A Reflection on culture & Confinement

The Pathway of the Light


Professor of English


Aligarh Muslim University

The wound is the place where the Light enters you—Jalaluddin Rumi.

Before Covid came we were talking about healing the universe, without feeling the pain.

The last classroom at the end of our building in the Faculty of Arts has a dreamy air about it. Just outside there is a majestic Neem tree. The afternoon air is filled with the sharp scent of neem leaves and the twittering of birds. In ancient times, hakims used to advise patients to go and walk under neem trees to get cured of their ailments. That Neem tree is a metaphor for health and healing now.

Heels click and pony-tails bounce, the loud grating of chairs, the unzipping of bags and the students beginning to pull out copies and books and very rarely laptops. We live in an Indian town where every student cannot afford a laptop. This afternoon we are going to study the hazards of climate change. We have begun to talk about the rising sea levels, the loss of biodiversity and the metamorphosis of green areas into deserts.

Some students are quickly jotting down notes about the issue being discussed. I then give them some group work and I pause to take a breather. I think of the long day I have had. Nothing seems to be going the way I want it to go. I badly need a break.

I had slept late the previous night because I had to study for this class, in spite of the other things that are constantly demanding my attention. I want more time to study, I want to master my subject, but the tea box and car needed refilling. There are repairs needed in the house, but my work at the university gives me little time for that. The maid who cooks the food and cleans the house also wants a few days off. She is constantly complaining about some shortage or other; I was sure I had filled all the shelves with the necessary sugar and spices, yet we are forever short of something. I can’t afford to let her go just yet, as the final exams are approaching and I will be needing her help.

Something shakes me out of my reverie with a loud thud, someone has managed to drop his bag and that has set everyone giggling and whispering. Could we undo the effects of climate change? someone wants to know. “Many people and organizations are making efforts in that direction,” another student answers, her spectacles slipping off her nose.

A warm Neem-scented breeze has begun to blow, with a kind of sedative effect on everyone. A boy at the back lazily stretches his legs and mumbles “why do we have to come to class in the afternoon, mam?” “Because you chose this subject,” I answer curtly, glaring at his legs as he quickly pulls them back and straightens up. Noorie, the girl in the abaya, asks “if climate change is actually happening, how come we cannot feel it?” The whole class seems to explode into answers. “How can you say that, don’t you read the newspapers, look at the unseasonal rains, the floods, the hurricanes, droughts!” “No, what I meant was that it could be like, maybe we are overreacting because haven’t all these natural calamities always been there!” The girl continued, unmindful of the disturbance she had created.

“Do you know what you are talking about, Noorie?”

“Why don’t you question the heads of states and the oil barons, they’ll tell you that there is nothing like climate change,” she replies stubbornly. The argument surges up, like a huge tidal wave with no way of either side winning. Once again, I begin to think over the remaining chores of the day.

I remember that I have to attend a wedding in the evening. How I wish I didn’t have to go, but the bride and groom and their families are close friends, so I have to. I begin to think of the preparations I have to make, the dress that I have to wear and the gift that I need to buy.

“Oh! My God, that means I cannot not go home and relax, I have to shop first and then go home dog tired and then freshen up for the wedding.”

“Mam, why can’t they take in another point of view?” Noorie is beginning to sound annoyed.

“Because what you are saying is in support of commercial establishments…” Voices can be heard growing more impatient by the minute.

The bell began to ring from somewhere far off. Yet the argument continues.

It was a long time back when I last heard those voices or smelt the historic neem fragrance near the last classroom. I wonder whether they were able to convince Noorie about the reality of climate change. Maybe Covid has convinced her about the reality of the Anthropocene. Covid has silenced us all and separated us. Now we do not attend weddings and parties, nor can we risk shopping for presents. There is no physical tiredness at the end of a busy day, but the heavy heart makes one tire more intensely, on an entirely different level. We keep thinking of ways to connect with the outside world of friends, family and students.

The maid was told to go home. It was not just money she needed to survive, she actually wanted to come and work. I had reminded her that she had wanted a few days off. She was apologetic and resolved never to ask for leave again.

Noorie is still there in the online classes and she’s not arguing anymore about climate change or anything else.

Our class meets again and we get together from across the country, but it isn’t real because they switch off their videos and I can only hear their voices and see the lifeless display pictures. I don’t set a rule against switching off videos early in the morning, for many are living in the remote corners of India and someone from a small village wouldn’t like to show the old charpoy or the chipped living room walls. When they came to the classroom, they could disguise the village and the financial problems back home, with just one clean pair of clothes.

Moments are still there when I catch the desperation in their voices, because they all want to get on with their lives and build the bridges to their futures. They hang on to my voice, as if it were some kind of a lighthouse to steer them along a dark stormy ocean on which they can never be sure when the storm will be over and whether they will reach safe harbour. So I become more of a guide and more of a fellow traveler on that wide ocean, where they need someone to assure them that the sun will shine and that the harbour is indeed around the corner.

They are not arguing anymore, they are not pulling their chairs out or dropping their books. I can’t even know whether they are paying attention to what I am teaching them. I cannot look into their eyes or hear the intensity of their excited voices.

Ever since Covid struck a discordant note in our part of the world, we are like scattered notes of a musical instrument struggling to bring out harmonious music. Now more than ever the soul seeks repose in seeing human faces and listening to human voices. In spite of the deaths, the tragedies, the sorrow, and the seemingly endless despair as bad news keeps coming in, the desire for light never dies. We need to suffer pain to alleviate pain and obtain true healing. Going near that Neem tree is going to heal us and alleviate our misery and depression, I feel sure of it.


Professor of English


Aligarh Muslim University

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