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Special Mention of Short Short Writing Competition

I imagine how future historians will look back upon this period, magnifying glasses clutched in hand and heads stuffed with 21st century facts and figures. I imagine they’d be sifting through speeches, diaries, surveys, photographs, maybe a futuristic archive that preserves decades-old social media posts. They’ll notice the people who rioted, the people who behaved with ignorant apathy, those who loved, and those who were lost. Then they’ll examine the social and economic impact with a spectatorial eye, or meticulously dissect causes and effects like an unruffled surgeon, before filing away the books for another day.

But we were the ones who lived through it, you know. We were the ones who watched news reports slowly trickle in about some mysterious outbreak in a distant country, paying barely any attention because we were more occupied by school or work. We saw the fire spread before we’d even realised that it had been lit, realising that we could only wait for it to engulf us too. Online feeds shifted from doomsday memes (our favourite coping mechanism) to how to protect yourself and your loved ones – and how to proceed if all your efforts fail. The red counter ticked higher and higher until it entered the six-digit range. I remember how “normal” was the word on everyone’s tongues those days: “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.” “We’ll meet up as soon as the situation is normal again, promise!” But we never really did go back to normal, you know, even after the vaccines had been developed and circulated, and the fire put out. The burnt forest still remained.

I shudder to think about what our world would’ve looked like if they hadn’t come up with a vaccine. We would’ve left our homes after months to find that we’d all shifted to an alien planet without anyone noticing. But even the real, alien-less world doesn’t look the same as before. There are much less people around, milling on the streets or standing in queues. I used to commute to college on the bus, but public transport is all but defunct now, the horse-drawn carriage of the 21st century. 

They made classes smaller and hired more instructors to make up for the deficit (or, as I’ve heard for some places, simply over-burdened the previous instructors). The college tuck-shop, once my favourite escape, is replaced by a host of vending machines, though they still carry all our beloved snacks. The friendly old uncle in charge of the cafe is no more; you are served biryani by a friendly robot. And people still avoid sitting in large groups like an involuntary reflex. My friends and I rarely meet up, since we’d rather video call or watch a movie together online.

Nothing’s really stopping us from a physical get-together, but like I said, everyone still wants to be on the safe side. And even if we did meet, going out to eat or shop isn’t quite as fun anymore. The hustle and bustle of malls and markets is gone, along with the large crowds we used to hate. The current “crowd” at Emporium currently consists of a few small groups and the rare employee – most of them have been replaced by self-checkout counters or in-store tablets where the employee can assist you on video call. On your way home, you can usually see a memorial to remember the healthcare workers who lost their lives, as if they chose to march to the frontlines and risk their lives for us.

They were just doing their job when all of it happened. You can still find a few relics from the past in your everyday life, your long-held assumptions about the world that now lie shattered and useless. Head swimming with plans and provisions, a college degree being the stepping stone to a good job, a certain someone being around in your life long enough to see you married with kids…

My little nephew is eight. He was born exactly one year and three days to the start of the lockdown in Lahore. He spent a good few months toddling around in shirts that were a little too small for him, though we’d laugh at how they made his body look tiny compared to his head. He is eight, and he will never remember Leena apa’s signature gulab jamuns (much coveted by the whole family), or how she would pinch your cheeks as she tugged you forwards for an affectionate kiss. You could smell her perfume (like dust-laden roses) and respond politely to small-talk. My nephew will never fondly reminisce Eid memories with her, or be haunted by the final image of her in hospital white. That is our burden.

My dado rarely leaves the home nowadays, though she used to accompany us everywhere, even to the grocery store. She has asthma and diabetes, putting her high on the list of immunocompromised people and making her the subject of strict protection by my dad. You’ll usually find her in her room, clutching her rosary – glistening black beads in wrinkled, sun-spotted hands – or gazing out of the window, mind wandering back to the 60s or 70s. Sometimes she’ll recall being a young girl living in the old haveli and lowering a basket three storeys down to the doodh wala on the street, or being scolded for stealing her khala’s summer mangoes. I think the memories evoked by a warm summer day are a refuge for her now that she’s lost so much; it’s like she lives in the past because she can’t in the present.

Not all the changes have been bad. We hug each other tighter now, and cherish interactions and physical contact with others. Gatherings are smaller, more intimate. There’s a unique sense of solidarity and kindness amongst us now that we’ve collectively suffered through a total upheaval. You’ve heard about previous historical events that defined their era, from 9/11 to World War II, but you can never imagine when you’d go through something like that or what your share of the lot would look like. And when you emerge on the other side, you marvel at how you’ve blossomed after a trial you never could’ve envisioned, until that fundamental change in you as a person becomes the stuff of historical accounts and stories you pass onto your kids and grandkids:

“Do you know about that pandemic way back in 2020? Well, your old grandma was just nineteen when that popped up…” 

Munema Zahid

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