STAY SAFE, STAY SANE during the COVID-19 Pandemic

23 Jul

On Monday 20 July 2020, with two days to go for the Bangalore lockdown to be lifted, I caught myself talking to myself.

Not that it was anything new or that it had something to do with the grudgingly agreed self-incarceration imposed by COVID-19.

In my bookshelf, I located the bestseller by Shad Helmstetter PhD, “WHAT TO SAY WHEN YOU TALK TO YOURSELF”. On the fly leaf I saw that I had written my name and inscribed the date 20 July 2008. That was the year I lost my wife Anita to liver cancer. For anyone who finds he or she has started talking to himself or herself, read this book for inspiring self-mastery lines which are stamped on the mind.

I had written about “Staying Alive” and “Staying Sane” in one of my earlier posts. There is no point in staying alive if we have to spend the rest of our lives with an unhinged mind.

Prisoners, mental health patients and Superintendents of remote plantations or facilities have to learn to live with long periods of isolation.

My first job at the age of 20 involved living in a timber-felling coupe in the Wayanad (then spelt Wynad) for about six months. After spending the whole morning measuring timber logs, I had to walk back to my hut and write up the log species and measurements in my timber stock book. I then had to look up a ready reckoner to calculate the cubic volume of each log. One would imagine I would get the rest of the day off, but no such luck… The timber-laden lorries would start coming down from the coupe in low gear and I had to check the logs that were being taken out. I counted the number of logs while my supervisor checked the identification numbers chiselled into the sawn ends of logs sticking out at the back of the lorry. The logs would then be stamped with a hammer that placed the Forest Department seal near the number.

Back at the hut, I had to check off the dispatched logs and prepare my report to my Superintendent for the next day. This was done in the light of a kerosene lamp which was called “Raandhal” (Malayalam corruption of “Lantern”). I still have that lamp in my flat in Bangalore.

My Superintendent, Derek Neale was a pukka English sahib with a red-blond brush moustache. He came on surprise visits to make sure I hadn’t nipped off on my bike to Calicut or Ooty.

The mood of those days (in 1967)  is captured well by James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” with its haunting lyrics:

“There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range
His horse and his cattle are his only companions
He works in the saddle and sleeps in the canyons
Waiting for summer, his pastures to change
And as the moon rises he sits by his fire
Thinking about women and glasses of beer
And closing his eyes as the doggies retire
He sings out a song which is soft but it’s clear
As if maybe someone could hear”

I have listed below some of the activities that have helped me survive four months alone in my apartment in Cooke Town, Bangalore through the pandemic:

1. Strict daily timetable: I get up at 0300 hrs, look at my mail, write and by 0500 hrs get out on a brisk walk of 2.6 km in under 30 minutes. Breakfast by 0900 hrs and at my desk by 0930 hrs. I have a one hour nap in the afternoon after lunch; and after my evening outing and bath, I have a light supper. I go to sleep by 2100 hrs.

2. Eat healthy: I cook my own meals and have an interesting spread of food.

3. Have regular contacts with family and friends: I call Kochi to talk to my wife every evening, and reach my children in New York, Singapore and Melbourne.

4. Revise technical topics you never fully understood during your College or Institute days.

I have revised my Post Graduate level Applied Statistics, especially the concepts and procedures which I had never fully understood. I brushed up my knowledge on Hypothesis Tests and re-applied them to Project Evaluations I had done in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Haryana and Kerala. I never really understood what the ‘p’ Value was. Now I know how to verify a t-score by providing the degrees of freedom, significance level, and specifying whether the test is one tail or two tail. Its a matter of great contentment to know that a large ‘p’ value (usually > 0.05) indicates weak evidence against the null hypothesis

5. Social Contact – Thanks to mobile phones and WhatsApp, in addition to my family members, I stay in touch with a wide circle of friends.

Every evening I leave my apartment at 1726 hrs and walk to reach the gate of a close friend and neighbour at exactly 1730 hrs. I enjoy their beautiful garden and the beautiful Bangalore weather (most days). At exactly 1830 hrs I get up and walk back to my apartment unless I have to go to one of our neighbourhood vegetable or grocery shops.

I have started a “Supper Club” in my building so I have dinner with a friend once a week alternating our apartments as the venue. On Sundays we go out to breakfast at one of the many restaurants in our area. To keep up (at least my) morale, the dinner table is set with sparkling china, serviettes in quarter plates, fork, knife, spoon and dessert spoon. Food is served at the table in Perspex or china dishes. Not having a butler, I serve the food and clear the plates myself.

6. Keeping myself busy – I spent several hours every day for up to 8 months in 2018 and 2019 writing two novels “The Nawab’s Tears” (PARTRIDGE 2018) and “Return of the Yakshi” (NOTION 2019). Both books are available on Amazon. This experience has given me the discipline to sit and write for hours without getting up. Initially our security guard Kannan would come up and ring my bell to see if I was alive and well. I had to make him understand that I was busy and didn’t wish to be disturbed. 

I continue to write my blogs on my travel and experiences in various far away locations. I have produced some fiction short stories where I have used the details of a particular excursion and blended perfectly credible fiction with it.

7. Focusing on positive thoughts – Despite my best efforts, occasionally – maybe as often as once a week, negative thoughts wash over my consciousness in waves, threatening to reverse all the work I do to stay positively focused.

I rely on regular physical workouts and breathing exercises to get out of these moods.

In the early Eighties, I became a follower of the James Fixx running programme and ran 10 kms every morning in under an hour. That’s how I got to know about the sports medicine research on the production of the quartet of “happy drugs” (Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Endorphins) which are responsible for our happiness and consequently our moods. Absolutely safe, wonderful drugs produced by our own bodies!

Alcohol is the wrong drug because it can only exacerbate an already depressed mood. The resulting state of mind is called, avoir le vin triste (to get miserable after a few drinks) or even, “avoir le vin mauvais” (to get nasty after a few drinks).

I have intelligent and sharp-witted young friends who are not afraid to take me on in intellectual jousting tourneys. That invariably lifts my mood. Just what the doctor ordered! I think I deserve a red ribbon for my skill grade in Hastilude.

8. Setting Priorities – One of the advantages in getting a long break like the COVID Lockdown, is the dawning of the ever clearer realisation that life is not forever.

MS Office has an app called OneNote which I never seriously used. I have now started maintaining a Notebook for each of my main objectives. Pages can be added to the Notebook to further categorise each objective.

For example, I have a notebook for “Travel” which is filled with pages on places I have to visit before I die.

9. Moral Compass – However ‘secular’ (a bad word these days) and rational we might be, most of us have a belief system or part of a belief system that functions in the subconscious background and regulates our behaviour.

Most of our values and beliefs are acquired in our childhood, without the benefit of critical thinking and evaluation.

When we are in trouble our minds go to these belief systems. There are strong emotions attached to our values and belief systems. We find comfort in our belongingness and we draw strength from the words, images and melodies from community rituals.

Leonard Cohen’s surreal lyrics of “So long Marianne” talks of the power of symbols of our faith:

We met when we were almost young
deep in the green lilac park.
You held on to me like I was a crucifix,
as we went kneeling through the dark.

My wife Anita had a crucifix which Bro. James Kimpton of REACHING THE UNREACHED gave her. He told her it was made from the wood of olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. In her last days and weeks, Anita clung on to that crucifix as if it would miraculously save her. Alas…

As herd animals, human beings very easily substitute personal identities with group identities. We accept the given group meanings rather than search for meanings using our own reasoning.

If your belief system can be tapped as a source of strength, it can tide you over difficult times.

Ref: Michael Schermer, Jonas Kaplan

10. Abun d’Bashmayo – I have a notebook which contains snippets of religious rituals which have left their impact on me. For example, the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic is very moving, particularly since my ancestors (mothers side) were scholars of Biblical Languages. In the days before typewriters and printing technology, scribes actually translated from Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Greek, and manually wrote the chapters of the Malayalam Bible. I give below the Aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer:

Abun d-bashmayo
nithqadash shmokh
tithe malkuthokh
nehwe sebyonokh
aykano d-bashmayo
oph bar`o hab lan
lahmo d-sunqonan
yowmono washbuq lan
hawbayn wahtohayn
aykano doph hnan
shbaqan l-hayobayn
lo ta`lan l-nesyuno
elo paso lan
men bisho metul
d-dylokh hi malkutho
whaylo wteshbuhto
l`olam `olmin

Those who would like to hear a sung version of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic can visit-

I must warn you that the young woman with the superb voice can distract from the solemn tones of the prayer… perhaps it ought to have been sung by a Syrian Orthodox monk with a deep, stentorian voice … not by a beautiful woman, with a mezzo soprano voice.

I thank the internet for my continuing education!

11. From Darkness to Light – I was “regularly initiated into Freemasonry on the 8th day of January 2008 AD in the Lodge Bangalore No.15. and was regularly advanced to the second and third degrees”… my certificate goes on to say “that his name has been duly Registered in the Books of the Grand Lodge.”

Moving from Darkness to Light is a central preoccupation in Freemasonry. I found a striking resemblance of this fundamental idea to the Upanishadic hymn, “Asato Ma Sad Gamaya“. This is part of a text {Brihadaranyaka Upanishads (1.3.28)} that was written between 1000 and 700 BCE.

ॐ असतो मा सद्गमय ।
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय ।
मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥
Om Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya |
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya |
Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

1: Om, (O Lord) Keep me not in (the Phenomenal World of) Unreality, but make me go towards the Reality (of Eternal Self),
2: Keep me not in (the Ignorant State of) Darkness, but make me go towards the Light (of Spiritual Knowledge),
3: Keep me not in (the World of) Mortality, but make me go towards the World of Immortality (of Self-Realization),
4: Om, Peace, Peace, Peace.

There is a good rendering of this hymn on YouTube, at:

So these are my thoughts after the fourth month of the COVID crisis and whimsical lockdowns.

Stay safe, stay SANE!

1229 hrs on 23 July 2020

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