IN BLACK AND WHITE – Jahnavi Barua

“Freedom comes in various forms, I realised that day. In many shapes and sizes; in many colours and hues and certainly in many tastes and smells. Just being under the wide blue sky, the sun on my face and the road unfurling endlessly in front made my skin tingle. It was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders; as if a layer of dead skin had been peeled off my now living, breathing one. My companions in the car – my husband and son – felt it too. No words were exchanged but I could see it in the smiles on their faces, the squaring of previously slumped shoulders and in the songs they belted out as the car rolled on.”

In my last novel, Undertow, somewhere I have said something to the effect that only when a prisoner is released from captivity does he realise the full measure of his freedom. I had written these lines years ago, but a couple of weeks ago, they rang loud and clear and true in my ears. Never before have I – along with millions of other people – been confined, caged almost, within the walls of my home. I left my building a maximum of ten times in the last ten months – the occasional trip to a doctor or to see a friend in the safe confines of her home. The rest of the time I spent in my flat. And while I usually enjoy being at home – I am not one of those who needs to step outside everyday – towards the end of the year, I found myself weary of the unnatural confinement. Thus, when a suggestion to go on a short holiday with friends whose children have grown up with my son, came up, we cautiously considered the idea. After much discussion, it was decided we would take the trip in early February. The number of COVID cases seemed to be slowly winding down and we would take every possible precaution.

One of the conditions I insisted on was that we drive to our destination by the sea. I was still wary of taking a flight. So, one bright morning, a couple of weeks ago, we loaded the car with enough biscuits and water to last an army and drove off, down the highway.

Freedom comes in various forms, I realised that day. In many shapes and sizes; in many colours and hues and certainly in many tastes and smells. Just being under the wide blue sky, the sun on my face and the road unfurling endlessly in front made my skin tingle. It was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders; as if a layer of dead skin had been peeled off my now living, breathing one. My companions in the car – my husband and son – felt it too. No words were exchanged but I could see it in the smiles on their faces, the squaring of previously slumped shoulders and in the songs they belted out as the car rolled on.

Our country is a beautiful one and after not having seen it for nearly a year, it was even more lovely. We passed rolling hills, some topped by giant white windmills and drove along undulating fields golden with ripening ragi. The road led us up onto the Western Ghats where we drove on narrow roads that wound through thick forest. There were no cars for miles and only the evening sounds of the forest around us. At one point, we stopped to watch a stream flow through the thick jungle below. It caught the evening sky in its waters; a faithful mirror fashioned by Nature. We drove without a break for nearly 12 hours until we arrived at our destination by the sea. Tired but happy.

I love the hills dearly and their atmospheric stillness always draws me like a magnet, but there is something about sitting down before a wide open sea. The possibilities seem limitless with the blue sky arching over you and the sea melting away into the horizon in front. For a moment you can almost feel all the fetters loosening; all that ties you to the responsibilities on earth seems to disappear for those sunny hours. This time, this feeling was deeper and wider than it has ever been before. After having been accustomed to a small patch of the sky for nearly a year, this seemed close to heaven.

A few sunny days we spent, under blue Spring skies and with the wind on our faces. We talked and laughed with friends we hadn’t seen in months. We looked up at the clear night sky studded with stars and slept the undisturbed sleep of the happy. There was a lightness in our hearts we had not felt in a long time.

Freedom is such a fragile thing. As we drove back home again, another 12 hours, this time along the turquoise sea, I couldn’t help but think of how easily all this could be lost. It took just a tiny microscopic pathogen to shut us into our homes for months. An incarceration we are not fully released from yet. No one knows what lies around the corner, in the coming months, although we are hopeful of an end to the situation.

Freedom can so easily be taken for granted and I certainly, have been guilty of that in the past. My own words came back to me, in full force, as I watched the sun sink behind the hills of the Ghats – only when released from bondage do you fully realise the measure of your captivity.

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Jahnavi Barua is a writer based in Bengaluru.