• Bayaan Editorial

A student’s search for the pause button

Personal narrative of how exams being conducted in educational spaces are not the ideal way to go back to normalcy.

Muskaan Palod, Managing Editor

Illustration by Kranti Gagdekar Chhara

I am intrigued. I am looking at some top rated journalists talking about 50g of weed. I am also listening to this crass song, “Beyonce sharma jayegi”. I see the Central Vista Project being pushed but with no avail to getting the reportage it deserves. I am seeing a mental health care crisis unravel in the country, evident from the rising suicides. I see people struggling with addiction tendencies but no infrastructure in place to support these marginalised communities. I am listening to the situation we currently share with China, the scales tipping towards war. I see POTUS being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize Award. I see the numbers of cases rising rapidly and unprecedentedly. I see failing state infrastructures, unable to cope. I see hunger, I see floods, I see blood.

To nobody’s surprise, the State declared that assignments and exams must be conducted and held as usual. The two major entrance tests in this country, JEE and NEET were conducted very recently, amidst everything that has been on-going. "Life cannot be stopped. We have to move ahead with all safeguards,” the court said. From what I see, life has most definitely come to a halt. We cannot simply deny the existence of a crisis and move on about it like nothing ever happened. However, like most news pieces I read everyday, for my own well-being I try to not care and simply sigh.

Our professors acknowledge it is tasking given the times we are in, yet want to continue with their plans. Their statements start empathetically yet somehow find their way towards, “.. but of course, we must continue to do it the way we have done it all the years.” Happy bubbles, happy students, good marks.

With the stimulus I interact with everyday, I have been struggling with academics. Our academics began sometime mid-July. I think I say this for most students, we are exhausted and experiencing screen fatigue. Soon my college says they will also conduct exams and I am shocked. I come from an institution promoting inclusivity and attempting to provide accessibility. I was shocked to see them ignore the cost of online lectures. I was once again shocked to see them ignore the enormity of expectations placed on their students to give these assessments. Our professors acknowledge it is tasking given the times we are in, yet want to continue with their plans. Their statements start empathetically yet somehow find their way towards, “.. but of course, we must continue to do it the way we have done it all the years.” Happy bubbles, happy students, good marks.

One day before my tests began, I had my own sensationalising news bit to share (limited to my anxious mind). “State agencies sell Ayurveda meds as defense against COVID.” I see the bureaucracy break down within the healthcare divisions of municipal corporations. Yet I don't see this reflect on TV news channels or loud prime time hours. This is brought to my attention when my own father tests positive for the coronavirus. Our housing society is visited by the AMC officials. They mandate everybody to get tested. They have something called the rapid-tests, speculated to not be a hundred percent reliable source. He tests negative, rapidly. Something clicks half an hour later and the officials bang our flat’s doors and in a very aggressive tone inform it is actually ‘positive’. All of our family, my mother, my younger sibling and I are yelled at to get tested. We all test negative. We double check with them to be sure. We try to return to our house, only to be met with the most unwelcoming conversations. We are seen to have ‘caused’ the virus and somehow aren’t acknowledged as ‘victims’ to this. Twenty other people in my society test positive. We are told the AMC is providing Ayurveda pills. There is absolutely no information available about this with the officials, medical staff, the wide Internet or the Republic TV. “Just take it”. I am told to trust the government. That should be easy since there is no scientific reason to back their requests. We are put under quarantine for 14 days. For Corona patients, there is usually a differently allotted person who comes from the AMC to collect trash. Seven days in a row, nobody comes to my floor. There is a heap of garbage piling in my balcony. Mosquitoes, some insects I don’t identify are circling my house. Thank god we have one neighbor who cares because otherwise there is nobody to fetch us basic necessities and groceries. AMC was supposed to come and sanitise our house, nobody comes. My mother starts showing some symptoms too so we decide to quarantine her in a separate room. So now both my parents are in separate rooms, not supposed to be coming out or interacting with us. The opus of domestic work falls upon me. Crisis really came home.

I gave my tests, passed with flying colors. A few of my assignments are still pending and I am working on them right now. AMC was unkind, unprofessional and I don’t want to get to whether I even trust the fraternity. Might I add, this is when my father was actually an asymptomatic patient, so health-wise our concerns weren’t as grave. I managed because of the privilege I have had at my disposal: full time internet-access, electricity to charge devices; I can choose to study whimsically.

Institutions are assuming everyone has internet accessibility and that rains are a myth. While we all have now seen how ‘smart’ our smart cities really are, can we just acknowledge that for a bit?

The crisis, when it came close to my home, made me question everything I had turned a blind eye to. Firstly, having these assessments is highly able-ist. Institutions are assuming everyone is ‘safe’ at home, safe from corona, safe from the hate spewing in 2020, safe from the wrath of every environmental crisis. Institutions are assuming everyone has internet accessibility and that rains are a myth. While we all have now seen how ‘smart’ our smart cities really are, can we just acknowledge that for a bit? Institutions are believing everyone has the capacity to look at laptop screens for over 9 hours a day. But most of all, assuming that everyone is “normal” when we are really under abnormal conditions. This just further reiterates how our education system is inherently flawed and mismanaged.

I cannot even begin to imagine the repercussions of not being able to be a part of the education circle simply because you don’t own the ‘smartness’ your cities want you to be equipped with. I cannot imagine the plight with this sudden marginalisation within our education system. I cannot imagine that so I will refrain from commenting on that.

Nonetheless, I messed up my mental well-being massively in those seven days that I had my exams on going. I had massive anxiety and I am honestly tired of being told to simply buck up. I am sorry, the world is at a halt, I have the right to press pause too.

What is this expectation placed on all of us to just keep moving despite everything that has happened in 2020? Can I take a minute to grieve the loss this world is facing? The death toll is a number being flashed in my face everyday for the past six months - aren’t these supposed to be names with epitaphs; I don’t even see dignified graves. I come from an upper middle class family and with every passing day, the finances are coming to dig at us. Every dysfunctionality is now in our faces - within ourselves, our family, our society, culture, this country, with everything beyond ourselves.

I understand the need to cope, the need to reintegrate to ‘normalcy’. However what is normal and abnormal is contextual. If somebody stayed in isolation for five months before 2020, people would be really concerned about that. However now that is the norm. Now, if you are mingling out with your friends pretending like nothing has changed then that is abnormal. Maybe it is time we redefine what is normalcy and why is it that we want to scale back to it when clearly we only see the scale of pandemic increasing in reach. Trying so hard only to overly normalise the impact of pandemic to cope is pseudo-coping.

Normal shouldn’t be defined vis-a-vis productivity or by an education system that fixates on traditional assessment for students at all costs. Normal shouldn’t be defined with unkindness or mindlessness for the mental health of the community at large. Normal should not be defined with capitalistic demands to hustle, bending over backwards to continue the hustle, and then burning out to tunes of the hustle. The cost of this culture is massive and actively contributing further to the crisis. A year ago we were advocating limited screen time, the fact that social media affects us negatively - what was unhealthy back then remains. Every time we ignore our loss and continue to put up this face of resilience, we are only compromising on our well-being.

I don’t have answers and I don’t know an alternative. But I’m not expected to, the policy makers are. What worked in the past will not be the best way to move forward. Resilience is built in times of crisis so I am sure, the people of my generation will come out of this much stronger and powerful than one could reckon. But today we are hurting, today we cry, and while the responsibility of policymaking is not ours to ‘handle’, we are left to own the consequences.

Muskaan is a BA student at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, pursuing psychology and sociology. She is a strong advocate for mental health and its intersectionality. She believes kindness and compassion, poetry and words have the power to change the world. She hopes to build a career around inclusive policy development of mental healthcare. You can find her writings and poetry on @tacitphrases. Her Instagram handle is @muskaaanp_. Email: muskaanpalod00@gmail.com

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/muskaan-palod