July 7th, 2020

On summer afternoons, if you catch the sun at just the right time, the stained-glass windows of Georgetown University’s Dahlgren Chapel create a curious effect on the chancel. The way the light falls through the apse, you get the sense that shadowy figures are standing over the altar, swaying gently where ordinarily the choir might sit. This is a fact of COVID-19: ordinarily, the chapel would be buzzing with activity, the shadows fading in the face of the ordinary materia of life. But not since the university closed its campus in March 2020.

I found this out myself on the afternoon of June 29, 2020, when I was sitting alone there, reflecting on my time at Georgetown a few hours before I was to depart the city for the last time on a nighttime flight from Washington DC to New Delhi. I wish I could show you now how frames of my own life in the district seemed to come alive in this dreamlike trick of light, veiled moments and reveries I had thought lost until just then.

***

On March 14, 2020, Georgetown University shut down its campus as part of an “ongoing response to the novel coronavirus.”

On March 18, 2020, I received a notice of eviction from the Office of Residential Living. Weeks before, India had shut down its own borders. I was now stranded alone in a foreign land.

On March 29, 2020, I moved into a new house on the corner of 35th and O Street at tremendous personal cost.

I have practiced this recitation of facts over and over again, till it was committed to fundamental memory, in the weeks since those fateful spring days. They help me separate how it happened — just like that — from the rhythms of disordered thinking that colored my capacity to see and understand things at the time. I felt overcome by a creeping paralysis — a fear that everything I had done and hoped to do had been revealed to be inconsequential in the face of true crisis, and that the life I had imagined for myself was quickly disappearing. I understood then that I had to make sense somehow of this disquietude, which would in a few short months, rearrange my ideas of the community I left behind, of expectation and certainty, of myself.

***

Looking back now, I can recognize, in the chaos of those early weeks, an anger that still makes the hairs at the back of my neck stand with feeling. On March 20, 2020, I spoke with a counsellor from the university’s Counseling and Psychiatric Service, seeking some way out of the rage and resentment I knew I was feeling then. I wrote down, afterwards, this quote from that conversation: “I know it might be difficult for you, not having a place to go to, but you should understand that the university is facing real difficulties.”

At night, trying to drift off into sleep, this unthinking cruelty would reverberate most viscerally — I used lay in bed thinking about the money, effort, the joy I had poured into the institution that was ultimately able to evict me without consideration. And I used to obsess over others I had known there coping, by then, with circumstances more challenging than mine — worlds of debt, abuse, bankruptcy, illness.

Stop.

Did you experience it?

How dare you?

How dare you? This refrain would rise up in my throat, and crackle at my fingertips time and time again in the first few days. It was an extraordinary parting, Georgetown and I, made bitter by burned bridges, and inadequate amends.

I received yesterday an email soliciting donations from recent alums.

Stop.

How dare you?

I recognize this anger now, and understand it as senseless, unproductive. I can replace the how dare yous of instinct with something borne of more sedate consideration. With reflection, I know this as a familiar part of loss. But I could not even begin to grasp this — the need for mourning — back on those chilly spring evenings when I perhaps needed it the most.

***

You can expect the weather in Washington to march predictably no matter how experience distorts the time by which you live. By April, the cherry blossoms had fallen away, and I settled into the routines of the new house on 35th and O. Days consumed by classes on zoom and nights passed thinking about how my vision for this year would materialize, I found my anger replaced by a new kind of irrationality — an attempt to rationalize, strategize my way out of a personal crisis I couldn’t find any other way to work through.

A kind of deranged optimism gave me the conviction that my objectives this year — going home to Delhi, my summer job at UNHCR, moving to Ireland for graduate school — would somehow work themselves out. There were lists and plans, bullet points, typed, written, and revised incessantly, shared with others, and late at night — lists I would stare at wistfully myself, as though willing them into existence — bring back the plans I had, the version of myself I lost.

I know today — and, in a way, I think I knew even then — that my obsessive micromanagement was absurd. On the surface, you would not have known this inner turmoil as I appeared perfectly capable of recognizing and accepting uncertainty as part of the collective moment. Still, I have believed, I had believed, in my ability to control things. I realize now, of course, that my plans hardly mattered. In the desperate grasping for control, and its inevitable loss, I remember finding a sense that I could still assert some agency over the question of hope — and for a little while, that was enough.

***

On May 18, 2020, 61 days after I was evicted.

50 days after living in the house on 35th and O.

2 days after I had planned to walk the stage at graduation.

I began to recognize this passed time as a private grief, though I could not bring myself to admit it, not even to myself. I wrote down in my notebook on that date: “there is no grief without death.”

A scrap of paper recently fell out of a book I was reading then, C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, where I had noted the author’s assertion that: “you never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.” But is it a matter of life and death alone? Months have passed, and I recognize that my belief in the community I left behind, in the wonder of expectation and possibility — colored as it was that spring by the infinite romance of graduation — has become irrevocably unsettled.

I have learned, since then, that organizations like the CDC are highlighting the multidimensional griefs of the pandemic era. My anger, the empty rationalizations too, I have learned, can be a part of such grief. Still, I resisted at the time the idea of acknowledging the loss or recognizing the grief. After all, we are called upon to present, for the most part, an unceasingly strong frontier at this time. A familiar refrain from that Georgetown counsellor would echo often — a demand to defer to those facing “real difficulties” — which haunts me as I write this even now.

***

I began feeling, near the end of May, that the faith I had had — a singularly unwarranted confidence in the capacity of the expectant future to soon arrive — was fading quickly. Each week, my father would call with a plea to come home and I would go through the familiar routine of convincing him that I was safe in America, and that travelling the 7,000 miles from DC to Delhi, with COVID-19 ravaging both places, would be territory wholly uncharted. I could not tell him, of course, that I was starting to doubt that mechanical speech myself, for all the
times I repeated it and repeated it to everyone who cared to ask after me.

Late at night, I would often walk around on Georgetown’s abandoned campus. The Potomac used to loom like the river Styx, the paths I had walked hundreds of times before suddenly terra incognita. Then the memories, the anger and its consonant irrationalities would come rushing back. It was impossible, I felt, to trust my own conflicting instincts. Each decision I had made in the preceding months felt like the wrong one, every choice had cost something. For the first time in my time in America, it was starting to feel truly foreign.

One June morning, I called my father and said, on impulse, I think I’m wrong about staying on in the States. Maybe I need to go back to Delhi.

On June 29, 2020, 44 days after I had planned to walk the stage at graduation.

I boarded a flight to New Delhi.

***

On July 16, 2020, 15 days after navigating a pandemic-induced, bureaucratic nightmare at Delhi’s airport.

2 days after completing a mandatory 2-week quarantine at a Central Delhi hotel.

I laughed with my brother for the first time in 6 months. I saw my parents, and waved to my grandmother from my balcony in lieu of bounding into her house, standing opposite to ours, and hugging her so tightly, it would have knocked the air out of her lungs.

And at the back of my mind, a question I hardly wanted to entertain. Why did I lose faith in Georgetown, its promise, the future I had willed it to deliver in those isolated, isolating weeks?

There is a discussion now among friends, colleagues, and strangers about reopening schools and colleges around the world. The nature of new griefs in the coming academic year will vary, and affect people and communities in different ways. I have no wisdom to offer on the politics of it, or the epidemiology, but this is what I have learned. You can be prepared for new ways of doing things, for your material fears, the uncertainty — you can even be prepared for illness — but you cannot prepare for the grief. It feels very much like a fear and anxiety, though it is not quite just that, and can take you over in unforeseen waves. When you seek support, the institutions you trust might fail you, like they failed me. It is emotional and physiological. Multidimensional. It can leave you questioning yourself, your capabilities. Even your reality. I see it all around me now, in the shattering of expectation, in the hopes and promises lost to the moment, the collective (yet differentiated) loss we can’t even begin to comprehend yet.

Mid-July, sitting on my old bed, I finally started acknowledging the last 124 days of my life as a kind of mourning. I have known it, inhabited it before. So, why did I lose faith in Georgetown? I think I had been holding on to Washington, the way I once held on to people I have lost, because that’s not how it was supposed to end. I had somehow convinced myself that if I stayed there as long as I could — walked the same roads, maintained the same routine — we would have a different ending. I would get a happier farewell to my university, a better goodbye to loved ones that had already scattered. I recall this irrational wishing and hoping with a biting clarity now. We took graduation pictures even though there was no graduation to celebrate. I kept the hotel booking my parents had made to attend the ceremony that never materialized. I extended my student visa, wanting to stay a while longer. I packed away the flimsy graduation regalia I didn’t need into my suitcase, expecting to take it home. What for?

I believe I began to understand, by June, that all this was another product of a derangement that had burrowed into my mind without my knowing. After all, what could this be, but grief?

***

In a flash, I’m back at the chapel. I see my time here in a trick of light and shadows — walking into the university gates for the first time, the places I first met the people I love now, the shortcuts I walked every day. The tears are falling, falling. Someone lit a candle here today, the first I’ve seen in weeks. I wonder why? I bow my own head down in an almost votive kind of meditation — I try to imagine how it will be, not being here every day.

On June 29, 2020, 102 days after I was evicted.

44 days after I had planned to walk the stage at graduation.

8 hours before I leave the city for the last time.

I think I am ready to say goodbye, I mean really say it, to the Class of 2020.