It’s spring, 2020. A three-year-old is kicking a ball around the terrace of an apartment building in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Her father follows her, capturing the action on a cell phone. Suddenly, the ball flies over the railing and onto the roof of an adjacent building. “My ball!” she cries out. “What will I do now?” There’s no one on that roof to return it, and there won’t be for a while—one of the building’s residents has the coronavirus, so the rooftop, normally a communal space, is off limits.
The first coronavirus case in Bangladesh was confirmed on March 8, 2020. Later that month, the government declared a ten-day public holiday—effectively a lockdown—to slow the spread of the virus. The shutdown was then extended, in various forms, to the end of May. “I found that this ball can be a metaphor for the COVID situation,” Farid Ahmad, the toddler’s father, told me. As a filmmaker, he works closely with people; with a deadly virus on the loose, the only way he could help the situation was by staying isolated. But he still wanted to contribute, still felt the urge to tell a story. Thus, an unremarkable toy—a symbol of his young daughter’s normal life, now on hold—became the central prop of a creative project.
More than eighty per cent of Bangladesh’s labor force works in the informal economy. Among them are domestic workers, most of whom are women. As part of the effort to stem community spread, domestic workers were no longer allowed into their employers’ homes. Some of these workers are seen in “Antara,” sitting outside apartment buildings. “Oh, aunties,” they beseech their employers, “help a bit”—often to no avail. Some apartment-dwellers would throw money from their balconies to the women, Farid told me. His wife, Salma Sonia, said that she paid her domestic worker for a month and a half during the lockdown, knowing that she had lost all of her jobs.
The cries of these domestic workers jostle with an announcement from the mosque—“Some mournful news”—which has taken on the role of community radio. Even the azan has been modified. “All Muslims will pray in their respective homes,” the muezzin pronounces, citing a government directive.
For Antara, Salma and Farid’s daughter, the lockdown begins as perhaps just a home vacation. Her daily routine seems to go on unhindered—she’s playing, bonding with her parents, and socializing with friends and neighbors. But, as days turn to weeks, the novelty wears off. The apparent standstill is overtaken by inner turbulence. One morning, Antara narrates a dream to her father: a parrot attacked and injured her, but she couldn’t go to the doctor. “Why?” Farid inquires. “There is coronavirus outside,” she replies. Another morning, she refuses breakfast. She wants to go to the day care and eat there—breakfast, rice, cereal, chocolate. This morning, the burden of restrictions is weighing on her, as it has on many others, in a pandemic year that has limited physical spaces and social interactions so dramatically.
“This is a boring house,” she complains. Closed off from the world, life inside an apartment becomes repetitive, like Antara’s toy car that can’t go far without colliding with furniture, or the windows whose entire range of motion is to slide open and shut.
The number of weekly infections in Bangladesh are reaching an all-time high. So far, at least nine thousand people have died of the coronavirus in the country, and it appears to have formed another peak, as vaccines are being rolled out.
For now, Salma continues to work remotely, for the most part, as a researcher, and Farid is back to shooting the feature film that he was working on before the lockdown, which follows climate-affected people across Bangladesh. Antara did get the ball back, eventually. For her, what had started out as just another toy had become a source of longing and frustration. For her father, it had gone from a logistical inconvenience to a perverse representation of the global pandemic. The ball came back after weeks of weathering the elements all by itself. Its return—deflated and discolored—might not have been a cause of much jubilance, but there was solace, or, at least, a sense of closure.
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