It was the 17th of March, 2020 (for the uninitiated reading this in the distant future—this was during the pretty little pandemic that I may or may not have conquered) and I was on the second floor of Dubai airport, looking at some large bars of Toblerone. Something about knowing that anything I touched could result in my literal death might have been romantic, but I guess I’m more of a coward than a sucker for romance. All I kept praying for was to get home. At the very least, I demanded Señor Almighty to keep all the babies in my vicinity silent and asleep.
My excess baggage had resulted in a handbag full of hostile playdates: a downcast novella, one teaspoon of sanitizer, two broken chargers, a single shoe from a pair of Doc Martens, and a beanie. From my free-of-cost aerial view of what seemed like the entire cosmos, I gazed at a sea of people walking through the airport with masks strapped across their faces. In such haste, these vermin-like bodies exemplified The New Normal™. They strolled lazily, coughed and whined while tending to their loud children, before stopping by the duty-free to pick up their usual ‘paraphernalia’ as though nothing had changed.
But so much had changed. In the shaky seven months that had passed, my social skills had pulled a Houdini act, but unfortunately never reappeared. The first half of the year was spent with flatmates who would carefully ignore me and lovingly clog up the sink with raw meat. And the second half of the year was spent with unsympathetic weather patterns, racist baristas and bank tellers, and to top it off, a surprise guest appearance no one asked for: everybody’s favourite virus.
The year had been full of bummers—disgust for the dirty flatmates, murky weather, the fact that no one wanted to be my friend, and the hunch that I was no one’s. The extrovert label I’d been branded with my whole life was bogus. It was all bogus, honestly. So I tore away from most of it. Since everything was so obviously a hoax, I decided to do some soul-searching. I wandered through coffee shops, sat in big museums and made myself elaborate meals. Very Eat Pray. I explored bits of the city, befriended cab drivers, and occasionally treated myself to a souvenir or two at a charity shop. But it seemed as though this charming new journey of mine did not appeal to anyone. Not even to me. All it had done was make me feel white and lonely.
After having realised that I was a closet introvert, I remained inside the closet, as introverts do. Journey-less and socially unseasoned, I watched the world through a peephole. There wasn’t much to see, really. Just the same tedious lull that life was. I juggled an unfamiliar catharsis, not knowing whether or not to make it mine. There was a fine line between Living, Laughing and Loving, and Waking, Walking and Wilting. I know that now.
Staring at those people in the airport, I grew a nihilistic itch. Their body types were sundry: heavy, light, well-packed, busy, in love, realistic, and some unreadable, perhaps keeping everything they have to show safely underneath their masks. It occurred to me how much there was in a face. And suddenly I realised how much I was missing. How many hairy moles and crooked smiles were whizzing past me without my knowledge. The thought made me angry. One funky moustache could have made my day, I thought. Another thing snatched away from me. I felt a fathomless loss—a deprivation. But it was hard to pin down. Like that feeling before you go to bed and think “what if everyone I love dies?” Or in Browning’s poem when Porphyria’s golden hair slowly chokes her delicate throat. Or when Kupi Raur starts talking and poetry perishes.
But I could not for the life of me put a finger, a palm, an arm on this feeling.
I know what your diagnosis will be. But no, it wasn’t the bad-vibes-goa-plans-cancelled state of mind. Neither was it helplessness in the face of the pregnant pandemic. It was something deep inside me. Perhaps inside my backpack between the strawberry lip balm and the orange, I knew what it was. After a year of being tossed around like Pi Patel, I was left standing at an airport terminal with more of the same tumult ahead of me. I continued to miss out.
I meekly ordered a bagel without calculating the rupee. I reckoned that since I was supposed to be getting a month’s worth of lease money back, I could afford to buy a bagel. Or maybe even trade my lease to eat one meal at an Indian restaurant. Sounds about right. After colonising my grandparents and their parents, the least the British could do was not charge 20 quid for a masala dosa.
On the plane, I was seated next to a Brazilian social worker. We ended up speaking for hours about the virus and the big bad men from our respective countries. I decided to do some social work of my own and offer her my caramel pudding. To be fair, I don’t really like caramel pudding so it wasn’t the most selfless contribution ever made to society, but it was something. I couldn’t help but think of how cruelly ironic this situation was—I befriended a tourist on my way home. Maybe that’s all I ever was—an outsider.
Yet it felt good to be home. I felt a gutting blend of relief and exhaustion. Unclogged sinks, spicy food, friendly vegetable vendors and mother finally resting without any emergency plane tickets in her inbox. The sense of loss that I felt throughout my transit remained. I wondered why missing out felt so painful. And why no one told me who I actually was—an introvert with a difficult name for white people to pronounce. That was all my soul-searching got me. After having torn through libraries and bookshops, and scoured airport balconies, here is my diagnosis: a bad case of the Expectations. No one tells you just how shitty things can be.
Aarti Mukhedkar is an editorial intern at ALMA MAG. She studies English Literature and History, and enjoys writing reflections and creative pieces.