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In Self-Isolation With My Mother

April 7, 2020
by Delwar Hussain

Anthropologist & Writer Delwar Hussain sent me this follow-up to his recent piece, describing his experiences of self-isolating alone with his mother in the family home in Spitalfields

Portrait by Sarah Ainslie


My mother and I may have the virus. It began with a cough followed by flu symptoms. I had night sweats, she had headaches and we each had swollen glands, and a general weakness and soreness. We both lost our sense of taste and smell.

Every morning, we wake late and gargle with hot salt water to clear bacteria from our throats. Through the day, we sip a tea of turmeric, cinnamon bark, cloves, Nigella seeds, garlic, ginger and lemon.

‘It is now up to Allah,’ my mother says, rubbing dollops of Vicks onto her forehead and chest. She has been having nightmares but tries to rest. I struggle with the books I set myself to read over Easter because it is impossible to immerse myself in other worlds and times when this one is so pressing, so big.

I find myself ambling around the house and my tread is heavy, often painful. I have lived here for thirty years and although I have tried other places, in other cities in other parts of the world, I am unable to sever my attachment to this one. Every inch, every doorknob, hinge, every gap, crack and blemish is a prompt, recalling constellations of memories that span epochs of our family life. These stories criss-cross, beginning here and ending over there, their contours no longer precise or clear. Details, chronologies, who actually said what and why, cease to matter as much as that they happened here. The house embodies our collective histories, hopes, resources, ideals and fears – all the pain, despair and dreams of my family and those who have lived here.

My attic bedroom looks out to the City of London with a view of Christ Church and the weavers attics of neighbouring houses. It is freezing in winter, boiling in summer. I have had my room for over a decade but I inherited it from my cousin whom my mother raised with us. He had it for years before he got married and moved out, then it became our sitting room until I was able to claim it. My mother and I watched Princess Diana’s funeral up here, both of us numbed into silence.

Across the landing is my sister’s workroom, full of colours, paints and brushes. Her room faces east, looking towards the minaret of the Brick Lane Jama Masjid and, beyond that, the helipad of the Royal London Hospital where today coronavirus patients are being ferried. Before my sister took over this room, my mother kept her sewing machine there and stitched lining for leather jackets late into the night. It was full of scraps, boxes of bobbins, spools of thread in a myriad of colours, tape measures and massive scissors. The floor below is where my mother has her bedroom. Other than rearranging the direction her bed faces in the nineties, an event in itself, I do not recall her moving bedrooms as the rest of us did. She recently asked me to paint the walls of her room and I had been planning to do it over Easter, but this will need to be postponed for the moment.

Styga, our old cat, warily accompanies me as I lumber around the house. She is disorientated, not just because of her grand age, but because the pandemic is confusing her. She does not understand why there are no people on the streets, taking photographs of her, or why she is not being stroked by those on the Ripper tours that stop outside. Her sister, Chompa, was the fiercest cat to have lived with us. The two could not stand the sight of each another, dividing the house between them.  Styga had the top half and Chompa the bottom half. Like border guards, they scowled and snarled when one encroached the other’s territory until, a few years ago, Chompa disappeared. Then Styga changed, became nervous, unsettled, anxious and was in constant search for her sister.

Styga accompanies me, joining my mother in the sitting room where I can hear her coughing and praying to herself. This room is where we encounter the world and the world encounters us. It is the site of victories and where schemes, plans and ambitions are laid out. This is where our family gather when it appears everything may have been lost. The place where difficult conversations are had and rites of passage held. My cousin was made to confess to his gambling addiction here. My brothers brought their brides and introduced them to the rest of the household here. My sisters departed from this room when they married. It is where grandchildren and great-grandchildren come to play when we are not in self-isolation, where kittens are raised, and Eid parties and Christmas lunches held.

As I walk down the stairs, I am reminded of the last time my father was in the house. I was descending as I am now, aged eighteen, and he was sprawled out on the floor below, writhing and grimacing in pain. I tried to pick him up and he was frail and light. Doctors could not diagnose what was wrong. He died a month after this.

In the kitchen, I make more of the tea that we think is doing us good. Outside, the streets are thick with silence, yet from everywhere, I hear a confetti of sounds, of laughter, of tears, the voices of people who have rung the doorbell, the voices of our younger selves. They come for friendship, for refuge, for solace, for time, and to play a game of cricket. People shout, whisper and cry. There are disorderly queues formed by lovers. There is the song of blackbirds and of the ducks we once kept. The latest Bollywood songs, the azaan from the mosque, the church bells from next door. I can hear preparations to go on anti-war demonstrations, the fruit and vegetable merchants from the Spitalfields Market, drunk office workers vomiting curry and beigels. The man who sold rice from a supermarket trolley is calling, and Sheila and Paddy from number eight are telling me to turn the radio down. Fireworks are exploding on Guy Fawkes night, bailiffs are knocking, camera-shutters are falling, countless winos are sleeping, peeing and raging at our door.

One day we will have to give up our house and we will be left with our past. Our past became our stories. Like our forebears, the Huguenot and Jewish families who lived here before us, the house made us who we are and we, too, have made it what it is.

Family portrait, 1980. From left to right – Arful Nessa (mother), Haji Abdul Jalil (father), Hafsa Begum (sister), Rahana Begum (sister), Faruk Miah (cousin), Shiraz Miah (cousin) and Delwar Hussain.

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51 Responses leave one →
  1. Maureen Dew permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Praying for a full recovery for you and your mother Delwar – such a beautifully written and poignant account.

  2. Mike Nicholson permalink
    April 7, 2020

    What a brilliant, beautifuly written piece; straight to the heart of situations that are repeating, with tens of millions of variations, across the globe. I wish the Hussains well.
    Delwar raises a voice from behind one of those many closed front doors, along all those silent streets around us.
    It was good to listen and share, sad to hear.

  3. Celt permalink
    April 7, 2020

    I hope you both recover soon x

  4. Jane Jones permalink
    April 7, 2020

    The author makes the ‘ordinariness’ of life so beautiful and enigmatic. It has been a real delight to read about these remarkable people. We can only say thank you for them and add them to our prayers.

  5. Sarah Swan permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Dear Delwar, I wish you and your mother a speedy recovery. Thank you for posting your story of life in self isolation and I hope you are getting everything you need to help you both back to full health. Best regards to you both.

  6. PennyP permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Wishing you and your mother a speedy recovery and more time to make memories in your house.

  7. Eve McBride permalink
    April 7, 2020

    What are we without our memories? Thank you for another thoughtful article and best wishes to you and your mother for a speedy recovery, a a cuddle to your cat.

  8. Venetia permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Beautiful writing. God bless you and your mother and may you both feel much better very soon.

  9. Marja van Straaten permalink
    April 7, 2020

    It certainly is a time for reflection … listening to echoes of the past.
    Take care, hope you and your mum get well soon.
    Kind regards

  10. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 7, 2020

    I was sorry to read that Delwar and his beloved mother are both struggling with what sounds very much like the coronavirus (the loss of taste and smell seem to be one of the defining characteristics of the disease) and I wish them both a speedy recovery.

    But what a beautifully written piece about their family home Delwar has written as a response to their self isolation. The phrase which stands out to me is “Outside, the street is thick with silence, yet from everywhere, I hear a confetti of sounds…”

    And as we have had the same family home for nearly sixty years now, I also dread the time when we have to give it up as there are so many memories in every room, garage, shed and corner of the garden.

    As Delwar says “this is where we encounter the world, and the world encounters us”.

  11. penny Hancock permalink
    April 7, 2020


  12. April 7, 2020

    Beautifully evocative, haunting even – I hope you both recover soon.

  13. Juliet Jeater permalink
    April 7, 2020

    This is a beautifully written piece which I found strangely comforting.
    Thank you.

  14. April 7, 2020

    Delwar, your lives will always echo around this house. You weave such a beautiful portrait of the past and the present. All my good wishes and strengthening thoughts to you, your mother and your family. Thank you Gentle Author for posting this here.

  15. Sanjan permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Good stuff Del-boy. Hope you feel better soon.

  16. April 7, 2020

    Thank you for sharing your thought provoking memories with us all Delwar, beautifully written and evocative ……
    Sending warmest wishes and positive thoughts for a complete recovery to you and your beloved mother.

  17. April 7, 2020

    Thanks for this lovely piece of writing, and also to the gentle author for bringing us these daily uplifting stories, thoughts and images.

  18. Jacqui Mulligan permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Beautiful – hope they are both recovering.

  19. Stephanie Bowgett permalink
    April 7, 2020

    May you both recover soon. Thank you for this vivid and tender piece of writing.

  20. April 7, 2020

    In the midst of so much heart ache and personal concern, Delwar has found time to give US a gift of insight, revelation, and awareness.

    Sending healing wishes from the Hudson River Valley in New York.
    Onward and upward.

  21. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Hoping you both recover soon so you can forge even more memories in your memory-filled home. Thank you for writing such a beautiful piece to sustain us during these tough times.

  22. John Grimsey permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Incredibly moving piece. Hopefully, things will improve soon and we can return to the relatively normal life that we all crave.
    Carry on looking after each other and get well soon.

  23. Ali permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Another delightful account into a everyday life of person that resonates with many us.

  24. Amanda permalink
    April 7, 2020

    l too, have added you Delwar and Arful to my strong prayers and for the GA, to keep all of you safe.

    Beautifully written from your soul, almost in one sentence describing all that has happened within and without your beloved home for half a century.

    Concentrate your focus with all your might on your writing and you will soon be better.

  25. Lesley permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Such cherished memories. Please get well soon.

  26. Valerie Fuller permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Thank you for sharing. I wish you & your mother speedy recovery.

  27. Pence permalink
    April 7, 2020

    A beautiful piece of writing and a wonderful portrait. Best wishes for the health of both Dulwar and Artful and the rest of their family.

  28. sara midda permalink
    April 7, 2020

    All good wishes for recovery.
    Thank you.

  29. April 7, 2020

    Beautiful, thank you Delwar. Sending prayers for health and strength to you, your wonderful mother and all your family.


  30. Joy permalink
    April 7, 2020

    I really enjoyed reading the memories of your house & your life within it.
    Hope you & your Mother are better soon ready to make more memories.

  31. April 7, 2020

    What a truly beautiful, though poignant piece of writing. I wish you and your mother a speedy return to good health.

  32. Helen permalink
    April 7, 2020

    This beautiful piece of writing has painted such a vivid picture of the current and past times and places that I can see them in my mind’s eye. To hear that Delwar and Arful are likely ill with this dreadful virus is heartbreaking. I wish them all the very best and hope that Delwar will write another blog to tell us of their safe recovery.

  33. Jo Ann Radioli permalink
    April 7, 2020

    Thank you for sharing your family’s story. You are blessed and I pray that one day this will also be a memory that you will be able to share with all your family once again. My prayers are with you and your mother .
    Best wishes and virtual hugs
    Brooklyn New York

  34. April 7, 2020

    Our homes contain so much of our lives, the quiet moments as well as all the coming and going of family and friends, our hopes and dreams. My hope is for your recoveries from this virus and many more years in your beloved home. Thank you for sharing this.

  35. April 7, 2020

    Your mother is so gracious and beautiful, the light shines from her in this photo as it must in life. I so wish the NHS had been able to save your father and that it could help you. A good free public health service is vital. You live in a place where my ancestors walked and every cell of my being goes into praying for every cell of yours. I wish upon wish, prayer upon prayer, that you will survive and that you and your mother will bless the streets with your presence again soon.

  36. April 7, 2020

    This is such a deep and loving relationship. Life in Spitalfields lived with care and love.

  37. Wendy Dennis permalink
    April 8, 2020

    What a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it. May peace find you.

  38. Pauline Dufaur permalink
    April 8, 2020

    Such beautiful writing, It brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.

  39. April 8, 2020

    I hope Delwar might send his beautiful account to the BBC Radio 4 PM programme – Evan Davies is currently inviting listeners to submit personal accounts of their experiences during the Covid-19 lockdown which the writers then read out each day on the show. This would be perfect. Thanks so much for sharing.

  40. David Morgan permalink
    April 8, 2020

    A beautiful piece of writing . My bet wishes to you and your mother .

  41. April 8, 2020

    What an unusual story, so very sad. It is a beautiful piece of writing but still so very sad.

  42. Sue permalink
    April 8, 2020

    Wishing you both a speedy recovery.

  43. Kristine Dillon permalink
    April 9, 2020

    It is alway a joy to read something where the writer paints such a vivid picture with words. I can picture in my minds eye the places and people described. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish you and your mother a speedy and full recovery.

  44. April 9, 2020

    Lovely moving narratives of the living room, reminded me fondly of ‘bachelard’s poetic of space’, and beyond that, sort of a lovely psychogeographical unwinding of the home, situated in that corner of London. Glad you’re both recovered and hope the rest of London recovers with you in time.

  45. April 11, 2020

    Thank you for this beautiful and worrisome entry. Wishing you and your mother the very best good wishes and prompt recovery.

  46. Cynthia permalink
    April 14, 2020

    Wonderful writing – very moving – hope you both are well

  47. Aysha Siddiqua permalink
    April 14, 2020

    Hope you & your mum feel better soon Delwar.

  48. Rehannah permalink
    April 15, 2020

    Get well soon to Delwar and to his mother. I am thinking of you and wishing for your recovery. Hope to hear you are both well soon. Rehannah

  49. April 16, 2020

    Thank you Gentle Author for bringing us these stories to uplift our days. What a beautiful piece and I am so glad, Delmar, that you and your mother are recovering.
    It must be the magic tea!

  50. Ingrid Lyons permalink
    April 26, 2020

    I love the way you write about the vastness of your family history juxtaposed with small details around the house. And the crises of the pandemic coupled with the flawed structure of the world that brought us to this point.

    It really made my week.

    I hope you and your family recover soon.

  51. April 30, 2020

    Delwar’s writing takes you to a domestic plane where it seems nothing happens but everything happens. As someone commented earlier, it is uplifting.

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