Grantham Scholar Manasi Mulay spent lockdown in her virtual library, swapping the lab for her kitchen and learning how to make paper birds. In this blog written at the end of June 2020, she reflects on the dual nature of lockdown, and hopes for a better new normal at the end of it. You can follow Manasi on Twitter at @manas_nano.
2020 is a year of transition, a Janus year. Janus is an ancient Roman/Greek God with two faces. One looks to the past, the other to the future. Janus is a symbol of beginnings and ends, change and transition. January, the transition between the departed year and the upcoming year, is said to be named for Janus.
In 2020 there has been rapid change because of COVID-19. COVID-19 has changed everything to such an extent that it could give a whole new meaning to our calendar system to BC meaning before COVID-19, and AD meaning after the vaccine/drug discovery. The lockdown imposed due to the pandemic is also Janus. It’s a disaster – but one that is bringing transition to the entire ecosystem.
I feel lucky that amidst lockdown I am working on a computational chemistry project. Unlike many experimental researchers, I can still do most of my work remotely. I am a book lover, and getting locked inside a library is perhaps every bibliophile’s dream. And though, sadly, I don’t live in a library, my home has become a virtual library due to remote access to a vast array of reading resources.
Due to the lockdown I can access abundant information and resources right here at home without extra effort or cost. Training, development courses, webinars and international conferences have gone online and opened up to all for free. To name just a few amazing resources I have been using: thanks to the American Chemical Society, Royal Society of Chemistry, High Performance Computing community and the water-research community (including one at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras). Indeed our generation of researchers is fortunate to have this remote access to the plethora of information.
I believe researchers need space and time to generate productive ideas, similar to artists. I personally perform my best when I can work flexibly. This lockdown might have helped many of us by providing free-thinking space.
However, despite many positive aspects of lockdown, it is still a tough nut to crack. We are not prepared to hear about people dying every day in such large numbers. We all want a magic wand to wave and save people. Staying at home for so long is hard, we miss the travel and community life. And there is a huge increase in our screen time. Talking to people now means talking to a device. The brain tries to convince us everything is normal, but the mind doesn’t always agree.
So I am sure that almost everyone has felt sad and isolated at some point during lockdown. Catching up and staying in touch with friends helps. This does more than cheer us up from human contact, we can also learn other peoples’ lockdown coping strategies.
One of my friends – who is a banker in India – reminded me to be thankful for having a roof over my head, unlike many people who do not have shelter during the lockdown. Another friend pointed out that lockdown is a blessing for introverts because they could avoid fake social events.
Overall, I think lockdown has taught the world that you don’t need to show how smart you are but how kind and compassionate you are – which is useful for everyone’s wellbeing! During these fragile times, it’s okay to miss the train of progress for some time and focus on survival instead.
Until this Janus year of 2020, I tended to ignore my right brain (more creative side) and was biased towards my left-brain (more rational side). For the first time in my life Janus 2020 made me understand the equal importance of both right and left-brain activities.
While I realise that my science brain might give me insight on innovation and shows the wonders of the world to me, it is my artistic and spiritual side that is holding my hand during lockdown. My right brain has led me to rediscover my childhood hobbies.
These hobbies include yoga, that covers Suryanamaskara – breathing exercises such as Kapalbhanti – and meditation. I also try to craft at least one paper-flower a day. I was inspired to do this due to a story my mother told me when I was in school. Sadako Sasaki, from Hiroshima, set out to make a thousand paper cranes (Orizuru) when diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of 2 due to atomic radiation. Inspired by this story, I tried to fill my room with paper flowers, very useful for well-being during the lockdown.
Cooking is another hobby that I find therapeutic. The natural colours and aromas of Indian spices swiftly blow away low moods. Having been an experimental researcher until 2018 and now being a computational chemist, I can also quench my passion for lab-work in my kitchen. Thanks to the lockdown, I get more time (saved from commuting) to spend in my kitchen-lab, experimenting with lots of regional Indian food recipes (of course vegetarian for a more sustainable lifestyle) including chhole-bhature, idli-sambar, dal-bati and paniyaram.
I also find learning new languages or scripts useful to engage my mind from wandering away in isolation. So far I’ve learnt Kana – such as Hiragana, Katakana – and abugida scripts such as Gurumukhi, Bengali. During lockdown I explored a few letters from a set of Dravidian scripts.
All this led me to be curious about the etymology of the word ‘Corona’. Corona – originated in Latin – and means a crown. In physics it is also a glow generated due to high potential. Corona also means a circular glowing ring of plasma around the Sun visible during the solar eclipse, otherwise invisible. There’s something analogous between human attempts to work from home during the lockdown and that glowing plasma ring. Indeed, lockdown has brought us to a different version of humanity which usually remains unexplored.
While research for COVID-19 vaccine hurries on, this pandemic is also a warning to humanity to slow down and care for the planet. Instead of blindly following technological advancements, these testing times prove again the old saying slow and steady wins the race!
Every one of us is waiting for the situation to go back to normal. But are we really going back to normal or will it be a new normal? Whenever a catastrophic event occurs it washes away bulky, rigid objects and it is the tiny flexible things that sustain. In the wake of COVID-19, research, technology and innovations are making us more adaptive to the new normal. Perhaps it is not ‘survival of the fittest’, but survival of the most sustainable lifestyle that will be the mantra of this new normal.
In some ways the new normal of Janus 2020 is making us revisit ancient wisdom. For instance, some of the isolation and hygiene practices brought in during lockdown existed in ancient civilisations. This aspect of Janus 2020 reminds me of a speech by Dr. Vijay Bhatkar, a computer scientist and architect of India’s supercomputer Param.
While describing the desired qualities of potential scientists, Dr. Bhatkar said: “We would like to see the future generations understand quantum mechanics and Karmayoga (selfless attitude that frees us from sufferings caused by attachments, It suggests having a stable mind in both success and failures) at the same time.”
I was too young then to understand either quantum mechanics or Karmayoga. However, this lockdown made me revisit the Bhagavad-Geeta and I found some of the answers I was seeking. Janus 2020 – being two-faced again – causing me to look one way at the ancient wisdom from the Bhagvad-Geeta and the other to explore the magic of quantum mechanics.
To conclude, I quote ‘uddharedātmanātmānaṁ nātmānamavasādayet, ātmaiva hyātmano bandhurātmaiva ripurātmanaḥ’ from the Bhagavad-Geeta. This translates from Sanskrit as: ‘Raise your own self, don’t belittle yourself for that you yourself is a true friend of yours and the worst enemy as well!’
This quote is a formula to survive lockdown – reminding us all to take good self-care in the Janus 2020.
Main image “Janus” by Groume is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0