Before the begonias die

Paul McCartney’s words in Eleanor Rigby, ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’, haunted my mind throughout 2020’s pandemic lockdowns. During this time, I did an over-the-phone research involving people in urban and suburban Sri Lanka; It was an attempt to understand the long-term implications of this pandemic in our lives. One of the major concerns uncovered from this research is the horror of loneliness that will become more and more normal, especially among the elderly in urban areas. In densely populated cities, buildings and homes are designed to bring more privacy, cutting out the noisy world around; But, in the setting of a pandemic life when the city is in lock-down, and there is no busy bustle distracting you, the thought that you’re experiencing life all alone within concrete walls becomes quite apparent and overwhelming.

There will be individuals and small groups that become isolated within lives and spaces with little to no contact beyond their everyday reality. Individuals who do not have the habit of linking to the world through technology will become especially lonely, and this will have a significant socio-psychological impact in the long run. As a response to this, small cluster communities will be formed, allowing people to find companionship within very close, and sometimes even unlikely, groups.

With my studio Public Works, we developed a short-short-story series based on these insights. This particular story from that series highlights the growing loneliness and disconnection in Sri Lanka’s urban society. Maurine is that property-wealthy, yet cash-poor landlord, you are likely to meet in Colombo’s charming old houses; Most of them are senior citizens who depend on rentals as their sole livelihood. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Sri Lankan government encouraged landlords to give hefty concessions to their tenants, such elderly property-owners found themselves in particularly difficult situations with little access to support, helpers, and medicine, in addition to the revenue loss. This story ‘Before the begonias die’ with the fictional character ‘Aunty Maurine’ weaves through these themes of loneliness, involuntary seclusion and the shifts in space consumption that changed things for many of us.

Before the begonias die

Maurine looked at her wilted begonias. Leela hadn’t come by to clean and water the plants since they had that argument last week. Maurine tried to lean over the balcony ledge and failed—her arm shook too violently to support her weight. She resigned and sighed into her view of the city sea. The sea was filthy, yet beautiful; as long as you were too far to see the careless droplets of human consumption floating across the glimmering waters. When prospective tenants came to see Maurine’s rentable apartments, she made sure that their meeting ended on a balcony with the view; Ideally, it would be timed with a devastatingly beautiful Colombo sunset in all its red-orange-pink-yellow-peach-purple-magenta-coloured pollution dusted glory, forgiving everyone and every sin at the end of the day. She remembered how tenants—especially, the young foreign ones—would stop awestruck at the sight, only to turn around after a minute of silence, to tell her solemnly that they’d take it, at her price. In the heyday of Colombo’s post-war real estate boom, Maurine even got away with slamming the phone on other Sri Lankans; “Sorry, no locals”, she’d say, feeling a secret satisfaction at the resting corner of her childhood heartache connected to the mass emigration of her Burgher family.

Before the pandemic, Maurine had three cleaning ladies; one for each apartment. She would breathe down their backs as they scrubbed, dusted and cleaned, while having heated arguments about spots, stains, discolourations, rust, scratches, broken plates, lost cutlery, torn sheets, the difference between the ‘stop’ and ‘pause’ buttons of the washing machine, and how the watering of the begonias framing the sea view was never timed with the fury of the tropic sun; While also talking about the obnoxiousness of the garbage men, children that left the nest, uselessly alive husbands, usefully dead husbands, the sexual promiscuity of tenants, medicine bills, that lovely young manager man at the Keells… But, when the pandemic struck, her foreign tenants left one by one; and Maurine had to rent her apartments out to locals at half-rate; but, the second wave washed them out too. Maurine let go of two cleaners, keeping only Leela—the least detested. After all, she did sleep over by Maurine’s bedside the night that Roy died; she also nursed Maurine when she first got a laryngeal tumor.

Maurine looked at her phone. ‘Why hadn’t Leela called?’—the woman could never get past a week without making that cleaning money. How is she affording the medicine for the old man? Did her runaway daughter call back? Has Sunil been drinking again? Is Leela okay? Maurine wondered about the thickly coloured chaos of lower-middle-class suburban lives that she so eagerly peeked into through Leela’s neverending complaining. Standing on her balcony overlooking the sea, Maurine realised that she no longer had access to that perversely treasured view into less lonely lives. With a catch in her throat, Maurine realised that the calamity of five people being crammed into a house the size of her living room was the anecdote to her own lonely life. She longed to see that desperate world where solitude was a luxury, not a curse.

Maurine reached for the phone, and started calling Leela; but, stopped halfway through. She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t call her, asking. Maurine felt her throat bite back in pain. She sat down on the easy chair in the balcony, stretched out her bony legs, and pursed her lips. “Yes, it’s best to not spend on cleaners, when there’s no rent money coming in,” she told the sky after much thought. Tonight, she would pray for one of those good May monsoon thunderstorms so that the begonias won’t die until Leela gets here—whenever the hell that is. For now, she’d just let the wind blow at her face and ears, like a dull echo of some distant incessant jabbering. 

If you liked Maurine’s story, you might enjoy our short-short-story series on post pandemic lives and realities; it’s called ‘This Time Tomorrow’ and bridges near-distant-future predictions of interesting professionals with the insights from our research. Most stories were designed for Instagram, while a few were designed for newsletters and blogs. Take a look these two Instagram stories from the series.

The fish-woman’s son

Colombo for Christmas

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