March 16, 2020
Pin-drop silence, except for the swooshing sound of a garbage bag stuck on our fence. I woke up two hours early and lay in bed thinking about my multiplying fears. The global pandemic has made my habitual insomnia almost unendurable. I check my inbox on my phone, usually overwhelmingly full; it’s at 0 new messages. That hasn’t happened since I started my job over a year ago. Before I could get out of bed and change into a clean version of what I’m currently wearing (oversized men’s cotton pants and a t-shirt) the phone started vibrating. My sister-in-law, calling from Malaysia. She’d just gone on her annual trip to visit family with my 2 ½-year-old niece, Inara, and then the novel coronavirus began spreading rapidly and her flight was pushed back to May, or probably even further back.
“Bari, are you still in Canada?”
“Yes, Inara, I’m in Canada.”
“At the office or at home?”
“At home with Papa and Dada and Choti Amu. We miss you so much.”
I read my sister-in-law the new statement from the government of Canada that asks all Canadians outside the country to come home. Like many Pakistani households in my Mississauga neighbourhood, ours is a joint family. We not only live together, but are deeply rooted in one another’s day-to-day lives. So the absence of my sister-in-law and my niece isn’t just an added complication in this already chaotic time, it is taking a toll on all of us.
Right now the desk in my sister’s room is serving as my office. My dad and my brother are working from home and have claimed, respectively, our mini library space and the dining table. Coincidentally, the manuscript I’m reading this week is about three generations of an immigrant family. As an assistant at a Toronto-based literary agency, I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home indefinitely. Inside the comfort of my home, I am constantly reminded of the people on the frontlines, the ones who have to go out and work to pay the bills, who don’t have the privileges I do. I loaded up on cups of instant coffee that tasted like muddy water and trudged through this slow-moving novel about people driven by external pressures and fear, switching between the nightmare on the page and the one unfolding in the constant updates on Twitter and in my family Whatsapp chains.
By early afternoon, I put my phone on silent because the “world is ending” messages were just too much. Between work and staying on top of the news I watched videos of Inara; the one where she is dancing to an Abida Parveen song is my favourite. From her very first steps to her very first words, I was there for all of it. In a best case scenario, I’ll miss six months of her life.
In the evening, I cut up four medium-sized onions and browned them for the rajma, and took off all of the “Cheap Flights from Malaysia to Toronto” alerts on my gmail account.
I went on my daily walk to the trail behind our house. Last summer, Inara would sit down in front of the snails and act as their protector until they made their way off the pavement. I tried to find snails on my walk today, but they were all hiding out somewhere.
After dinner, I began writing to Inara about what the world looked like in these few weeks—potentially months—when the world transformed into a sci-fi novel. I wrote to her about the time I split a carton of canned beans with this stranger in the grocery store parking lot because it was the last one in the shop, and the playlists my friends and I made for each other, and the number of times a day my dad tells the photo of her on the fridge that he loves her. These are the stories I want to remember about this time.