Last night, I dreamt I was in quarantine again. Someone was gargling.
Good timing, really. The morning after we were officially released from quarantine, I celebrated with a haircut by my pal Taufeeq, who now visits his customers instead of operating his salon. As I sat there with clumps of grey floating off my head, the renewed freedom like a breeze across my face, the phone rang. By now, this is an old friend: the Pune Municipal Corporation, calling to check on us.
They did that every single morning of our two weeks inside. On the call, a very pleasant woman asks if I have fever, or a headache, or more than four loose motions today (at 9 am?); another very pleasant woman takes over to ask about pulse and oxygen levels. All this, in one of three different languages. My kids and wife pronounced that the women are “sweet”. I wonder about what this virus wreaks on my family. Because the women are not really women, just recorded voices.
Still, after each of their questions have drawn from me a response that speaks of my boringly normal state, they tell me, “You have no symptoms today.” Though once something went slightly wrong and two questions bled into each other. The upshot was: “Your symptoms have escalated today. Our doctor will call you.”
Someone did call late that evening. “How are you?” he asked. “I’m fine,” I said, and sensed an opportunity to end this particular quarantine dilemma: why the Pune Municipal Corporation, when I live in Mumbai? He said, “The state’s corona response is coordinated from Pune.” He gave me two numbers I could call for help, one in Bombay, one in Pune. Though he didn’t explain why his appeared to be a Bangalore number.
Two weeks earlier, our quarantine began with a call to say all four of us – wife, kids and me – had tested positive. Would we please stay at home and also isolate ourselves from each other? Why from each other, we wondered.
An hour later, a passel of men arrived. One looked Moon-bound, kitted out in bulky PPE with a square backpack and a long nozzle in his hand. The man immediately behind, his smartphone ready at eye-level, advised us to gather up our electronic equipment. The space-suited gent then sprayed every horizontal surface in the house – floor, beds, shelves, tables, and almost our terrified cat’s not-so-broad back, if inadvertently.
“What is this stuff?” I asked smartphone man. He interrupted clicking to say “virus spray”, then “excuse me, have to take photos.” I noticed he had images of our rooms, furniture, walls, even the downstairs lobby, all being Whatsapped somewhere at a fearsome rate.
Soon after, another passel arrived. No PPE, but one unrolled a large rectangular banner which two others affixed just outside our front door, while a fourth had – you guessed it – his smartphone at the ready. Declaring our surrounds a “Containment Area As a resident is found Positive in Corona Virus Test”, the banner listed several telephone numbers: “Corona Helpline No.”, “Complaint Officer (Tel)”, “Disaster Control Head Office (Tel)” and, finally, the mildly baffling “Twitter Handle (Tel)”.
Dozens more photographs, Whatsapped pronto. Somewhere in Municipal-dom, it occurs to me, there must be a swiftly swelling archive of quarantine photographs that nobody will ever look at.
One final point of contact with the Municipality. Quarantined residents have trash picked up, we were told, by a dedicated Covid garbage truck. After two days during which we feared the trash we generated would crowd us out of the home, a man finally arrived. He had a cavernous plastic bag which he held at arm’s length, patient as we dropped in one bag of trash after another. By the end, I could have sworn he had dozed off. No photographs, though. He came erratically after that –
two days in a row, then not for three, then again after two…and a final visit minutes after my haircut.
We stayed generally healthy through the two weeks. But while we are grateful for our light brush with Madam Corona, there were times when I’d lie awake late at night – isolated, yes – with fear and worry settling like a blanket. I believe in the science and the numbers, and they tell me that the great majority of those infected recover; that only a fraction need hospitalisation; that an even tinier fraction die. Yet sometimes the serious possibilities of this virus demand attention.
What lifted that greyness, every time, were thoughts of our friends. One said simply this when I called: “Tell me how I can help you, tell me how I can help your mother.” He and two others took turns to send us food, but several others chipped in as well. One took a taxi across the city, carrying pulao. She stood on the road downstairs, my wife was in our balcony and they had a very nice conversation, sort-of-in-person after months. Only, it was at a volume to make a sailor blush, or at least for neighbours and passersby to turn their heads in alarm. Some ran.
“Use the phone,” I suggested to my wife.
“We are,” she said.
Another friend offered us “one dish and some chapattis” for dinner. When she delivered it, there was indeed one dish, bhendi, and a foil-wrapped stack of chapattis.
There was also another dish, paneer with peas. And another, cauliflower/potato/peas/beans. And another, cabbage. And another, dhokla. And fruit and dahi and lassi and rossogollas and chocolate …
The generosity of our friends. Quarantine showed us.
Healthy yes, but … well, one evening, I had the job of warming up dinner. In particular, a pot of sambar. I’m a sucker for the aroma and taste of authentic Tamil Nadu sambar, and this had come from just such a household. As I was heating it, I realised there was no aroma. I leaned closer, then nearly into the steaming sambar - nothing. Had I lost my sense of smell? Panicking, I stuck my nose into, in turn: a bottle of honey; some garlic; a bottle of cloves; the door of the fridge; my armpit; the dishwashing soap; my foot. I mean, I was hopping about sniffing anything I could lay my hands on and plenty that I could not. Every time, nothing.
In walked my wife, a dreamy look on her face: “Ahaha! That sambar smell! Lovely! I got it in the bedroom!”
It hit home hard. I still smell nothing.
But the gargling. We did a lot of it. My wife emerged after one session to say, thoughtfully, that she believed she had hit, while gargling, all the notes of Raag Hamsadhwani. “Did you hear me?” she asked, and proceeded to hit the notes again. Later she tried Raag Yaman, and then “Toreador” from Bizet’s “Carmen”.
Musical gargling. Who would have thought, before this quarantine? So yes: last night, I dreamt I was in quarantine again. But this time, it was “California Girls” by the Beach Boys.
Dilip D’Souza is the co-author of The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment.