Everyone was talking about how clean the air was. Vasantha maami had taken to arriving at her balcony late at night to marvel at the sweet smell of her jasmine flowers.
“Between the kerosene from those gurkhas cooking and the exhaust from the traffic, the poor malllige’s scent was wasted. Now, see. Entha sugandha,1” she said. She plucked them herself every morning and every evening for her pooja. She stood precariously on a metal chair to reach up to the higher flowers while her husband steadied the chair.
“What to do?” he said, somewhat mortified to be witnessed at his wife’s feet so publicly. “We had to let Gowramma go. She said she was only working for our house but you can’t trust them. They must be going here and there. It’s too risky.” Everyone agreed that they had done the right thing by sending Gowramma away. After all, they had also sent their Gowrammas away. On the television and in the newspapers they flicked past the news reports about the lines of Gowrammas walking or spending their life savings to get on packed trains back to their villages. “What a tragedy,” everyone said. “The government should do something about these irresponsible people.”
Everyone was talking about how silent the streets were. “For the first time today, I heard the song of a bluejay,” the retired Colonel in the neighbourhood said. For his new morning ritual, he brought his chai and cigarette to the verandah where he could enjoy the fresh air and the birdsong. “Chai khud banata hoon2,” he said, proud that after 23 years in the Army, he had not forgotten how to boil water for his morning tea. Manohar, his driver, had been caught violating the curfew a few nights ago on a mission to buy rum for the Colonel. The cops had beat him and left him on the street with his injuries, and Manohar had to be carried back home in the back of a truck that was on a long trip to nowhere. “There’s no loyalty anymore. Not to their fellows nor their country. Only to the self,” the Colonel said of his injured soldier. Everyone agreed that Manohar’s injuries weren’t bad enough to require desertion. “What a shame,” they said. From their balconies, they filmed cell phone video of the police punishing curfew-violators and posted it to Instagram and Twitter with the hashtags #policebrutality, #beatcovidnotcitizens, and #humEkHain.
Everyone agreed that they had a collective civil responsibility to monitor their own health. “If all the doctors only treat flu and fever patients, who will treat the rest? Take some ibuprofen for the fever and drink lots of water. Or else go- go to the government hospital. Tell them I sent you,” the local doctor at the free clinic said to the feverish patients who waited for her. Her clinic was only open from 7:30 am – 11:30 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Everyone agreed that she was doing the right thing. After all, they too had stocked up on fever-reducers and cough medication so as not to be a burden on the fragile hospital system in the country where people were dying by the hour. “What a disgrace,” everyone said and told each other stories about how a friend’s uncle’s father had to bribe the peons to get a bed at a hospital for his asthma attack last night, but luckily he was fine and discharged within 24 hours.
Everyone was talking about how they were supporting the local economy. “Yesterday, we ordered via Uber Eats from our local biryani place and had a neighbourhood biriyani party on Zoom. Myself — I ordered for all families. You could say I ‘ate’ the cost, heh heh,” said the foreign-return Naren, who had had to cancel his Europe vacation due to the travel ban. “As responsible citizens, I think it’s our duty to participate in the economy and spend, spend, spend. It might be something small like supporting your local ice-cream shop or your favorite Italian restaurant, but small actions can have big effects.” As a single man in the IT-industry, he relied on food-delivery services for his sustenance but he had had to discontinue his dabba service after the trains had been suspended. It prevented Iqbal, his dabbawallah3, from bringing him his daily meals. Across the country, countless Iqbals were dying by degrees from starvation. “What a tragedy,” everyone said. “They should have invested in bikes like Swiggy, or cars like Uber.”
In the cities they levitated, breathing in the fresh air from their 18th floor balconies. Behind brick walls they self-reflected, gazing at their perfect navels in gratitude. Upon cushioned feet, they navigated the systems they had built. They moved like water through the storm. Everyone agreed that it was best not to look down or away. Everyone agreed that it was best to look up, up at the blue sky, the branches in bloom, the stars, the sun, and all the possibilities of the night. Everyone agreed that what happened elsewhere happened to others. Everyone agreed not to look. Everyone agreed not to talk about it after.
1. Kannada: “How fragrant.”
2. Hindi/Urdu: “I make my own tea.”
3. Lunchbox delivery person