The Pandemic Under my Hot Tropical Sun
Note: This piece is inspired by the writer’s Covid experience in Bangladesh. However, much artistic license has been used. The piece should not be construed as perfect reportage or as a means to harm anyone’s reputation as the characters have been somewhat changed, and much of the views are coloured by her own experience.
Has Covid made us more human? Do the piles of bodies stacked in morgues and the numbers proclaiming nameless deaths added from peak to peak make us crave for love and hence forgive? We cannot come together, hug. We sit and we think. We get tired. We question, shout. Then we take pills. Those pills inundate our heads with tailored small molecules that clog the nerves, soothe us, make us forget. But can we?
Has nature, instead, then inserted itself inside our biological urge to survive in a vengeful sprinkle of inanimate bits that suddenly turn alive and eat us from the inner lines that separate our sovereign identities, force us into coughing out all the hatred – something akin to what we, together as a species, had perhaps been spreading with numb, dissociated pride into the keys, knobs and springs that connect us to our souls – the larger animus of existence?
Outside, I hear a female voice throwing expletives: This epidemic will eat you all. All of you I say. Hey doctor! Upstairs there. Where did you hide? Come out. My father is dead. You all will die.
I look out from my window. A lady in her early thirties peeks out from a neighboring verandah. She is well dressed and looks healthy. They had moved in a few days back. The houses are mostly empty these days – to-let signs hanging hopelessly from large mansions and once cluttered messes that accommodated the working class alike. Some cannot pay. Others preferred to move away from the city to be close to their beloved ones in case death beckoned.
This house still has the apartments to be sold lying empty – like ghostly opulence surrounded by neatly cut shrubs and fairy tale garden-lights sparkling at night. The builders made a mansion for the mites. The flats belonging to the owners have been let out. Perhaps the girl that came out is related to an owner. She tries to understand the neighborhood – the large ambulance with the flickering light and the scream – the havocs of Covid.
This curious lady’s own flat had not been quiet from the day they had moved in either. I had often pretended that I was not trying to locate the voices. This part of the town was posh, having been handed out to the white-collar successes in a planned manner. But the accent was rustic, unrestrained. The woman was shouting. She was not a whore but a wise woman was the claim. She also did not realize how love had waned with time. Once upon a time a maid like the one in question would not have raised her voice. But the beggars too do not care about the location now. They are not starving, but Covid had brought in a dimension one simply cannot ignore. The disease seems to empower them. A fear crawls in to the bones of the rich. The man from the slum screams. She wants a new dress for her daughter who just landed in the station. On the other hand, the pregnant maid wants her rights. She is NOT having an abortion, I reckon. Not so easily these days.
Outside, the ambulance light is still flashing. The dead body will not be allowed in. The doctor upstairs too is silent. He does not face up to the very serious accusations. Perhaps it is not fear but simple reluctance. No, he shall not come down to see the dead. He had asked the girl to take him to the hospital, asserting that the disease was Covid. The girl had requested him to put on a PPE and then come down, to ascertain the damning news. He did not. For days, the girl sat by the window and dropped money to the beggars. With time, only more beggars came. From early in the morning, they would begin to chant. She would give out hefty sums – bills no other would drop from their windows. The beggars would bring in their friends next. The girl would rush down to hand in mosquito nets, old clothes.
The story was finally out. We knew of all the details over the phone. When all patience was strained, the doctor in the fifth floor and the building association had dragged the Covid patient to the hospital. The plasma had made him better for a day. There was joy for a while. “He is better.” “Thank heavens.”
That respite was though short. Finally, he had succumbed to an age-old ailment that had remained suppressed until the new disease havocked his last defense. Was it covid of was it the heart?
I do not know how I feel for that girl. She wishes death for others. As she was paying the beggars most mercifully, she was also spending her evenings wishing others ill on facebook using thinly vailed synonyms, codes that did not confuse. One would be excused to wonder if she thought of herself as a princess and the rest mentioned as the devil or as dispensable dead cows as targets for her publicly expressed brilliantly dressed up schemes. “The royalty has common blood now,” she had exclaimed, “and that is me!” There were also comments about how amazing her relationships were sent with love from Romania.
Her mother did not let us know of the husband’s illness. She had asked the neighbor to hide it. When we had found it out from facebook we had thought of calling him up, to wish him well, but then we did not.
I felt nothing about the death, but my mother shrieked. The news was on the TV. It was one of many pictures displayed tagged with names and occupation. To me it was yet another death. To my mother, it was a man she knew, and even if not all the past was smooth, it was a character that was part of her mature existence, which now looked back with a gaping hole.
The dead body lying surrounded by one-way arrows of words chosen indiscriminately to hurt others was cold inside a bag, but the bugs we had not seen before had paid a visit to our flat two stories above-head. The flies were large, monstrous. They had gathered in a cluster right behind the curtains. They sat quietly and they stared as though they had escaped from yet another world. We got newspapers, a swatter, killed them one by one, as though we were trying to shrink down the portal that had opened up by the act of an irritable child, now to suck us all back in.
I was apathetic to the words that wished to drag down the world with one dead man. I let the days roll by as I sat in my room and passed MOOCS. I read about maggots in dead bodies in my forensic class, and from time to time I went to that filthy mouthed girl’s facebook page. I did not know whether it was to forget her pain, but she was listening to film music now. She had posted a picture of her father’s burial. Now she was attacking the journalist who should have published a better photo (and I agree). I felt sorry that day, but I did not ring, or even leave a note. I kept the sorrow to myself and I went back to my MOOC.
Then one day she posted a confession: that she had been blackmailed into facebook, to victimize others in hope of gaining. Afterwards, she was back, ridding the world of the devils. None was spared. We were all to perish with the world perhaps. Did she wish it all for herself? Would the beggars stay?
I had felt sadder for the doctor who owned a flat upstairs. We had a tiff. “He did not come to me first,” he had said when our father had a stroke and withered slowly. They had issues. But I remembered him in our home. My mother was seated on the sofa and he was comforting: “You will get well soon, madam. Not much to be worried of.” In reality, my mother had stage four cancer. She did not know the gravity of her symptoms. Neither did he. She had trouble walking. To us all, it was an accidental spinal compression, and he had checked the nerves meticulously.
I was angry about my father’s fate. But I did not expect him gone. “Sorry we could not save doctor,” a junior apprentice one day posted on facebook. I knew the girl. I felt a sudden surge of pain – it was sharp and unkind. The disease was cruel and ungrateful. The man was overseeing an ICU.
“He’s dead?” I had commented on facebook, shocked.
“Yes, we could not save him. We tried.”
I thought of all the patients who had Covid but hid their ailments, walked up to the doctors and pushed the disease into their purported saviors.
Inhuman! But then the doctors too were scared. Many of them. The hospitals would turn away the sick.
“Who will treat you if we are dead? Tell me? We want a certificate. Covid free,” they would claim. More than one of those patients died – getting carried from hospital to hospital, waiting for that piece of paper that marked them as safe.
Those were the early days of the disease – the uncertain bubbles filled with fear and panic – dead bodies popping up once or twice in the middle of the street – abandoned by those who feared for their own lives. Once we heard of a son deserting his mother. People chided in unison. Then they themselves left their homes for their livelihood, tucking the masks in their pockets.
The sea of people in the streets, on the public transports and running stores had first tiptoed outside their lockdown zone using alternate routes – as though Kings of forgotten eras had evaded the enemy attack through a secret passage. Now there was no lockdown, and they all had masks to show, though not in direct use.
Most of these people would not die. A newspaper claimed that seventy percent of the people in the slums had already had Covid. Their lack of apathy for the aggressive death comes from their own resilience. Their poverty had made a truce with germs and dusts. The body knew those well. So those people buzzled in the dust and went to work. The protected bourgeois peeking out from time to time, asking for help from the otherwise unfortunate lot got ambushed by the bugs. Those floated out in the breath – perhaps a curse to the world for the fate of long-time neglect.
We did not understand why bodies were stacked in the streets of South America, but the laborers of Bangladesh were so regally damning to the tiny strands that the mighty feared the most. But here they were, peddling goods in the streets, leaving the quickly made Covid unit empty. The rich man who had donated to make that very large tent for the ones who would need it in sickness was dead though – one of the first ones to die of the disease.
We do not understand this disease – its rage and its inclinations — where it finds a safe home – who it wishes to tear up into bites. Some take a chance and die. Some walk out apathetically and leave. Some others leave with maladies stuck to their guts – for days. even when the bug has left.
We fear most what we do not comprehend – the ones that kill us furtively, chaotically and indiscriminately.
I have holed myself up inside my room. There are frail ones I need to care for. For a long time, I watched streaming reels and then drew, and I made up characters to let my anger out for all the lemons life has presented to me. Now I feel no emotion. I just sit – frustrated, bored – waiting for something I cannot define. The wait is long and tiresome – at times giving rise to feelings that wish to embrace nihilism. I read about the brain – see pictures about the little flashes – the fears brought in by images in the deepest part of our inner selves.
The virus has taken away my anger against others. Perhaps we have indeed become the same. Perhaps I have just given up.
As I sit, I hear that little girl shout. She wishes the whole world dead. Yet, a few days later, when I hear about the dead doctor who was alive and well, breathing inside our home a year ago, I wish some one would pray, and I hope someone would remember.
No one in our apartment complex says much. They are afraid. Perhaps it is okay only to whisper the name of covid.
One day, though, our locked down gate is open. A man walks into the house to fix the pipes. A mask though is in place. The next day, someone re-orders his newspaper. They all would like they lives back – whether they live or die.
I still sit and wait. I cannot take the risk for the sake of others I love. In a small bubble of confinement, perhaps we can talk – say all the things we never did, reconcile – find how precious life had been all the years we let roll recklessly.THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS TAKEN BY GANESH DHAMODKAR. ATTRIBUTE AS GANESH DHAMODKAR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS..