We had run out of milk. I hurried to the store before it closed. It was a Friday and people had all realized in collective alarm that they had run out of vegetable oil, or Parle-G, or washing soap. I stood behind the row at the counter, a little inconspicuous, waiting patiently. It reminded me of a younger version of me playing football in school. All the other boys would crowd around the ball, kicking furiously and blindly, while I waited near my team’s goalkeeper, praying that the ball remained in the other half. Someone tried to sneak in from beside me. Perhaps a shopping emergency, a packet of salt that could not wait. I shouted, or rather murmured something about maintaining a safe distance. It was lost in the greater cacophony. On my way back I paid thirty rupees to the vegetable vendor sitting by the side of the road. She had only leafy greens. I didn’t need any, but I bought a bunch of spinach all the same. I untied the string around it and fed it to the lone white cow loitering by the garbage bin. She had a moment of vacillation but decided to go with the spinach I held out in my hand. I stood there watching as her jaws made circular crunching motions. She looked almost as bored as I was. When she tried to smell my hands after, I decided to move away, back towards my house.
I remembered that my last grocery run had been more than two weeks ago. Seemed like a lifetime. I had this feeling that different events in life happened on different time scales. You had this monotony of chores like a continuous low drone of the Tanpura, while other events, births, deaths, bankruptcies, marriages, heartbreaks, played out on some parallel scale, far removed from the daily drudgery. I loved the chores. It was strangely comforting to think that I would be going out to buy a packet of cigarettes or taking out the garbage or washing up last night’s dishes until the end of my time. They were apathetic to everything else but themselves, chores. Almost transcendental. So, it was reassuring to return to it.
Dad fell ill almost 3 weeks ago. His symptoms were typical. A persistent cough, fever, loss of smell and taste. His O2 hadn’t slipped too much yet, but I had him admitted after a positive test result. I was the one who brought it home, though I was more or less asymptomatic myself. Dad hardly went out since the start of the pandemic. He was happy at home, watching reruns of movies on TV, as long as he had his packet of cigarettes replenished every few days.
I kept my eyes down, partly to avoid sympathetic looks, real or imaginary, and partly to avoid stepping on shit of every kind on the road. The sun was beating down mercilessly even though it wasn’t yet 10. I felt cool beads of sweat running down my back. Soon, the heat will overtake the day, bake the streets to a crisp, drive stray dogs to slumber in shades and slow down life in this suburban town. Most people will retreat indoors, and all sentient activity will continue in small concrete containers suspended in a sort of universal limbo. There was a sense of waiting everywhere. As if we were children shifting noiselessly on our benches in the final hour of the school day. A woman in a tattered green sari approached me along with her child who was in equally ragged clothing. He must have been 5 or 6. They raised their arms in synchronous appeal, a tired and practiced look of misery on their faces. I searched for change in my wallet and handed over 10 rupees. As their figures receded, I had this strange sinking feeling. Without cause it would seem. It wasn’t new, this sensation. I would from time to time feel like this. Like an unprocessed thought had lodged itself firmly in my head. As if a thought had arrived before its time, before its causes could fully materialize. And then not knowing where to go, it would stay, almost embarrassed of its own existence.
I must have tried a hundred phone numbers, scrolled through countless WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts. All in search of a bed. Things seemed dire. My whole organizational skills were called upon to demonstrate their ability. I had none. I fumbled through phone numbers, calling hospitals, isolation wards, help lines. I called up the same numbers repeatedly, handed over the same numbers repeatedly – the SRN, the URN, the Aadhar number, the Pin code, the age, the date of onset of symptoms. A profusion of numbers that obfuscated the anxiety. Behind every emergency handling there must be at least 30 digits passed on from one person to another. It was symbolic of a tragedy that had been playing out in numbers too.
The golden shower trees by the side of the road were in full bloom. Bright yellow flowers hung out in bunches and their dead cousins lay on the ground beneath. They stood as reminder of short-lived springs that gave in to summer’s cruel days. I thought of using this bright yellow palette as background for the current project I was working on. It was a print advertisement for a cosmetics brand that was trying hard to jump on to the pandemic bandwagon. It also appeared that there was a need to justify your presence during a pandemic, that you were socially and ethically conscious as a brand. Especially if you were trying to sell lipsticks, eyeliners, and anti-aging creams to a country trying to locate the next cylinder of Oxygen. I found nothing wrong in it, by the way. Businesses had to survive; people had to look good. At any point there are always some people dying. Our client couldn’t come up with anything better than ‘If you buy our product, we will give a portion of the proceeds to pandemic relief’. I suppose there wasn’t much room to grow in the already saturated hand sanitizer segment anymore.
The first night after I finally managed to get him admitted to a hospital, he complained of not getting basic amenities, like hot water to drink, a mosquito repellant. The food was apparently unpalatable and the toilets atrociously smelly. He said he was feeling almost as good as new now and was ready to come back home. Maybe it was simply that he did not have access to his cigarettes anymore.
I ran into Nagesh uncle at the turning into my lane. There wasn’t enough time to react and plan an avoidance maneuver. So, I decided to jump right in.
“How are you, uncle?”
He smiled and nodded. I took it he was doing fine.
“Out for groceries?” he asked pointing towards the bag. This time it was my turn to nod.
“Did you receive the electricity bill yet? We got ours yesterday. It’s a 20,000-rupee bill.”
I didn’t remember if we had received the bill yet. I told myself I would have remembered if it were such a high number. I also made a mental note of setting up online payment for electricity, like I had done countless times in the past. Since the start of the pandemic, I would just send the watchman to pay the amount and give him a 20 for the effort. Before the pandemic it was always dad who handled it.
“I don’t think so, uncle. That is mighty high. Did you check why?”
“Something to do with arrears and correction amounts. Lot of folks are getting similar bills. It’s plain extortion, you know. Government trying to make revenue one way or another.”
I accepted the simplistic reasoning with a smile, said goodbye and moved on.
He texted me instead of receiving my call, “Difficult to speak”. I think dad hated typing more than he hated talking. His texts would always be succinct. Not a letter wasted, not a comma misplaced. “Reached the tharavadu, thanks”, he would text when he used to travel to his hometown and did not want to bother me during work. I scrolled through some of the old texts where I had blabbered on for an entire screen and he had replied ‘Okay’ or ‘Goodnight’. I called up the doctor after several unsuccessful attempts. His O2 was a bit low, but nothing to worry, he said. I felt like an audience watching events unfolding behind the curtain. I flicked through channels pointlessly. Some claimed the government was doing all it could but that it was the system that was to blame. Others claimed it was the ineptitude of the PM and his sycophants, that they were too busy with their premature self-congratulations and unhinged election campaigns. Over the last year we had watched as our leader’s wisdom, like his beard, grew to saintly proportions. He was the undeniable patriarch now, the father of the new nation. At the moment though he was difficult to locate.
The old lady whose name I do not remember stood at her gate, mask on, watching passersby. She wore a neck brace. She held her head straight but followed people with her eye. She reminded me of one of those ceramic cat clocks with eyeballs that move back and forth at the hour. Her husband paced behind her, across their small front yard. He was wearing white pajamas and a threadbare vest full of holes in it. They lived a few houses down from ours. I thought she smiled as her eyes followed me. I thought of waving but decided against it. A few days ago, she was out walking in the morning (I want to say on Rajaji street, but I could be wrong). Someone came up on a bike behind her and pulled on her lovely gold chain and sped away. She fell from the sudden jerk, tried to cry out after the assailant, but was left there gasping for words. Police had been informed. A request made to have additional patrolling in the area and dismissed. They did not have enough people on the force for managing the pandemic, they said. I of course got all this news from our local reporter, Nagesh uncle. ‘Basically, they meant, you are on your own’, he had said. I heard him say the word anarchy more than once. He had a penchant for hyperboles. I always felt he would do a good job as a reporter on one of our many newstainment channels.
When I received the call that day at 7 AM, I was in the shower. I saw through the steam and spray that my phone was buzzing with an unknown number. I let it go on. The few minutes with my head under the shower were always therapeutic. I’d feel a strange tickle momentarily that made me want to both step out as well as stay in. As I was patting myself dry the phone buzzed again. It was the same number. I picked up, naked, my towel on my shoulder. They called me to the hospital as soon as I could make it. I did not probe further. Drops of water from the shower head fell on the faucet below erupting into tiny droplets, some of which settled on my arm. I wrapped the towel around me, cleared the fog on the mirror with the back of my hand and combed my hair. I picked out something to wear and got dressed hurriedly. All the actions I took were exactly the same as any other day. I slipped my right leg into the trouser leg followed by my left leg. I buttoned up before I zipped up. I slipped my head into the neck of the t-shirt before I thrust my hands through the sleeves. All the actions I had rehearsed over decades neatly executed themselves, far removed from the act of knowing or not knowing something.
The gate creaked as I pushed it open. A reminder for the thousandth time that I had to oil the hinges. I noticed again that the flowerpots lined up against the wall were in disarray. Some were toppled over. I made a note to get it done on the weekend. My cell phone rang. It was Rashmi. I watched the screen come alive with her photo. An old one from our trip to Wayanad. She had put on weight since then. I pressed down on the volume button and let it flicker in silence. I wouldn’t know what to speak to her. We hadn’t spoken in the last 8 or 9 months. We never really had a breakup, only a slow withdrawal. Our relationship was like a terminally ill patient who can’t recall the onset of his symptoms. When pandemic started and we moved back to our homes I think we both knew it was the end of the road. There were a few obligatory calls in the beginning. Then we called each other less and less often and then not at all. I would still check out her Instagram posts now and then. I hardly ever posted anything myself. I made a mental note to call her back on the weekend.
When I reached the hospital, the scene was chaotic. There were relatives of other patients, some sobbing, others howling, and yet others throwing abuses at the hospital workers. I made my way through the crowd. At the reception the phones rang continuously. It was insufficiently manned by 2 ladies in white uniform and PPEs on top of it. I told one of them I was called. She asked me to hold on for a minute while she answered another phone call.
“I was told it is an emergency. Can you get off the phone for 2 minutes?”
She looked desperate.
“I’ll call the doctor, give me a minute please.”
I wondered if I should be rushing upstairs instead. But I did not know where dad’s room was. It would have been pointless. I waited, trying to block out the commotion behind me.
“Sir. Sir, please go to second floor. 202. Dr. Garve will talk to you,” the lady called out, phone receiver in her hand.
There were too many people waiting for the elevator. I decided to take the stairs. When the double door to the stairs shut behind me, the noise had disappeared suddenly and I could hear my own breathing, elevated. The smell had gone too, a strange mix of disinfectant and sweat. I took the stairs two at a time.
“Please take a seat, Mr. Rajiv.” He was bald, save a few tufts of hair at the side. A short and stocky fellow. I sat down.
“We are really sorry, but your father’s oxygen level dipped very low, early this morning – around 5 AM. We tried to revive him but could not. I’m really sorry for your loss.”
I must have responded in some socially acceptable way because I remember being in his room for a few minutes. I also remember questioning him why dad was not put on the ventilator. How could the situation get so critical so suddenly. I raised my voice but without the rage to back it up. All I felt was emptiness welling up inside me. It would take some time to claim the body, I was told. There were some formalities still. Someone would help me out as soon as they could. I waited with a group of people downstairs. Some of them asked me if I had lost someone too. I nodded vaguely. I realized I had become part of an angry mob of grievers. There were a dozen or so deaths that morning. Things unraveled fast from there. It appeared there was a shortage of oxygen, or a break in supply for a few hours. The hospital authorities would not reveal all the details fully. Police had arrived by now. They were trying to bring the commotion under control. Some of them were talking to the ward boys, nurses and doctors, taking notes. A few Hindi news reporters had also made their way, cameramen in tow. They thrust their mikes up against my face among others. Someone asked when I had last spoken with my father and if he had been doing well then. I said it was a couple of days back and that he was ok. In fact, when I had called him up he had said, quite plainly, that he hadn’t taken a shit in two days. Partly because the medicines were causing him constipation and partly because the toilets were in such a state that he’d rather hold it in. Then he’d said he’d call or text the next day and hung up. I did not think the reporter would be interested in that sort of thing. It must have been past afternoon by the time I received the wrapped-up body. They suggested I head straight to the crematorium.
I made myself some filter coffee and came and sat down on the porch with the newspaper. A stray dog lay curled up outside the gate in the shadow of the house. I thought of feeding it some biscuits but couldn’t be bothered to get up and go to the kitchen. I flipped through the pages. There were the numbers as usual, and the graphs. I gave it a cursory glance. An opinion piece by a union minister claimed that we were a resilient nation and that we would overcome this temporary setback. I couldn’t make out if he was talking about the economy or the vaccination numbers or the oxygen shortfall. In any case we were just rounding the turn. It was only a minor blip in the otherwise unrestrained march of a forgetful nation.
Ajay Pisharody is a writer masquerading as a Project Manager in an IT firm and is based out of Pune. He writes fiction, primarily short stories, while toying with an idea for a novel. His book of short stories, titled The Weight of Days, has been published by Rupa Publications. Through his writings he attempts to reveal the literary in the ordinary. Themes of identity, memory and nostalgia recur in many of his works. He has been heavily influenced by writers like Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Milan Kundera and Indian writers like O V Vijayan and Jeet Thayil.