Going ‘viral’ in the time of Corona virus

My quarantine diary (20th May to 2nd June, 2020)

Day 1–  My fourteen days in solitude begin in a hotel room in the heart of the city of Thiruvananthapuram. There is an arresting view from my window. A large shady tree with it’s green branches waving gently in the breeze, a swimming pool which has seen no recent swimmers and on my extreme right is a bustling city road teeming with vehicles as if there never was anything like a lockdown. 

My elderly aunt calls me up and tells me about this strange conversation she had while sitting alone in her verandah. 

Dear God, please don’t let me die of Corona virus. 

Then almost as if it was a voice speaking from within her head, she gets a reply from God. 

My dear child, then how do you wish to die? 

My aunt is quite startled as she never expected a response. The benevolent voice continues to speak.

Would you fancy a road traffic accident?

My aunt thinks of the spectacle unfolding before her eyes. Of blood and gore and cracking bones. 

No, no, never, she replies

Then a heart attack might interest you, perhaps? 

Searing chest pain, an ambulance ride across our terrible roads, the steady beep inside an impersonal ICU.

No, no , no!

Then would you prefer cancer, the emperor of all maladies? 

Endless cycles of chemotherapy. Hair on my pillow. 

She swallows nervously. Please, God, no.

Drowning? Fire? Murder?

No, never. I can’t even think of it. 

She can almost hear a chuckle as the gentle voice asks her , once again.

Then how do you wish to die, my dear child? 

She ponders over it and gives her answer.

In the home I built, in the bed I lie, in my sleep, with a smile on my face. 

I then think of the largest migration of human lives happening in our land since Partition. Tired men with a raging fire in their bellies, exhausted to the bone mothers, hapless children sleeping on suitcases… and I cry for a while. This heart wrenching trudge across highways and dusty bylanes and railroad tracks with broken slippers and blisters on heels is for the same aching desire. If one has to die, one wants to go home and die. With one’s dignity intact.

Day 2. I write a blog titled, ‘My journey to the best Covid controlled state in the world’. I need to pen down my journey from London to Trivandrum so that others trying to return home know what to expect. Within minutes of posting my blog on Facebook, there is a buzz. I spend the rest of the day happily replying to comments and acknowledging shares.

A few hours later, I get this warning notification from my blog. 

I wryly smile to myself. I am going ‘viral’ in the time of the Corona virus. 

Days 3 and 4 are spent in a daze. My short term fame has left me with barely enough time to even grab a bite. Phonecalls start pouring in from forgotten acquaintances, long lost friends and distant family. A journalist from the newsminute contacts me and asks if they can publish my blog. My co-passengers in the flight put up in another hotel read the article and reach out to me via my blog post and then my Facebook page. The girl with film starry good looks in the room next door texts me saying, ‘I didn’t know I was quarantining with a celebrity,’ and I can’t stop grinning. Stranded travelers from all over the world… Switzerland, London, Germany, France, Glasgow… start messaging and calling me via Facebook messenger. I am starting to feel a bit sympathetic to our celebrities now. Inganeyokke aanalle? (This is how it is, eh?)

Somewhere in the midst of this whirlwind, actor Prithviraj returns from Jordan where he was shooting for Aadujeevitham and checks in to the Old Harbour hotel in Kochi for his institutional quarantine. And nobody notices him much.

After reading my blog, a complete stranger messages me to ask whether I am the daughter of so-and-so. I reply in the affirmative wondering how on earth could he have guessed. He tells me that he was our neighbour in Kollam (We lived there in 1979-1980, soon after I was born) and he has carried me as a little baby. After we left Kollam, our families had completely lost touch. I give his number to my father and mother and they joyfully catch up over the phone. Old friends and neighbours from forty years ago. 

Messages from strangers continue pouring in. I get a congratulatory message from an unknown number on my Whatsapp. I mechanically reply back, ‘Thank you for your kind words. Are you based in Trivandrum?’ I can sense a startled silence when the two blue ticks light up. I look at his profile picture again. I’m frozen in shock. This is my colleague at work. Someone I talk to on a daily basis over the landline in my department to discuss cases. He replies back with a winking smiley. ‘Ma’am, this is me.’ I scramble to text back an apology. ‘I’m really very sorry. I didn’t have my spectacles on!’ 

Day 5. The excitement over my blog finally cools down. My blink-and-you-miss-it moment of glory has passed. My 5-year old is busily keeping track of the days left. On day 3 her grandmother had got her a packet of 10 laddoos with the caveat – only one to be eaten per day. She tells her grandmother that by the time she finishes this packet of laddoos, there will be just one day left to meet Amma. 

A new development has left me in a tizzy. The breaking news is that there are new guidelines issued by the Central govt. Now after 7 days institutional quarantine we are allowed 7 days home quarantine. The doctor in charge calls to tell me the good news. He also informs me that on Day 8, before going home we will have to undergo a nasal swab test which will be sent for RT-PCR, the results of which will be known in 48 hours. If it’s negative, we complete the stipulated 7 days at home. In case it’s positive our home quarantine will be extended and only after a repeat test is negative, we will be allowed to end our quarantine.

My neighbour has my housekey, so I call up my maid and arrange with her to come and clean up my house, grind some dosa-maavu, scrape some coconut and keep in the freezer. I request a close friend to get me essential grocery items and keep it at my home so that I can manage my food once I reach an empty home. My dear aunt tells me that she will be dropping in with some home-cooked food and placing it in the refrigerator before I come. 

I communicate this good news to my two co-passengers who are staying in another hotel, a retired teacher and an elderly doctor. They tell me that the doctor in charge of them hasn’t got any such intimation. I console them and tell them to be patient. The health system is stretched beyond capacity. So it might take time for things to get communicated.

Day 6. My co-passengers still haven’t got any information from their doctor. They are senior people and the solitude of a lonely room is starting to get to them. ‘This feels like a prison’, the elderly doctor tells me and I start worrying about him. The retired teacher tells me that she is restlessly pacing up and down the room like a caged animal. I text my doctor in charge and he tells me that though the Centre has given the order, the State has yet to issue the same. They text their doctor in turn and she is less reassuring. ‘There might be a delay of a few days before the State comes out with the order.’ They both are really upset now. I start a Whatsapp group so that I can update them about any new developments. I name the group ‘Prison- break’ and add them and the girl next door.

Day 7. There is still no clarity if we can go home or not. We are informed that we will be taken to the GH (General Hospital) in an ambulance the next morning for a swab test for RT-PCR. The mounting anxiety of my elderly co-passengers is palpable now. It affects me too and in that gloomy mood I fumbled and spilled some curry on the floor. Cleaning it all up is not easy as there isn’t anything I can use in the room for that. 

When I’m in the middle of mopping the floor using newspapers a friend calls up to offer condolences for my incarceration.

‘It must be so lonely, to be confined to one room like that.’ 

I wax eloquent about how I have never felt happier. A nice comfortable room, meals at my door, with enough time to read and no one to bother me. By the time I’m done she is the one needing condolences. Her maid hasn’t come in ages and this strange situation with every family member at home together is driving her up the wall. She ends the call with a sigh. ‘I wish I could be holed up in a hotel room somewhere with no care in the world.’

I’m reminded of these lines from The adventures of Tom Sawyer. “He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

Day 8. Ambulance rides are my preferred mode of transport now. We are off to the GH to get our nasal swab tests done. Release to home quarantine continues to be shrouded in a web of mystery. 

At the GH, all the medical personnel are wearing PPE and carrying on with their tasks. I shudder thinking of how uncomfortable it would be to wear that in this non-air conditioned environment. Donning it is no easy task. Then remaining without food and water until you get out of it is another issue. And to top it, there is the stifling humidity. I am quite certain that in the post-pandemic era there will be not be many medical school aspirants. 

The nasal swab test is a breeze. Just a mild discomfort for a few seconds and we are done. This is followed by a tedious three-hour wait for the ambulance and once we get back to the hotel we are told that we can go home. My co-passengers in ‘Prison-break’ jubilantly text to say that they are also free to go home. After 7 days of hotel room quarantine, home quarantine is going to be child’s play. 

As I wait in my room for the paperwork to be done, I text a friend who is presently in home quarantine. He tells me that the folks you need to watch out for are your neighbours. They practice true ‘social distancing’ and not ‘physical distancing’, which is actually only what is required. Social shunning is a real thing and it’s happening all around us. I tell him my neighbours are sensible and kind. He warns me to be careful and to make sure I collect my quarantine certificate from my nearest Primary Heath Centre at the end of my quarantine and carry it with me at all times. He tells me this incident about a lady who had called the police and complained about a guy breaking quarantine, when in fact the poor chap had stepped out after genuinely completing his quarantine. 

A private taxi with all the precautionary measures in place is arranged. There are now five more laddoos plus one day to go before I can meet my girls. But I know these days will fly, because now I am finally going home. I text my neighbour to leave my housekey on my door. She excitedly asks me if I will be returning home in an ambulance. I smile thinking what a dramatic entry that would have been. As my taxi draws into my lane, I see my neighbours excitedly waving out to me from the verandah of their house. I wave back, drag my luggage inside, shut the door and burst into tears of relief. My neighbours are simply too nice. They truly believe in the Christian principle of  ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’

My journey to the best Covid controlled state in the world.

I travelled in the London-Kochi-Vijayawada flight in phase 2 of the #VandeBharatMission on May 19th,2020. I’m grateful to @airindian and @HCI_London for making this happen. I’m just sharing the chronology of events so that those who are planning to travel by air back to India, know what to expect.

April 28. I register at the norkaroots.org site of the Kerala govt and my number is 2 lac plus. 

May 1. I have registered with the Indian High Commission, London by filling a google document on their site. 

May 7.  I sit back and watch the Asianet TV news coverage of the returning pravaasi’s (expatriates). They are covering it with the breathless ball-by-ball momentum of an Indo-Pak final in Sharjah. Based on this I have now come to a few spot decisions as how to face my moment in the sun. 

1. I need a matching mask . 

2. I have to get my crooked eyebrows back in shape.

3. As I get off the flight should I wave grandiloquently like ‘Amma’ or show the ‘V’ sign? Decisions … decisions… 

4. I must somehow try to plug my novel.

5. I might do a little drama like leap off the flight and kiss the earth. When I tell this to a friend, he tells me that I must also consider doing a front roll from the last step of the ladder onto the tarmac and leap-frog into the waiting bus. That will earn me a sure place in the news. Further, I would be the first pathologist to do it. 

May 13.  I get an e-mail from the Indian High Commission  asking for my willingness to travel in the London-Kochi flight on May 19. If willing I have to reply back ‘yes’ and wait for Air India to call me. I am instructed to not attempt trying to contact Air India. They will contact me 48/72 hours before the flight. I dash off my reply. As priority is for elderly, pregnant, sick or children, I realise I may not make it to the shortlist. Meanwhile I’ve booked my train ticket to reach London on May 18 and hotel stay too. 

May 14. I get a call from Indian High Commission verifying my travel willingness. So this is happening ! I just might make it to the shortlist. 

May 15. I wake up to a text from my neighbour in Trivandrum.

Did you inform the local police station before going?”.

I rub my eyes in disbelief and try to quell the rising panic. Of course I hadn’t. Did some thieves try to break in now?

 I text back a “No, why?” and wait for her reply.

In the meantime I wonder if our house has been robbed. The hubby as usual is cool as a cucumber. He says, “What are they going to steal if they enter the house? The TV is old. So is the fridge. The washing machine is on it’s last legs. The only thing of real value there is our Italian washbasin and rain shower head.” I am a trifle relieved now. It would be difficult to displace that washbasin. And surely, the thieves wouldn’t be interested in my Tintin comics collection, my 6000 piece framed jigsaw puzzle, or my little one’s Kinderjoy toy collectibles. Their lives would be in peril if they dare touched the last mentioned item. For my determined 5 year old would hunt them down from the edges of the earth if even one went missing.

Minutes later, my neighbour’s reply comes. “I had gone to the police station to take a car pass to Tiruvalla when they asked whose car is parked in your driveway – because we KNOW the doctor is in UK. I explained it’s my car and I have parked it there with your permission. So did you tell them you were going to UK before you went?”

I puzzle over that and then I realize that when I registered with norkaroots.org I had given my home address so probably they did come and check my residence to see if it’s an unoccupied house.

(So maybe they might allow home quarantine. But I’m not hoping too much because the rules state mandatory official quarantine. Only option is free quarantine in a government facility or paid quarantine in a hotel.)

It is a small thing but it shows how well oiled our State machinery is. Taking care of even the smallest detail. 

I check the norkaroots.org website and find a list of hotels in each district earmarked for official quarantine with details of the rates. I contact Mascot hotel and get an email confirmation of a room there for 2 weeks.Payment to be done later.

May 16. I’m still waiting for that call. I abandon all reason and my whole day is spent in trying to contact Air India via their Twitter page and customer care numbers. I end up feeling a bit like a fox running in circles trying to catch it’s tail. As I fidget impatiently , I glance at my impressive collection of hand sanitizers and alcohol wipes. Enough to do Lady Macbeth proud. 

I am now literally hanging onto my phone for that call from Air India. I can hear my phone ringing even when it isn’t ! Tinnitus? An imaginary bell ringing in my head? I need to get a grip on myself. 

May 17 , UK time 1:30 pm – Exactly 48 hours more until the flight.With a heavy heart I start texting my elder daughter – I don’t think I will be shortlisted... and that’s when my phone rings. It’s a call from Air India. I happily do the checks to confirm it’s genuinely Air India ( by asking them to tell me some of my details as instructed in the email ) and pay for my ticket. 596 pounds for an economy ticket. 1605 pounds for business class. The ticket comes to my e-mail. Simultaneously I get a pass via email from the Indian High Commission enabling me to travel to London. An hour later I get a call from the Indian High Commission to check if Air India has contacted me. Amazing when you come to think of it. They must be doing this not just for me, but for each passenger in the Vande Bharat mission.

May 18. I’m on my way to London. Deserted platforms, empty compartments and ghost trains… it’s a surreal experience . I alight at London Euston station. 5 instead of 500 alight from the train.

May 19 I reach  London Heathrow airport earlier than 3 hours, but there already is a long queue.

All of us are with masks and gloves. I take this pic to send to my two daughters who are waiting for me and in an impulsive moment dash off this pic of mine on Facebook with the caption- ‘Coming soon…The Mummy returns‘. The Tamil translation is funnier. ‘Ammachi thirumbi vantaach.’

We are given a form to fill. Check in and security check happens as usual. Before boarding there is a temperature check done and a seal placed on our pass. Boarding starts finally. The flight personnel are in full PPE gear. On each seat there are two snack boxes and a packet with face shield, mask and hand sanitizer sachets.

There is no inflight entertainment. Makes sense because then how would they sanitize the earphones? I have come adequately prepared with my headphones and a movie downloaded on my mobile. The flight is full. There are no empty seats. And after a slight delay of 1 hour 45 minutes we take off. Throughout this 11 hour flight  there is a lot of air turbulence, so restroom trips are restricted. Sleep completely eludes me. I’m certain we will get sucked into the eye of a cyclone.

May 20, 3 am , we reach Mumbai. Those headed for Vijayawada are asked to disembark and Kochi passengers remain seated. I doze off at this point. 

May 20 7:12 am As we touch Kochi, unbidden tears prick my eyes. As we step out we are greeted by men in PPE suits squirting handwash into our hands as we stagger out of the flight. Kochi international airport is spotlessly clean and everything is perfectly well coordinated. I start to feel a bit sorry for the men in PPE. It can’t be easy wearing all that in our hot weather and still being so cheerful and kind. To my disappointment there are no TV cameras anywhere. All that make-up for nothing !

The baggage collect takes long as we have to maintain social distancing now which is a bit of a pain considering there was none in that packed flight. It arrives all wet and smelling of a bleach solution.

I have already downloaded the Arogya Setu app. But as I’ve misplaced my SIM card I can’t register on it. I explain that I’ve applied for a duplicate SIM with the help of a friend and will get it only once I reach Trivandrum so I ask if I can buy a new SIM here. But none of the mobile counters are open at the airport so he tells me I can register with my own SIM once I reach Trivandrum.

We are made to fill another form with the usual health related questions. No one on this flight is symptomatic so no one is sent to a Covid centre.

The crux of the matter is this – Are you elderly (>75 years), pregnant, a kid (<10 years), handicapped or sick? Private taxis to take you to your district and option of home quarantine is strictly allowed only for people who fall in this category.

I’m a bit puzzled at why I cannot get a private taxi at extra cost , but later I learn that the number of private taxis are limited because the strict guidelines state that each taxi driver has to go into 14 days quarantine after dropping the passenger to his destination ! It is simply stunning how every possible loophole has been taken care of by the state government.

I’m directed to a fleet of KSRTC buses which are numbered as per district.We are each given a food packet which consists of two buns and one litre water. I’m told to direct my queries regarding my quarantine location to the health officer in charge at Trivandrum.

The steps of the bus are high and it is not easy to haul my luggage up. The seats are narrow so our heavy suitcases can only be kept in the passageway. The front few seats are cordoned off with a rope so that the drivers are at a safe distance from us. There is a 72 year old lady on the same bus with me. There is nobody to help other than our co-passengers. Once our bags are in we clamber over the suitcases and leap-frog jump into our seats. We make the 72 year old lady sit towards the front so she is spared the acrobatics.

The bus finally gets to a rattling start at 10:30 am. There are no stops for food or toilet. It stops to report at at multiple police stations on the way. For some of the stretches there is a Kerala police jeep tailing us. The 72 year old lady asks me why is the police jeep following us? In my most reassuring voice I tell her from across the sea of suitcases between us that it’s probably to check if anyone of us suddenly develop an urge to escape. She gets the joke and flashes me a toothy smile in return.

The bus drivers aren’t forthcoming about where we are headed. Finally at 5 pm our bus rattles to a stop in the compound of the Jubilee mission animation centre near Raj Bhavan. We slowly get out hauling our bags. There are plenty of people waiting with gloves and masks but no help is forthcoming. Our luggage receives a second bleach spray. I talk to the health officer in charge and explain that I have an unoccupied house , but to my disappointment he says that it’s not allowed. We only have the option of free quarantine at this centre or paid quarantine at the hotels listed on the norkaroots.org website. The 72 year old lady asks if she can see the room and then decide if it’s ok or not for her but that request is declined, because once we enter we can’t be let out. It’s like Hotel California. Stepping in and out of a room would mean them having to disinfect it all over again. The 72 year old lady decides on the free quarantine. I think she is too exhausted at this point.

Most of us decide on hotel quarantine. The health officer tells us that as per the rules we can be sent to our respective hotels only in an ambulance escorted by men in PPE. As only 3 or 4 of us can squeeze into one ambulance with our big bags, I end up waiting with 3 others in the last lot. We are exhausted and hungry. Only water is offered to us here. My friend arrives at the quarantine centre in an auto rickshaw with my duplicate SIM card. She is a facebook friend whom I’m meeting for the first time. We have been online friends for years, share a mutual love for books and also live closeby but we never got down to meeting up with each other. She hands over the duplicate sim by placing it at a distance and along with it is a surprise gift. A copy of Salim Anees’s ‘Fly Hasina Fly’. In the most tiring day of my life this act of kindness is overwhelming.

It is 6:30 pm now and one of the senior ladies with me insists that they open up a toilet for us. So one of the rooms is opened up and we are allowed to use it. She then tells him she is a diabetic and if she doesn’t get anything she might just faint. Four bananas miraculously spring out of somewhere and now we are happy. At 7:00 pm our ambulance arrives and the health officers look more relieved than us, to bid us farewell.

At Mascot hotel, we are welcomed with a bleach spray on our bags (third one in the day!) and our shoes too. After a temperature check, I am assigned my room. The lift we use is also separate. I am given a doctors number to store on my mobile. I can contact him anytime during my 14 day quarantine if I develop any symptoms or have any health concerns.

My room is beautiful and spacious. In the bathroom, instead of toiletries I find 2 bottles of phenol, a germi-check soap, some dishwashing liquid and a washing soap bar. I’m too tired to ask for toiletries so I take a bath with the germi-check soap. When i come out, I get a phone from reception saying my food is placed outside. I open the door to find two sealed packets placed on a table outside. I realize that the plates are provided in the room. I have to wash them myself and place the food waste in a disposable bag outside. We aren’t allowed to leave the room at any cost. There are cameras placed in the corridor to catch us lest we feel tempted to make a dash for it.

I fall into a deep, exhausted sleep into the inviting bed. The next day I sort out the nitty gritties of the menu and get my supply of toiletries. I feel like a VIP as I get calls from the Museum police station as well as the Medical college police station.

The days stretch before me with nothing much to do other than stare out of my window at the canopy of trees outside. My 12 year old is happy I’m back in town. My 5 year old daughter is counting the days remaining on her calendar. Thanks to her grandparents she has now a good grasp of subtraction, to calculate UK time corresponding to Indian time and has a clear idea of months and dates on the calendar much ahead of her years.

I thought of writing about this so that those who are planning to travel know what to expect and can be better prepared. Also a peek into how the best Covid controlled state in the world goes about doing it’s job with ruthless efficiency.

Lord of the flies – revisited

I got my copy of the ‘Lord of the flies‘ under the strangest of circumstances. This was sometime during my 6th or 7th standard when we were in Raipur. At that time I was this kid who was perennially hungry for books. We didn’t even have a good public library in town. And I had finished reading all the books in our small school library.

Then one day, like a dream come true, I got a big trunk full of books.

One of my father’s colleagues, a bespectacled gentleman who looked the splitting image of Kumble the cricketer, came home with it. He had recently got married and in a cleaning spree his wife had demanded that either all his books be disposed off or they immediately shift to a bigger house to store them. He argued and begged for days on end. My father tried to play mediator. But the lady refused to budge. Finally, he decided to give in. It would be too heartbreaking to give them to a raddiwala. Too impersonal to donate to the school library. So he decided to bequeath his entire collection of books to me. He felt I was the most worthy person to take care of his treasure.

For me it was like the biggest windfall one could ever hope to expect. To get a trunk full of books in my book starved days! Mostly classics. And the first book from that trunk I picked up to read was ‘Lord of the flies’. I got thinking of this book today morning when I read this article in the Guardian. A real life story of six boys who got stranded in an island for 15 months. For those who have read the book, this might be an interesting read. To know how it played out in real life.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/09/the-real-lord-of-the-flies-what-happened-when-six-boys-were-shipwrecked-for-15-months?CMP=fb_gu&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#Echobox=1589017302

I think I must re-read the book now. I am a different reader from the one I was twenty five years ago. I’m blessed with a phenomenally bad memory, so it will be like travelling a new path all over again with a fresh set of eyes. My original copy of the book is probably lying in some dusty bookshelf in a lone corner in my parents’ home. ‘Kumble’ uncle made peace with himself by spending time with his trunk of books whenever he visited us, thumbing through them devotedly like revisiting a holy shrine, while aunty and mummy chattered away gaily in the kitchen, all of us oblivious to his agony.

🎵The King was in the counting house, counting all his money. The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey. 🎵

My greatest fear at that point of time was that they would somehow patch up. Or shift to a bigger house just to keep all the books. And one fine day ‘Kumble’ uncle would come to reclaim his treasure. But that never happened. In return, a few years later I recall giving his kid my ‘Ladybird’ bicycle when I got my new ‘Sunny’.

As I begin to download the ‘Lord of the Flies’ on my Kindle, I think of ‘Kumble’ uncle. I still remember the dazed look in his eyes when he came home with the trunk. It seemed like too big a sacrifice to make.

The nightmare

Last night I dreamt that I was on a ship , in a desolate cabin with an egg shaped window. All international flights have been grounded forever. The aeroplane is a metal tube with recirculating droplets. It is no longer a legitimate mode of travel. After what seems like forever ( I lose count of the nights ) our pirate ship nears Indian shores. ‘From this point on you are now alone my friend’, says the captain with the black eye patch. I thank him profusely for keeping my modesty intact on the high seas ( I suspect it’s really because I tactically kept coughing everytime a shadow passed my door ) and dive into the icy waters with my backpack well wrapped in plastic. It contains my mobile and charger and that can’t get wet at any cost. It’s my only link to the real world of Dalgona coffee, saree challenges and emoji quizzes, you see. Along with other important things I have an incomplete novel to be edited on it. The last point to be ticked on my post-pandemic ( now much shorter) bucket list. The waves are soon swarming with men in PPE suits. ‘We had been tracking your escape from the United Kingdom with our surveillance cameras attached to our Covid tracker satellites‘, they said. I was led to a place lit with floodlights quite like a stadium. On one side was a huge hose , a bit like a plastic anaconda and on the other side were the TV cameras. A scene straight out of the opening scene of ‘First blood’. I had kind of anticipated this and thanked my stars for dressing appropriately for the occasion with my snorkelling outfit . I shut my eyes tight and shiver as they hose me with 1% hydrogen peroxide solution for ten long minutes. Then they take me to a government facility. ‘You will have to stay here for 28 days’ they say. The 28 days don’t worry me. My mobile is with me and I have work to do. Facebook posts to like, important matters to opine on, friends turned foes to studiously ignore. If Nelson Mandela could do 27 years then what is a mere 28 days? I wonder what the rooms will be like. Would they be like concentration camps straight out of WWII? We reach the place and it closely resembles my ladies hostel back in Calicut. The rooms are decrepit with peeling paint falling off the walls. The bed is broken. The windows are barred. The only difference from my hostel is that each room has an attached bathroom. I think I can survive this. I shall overcome , I tell myself. I can finally write my book in peace , I think . I gingerly unwrap the plastic around my backpack and take out my mobile and charger. I lay them out gently on the creaking bed and look at them fondly. They have both survived the storm. I look for a plug point to plug in my charger. And that’s when it hits me. I clench my fist at the wily men in PPE. They had no intention of keeping me alive.

The room had no plug point.

The miracle

It was a regular Wednesday evening in Calicut and I was on my way to attend the weekly CMF ( Christian Medical fellowship) meeting at a professors house. We hadn’t gone for ages as we had our First MBBS university exams and had just returned from the month long May vacation , very relieved to know that we had scraped through the exams. I was never an enthusiastic prayerful type but this weekly meeting was something I went for more out of peer pressure. Whatever ideas I had that this might be a good place to checkout Christian guys was laid to rest on the first day itself. One of the senior guys there , named Ajith, explained that you have to take an oath that all CMF members are your brothers and sisters. I looked around with some dread. I was relieved that there was no one particularly swoon worthy around and wasn’t too reluctant to take the oath. The funny thing was this same guy had joined in Trichur later on for his postgraduation and was subsequently kicked out of the CMF there as he had broken the oath by marrying a fellow CMF member , but that of course is a story for another day.

When we reached , the meeting was already in progress. As we rushed in, Ajith briefed us on what we had missed out on. The theme today was a confessional one. Everyone was seated in a circular ring and when your turn came you had to tell about that moment when you actually sensed the presence of God in your life. I watched with growing alarm as folks started describing near death experiences , ventilator revivals and miraculous traffic death escapes. 20 years of my life had passed and I had no swan song to sing. It was gnawing away at me because I was someone who liked to tell stories. I had an audience today too and no credible story in my kitty. My turn was fast approaching and Ajith had just narrated one jaw dropping miracle. So I thought long and hard and just before my turn , inspiration struck. I set out on narrating this story about how much I dreaded failing in Biochemistry and how hard I had prayed that I might pass. And it was when I held my University exam mark list in my hand and saw my Biochemistry marks 240/480 ( exact 50% pass mark! ) that I felt a divine spotlight shining on it from the sky. I took a few more poetic liberties and finished my tale with a flourish. Instead of applause there was a frowning silence and a stifled giggle from someone in the room. Nobody commented on my miracle and they coldly went on to the next person. I was mortified. So I whispered to Ajith. “ What happened? Why didn’t they say anything?” . He solemnly whispered back, “Mark miracles don’t count”.

My cup runneth over

It all started when a friend gifted the hubby a bottle of homemade grape wine. Seeing him enthusiastically noting down the details of the process, did get me worried. So later, once his friend had left I pointed out than though the wine was homemade the grapes weren’t homegrown so they were bound to be oozing pesticides. That dampened his mojo a bit, until I saw him eyeing the pile of pink and white roseapples (chambekka) my little one had picked up from the overhanging branches of the neighbours tree in the backyard. “One can make wine out of anything” , he declared. And soon the roseapples were quartered, diced , chopped and thrown into a big jar ( bharni) along with some spices and yeast and sealed with a cloth. After every few days he would secretively open it up and give it a stir. I took a sneak peek and was quite horrified to see a bubbling mixture. I drily commented that it looks like it has some life in it. The hubby replied with an indulgent smile ( the one he reserves for trying relatives) , “ Yeast… is a living organism”. I couldn’t help wondering if there was more animal life in it that met the eye. That elusive mouse which was seen scampering around in the storeroom was not to be seen now.

A month passed like this and finally the day of reckoning came. The mouse was still missing. I got the wine glasses all ready for the tasting ceremony. I told him we should keep the kids out of this. (The real reason being I didn’t want him to end up in jail for poisoning them) . He filled both our wine glasses with the pale pink liquid to one third and took the first sip. I could detect some shock for a fraction of a second. But he soon regained his composure. “It is brilliant… if I may say so myself” he said. Now it was my turn. I felt myself breaking out into a sweat. And I tried to focus on doing it right. First sniff it. Then sip it . Roll it around your tongue. By now I could feel my eyes bulging out. It was the vilest liquid I had ever tasted in my entire life. He of course, blamed my diffidence to my ignorance of fine wines which only a connoisseur like him could appreciate. To prove his point he kept sipping more and more of it until I was sure he felt sick himself .

Even a few of his close friends who happened to drop in , it being Christmas, refused to drink beyond a sip. The only person who said it was excellent was his own father. Love is blind and all that bling. After a few attempts at making some more of our friends taste it, they stopped coming to our house altogether. “Is there any more of that thing left?” , they would furtively ask me. A few weeks later, I noticed that the wine bottles were empty. I knew he couldn’t have had all of it , or he would have been in the ICU now. He couldn’t have given it to Appa either. He loved him too much for that. I sniffed around in the sink trying to get a whiff of that deadly concoction. But he had covered his tracks well. The sink was suspiciously well washed. Being a good wife , I never asked him what happened to the rest of the wine. Years have passed since then. Maybe I should ask him now. It is something I should never let him forget .

Pic courtesy: Taken by Joe D’cruz’s nephew, Alphin.

Deewar cafe

I turned and walked out of the bustling cafe. I hoped the guy at the counter hadn’t noticed my 180 degree about turn considering that it was peak lunch time. My walk broke into a steady run. I mulled over what troubled me. It wasn’t the fact that my wife was meeting someone without my knowledge. It was the way she had dressed… so carefully. It was so unlike her. Lipstick , eye shadow, an olive green halter neck top, low waist jeans. A beige handbag on the table. The body language was different from that of my wife, Meera. And I hadn’t been able to see the face of the man seated opposite her in the café thanks to those quirky pumpkin shaped fancy hanging lights. I now started doubting my own mind. Was it really her? It couldn’t possibly be. She had taken the day off to go shopping. Meera was a very focussed kind of bargain hunter. Not the type to waste time sitting in a cafe when a tempting salwar kameez sale was on offer at Elco arcade. This cafe wasn’t anywhere near her regular hunting grounds. And if she had to have a rendezvous why would she choose to do it in the cafe nearest to my office? My run turned into a slow jog as seeds of doubt started springing in my subconscious mind. I flipped out my mobile and called our landline. That’s when I remembered it was no longer working. I hadn’t paid the damn bill. Meera had reminded me about it again, just last night. It’s not that she couldn’t do it herself. Unlike most Indian husbands, I had allowed her to be financially independent very early on in our marriage. We had our chores divided and sorted out very clearly. Paying the monthly bills was my job. Grocery shopping and dealing with the maid was her headache.

I called our apartment security.

“Meera madam kitne baje bulding se nikli?”

“Gyarah baje.”

“Madam kya pehni thi?”

“Mujhe yaad nahi, saab”, came the crafty reply after a long pause. I gritted my teeth in annoyance. For I knew, he knew. Every single detail. His eager cat like eyes covered every inch of every female body that left that apartment. An X-ray gaze. I had refused to pay him baksheesh for last Diwali and he was in no mood to cooperate with me. I hastily cut the phone. There was a way to find out. I could personally go and check the CCTV cameras.

I walked into a nearby park and sat on a bench and tried to gather my scattered thoughts. It certainly wasn’t Meera , I reasoned. I should get a grip on myself. We had a healthy relationship. Workdays were stressful for both of us. But weekends were fun with loads of sex. There was no logical need for her to stray. Her physical needs were adequately met. The emotional needs not so much. Physical infidelity was unforgivable. Emotional infidelity was understandable. After all, one man can’t be everything, can he? Friend, philosopher, confidante, guide. It was highly unlikely that a sensible woman like Meera would stray. Unless… it was that old flame of hers. What was his name now? Vikram ? Vivek ? He had contacted her recently after that silly batch reunion. Maybe he had flown down to meet her and Meera had felt awkward telling me about this rendezvous. I wish I had taken a closer look at the man.

I sat reminiscing about a conversation we had eons back in the same cafe during our newly married days. We used to work in the same firm before we tied the knot. Dating between employees was heavily frowned on by the HR. Since then, she had changed three jobs. Probably an indirect cue. An indicator of her fickle nature which I had failed to pick up. On some days we used to meet up at this joint, Deewar café, for a quick lunch and coffee. The graffiti on the outside wall had an angry young Amitabh Bachchan languorously eyeing their patrons. On one such lunch meeting when she caught me surreptitiously checking out the girl on the next table, she had asked me this. “Ok… tell me, what turns you on when you see a girl? I mean physically? “. I had replied in my straightforward , matter of fact manner. “Actually Meera… most of the times you don’t need to turn on a guy. They are already on. Unlike girls… a guy doesn’t need to know a girl well. He may not even know her name before jumping into bed with her.” She had looked startled at my revelation. “When you are in a relationship, isn’t even thinking of another woman, equivalent to infidelity?” It was my turn to be surprised now. I had thought she was more liberal in her outlook. “See Meera, there are three types of infidelity. Mental, emotional and physical. Mental is inclusive of porn and other fantasies. Emotional infidelity would be when a person has a strong emotional attachment with a person other than their partner. Physical would be to actually have sex or attempt sex with some person other than one’s partner. Physical and emotional fidelity, I surrender to my partner. But mental? No way ! What I think, what I dream, is entirely my own business.” “What is with you guys and sex? Why is it so overridingly important ?” she had asked ,with a pout. To this I had answered laconically, “For men, sex is like an expensive holiday… excitement is about seeing a new place, sampling a new type of cuisine, staying in a new hotel, meeting new people…”

She looked disturbed. “New is the keyword in your analogy.”

I replied, “If you noticed, I also said expensive , because in your mind, you know you should not be spending much and you should be saving… and spending recklessly can have consequences, but the guilt adds to the fun.” Meera was still frowning, so I went on to explain, “See for you girls, shopping is like sex. When you see a new shopping mall, do you think… this is a new mall, I have never been there, I shouldn’t shop? You won’t stop and think for a moment about the old mall near your house, will you?” She made a mock grimace and raised her eyebrows. I went on, “Will you think… I have been shopping there for the last five years, I also have the loyalty card, so I’ll shop only from there? You may have five handbags or five pairs of sandals, but as soon as you see a beautiful handbag or a sandal, you will pick it up.” Meera had playfully thrown her handbag at me. I continued , “Same is with boys… the inner call is to go after anything that’s new and pretty. It’s not a like to like comparison, I just told you how our minds work. We are just wired this way”. She had sat back quietly, twisting the wedding ring on her finger. My honest words had probably made her uncomfortable. But this is the way I was. Drop dead honest and straight as an arrow. I had thought she was the same. And that’s what attracted me to her in the first place. Her honesty and her straight talk. She never hesitated to tell me if she didn’t agree with some issue. She was outspoken, brazen and quite bold. Great attributes at the workplace. For her career had taken off much better than mine. But probably not great attributes for a loyal wife.

I decided to drive home and examine the CCTV evidence. After an hour long drive home and back I was wiser and sadder. It was Meera all right. She had dressed to kill. I pulled into my parking lot and hid my face in my hands. How had I not seen this coming? We were such a perfect couple. Always giving each other enough space. Enough support to grow. We were so unlike the Menons and the Guptas and the Sharmas. We looked down with undisguised contempt at couples exhibiting PDA (public display of affection). We steered clear of posting anything personal on Facebook. We let each other travel and holiday alone. We were the perfectly cool millennial couple. So what had gone so wrong?

I had to find out who that man was. I flipped out my mobile and googled the nearest detective agency. I was surprised to see that our city had so many of them. All with such interesting names. The nearest on the list was the Dhingra detective agency. It was just two blocks away from my office. I started making a plan. I would get back to my office. Make some tea to clear my head and then make that call and fix an appointment. I had to find out this mystery man and do what I couldn’t ever imagine doing. Confront Meera with solid evidence. Confrontation was something I hated doing. That was why I had walked out of that cafe. That was probably the reason I never changed my job . That was why I never asked for a raise. And that was why I never came to much. But this was something Meera could easily do. She was gutsy, brave and knew her worth. Again, great attributes for a career girl, but not for a loyal wife.

I slowly walked up the stairs to my accountant office and sank into my plush chair. On the table was a beige coloured sealed parcel with an official printed name on the side. I made myself a steaming cup of masala tea and sat down heavily on my chair. I glanced at the exquisite wrought iron photo frame on my desk in which nestled a now fast fading snap of us. We were wearing matching navy blue helmets and identical denim outfits in our bike trip to Ladakh. It did look cute and romantic in an odd kind of way. And then it caught my eye. The name of the company printed on the beige parcel cover placed just next to it. Dhingra detective agency. I pinched myself in disbelief. Had someone read my mind and done what I had just planned to do, before I could actually execute it? This was eerie. With trembling hands, I ripped it open.

Out tumbled a bunch of incriminating photographs. Hotel bills. Phone records. Flight tickets. CCTV footage in corridors and elevators. All neatly labelled in compact bundles with date and time. What on earth was this? I felt my head spinning like a toy globe given a whirl while on it’s wooden axis.

Blackmail?! Who had set this very agency I was about to recruit, on my trail? I dialled up the office reception with trembling hands. “Kisne parcel choda mere liye?” And in the long pause between my question and her answer, some of the pieces of the puzzle slowly started falling into place. The Dhingra detective agency was a tiny ramshackle office just a few shops to the left of Deewar cafe. This big beige parcel was on that table in the cafe. It wasn’t another dratted handbag. It was this very parcel. The receptionist studied her reflection in the wall mirror across the lobby, rubbed her lips to spread the nude lipstick evenly, and replied in her lazy Goan accent. “Aapki wife, Meera madam, ne.”

Picture courtesy: Pinterest : https://pin.it/yyng6gziu4fo4t