When the shutters dropped on March 24, 2020, I did not hoard food or toilet paper. Forget hoarding, I didn’t even stock enough for a week. Thanks to no prior experience in pandemics, emergencies or wars, and a dangerous disregard for parental advice, I walked into the lockdown with unnatural optimism.
The government is partly to blame for this, who believed that clanging spoons on plates and chanting ‘Go Corona, go’ would help exorcise the virus. I trusted that they would not let me starve to death and ‘essential services’ would, indeed, cover all gastronomical needs. Whether this trust was misfounded or not is not the subject matter of this article and so that chain of thought ends here. What I did know for sure, however, was that my skincare would have no place in the ‘new normal’. So like the fanatic I’d become post a face-conquering breakout, I bulk-ordered gels, lotions and ointments, even as my coworkers lined up outside kirana stores and prepared for the “apocalypse”.
Even on a ‘normal’ day, the chances of me surviving on the contents of what occupied my kitchen were zero.
My naivete had kept me from stocking up like my neighbours, because I’d read somewhere that food would be freely available. What a load of crap. I certainly didn’t expect that all neighbouring stores would be out of moong dal for weeks and that water cans would no longer be home delivered (my roommate was right – I should have gotten over my kanjoosi and invested in a water purifier). Moreover, nothing prepared me for an eerily silent Linking Road, an abandoned Foodhall, and barely functioning food-delivery apps. I was in the middle of War of the Worlds. But where was Tom Cruise?
On the bright side, for the first time, everyone across the world was experiencing the same thing. Ah! The joy of being united in pain. Clients were in shock. Work had come to a standstill. Meme-makers were on steroids. It felt like a dystopian drama. Old flames and ghosts were crawling out of the woodwork. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this collective cluster fuck. At least in the beginning. If Bella Hadid and I were both posting similar stories about quarantine, and the guy who’d ghosted me in 2015 was sliding into my DMs, life was definitely looking up.
This excitement lasted precisely 72 hours. Because that was the time it took for my food to run out and my back to give up thanks to working on a beanbag. But hey, at least I had my skincare routine.
How my skin began to glow – and no, the secret isn’t tears
Ever since my massive hormonal breakout, I’d grown diligent about skincare. But the lockdown made it easier to follow. For instance, my 3 p.m. face wash routine no longer invited raised eyebrows from coworkers. I could now saunter into my bathroom, 9 steps away, and slather on moisturiser and gel and emerge with a chalky filter without having to answer “What’s that on your face?”.
The dearth of delivery services meant I was forced to whip up concoctions in my kitchen, and as a result, I ended up eating raw veggies and dal khichdi which helped smoothen and polish my skin. And third, because I was no longer taking local trains, my skin wasn’t perpetually layered with dust and my pores weren’t clogged. End result: my face began to glow. Ironically, there was no one to compliment me about it. So, I learnt to compliment myself.
I became both the artist and the muse. As Barkha reported from the frontlines and Faye grew her Instagram channel with Just the News, I lay flat on the floor of my tiny bedroom, staring at my skin with a hand-held mirror, obsessively checking for upcoming zits.
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If there seemed as much as a tiny reddish bump, I’d get my antibacterial topical treatment and dab on a blob, determined to kill it before it erupted. Each time I succeeded at nipping it in the bud, it gave me a sense of victory. This inexplicable joy at having combatted an enemy. At having beaten down bacteria. I couldn’t do much about the filthy virus disrupting lives and hospitalising people, but I most certainly could keep the damned bacteria from ruining my skin.
So, every single day, shower or no shower, my face got the obsessive care a tyrannical medieval king demanded of his subjects. My hair could be unwashed, laundry undone, room uncleaned, but face – oh, you dare miss a single step!
I began to look to my skin for signs of survival. Was it glowing? If so, I was thriving. Was there a blip? It meant I’d lost control of my routine. On reality. As days blended into one another, lockdown extending 3 weeks at a time, my skincare schedule remained constant.
It was not a healthy situation by any stretch of imagination. But can you blame me? We were living through a monumental, unprecedented and unanticipated moment in time. My family was at the other end of the country. Flights weren’t functioning. I didn’t have a partner to make me tea. And I hated cooking. If I lived through that, it was a victory in itself, unsavoury coping mechanisms included.
God save me if I have a single pimple on my face as I lie on my COVID-induced deathbed
I was waiting for walking outdoors to become legal. I had always loved my walks. But when the rules were relaxed, I didn’t step out. Why? A certain popularisation of the term ‘maskne’.
I couldn’t risk a fresh breakout after all that skincare, could I? So I protected myself from COVID and acne by staying indoors even when I was permitted to step out. Funny how the tips for staying clear of COVID are the same as that of avoiding acne. Wash your hands with soap and water. Don’t touch your face. Eat your vitamins. Don’t go to crowded places where you’ll sweat a lot. Drink lots of water. At that point in time, I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t care about COVID as much as I cared about my skin. I would gladly go maskless outside, if it wasn’t so frowned upon. And of course, illegal. So I stayed indoors. Wake up, wash face. Work, wash face. Watch a show, wash face. On repeat.
Those 4 months of isolation came with its own set of realisations and I am sorry to admit, none of them made me a better person. My privilege and entitlement were the first to stare at me right in the face. My stubbornness came next. And vanity followed confidently in third place. If anything, COVID made me realise what comfortable lives we’d been leading so far, having domestic help to do our dishes and cook our meals. It made me value unpaid labour so much more. Grandmothers who made aloo parathas daily in bulk? You’re the real heroes. Not us, who swing open a laptop everyday and type random emails about deliverables and timelines.
Funnily enough, it was these ‘deliverables’ that kept me afloat on days when skincare couldn’t. Treating deadlines and skincare as though it were a matter of life and death seemed like the only way to stay sane when, outside, real life-and-death situations were unfolding. For many people, concentrating on work was impossible at such a time. For me, it was a saviour.
I didn’t want to spend my time lying around alone, grappling with the end of the world. I’d much rather grapple with a difficult client brief and lather my face with 3 products while doing so.
Continuity and routine were the threads connecting our old lives to the new normal. Without it, we’d just be displaced souls prone to massive emotional upheavals. For many people, family and partners formed this thread. Somebody to lean on as life took a 180 degree turn overnight. For those of us who entered into this era, solo, surrounded by new people, it was things like rigorous skincare, comfort food, and stringent work deadlines that kept us hooked to reality. The act of washing my face with the same face-wash every afternoon at 3 p.m. just before a Zoom call or the sharing of memes, were simple behaviours that ensured mental faculties weren’t completely compromised, even as everything else in the world was.
I didn’t have family within my vicinity in those first four months, but hey, at least my skin was glowing, showing the results of my regimen. I couldn’t control the world, but I could (somewhat) control my skin. This fleeting feeling that my skincare routine offered helped anchor me, when I stayed locked up in a Bombay bedroom, with two flatmates and a dirty kitchen for company.
The means to my sanity might be debatable, the ends were not.
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