It is said that the Japanese pufferfish makes mandalas in the ocean to attract a mate. In 1995, to be precise, divers came across alluring, circular patterns on the seafloor off the coast of Japan. Following this discovery, more circles were noticed nearby. The design of these strange, mystifying circles resembled that of crop circles. Then, for a decade, these underwater artworks appeared and disappeared periodically, their mystery still up for grabs. Eventually, with some excellent oceanic sleuthing, the artistic creator responsible for these geometric formations emerged: pufferfish. Male pufferfish would flap their little fins across the seabed and the disturbance caused in their wake would carve out beautifully strange patterns across the floor.

My friend, the marine biologist who first shared this story, laughed as he remarked how we all turn into artists we didn’t know we were when looking for intimacy. When the depressive isolation of her Covid quarantine started to get the better of the usually cheery Mrs Babu, Mr Babu decided to cook her something nice every evening. For a man who once tried breaking an egg using a rolling pin, this was a Herculean task. It then occurred to him that he could let his wife lead the way.

And, going through the cooking videos in her browser history, he started watching chef Ranveer Brar’s popular show. Subsequently, he pressed the bell icon on the handsome and rather likeable chef’s YouTube channel and became an ardent follower. While the afternoon meals were handled by a dabba service, every evening at 7.30 pm sharp, an aesthetically decorated dish would be gently pushed past the dividing line from the caretaker side of the house to the patient side of the house. It was not such a big house to begin with, but for the two sixtysomething-year-olds, it was their life’s worth.

A house in which they had lived the fragile years of their early married life, where their kids learned kathak and got bandaged after football injuries, where their happy screams of being accepted into reputed universities still echo. The same house where now, once in a blue moon, their grandkids buzz about like joyous little bees mouthing off random Telugu words they pick up from the grandparents when their parents visit India. A house that is not just a brick-and-mortar enclosure but a sanctuary of memories. A house that is draped in quiet save for the crows that have staked claim to the balcony.

And now in that house, for the first time in four decades, Mr Babu hasn’t seen Mrs Babu’s face in a little over a week. When she tested positive, he was petrified. She checked some of the major boxes for comorbidities – she is diabetic and above 60 years of age. When the first wave wreaked its havoc, the couple refrained from so much as stepping out onto their balcony. Anandimma, the helper at home, was paid a healthy amount in advance for any impending pay and sternly advised to not consider going to work at any other house, no matter how much people insisted. “Ask us for whatever money you need, we will give. You don’t put yourself at risk by stepping out.”

Younger Babu in the US panicked about the prolonged confinement of his parents back home where the infection statistics had leapt past manageable numbers. Throughout the pandemic, a common anxiety that reverberated across people’s minds and therapy sessions was the fear of loss/death of loved ones. Mortality is not a hunky-dory subject for most of us. The mayhem of the Covid pandemic pared at whatever makeshift consolations we offer ourselves about the state of our world and our helplessness.

Mr Babu didn’t devalue his son’s concern but also found himself stuck in a meditative stillness when he called him twice every day, fear lacing his voice like a film of oil spill on seawater. Younger Babu didn’t call home for weeks at a stretch before. When Mrs Babu would stay up past midnight her local time to greet one of the grandkids on their birthdays, he’d often forget or sound hurried. Mr and Mrs Babu didn’t mind. The nest had emptied years ago and they were not the sort to grudge the distance.

In lieu of any meaningful contact with her own son, Mrs Babu has mentally adopted her favourite TV chef as her digital son and spoke about his cooking exploits to Mr Babu with more enthusiasm than she did stories of their own relatives. “So modest. So humorous. So slim and trim also despite cooking so much.”

“It is a show, Paaru. He is not cooking and eating the whole day. He probably has a fancy dietician and a fitness trainer.”

“You just don’t like him because I laugh more at his jokes than yours now.”

Mr Babu would relent when, from the corner of his eye, he’d catch her humming and trying out the Brar recipes with whatever ingredients she had at her disposal. In those hours, she wasn’t solemn or downcast the way she’d been ever since Younger Babu had cancelled another visit home. The third time in three years. The chef she adored was now the surrogate son. Someone she was unlikely to ever meet in person, but someone who filled up her empty evenings when Mr Babu went to the local park with his old friend. He’d ask her to accompany him, and on occasion, she would, but she preferred staying at home. After the passing of her closest friend and next-door neighbour, she had become withdrawn from the outdoors and social interactions.

The smiling chef with his well-seasoned one-liners, an effortless blend of storytelling and easy cooking tips had turned into a ballast against the crashing waves of depression that rocked her world from time to time.

Excerpted with permission from That Beautiful Elsewhere: Journeys in Mental Health, Scherezade Siobhan, HarperCollins India.