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(Ashram, North India)

I am not allowed outside, but at least I am allowed to look at what is outside.

The horses have returned. They stand where the ferries used to anchor. They drink water and roll around in the sand. Then they shake. They shake until they have shaken off everything that can be shaken off. We hear it pelting the walls.

My feet stink of piss. It is a mystery who is peeing into the drain under the sink.

Officially all supply chains have been shut down, but we order fruit through a back channel. Sometimes we receive five kilos of slimy grapes—sometimes two rotten papayas, three mangos with spots like dark eyes, a single avocado with a black stem.


We barter with one another. I trade an apple and a small bowl of vegetables for a can of coconut milk but no one has an opener. On YouTube, I learn to use a spoon to puncture crescent moon holes into the lid.


The cleaning didi finds 100,000 rudahs in a trashcan. A whole afternoon is taken up with figuring out how many rupees it is worth, if she will ever be able to exchange it—whether the banks will open, or if she will ever see anyone from Indonesia again.


Plunged into the feverish euphoria of uncertainty, one woman’s cheeks are constantly flushed; she dizzily asks each of us is your embassy sending a flight? Is yours? Oh, really? When?


Those of us here live in two separate buildings connected by a gate that is only unlocked in the early evening. When a friend wants her lunch, she runs her metal bowl along the gate’s bars and softly calls my name. I fill it with dahl, rice, and cabbage or eggplant or pumpkin—whatever vegetable has been boiled that day.


One of us is now allowed outside once a week for shopping. I take everyone’s orders and walk to the next village. On the way there, the police ask to see my shopping list. On the way back, they search through my bags to see if what I have bought is essential. Based on this, they decide if I am allowed out next week.


I am here because awhile back a callousness sprouted in me, and I became tough. Too tough to penetrate. I often think about this now, sitting at the small table of the ashram’s kitchen, half-listening to the didi’s chatter about balancing greens on a plate. Is green dahl and okra too much of the same green? I think no. It is like how the light briefly takes on a green tint before an afternoon rainstorm, and everything appears wondrously fertile. She decides it is too much green and hands me a head of cauliflower. Yes, okay. Who doesn’t need to be broken limb by limb and steamed?


A friend calls to ask how I am. I tell him it is difficult to sit with myself. He says that the Self is never difficult to sit with. He tells me other things too. Things I think of as spiritual platitudes and tend to tune out. He needs them though. His father just shot himself in the head.


I whittle things down to two contradictory truths:

     1. I can’t live without my person.
     2. I am living without my person.

Around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around—I am beating out a meditation path in the garden.


Long ago, a man fervently knocked at the door of his heart until he was allowed to enter and sit inside it for ten winters. Afterward he said some profound things. We are living off the residuals. The residuals of the residuals. Like when a cook is cutting up celery on the counter. We get the wet spot after the celery has been put into something else.


Men have been coming with mules at night. They shovel sand from the Ganga into bags. They use it to make cement. My teacher is irate and involves the police and people from the district magistrate’s. They come to inspect the large holes. The first question—whose sand is this? The Ganga’s, of course. The second question—how does this answer solve anything?


I peer over the garden wall—through the orange trumpet vine—at the ghat. I am on the lookout for the dog with a square piece of flesh ripped from his side or the dog with maggots in his eye socket or the one who drools as though he has rabies although he does not have rabies. Instead, there is an old woman sweeping brick dust against the wind.


Will anything significant result from this time, or will I simply recede back into the wave of myself?


When I am lonely for my person, I read novels in first-person or meditate. I think somehow pipelining pure voice or no voice will help. So far, neither has. It is just passing time where I think less about my person’s skin.


In the garden, there are three pink hibiscus bushes, a bottle palm, a monkey tail tree, devil’s ivy. In the center is the young cycas around which I walk. After a strong rain, the dirt becomes hard. I spend hours on my hands and knees with a spade, turning it soft again.


The police stop me from crossing a bridge to buy batteries as they are deemed non-essential. Go back, they bark. Go back. Go back.


Through the trumpet vine, I see a man with a gash across his forearm. His wife is holding it, tending to the cut. When he and I make eye contact, he says, I am enjoying the pain. I continue my rounds in the garden. Over and over again, I say, I am enjoying the pain.


Over 40 and the electricity has been out for three hours. I tell the manager that I don’t care if he or I are arrested, I am going to sit in the Ganga to cool down like the dogs do. When I come back, a woman has taken a knife from the kitchen and is hacking away at her long, curly hair. The cut is blunt and jagged but blessedly short.


I wallow in remembering the brief time I was so in love I couldn’t finish anything. Once again, I walk around the ashram all moony with my insides slicked up. I roll around on my bed and floor, imagining various sexual positions.


The migrant workers have no food. Some are walking thousands of kilometers back home. We receive monetary donations and make “love packages.” They are filled with kilos of wheat, rice, sugar, and dahl. A man from a local village learns from a relative of a relative that these packages are being handed out. He walks the fifteen kilometers from his village to our ashram, but we have run out. Come back tomorrow, we tell him.


The others here ask if circular walking in the garden is really meditation. I think it is, but after seeing Richard Long’s A line made by walking, I decide it is a kind of art.


The woman knocking on my door has a dilemma. She only has x-amount of time per day to dedicate to prayer. So, on whom should she focus her prayers? The migrants who are starving, the people with the virus, or those of us stuck here? If us, which one of us? How much should self-interest factor in? Should she pray the most for the woman with the slight heart condition or the woman she most wants to leave the ashram?


A boy is giving the dog with the vitiligo-looking belly a hand job. I scream at him to stop, but this eggs him on. He pulls a minnow from his pocket and tries shoving it down the dog’s throat. I want to climb the garden wall and toss him into the Ganga.


The fridge is already overfull, and the crown of a pineapple has been shoved inside. Later in the evening, one of the two men staying here takes it out and says, I have been keeping it cool for the cow.


I lean out over the banister of the third-floor balcony and take a photo of my rounds. I send it to a photographer friend, so he can put it in his show on lockdown art.


Football lily in the brightest part of the day—its stem, invisible. From across the garden, I think it is floating in the air.


Infighting. Someone is giving someone else roti that is raw in the middle and that someone else is giving it to the monkeys. Someone someone else leaves the gate open, and a cow gets in and eats the plants. Someone someone someone else has a wrong practice. Too much śavāsana. Another someone someone someone else doesn’t do enough śavāsana. Almost all the someones have late menstruation or early menstruation and breakouts and mood swings. And SOMEONE is boiling their menstrual cup in a communal pot.


I can’t let the walking and the photo of the walking be my art alone. I have added this writing so that non-circle things are seen. Thinking things, crying things, pain things, sad things, happy things, regret things, bird things, plant things, sudden-storm things.


A friend teaches me that if I pour water on my room’s tiled floor, it will evaporate throughout the night and cool the air. It makes a slight difference.


One woman here practices āsanas six to seven hours a day. She is the most selfish among us. Also, the most judgmental. She sweetly messages us, each in turn, asking if we will buy her a watermelon from the fruit cart or some milk from the dairy shop. It is unthinkable that she interrupts or shortens her practice. She is critical of whatever we bring her. The size of the watermelon, the brand of the milk. Since she is the most dedicated āsana practitioner among us, we joke that only she will get a call from her embassy.


The kitchen didi makes a bitter gourd drink to bring down the manager’s high blood sugars. She dips her spoon into the glass and flings droplets into her mouth to see if it salty enough. She also makes palm-sized roti for the rats living in the fenced-in trash area. However, when the orange cat tries to sneak in, she doesn’t stop it. She isn’t interested in taking sides.


I walk back and forth on the third-floor balcony. It serves as a viewing platform. The cows jerk their heads around inside trashcans, spill waste on the ground, and pick through it. The funeral pyres are high; the mourners are ill-advisedly shoulder-to-shoulder. A yellow excavator is once again mining the Ganga’s riverbed.


The electricity is out again. I am in the ice-cold Ganga. I can barely stand it. I am freezing but have a burning sensation at the crown of my head. It is like two colors, which despite being blended together, stubbornly retain their properties. I am here all afternoon, mostly crying. I forget sometimes to enjoy the pain.


I talk to my person over WhatsApp. I have to be careful about what I say, or I will be treated as an adversary. Mentioning the future tends to be an act of aggression. As if when I thrust my tongue into the future, it will get stuck there. Can’t I keep it inside my mouth in the present? Why is it dangling out in the future like a fire-hydrant-colored lizard? But I have questions about the future. Even when my tongue is firmly placed inside my mouth, I am careening toward it.


A line is finite but has infiniteness. Its infiniteness is what is outside it. A circle is like already being in the infinite.


How does it take until day 40 to learn that the potted plants lining the garden are called mother-in-law’s tongue aka snake plant aka Saint George’s sword aka viper’s bowstring hemp aka any synonyms with a dangerous pointed edge? I am walking in circles, hemmed in by mother-in-law’s tongues. I have already been licked good by one. My person says when I talk like this, I am taking a loophole. That the mother is not the problem. I have a dream in which my person and the mother sit in a field bordered by snake plants. I stand on the outside waiting. I don’t know which one of them - or is it both?—won’t let me enter. It is the invisible force field of mother-and-offspring.


I can shelter here in my body. This is what I tell myself when I am informed that the ashram will be taken over as a quarantine center. The district magistrate’s office sends officials every afternoon. When they arrive, they are sweaty and tired. We give them glasses of water and beg them not to turn our ashram into a quarantine center. I won’t have to do much, I tell myself. My back rounds easily enough. I can draw my chin to my collarbones, my knees to my chest, and curl up. If I ask kindly, it will become a husk from which everything leaves. I will enter it and hunker down.


Do you know what your problem is? a friend here asks. You present as too needless. When you are like this, no one needs to give you anything.


The list of our current concerns:

     1. virus
     2. locust
     3. famine
     4. unrest at both borders
     5. earthquake
     6. flood
     7. cyclone

Every day, we wake up and before the day even starts, these concerns are laid out like tarot cards.


Three of the women from the ashram have gone into town to distribute forty-seven love packages. They have been assured that only forty to forty-five families will come. However, over two hundred families come, and the families start beating each other to get at the packages. The three women are taken into police custody for inciting a riot. They are told they will be detained here indefinitely. But it is a useless threat. Everyone’s visas have already been suspended for more than forty days.


A video is shot in a nearby ICU. It shows two COVID-19 patients lying in a single bed.


The district magistrate has sent officers here to force us to turn the ashram into a quarantine center. We are told that we must do it for the country. For the good of the country. If necessary, we must die for this country. We fight them. My teacher says that if they continue to harass us, she will write a letter to the newspaper, naming all their names, and then kill herself. For now, this works as a stopgap.


A cricket lives in one of the hibiscus bushes. For several nights now, it sounds like the bush has a voice.


I accept that my death will happen at any moment. This leaves me with a surplus of time. I am not trying to achieve anything anymore. I don’t have tottering piles of concerns. I wake up, drink water, go to the toilet, listen to the wind rustle the bottle palm’s leaves or the gardener clipping the grass.


You need a thorn to get another thorn out.


My teacher keeps a potted cactus on her windowsill.  It grows toward the light, stooping like an old man. Then she turns him around. He grows straight then grows hunched like an old lady. My teacher turns her around. She grows straight then stooped again. Every so often, I ask my teacher which time we are in—that of the stooped-old man or the hunched-old lady? Or maybe we are in the brief time of being upright?


We hardly ever see one of the men here. He is always in his room. I assume meditating. Because when he does come out, he walks the hallways with his hand in his japa bag. But someone else says no way is he meditating. Most likely, he is masturbating.


The officials from the magistrate’s office are back. They say we have to turn the ashram into a quarantine center. Are we to live in our rooms and never leave? Will food and water be delivered outside our doors? And those rooms with no bathrooms, should we shit and piss in buckets and put them outside the door to be taken away? And what about bathing? The officials will come back tomorrow with answers.


Wind storm. The hyacinth blossoms have been ripped from the branches. I go out in the morning to walk my path, and it feels like walking through a field of dead things. It actually hurts to see them—the blossoms still tightly closed in the nocturnal act of protecting themselves.


The police are helping the men with the mules fill their bags with sand. After they leave, I ask the night watchman to open the gate. I smooth out the sand so my teacher won’t see the big hole.


A boy and his tall father knock on my door. The boy has fallen on the ghat and gashed his forehead. I staunch the wound and put two Band-Aids in an X-shape over it. Then the father asks me if I think his son can still go swimming in the Ganga. Sure, why not, I say. I don’t know which of us knows less about parenting.


How can the police keep the 300,000 migrant workers coming from red zones in quarantine? It is impossible. The men escape through the side doors and climb fences. Some even come to the ashram asking for work—preferably gardening or cooking.


Over dinner, the loudest woman in the ashram announces that when she is back in her country, she will go on lots of blind dates. Good idea, but first you need to change your personality, someone says. She stomps off to her room to play the zither all evening, stopping occasionally to wail.


A crow has spent its morning making a nest in the bottle palm. Bits of sticks and dead fronds fall on my head. I am walking beneath a construction site. So much for art.


Again, threats of quarantine but no clear answers. It does seem horrible to be banished to a room and forbidden to leave it. But also, it is a chance to go inward, which is what we are always talking about. How modern life is so busy, and we can never truly go inward. We shouldn’t think of this as reducing our space, just altering our experience within it.


I have constant gum pain. And ankle pain from when I misjudged the height of a stair and fell. Also, a new mole pain. Is it disregarded by my person? No, I don’t even bring it up. We aren't in proximity of each other’s bodies. The distance airbrushes them to nothing. Soon, it will be just air between us. And pain. Air and pain.


All the guesthouses, ashrams, and schools around us have become quarantine centers, but not us. Not that it matters anymore. Those meant to be quarantining mill about on the ghat or climb onto people’s roofs and knock mangos and lychees loose from the trees. When there is center-wide testing, usually 70 to 80 percent of the people test positive. Sometimes 100. All asymptomatic.


Relax into uncertainty. Relax into uncertainty. Relax into uncertainty. Relax into uncertainty. Relax into uncertainty. Relax into uncertainty. Relax into uncertainty. Relax into uncertainty.


I am trying to sleep, but too often, I dream. I dream that my person hands me a map of everywhere I cannot go, and I realize that it is a map of everywhere my person is. You know how to take care of yourself, my person always told me.


Another windstorm. Sand in the sheets. I turn and turn and hope I am grinding away all the rough parts of myself.


I have been walking too close to the hibiscus flowers; each time I round, the stem-like filaments of the stamens mark my upper arm bright yellow.


The problem with my person is that my person is not my person.


News of flights. It is a lottery system. Some embassies will come and take some of their citizens, but not all of them. After lunch, we make a drawing of black dots and tape it to the wall. Some of us are dots so small we can’t be seen.

Although we want to, none of us have become better people. Not so far. At best, we know which parts of our lives have been going horribly wrong. From what I have learned here, this is enough. To simply know. To simply sit and watch what is going wrong. Nothing more. To try and fix things; this is too much. It is like tripping over your own shoelace. This is why we sit around in āsanas so much of the time, and why I walk in the garden. We are—well me, I am—coming to terms with impermanence. Motion and impermanence. And uncertainty. This is enough, I am told when I ask again if I might benefit from doing more.

I walk and walk, flattening the grass even further. I pretend I am on the lookout for my person. This is like waiting for a ghost to appear or for a lunch sack to become self-illuminated and combust.

Tomorrow, Unlock 1.0 begins. The most important rule, we are told, is each of us is now responsible for ourselves.

Mary Marbourg’s work has appeared in Prairie Schooner and Hotel Amerika, among other places. Currently, she lives in North India, where she edits books on Yoga and Vedānta.