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.’