Scott Thomas Outlar lives and writes in the suburbs outside of Atlanta, Georgia. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He guest-edited the 2019 and 2020 Western Voices editions of Setu Mag. Selections of his poetry have been translated into Afrikaans, Albanian, Bengali, Dutch, French, Italian, Kurdish, Persian, Serbian, and Spanish. His sixth book, Of Sand and Sugar, was released in 2019. His podcast, Songs of Selah, airs weekly on 17Numa Radio and features interviews with contemporary poets, artists, musicians, and health advocates. More about Outlar’s work can be found at 17Numa.com.
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Satish never thought that one day he would become a character from The Plague.
He had enjoyed Camus and the pop Hollywood films on disaster and pestilence but soon lost interest.
Content produced for the core buffs thrilled by a grim future: catastrophes destroying civilisations; the bleak sci-fi talk of the mid-space interstellar collisions; meteorites decimating populations; apes or aliens taking over as masters — invasions of another kind, unpredictable, unseen events with tragic consequences. An Earth endangered. And a hero, as the last survivor of a devastation, impossible in real time, at least for him.
A big turn-off.
Yet, deep down, the end-of-the-world scenarios— extreme climate change; humans-turned- zombies; androids, apes running the world—exercised a morbid fascination also.
Was it a possibility?
Yes. Floods. Famines. Smog. Pollution. Melting ice. Pessimistic news that could no longer be denied.
One thing he could not escape was this terrible condition — the unseen fate of being overwhelmed by a tragedy of epic scales. Once it began to unravel without a warning, it could leave the planet paralysed.
Apart from terror and racial violence, disease and virus have emerged as new existential threats.
Pandemics could make the master race vulnerable, despite advancements of science and tech.
Naturally such disasters fascinated and repelled the mind.
Now arrives COVID-19.
His Mumbai apartment — his entire universe, post-work, shrank down to a cluttered space of 650 square feet. A mere glass cage, suspended in air; the Eastern Express Highway and an arching flyover, few kilometres away, as the bustling backcloth, signs of a busy mega city that never sleeps, a manic Mumbai in over drive — currently, it was in the quiet of a tough quarantine.
A state he never imagined could happen to him or the dream city.
But it was happening, like a nightmare, unspooling like a pestilential movie from Hollywood.
Fantasy becoming real!
He was both horrified and terrified.
Satish had never seen such a scene — a city of millions in lockdown.
Plague was an actuality.
And he was stuck inside his rented apartment, like a fluttering insect in a glass jar.
From the glass-window, he stared at the deserted highway. Half-an-hour later, he was watching the opposite tower, from the balcony, where families leant out or sat in view of the windows, bored to death by the lack of activity and movement.
It was lockdown.
Nothing could ground the wheels of a community like fear.
Mumbai had come to a standstill– like India — first time in history for this length of time.
He was in self-isolation.
For 21 days!
The Plague and Hollywood look convincing, plausible—almost prophetic.
Sometimes art points out the way and correctly maps responses, individual and collective, to a gigantic apocalypse.
I plan to read Camus again and watch pestilence-themed Hollywood flicks.
Satish wrote in his journal.
Some genius suggested in one of the WhatsApp groups, to blog, vlog or write in a diary, one’s innermost thoughts, ideas, fears, joys of living in the vice-like grip of corona virus: “Better try the diary, friends! Write in a neat hand the trials and tribulations of getting quarantined in your own home! Diary writing is a vanished art now! Revive it. Pour out your thoughts, stories, moods, views there. Call it the ‘Jottings of a plague journal’. Or any other name. The important thing is an account of the days and hours spent inside a home turned restricted space, sanctuary, fort or cell—whatever—where an inner or outer transformation takes place. Be creative!”
The idea sounded good.
The only modification: He created an online diary.
He had never felt this limited, immobilized!
For twenty-one days, you were asked to stay inside.
There were rumors galore.
Suddenly, the virus had become global obsession.
Catch-22: If you went out, you would get caught by the cops or the virus or both; if you stayed indoors, you stayed safe. But there was an uncomfortable sense of suffocation within the walls.
He wanted to rush out into the open.
Such moments were terrible!
A sense of claustrophobia and an urge to go to the garden in order to gulp fresh air, reclaim the empty streets, to run and shout from the intersection; talk to the trees and birds — activities never thought of as desirable for a 32-year-old business executive with a travel agency in the Fort area haunted his being.
Creativity offered liberation.
These can set you free and make you wander unknown realms!
Satish jotted down his fleeting ideas in the journal, sometimes in italics. Earlier, he had maintained a diary, writing down his feelings as he could not share the pain and sadness of being a shy and poor teenager in a small town. There were things he could not trust with his two close friends.
That is the power of the word.
Life caught on and Satish had forgotten his diary.
Writing had given him an outlet.
He was reminded of the packed guitar.
I will play the guitar.
He jotted down.
Given with this message: “You wanted to play the guitar. A sister’s humble gift to a younger brother. Love from Boston!” He had cried the whole night.
He took out the Hawaiian guitar, unpacked it and felt nostalgic.
A home in Ghaziabad. A widow gave tuitions and raised two children.
The sister worked part time and excelled academically. Later on, she went to America on H-IB visa. She sent money to her mama regularly from Boston where she eventually married an Irishman.
Few years later, Satish too joined the agency and moved to Mumbai.
The sacrifices of the mother and sister!
I will write to mother. Request her to come down here.
It all started on Saturday, April 4.
It began like the previous day — ordinary and dull.
At 8.30 am, the boss sent a note: “Temporary staff terminated. More heads to roll soon. Recession takes its toll.”
He panicked. What would happen, if I he got fired?
“Wait and watch,” said the boss.
Satish was on the edge of an abyss.
“First time I felt vulnerable. Uncertain future. I now understand the pain of the downsized whom earlier I dismissed as incompetent and poor performers.”
Call from a co-worker. She was tearful: “How should I cope? They fired a lot of people. My husband is already out of job. Two kids. Old mother-in-law in need of medical attention. What should we do?” And more weeping.
“Please, Janet. We are with you. You need anything, let me know. I have saved some money. I can spare something.”
“No, dear brother! Thanks…” Her voice trails off.
And the call gets disconnected
Moved, Satish writes:
Hope! It sustains the humankind in crises.
It was a revelation. God exists.
I see the flight of storks, parrots, pigeons, sparrows and crows. And a regal kingfisher.
The birds chirp.
And the song of a nightingale wafts on a fresh breeze from across the salt pens and few wetlands, at the back of the building.
I am hearing these natural sounds in a metro centre — after years.
Sheer delight, this heavenly symphony, confirms the presence of God again for me.
…I want to fly freely in the space, like the birds!
How precious this freedom!
Give me wings, God, please!
I want to fly.
The maid cannot come. I have to cook meals for the day.
Now I understand the value of home-cooked meals made by the women of family.
Sakshi is at her maternal home. Must thank her for her daily loving meals that I often did not appreciate. As I have to cook daily, I, now, appreciate the value of her cooking and caring.
Resolution: I will write a thank-you note to mama, sister and Sakshi tonight.
Urgent: I must check with the domestic help, if she needs money.
Is she getting her daily meals during the lockdown?
No response from the help.
God protect her and her family!
What about Chottu? Is he safe? Is he getting meals daily, this young boy from Bihar?
When Sakshi is not here, I go to this street-side cart where Chottu serves hot and sugary ginger-tea in little glasses. He always has a sweet smile, this frail kid with a mop of curly hair. Clad in the brown half pants and a yellow oversized T, bare feet, flitting between the customers and stall owner-cum-tea maker; washing the glasses quickly and then going to the shops nearby for the delivering the orders — it is like a one-boy show.
Everybody calls him Chottu. And loves his golden smile. Some regular patrons sometimes give him small tips. In the night, the boy sleeps in the hand cart only.
I must find out.
And Kaul Saab!
The elderly Kashmiri uncle, two floors above. Kind. Soft-spoken.
Once Sakshi had slipped down in the courtyard of the building, Kaul uncle immediately took her to the doctor in his car—and back.
Evening, he brought fruits to “my daughter Sakshi and son Satish. Anything you guys need, let me know. The retired person will be happy to be of some help.”
We both had felt indebted to this tall and gracious widower living alone in the teeming city.
Afterwards, we occasionally met in the elevator or the lobby and exchange few words.
How is he managing without his domestic help?
I will check with him also on phone, in case he needs something.
Got both on the phone!
Chottu was delighted and asked again, “Saab, you sure paying for my meals through the food- delivery app?”
“Yes, son. Sure.”
Kaul uncle was also happy. “Daily meals? Wow! Not tech savvy, though. Cannot handle these basic apps. Much appreciated! I will pay in cash.”
“No, Uncle! Let your son pay.”
“Thanks again for remembering your old uncle.”
I have this strange experience:
…I am getting lighter. The sky invites. Birds beckon. The sky is blue and beautiful. There is no smog. The air is intoxicating. I pray to God: I want to soar bird-like in the divine vault and savour the freedom of a vast expanse. Please, God!
And, suddenly, I get smaller, fly out of the window, grow instant wings, begin exploring the heavens, a man-bird in reality.
Up in the air.
The sun winks.
The clouds kiss my flushed cheeks
The birds include me in their joyous flights. I circle with them and describe patterns in the sky, like an expert.
I continue to soar above a city made better by the sights of strays being fed by solitary men; migrant workers being given rations or meals twice every day; cops served with tea and water bottles; the medical professionals presented with flowers — new unsung heroes and heroines — by strangers; trees and flowers grow fast; rivers cleaner; streets quieter; visibility increased: stars appear clearly before my startled eyes.
It is sheer magic!
This post-industrial world unseen, thanks to Corona, opening up, as a dream.
And me — flying and inhaling the fresh wind, so invigorating — over this altered landscape, freely, joyfully; I first time understand the meaning of life, positive living, despite the pandemic, COVID-19, the lockdown, the huge threat of infection and confinement.
The virus has completely destroyed the arrogance of humans as a master race.
Nature is taking back control. And giving lessons.
I keep on flying in my new avatar.
The towers and the city gleam beneath my gossamer wings and a full heart.
The network of twisted roads, almost empty of traffic.
No pollutants to sting skin or eyes.
Birds hop on the asphalt!
As I soar higher, I see the creatures out in the alleys and the highways, people reaching out, in a grand gesture, to those in need, like in a big community.
Free of earthly bonds, at last!
I fly lighter and higher into another realm of evolved consciousness, reality.
Ecstatic, I become one with the elements, in an odd transformation, in time of a pandemic…
Incredible! Is it not?
Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html For more details of publications, please visit the link below: http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/