my daily ritual of journaling that I discovered my low-key yet forever constant – my books with white pages.
This pandemic made me face some of the darkest patches of my life without sparing a moment of rest or a break and leaving me no chance to escape. Escape – this is something I do really well. Whether it is wandering in the city or drowning myself in sleep, I manage to escape very well. For a long time, I thought that my writing was an escape for me. But it’s only in the pandemic that I realized that it was a constant and my white pages felt like a home to me – something that doesn’t judge me for who I am and always have enough space to accommodate me.
I chose books without lines on purpose, I feel like I don’t have to fit into any mould, I don’t have to exist in-between the lines. It makes me feel uninhibited like I can go in whichever direction I want. I had been collecting these books for a very long time, as if a part of me was preparing for the pandemic, for the prolonged social distancing. Now when the wait seems unending and the world feels hopeless, my sole purpose to wake up every morning is to meet these blank pages, who just let me be, who make me feel that I am thriving in those few moments when I pour my mind and not just survive.
My work-play boundary is a multiport adapter that converts the meagre 2 ports on my laptop to many of various kinds. One connects my monitor to the laptop to produce a dual-screen setup, the other two my keyboard and mouse. Why this little rectangle is crucial to my daily routine because it neatly embodies my work-play boundary. The peripherals that it helps connect are used by me only when I’m working while discarding them when I’m not. The moment this adapter plugs into my laptop, I enter an industrious work-only mental space, while the moment it disconnects, I get into a more lax, loose, and arbitrary zone of activity, where I’m open to a multitude of pastimes, ranging from music to learning to Netflix to reading cool mags like Esthesia!