“Mummy … what are you doing? It’s still dark outside” said Sameera.
“The cat is here…” replied her mother.
“Ok, go back to sleep after that” said Sameera in half-sleep.
“Its 5.30 already.” There was sternness in her mother’s voice.
The old woman of around 60 years opened the door of her ground floor apartment. Outside, a cat was hanging on the kitchen window grill. Seeing the old woman with a bowl of milk, the cat jumped down and came running towards her.
“Here” said the woman while keeping the milk bowl outside.
She then shut the door, purified herself by a bath, and prepared food offerings for the family ancestors, particularly her husband who passed away 2 months back.
“Get up, I am going now, close the door” she said to Sameera as she wore her facemask and covered herself up in a shawl.
“Mummy …. The situation outside…” protested Sameera.
“Keep quiet and bolt the door” responded her mother as she walked out of the door with a thali of food and a glass of water.
Sameera was moved by the unfaltering commitment of her mother to her father even in the hostile situation they were in.
“Can all this simply be a dream. My father dying of lung cancer and now all this… Ventilators, lung congestion, pneumonia, cough, fever…. Am I dreaming? Death is such a terrifying event then why would I with all diligence invite it into my dream and continue seeking it? Have I unleashed this suffering on the world to avenge my father? But is my mother and me apart from it? “
Sameera is immobilized by her own thoughts.
“Ting tong…” rang the doorbell.
“The door is still open!” Sameera’s mother walked inside the house.
“Did you find the cow?” asked Sameera.
“Yes, she ate everything. I wasn’t sure if the cow will eat bitter gourd sabzi with roti. Your father loved it.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the glaring police siren from the street.
“Why are the police here?” wondered Sameera.
“Ohh that woman… There was this young woman walking on the street with both her hands completely stretched out, like a scarecrow, holding one bag in each hand. A man wearing a facemask came riding a bike and took away her purse. These facemasks are definitely proving to be effective protection for many… And the way she was holding her purse… as if inviting the onlookers to steal it. Now she is sitting on the bus stop, crying. Someone must have called the police.”
“Ohh.” there was shock in Sameera’s voice.
“To be careful is one thing but this is foolish…
Bolt the door Sameera.”
Sameera and her mother had been battling one crisis after another. But this crisis had come as a welcome distraction to their grief. It had given them something else to put their minds on, something else to discuss, something else to strategize about. And most important, it was part of someone else’s world. Even though it had entered their universe, it was still outside.
“Going on your daily stroll up the 19 stairs.” said Sameera to the cat as she closed the door.
“Meowww”. There were still some milk drops on the whiskers of the cat from her venture at Sameera’s house.
The cat tiptoed to the first floor and landed herself on the doormat. There was a huge lock on the apartment door for the last two days. The numbness of silence was broken by the melancholic sound of the clock coming from the apartment. “Tik..tik..tik”
“I can smell fear everywhere. This empty house is reeking of it.” the cat thought while she licked her whiskers and paw clean.
“Thud”. The silence was broken by a bag of garbage thrown out of the balcony from the second floor.
“Get out… get out.” commanded Chetna, a woman of around 50 years as she opened the door of the second-floor apartment and pushed her husband, Jai, out. “You did touch the dustbin.”
Jai gave a sigh, and without saying a word covered his mouth with a handkerchief and started to walk downstairs. As he was walking downstairs, he stumbled upon Mr. Joshi, a 68-year-old man from the top floor apartment.
“Sharma Ji, what happened?” enquired Joshiji.
“Namaste Joshiji, you know the situation. “said Jai Sharma as he shrugged his shoulders.
‘How is Bhabiji doing?” There was concern in Joshiji’s voice.
“Since the past few days, it has been more difficult than usual and now all this… The only respite is that as of now she exhibits phobia of only garbage and germs…
We have talked to the doctor and added an additional dose of sleep-inducing medicine. It’s best she sleeps more.
If you see her why don’t you also try to explain the situation to her, calm her down? I am really worried about her” said Sharmaji.
“Hmm I will try.” nodded Joshiji
“During the self-lockdown, I would drop her to her mother’s house in the morning and pick her up in the evening. That gave me ample time to clean, cook…
But now…. I don’t know what to do. My mother-in-law is also worried. She feels if something happened to her how will her daughter cope. She wants to keep a distance now.”
“If my guess is correct your mother-in-law must be more than 80 years old?” inquired Mr. Joshi.
“Yes, she is 81.” shared Sharmaji.
“My daily stroll around the block was such a relief. Now all has stopped. It’s like “God is dead.” There was anger is Sharmaji’s voice.
“Dhruvvv.. Dhruuv” called a woman in a frantic loud voice from behind the second-floor apartment door.
“Are you still there?” she added.
“I must go. I have to stand in the sun, disinfect myself and be safe.” said Sharmaji with a smile on his face.
“But Sharmaji, everyone is staying in and you are going out to stay safe?”
Sharmaji laughed at the irony “Safe…We fear for our and our loved one’s safety a little too much. I know fear from very close Joshiji, and I know what it can do if left untamed. Fear is an unnameable, unreasonable, unjustified terror that can paralyze us?
From what I can see, we all are in its grips. If we continue to fear this way, we will also soon need medicines to move through normal life. Joshiji, I fear Fear” Sharmaji walked downstairs while saying this, laughing.
“Dhruvvvvv.” said Mrs. Sharma with her ears plugged into the other side of the door. Blood was pounding in her ear. Her vision was distorted and blurry and everything around looked demonic to her.
She could feel the room holding her heart shrinking moment by moment. The light that filled that room was vanishing and soon there was only darkness left. Someone was hysterically banging the door of that room- “dubh… dubhh…dhubb…”
“Hello, darkness my only friend,
I have come to talk to you again.”- Mrs. Sharma heard the ringtone of her phone.
“Mummy..mummy.. I am not feeling good” said a panicked Mrs. Sharma to the phone.
“Where is your husband” asked the voice behind the phone.
“I threw him out of the apartment. He touched the dustbin”
“Did you take your medicines today?” asked the voice, concerned.
“Yes.” Mrs. Sharma was almost palpitating.
“Ok… Let’s do what the doctor said now.
Count from 100 to 1.
Let’s count together…
96 96 95 94
That’s too fast. Slow down…
Mr. Joshi was walking past the second floor when he stopped to hear something.
Joshiji gave a sigh, climbed upstairs towards his apartment on the third floor, and rang the bell. He removed his facemask as he entered the house.
Going straight to the washbasin he said –
“I just met Sharmaji in the stairways. He is miserable, to be in house arrest with a mentally ill wife is very challenging.”
He looked at his wife, son, daughter-in-law and their three daughters, realizing they were in no better situation in their overcrowded apartment than Sharmaji. Just that their challenge was different.
Even though they all had been living in that apartment for years now, but interestingly, they gathered together only during dinner time. The Father, Joshiji, and mother, Mrs. Joshi, ran a beauty parlor down the street and were in the parlor from morning to late evening. The son left in the morning around 8 am for work and returned home only by 10.30 pm. The two grandchildren went to school at 7 am and a 4-month-old toddler was left with the daughter-in-law. A house help was present during the day to help the daughter-in-law with household chores and managing the grandchildren. But these were unusual times and these unusual circumstances had created an unusual togetherness of 24/7.
“There are very few people outside today.” said Joshiji, the father.
“Well… they have found 2600 people in the Tabliqi Markaz today. Many have been found infected and are refusing treatment. I don’t understand what were they all doing there?” said the mother.
“They say God will save them. But God is very busy nowadays. In times like this, one should learn to take care of themselves.” responded the son slyly.
“Phhhhhh” The whistle of the pressure cooker went off. The daughter-in-law went running to the kitchen. Soon the house was filled with the mouth-watering smell of chole.
The two little girls who were playing in the balcony came running and went straight to the kitchen demanding” Mummy, is it ready, I am hungry?”
“I am very hungry, Mummy.” said the other one.
“You both ate Maggi 15 minutes back. How can you be hungry so soon? It will still take time to cook”
“Are you making chawal or puri?” asked the older sister.
“Go outside and play. Whatever is cooked you will eat that”
“Rama, get some water for papa” said the son from the living room.
“Go out and play” said the daughter-in-law.
“What are you saying Ratan” asked the daughter-in-law to the son from the kitchen.
“What?” said the son.
“What is your father saying?” asked the daughter-in-law to her older daughter.
“Glass of water”
“Your father is asking for tea.”
Small apartments were overcrowded not just by people but by sounds too. It was becoming increasingly difficult to make out what was being said, what was being implied, and what was being asked for. Women of the house found themselves more burdened than usual.
“Here” said the daughter-in-law giving a cup of tea to her husband.
“Not tea Rama, get some water for Papa.” demanded the son.
“What are these papers, Papa” asked the son pointing to the papers in his father’s hand.
“I have created my will, beta.” There was hesitation in the father’s voice.
“What? Why Papa?” the son is taken aback.
“Times are like this.” He said while looking at his wife. Rama gave a glass of water to her father-in-law.
“Your mother has also written her will.”
“Mummy, Papa…nothing will happen to you. We just need to be careful.” the son pleaded to his parents.
“Of course, I know beta. This is just precautionary. It’s dawning on me that this is going to be more difficult than I thought. We have to prepare for it in every way. We all are in a nasty situation and people are acting foolish. Anything can happen.”
“Papa we will be fine.”
The father smiled as he looked at his son. With half a smile on his lips, the son looked away hiding his face.
Suddenly the room was filled with frantic cries of the four-month-old granddaughter. The daughter-in-law went rushing to her.
“We need to buy more diapers” suggested the father.
“We need to stop using diapers and start using cloth now. Yesterday no one came to collect the garbage.” said the mother.
“Meowww.. meowww.” This was a ritualistic sound for food and an invitation for the little girls to play with the cat. “Dadi, the cat is outside. Open the door. I want to play with her.” Pleaded the older granddaughter.
“meowww” The other one imitated the cat and her gestures.
“Beta, remember what Modiji said. We are in isolation. No meeting anyone. It can be dangerous to you and them.” said the son to his daughters.
“I will play with you. What should we play?” he added.
“Ringa Ringa Roses, Pocket full of poses…” The girls started chanting the popular nursery rhyme together.
Joshiji opened the door of the apartment to scare away the cat, “Shoooo…” said Joshiji while beating his foot on the floor.
The cat was perplexed by their reaction. No one paid any heed to her. Lying in the sun the cat breathed in the silence of the surroundings.
“What are they so afraid of. They all have covered their faces. Who are they hiding from?
Who is this enemy?
Is he huge? Does he have fangs? Pointed teeth? Deadly claws? Is he a shapeshifter? Is it around and I don’t recognize him?
Whoever it is, he is extremely shrewd. He has managed to break man the mass to man the unit and filled them up with fear.
I must find him.” There was determination in the cat’s eyes.
“Maybe we can be friends.” thought the cat as she embarked on her quest and walked out of the apartment complex.