Like the last time, this time too the lockdown is very strictly maintained in our apartment complex. Even the people who gathered around to play the Indian version of Ludo with the steel dice and stuff are now shutting down themselves at home looking at the severity of the second wave. Ours is one of those newly developing gated communities in the suburbs. To be more specific, the villages adjoining the Chennai border. Hence there is always a group of immigrant workers going about their construction work come what may. In the steady supply of construction labor, it is hard to even find one local language-speaking guy.
These laborers are paid daily. Hence they buy things daily. The newly mushroomed shops in the village try hard to cater to the needs of the apartment dwellers while fighting off competition from Swiggy Genie, Dunzo, and Bigbasket deliveries. The only people who give confirmed business are the migrant workers. They flock to the nearby grocery shop as soon as the salary is disbursed. They buy how much ever wheat required and kilos of tomatoes and onions and oil. They then buy toothpaste, hair oil, and other items. The predominantly Tamil-speaking shopkeeper and I-have-no-idea what you are saying consumer will take their sweet time to pack and pay for the items. The rough manner in which the customer asks often upsets the shopkeepers who have only come across the relatively soft customers from the village.
Also, the laborers come to the shop as a pack. If it is a shop managed by a single person, the shopkeeper is always worried about if anybody is stealing anything from them. But mostly, the laborers just take an item, see the price and keep it back if it is unaffordable. However it is not the practice for the shopkeeper and in the short time the laborers are in the shop, the shopkeepers’ blood pressure shoots through the roof and he has to take a twenty minutes smoke break to get over it. The laborers talk loudly, laugh loudly and sometimes even frighten the unsuspecting two-wheeler drivers with their laugh or comments. On the whole, they are unruly outsiders and native state people always keep a distance when they come back home with the vegetables and wheat.
Since the second wave started in India, there is a panic in this group of people. Their relatives are dying. Their friends often call them to ask for help, either financially or to find a bed for their ailing friends or relatives. There is no uproarious laughter these days. A quiet resignation as people walk to the shop in silence and come back. The regular amount of wheat sold in the shops had reduced, leaving the shopkeepers disappointed. The shopkeepers slowly try to build conversations. They draw lines in the air and mouth words to understand their suffering. At the end of the conversation which is more like shadow dancing or shadow boxing, the way you choose to look at it, they both end the conversation with a resigned silence. The network is shitty in our place. They try to talk to their family through WhatsApp video calls or audio. It is heartbreaking to see them run through fields with video buffering, desperate to find one bar of signal to have that one word with their loved ones.
One fine evening, one of the laborers bought a new set of powder tin, coconut oil to clean himself of the cement debris he had accumulated throughout the day. The shopkeeper is amused and asks what’s the reason. The labor replies that his mother is in an ambulance waiting for hospital admission in a small town in West Bengal. She asked to see him before something unfortunate happens. He didn’t want his mother to see him like that if that was the last time they speak. He washes his face in the nearby hand pump and runs searching for the signal when the call comes. The shopkeeper lowers the shutter and weeps for few minutes before he gathers himself and opens the shop again for his customers who come for onions, tomatoes, and wheat.
Murugan master is Kannan hotel’s valued master. There is no one in that state highway stretch to make parottas as he does. Originally from Madurai, he stayed in the backyard of the hotel, cleaned, changed in the thirty square feet space given to him, and slept in the dorm which was shared between other masters and the waiters. The hotel had separate masters for South Indian, North Indian, and Chinese dishes. He earned 500 rupees daily. He would ask me to transfer 4500 rupees to his wife every ten days and paid me in cash. I used to ask how does he manage the 500 rupees. He had his stay free, coffee expenses are taken care of, and has food for free at the end of the day. He buys some beedis in the fifty rupees that are left. The masters are not allowed to go shopping or buy things without supervision. The proprietor of Kannan hotel is always in fear that his masters would run away and join a better-paying kitchen.
When the lockdown was announced, Kannan hotel was unprepared for it. It had so much going on. But Murugan master was happy. He finally found a person who got the ticket to Madurai in an Omnibus. The ticket cost him ten days’ salary but that was okay. He was finally going to be with his family. He hadn’t seen his granddaughter in a while. His daughter was divorced and has come home and he wasn’t there for her when she needed it. Right before he could vacate his dorm, his wife and daughter called.
They didn’t see a point of him returning to the native. He could see and talk to the granddaughter through video calls, they felt. But he needed to work and send home the money. They asked him to stay back and cancel the bus ticket. Murugan master lost his last ten day’s salary and didn’t know what he was to do for the next fourteen days.
Murugan master and Safa master from West Bengal stay in the same backyard, cook for each other and never come out fearing getting infected thereby letting their family suffer.
Shiva hasn’t opened his door for three days now. He knew it was dawn outside when the daily newspaper being slipped below the door. He would then spray some disinfectant on it and let it be for a while as he brushed and finished his morning ablutions. He didn’t sleep the previous night as he found two more nice thriller movies on Netflix and amazon prime. He hasn’t slept for a week, ever since the cases started going up and the shortages of bed and oxygen sounded alarm bells in social media. He knew every detail, every phone number, every urgent care number by heart and has it on speed dial. He had commented on almost all the doctor’s thread on Twitter gathering more information in case of contracting the virus.
He studied everything about the vaccines and is now an expert in mRNA and other types of vaccines that are getting ready for production to stop the spread of the virus. However, he was one of the unlucky few not to get a slot for vaccination. He tried everything from email alerts to WhatsApp alerts. He is simply not the fastest person around. The power outages have begun and his cell phone reception is not great to connect to the internet. Even when he is nervous that he is not getting vaccinated, he calmed himself thinking with enough people vaccinated in the city, there is a chance to be safer. But something deep inside his heart refuses to believe it. He knew the exact percentage of the efficacy of the first dose of any given vaccine. He knew how long since the first does, the immunity will be ready to fight the virus. Sadly none of these details are reassuring.
He opened the paper with his latex-gloved hands and started reading about the number of cases reported, the number of deaths per day, and the number of corpses floated in the biggest and holiest of the rivers of the country. When he got up to make the immunity-boosting drink for himself, the calling bell rang. Shiva opened the cupboard, wore a new N95 mask and then a surgical mask over it, and walked to the door and saw through the peephole. He couldn’t see anybody. He opened the door anyway to find the pretty little Sahana, his next-door neighbor standing with a piece of cake in hand.
“Uncle, today is my happy birthday,” she chirped.
Shiva asked her to keep the plate down and step back two steps. Took the cake alone, wished her, and asked her to wear a mask when she comes out.
He looked at the cake wistfully. He wasn’t sure how many hands it changed before it came to him. He threw the cake into the dustbin. A pounding headache just started.