It’s like an apocalypse movie. Deserted streets, dust blowing in the wind, empty tins pattering as they roll across.
No, actually it wasn’t. Empty lane, check. A few cars parked outside the gates, check. No one in sight, check.
I took cautious steps outside the gate. And onward, towards the highway…
No wind, no dust, no tin pattering across. Absolute stillness. As though even leaves were afraid to breathe.
I heard voices from a house; their gates were open. I did not look as I went past. If they catch my eye, they would glare at me: what are you doing outside when there is a lockdown in place? I had to buy vegetables and milk, and we are allowed to go out in case of emergencies, including buying provisions. But people who glare would not know my emergencies, would they? They would only assume I am one of those rule breakers they hear about in the news.
The disquieting silence made me crouch a little within myself. I wasn’t afraid, but had this strange feeling of being where I shouldn’t be. Just a couple of weeks ago, this same street was filled with residents who were offering Pongala to the Devi. Lined up on both sides, making fire and smoke and prasadam.
The quietness was broken by the low rumble of a scooter as I approached the highway. Then a car. I turned a bend in the road. Some vehicles were plying, but not even half of the usual traffic. This was peak hour. Back when there were things like peak hours. Only a few days ago, but seems like ages already.
Am I the only one walking? Oh, no. There’s an old man, shabbily clad, unconcerned with anything, trudging along, to who knows where. When cars passed me, I did not look at them. I did not want to invite questions – unless they were the police, in which case I had a written note that explained the whys and wherefores of my outbound adventure. Which was a pre-requisite, as per the new rules.
(Pause a moment and ask yourself: just two months ago, if anyone had told you that you would have to convince police officers or the government with a written note, about your purpose in stepping out, and if it isn’t important enough, they would have the authority to turn you back, how would you have reacted? Laughed in their faces? In this world, in this democracy! you would have said, indignantly. I have the freedom, you would have said. I live in an independent nation! Are they trying to turn us all into Kashmir? And so forth. And now look at yourself, meekly following rules, Yes, sir, I have a note with me, look sir, with my name, phone number and address, the date and time of my visit to the shop – I need to get some medicines for my mother, sir, and a couple of vegetables, because everything has run out; and oh! milk too, yes I will be back the moment I get it, sir. Of course sir, I won’t even stop to say Hi to my neighbour. Take care of yourself, sir. Thank you for protecting us, sir. Would you like some water, sir?)
The shop was closed. It would open in ten minutes. I decided to wait. A man came up to the store, looked at the shutters and hesitated. He would not talk to me, or even look directly at me, because we are in Lockdown. So I offered the information that the shop would open only at 11. He nodded and walked across to the medical shop – the only shop open on the other side of the road. We have this way of talking without really looking. Our attitude has changed. We see others without having to look into their eyes. We pretend we’re not even here. You don’t see me; I don’t see you.
A post woman (not our regular), looking haggard under the blazing sun, with her khakhi uniform and her khakhi bag, returns to the post office. Her work goes on as normal. At least for today.
When the shop opened, I quickly went over to the vegetables section. Picked out whatever I could. Whatever was there. A handful of people had come in. Staying away from each other; again, conscious of each other but pretending to not be. Some wore masks. Which made it all the more difficult to identify them. But that was okay. We did not want to identify anyone. We’re all invisible for the duration of the Lockdown.
In the midst of strolling with the trolley, I had to sneeze. I tried to hold it in, but it begged to be released. One hand on the trolley and another holding a packet of milk, unable to get to the handkerchief in time, I had to let go, using my sleeve to cover my face. I could sense everyone freeze and glare at me if I were the COVID virus itself. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else. We’re battling an enemy we can’t see, who can confront us through the face of our friends.
I did not look at anyone, just went ahead with my trolley, as though nothing had happened. I wanted to wipe the perspiration off my face; I wanted to clear my nose, I wanted to rub my eyes, I wanted to do a million things that were now considered dangerous. But everything is different now. As I waited to pay my bill, a packet fell from the hands of the person standing in front of me. Normally I would pick it up and hand it over to him. Today I did not budge. I am not supposed to touch anything. For my sake as well as his. I paid for the items and cleared out of the shop.
A few cars were arriving. But the roads were mostly empty. Sun was shining – burning is the word.
Again back into our lane. Two people waited by the road, one on a scooter and one on foot. There was a gas cylinder on the ground near them. Again that evasive eye technique. They don’t see me; I don’t see them. My reasons for emerging from the protection of home are my own; yours are your own. For a fleeting moment I wondered who they were. What if they knocked me down and took my purse and my purchases? I could do nothing. The handwritten affidavit would flutter away in the wind. No one would come to my aid. Everyone was shut up and keeping to themselves out of fear from catching the pandemic. The scene was perfect for criminals.
I crossed them and reached home, sweating from all pores. Nothing can match Kerala’s summer, I assure you.
I hope the virus would find it unbearable too.
(Written on March 25, 2020)