By Devraj Singh Kalsi
Her multiple complications turned worse around the time the first case came to light. During her last medical check-up, she was diagnosed with aggravated problems related to heart, liver, and gall bladder functioning. Hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and cataract left out as routine and manageable disorders. She heard the doctor warn her of fatal consequences if angioplasty was not done immediately. She chose to bypass it with a smirk that offended the doctor and he prescribed three new tests at his specified diagnostic centre to locate more illnesses residing within her.
Two months later, she heard the doctor had passed away. She was curious to know how his untimely end came. This is when she heard about COVID-19 for the first time. It sounded more like a prescription drug to her rather than a life-threatening infectious disease. When I simplified it with corona and explained what it was and how it was caused and transmitted, she grew interested in the pandemic, sneezed all of a sudden and asked: Can I get it? It was like —Am I eligible for it?
As the elderly folks with co-morbidity are at a higher risk, I urged her to practice social distancing. She did not get it, so I asked her to stay six feet away from people. She took this opportunity to cancel her scheduled blood pressure check-ups and blood sugar tests for a month.
She bombarded me with several questions. I searched online for the best answers to update her. From her facial expression she was not happy to learn that it came from China. Her xenophobic mind began to function. She blamed the Chinese for almost every evil in the world. She wanted to see a pangolin on my phone. After a proper look at the poor fellow looking cute and innocent, she said with regret: What else do you expect from people who eat snakes and dogs? She had no visible anger for bats or pangolins — only for the wet markets in China.
She began to create conspiracy stories with impossible plots and angles, and this assured me that my creative streak was most certainly derived from her. She was not any different from what others were thinking except the fact that she did not know anything about bio-weapons.
She took advantage of the fact that I was not born when China attacked India. She dramatized a few episodes. I had no option to verify. Since her emotional investment was evident from her expression, I chose not to interrupt her flow and nodded without conviction. Pakistan and China were the two countries she loved to bash indiscriminately whenever she got an opportunity or a person who harboured similar thoughts. Somehow, she had realised over the years that my intolerance for any nation had not peaked yet.
Every day, from morning to night, she pops fifteen pills. But today she decided to skip pills. Just like people skip meals for dieting. I did not know how to react. Should I administer those pills with a word of caution or just let her do what she wanted to do? It appeared she was confident heart attack was unlikely to be the cause of her death. She did what she wanted to do — flirt with death.
I told her to wear a mask for safety and she opened the window to see whether the lady in the adjacent house was wearing one. When she saw she was not wearing it at home, she refused to wear it. She kept the mask and said she would wear it when I entered her room after coming from the grocery store. To show she was taking some precaution, she agreed to keep the bottle of hand sanitizer with her.
Although I myself was not sure about many possible ways of its spread, I added them all for extra safety. I mentioned how it behaves on various surfaces, how many days it lives, how easily it kills. This deepened her worry. She wanted to know whether her relatives were safe. She called them up to find out.
Armed with the knowledge derived from me, she began to use words like pandemic and social distancing and repeated preventive tips. She observed behavioural change in her close relatives. Those who used to express the desire to meet her were quiet now. She sought umbrage because nobody had invited her. I told her that relatives will not entertain or invite guests for one year at least. She said most of these were fake invites and so there was no harm in extending them, just to make others feel good. I explained that people were unwilling to take any kind of risk. You never know which crackpot turns up with a burning desire to meet once trains start running on the tracks.
The virus shared many attributes with God. It was also invisible just like God. She kept reading the holy texts as usual. I told her she must realise death is not caused by God’s will. Even a virus can kill people and faith cannot save people from Corona virus. This posed a big challenge to her faith. She began looking for a line of defence: Tell me, who created this virus? It is also God’s creation.
For once, she did not blame China for creating it. Before I could ask her why she felt so, she asked me to repeat the symptoms. I told her the virus can live in the human body for 21 days or more without any symptom. Now she got really worried and scared. She wore the mask and abused the virus in filthy language without showing any mercy – much of it I did not hear and what I heard I cannot put down.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.