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Jab we met at the vaccination centre

Mathai Joseph | Updated on May 11, 2021

Feel the pinch: Vaccination for those who hate injections must be like going to the races when you dislike horses   -  PTI

Pandemic chronicles of the just-vaccinated amidst an unsociable distance

* Rescuers reach out where they can and watch sadly at the many who sink outside their range

* People asked if I had a reaction to the vaccine. They don’t seem to understand: I have a preaction not a reaction, before the shot

* Like morgues and crematoria, the underworld must be crowded with newcomers

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Boarded a train last March and 14 months later seem no closer to the destination. Infrequently, the train stirs into movement but mostly it pauses in unfamiliar terrain, well away from scheduled stopping points. Some adventurous souls, and the foolhardy, climb out to join groups picnicking nearby. All around lie known and unknown hazards, swamps to be avoided and pools that leave no escape. Rescuers reach out where they can and watch sadly at the many who sink outside their range.

Travelling is now just a way of getting to what lies next: Tomorrow will be a quiet achievement, next week an event. We ease our way into the space for those to be vaccinated, chairs carefully spread out at an unsociable distance. Our nearest neighbour nods brightly at us, eyes twinkling and grey hair bobbing. “Welcome! Join the mob.” Her cheerful voice finds its way through her elaborate mask printed with the scene of a lake where her mouth would be and a hill in front of her nose. “Double masks,” she says, seeing us intrigued. “Inner one for flow, to let air through, outer one for show.” We wonder if it is safe to even talk in what is sure to be the germ-laced air of the hospital but she is unconcerned. “Covishield today, Covaxin tomorrow,” she tells us. “Or maybe the other way round. Doesn’t matter, that’s what I say. Like babies: People worry so much but it has to be a boy or a girl. No chance of a tiger cub. Or a baby elephant.”

The half-hour wait gives Double-mask time to tell us about her life and us the chance to guess what she might look like behind her pictured mask. She dutifully asks us what we do and segues swiftly back to her life when we are slow to respond. A lot of nephews and nieces (“Ashok — he’s a worthy and upright citizen; Anil — bit of a rascal who’s made himself quite rich”). She must have siblings but has little to say about them. Then she pauses her frantic talking and mutters grimly: “I hate injections. Hate them, hate them, hate them. Don’t tell me they don’t hurt much. I just hate them.” Vaccination for her must be like going to the races when you hate horses.

When it is her turn (“Number 73, Number 73”) her face seems to shrink into her mask. Still, she waves to us before disappearing into the vaccination zone and leaving us feeling a little more alone. Later, we work our way past the registration desk (“‘Father’s first name initial surname?”) and pay a distracted cashier busy on his mobile (“No, please listen to me, it’s not like that...”). A short PPE’d nurse whom no virus would dare to take on recites instructions (“Don’t try to be like a pehalwan. Take painkillers at 4pm and again at night.”). She narrows her eyes, aims the syringe like a dart and hits the upper arm, then leans forward to give it the little tweak needed to disgorge the vaccine. We move to another space with the other just-vaccinateds to watch a television showing what looks like medical workers delivering earnest messages, but with the audio turned off it is hard to tell. Eventually we are presented with a provisional certificate and invited to leave.

Back some weeks later for the next shot and find Double-mask already there. We nod vaguely in her direction and look for a place to sit. She quickly rearranges chairs around her and points to them. “Jab we met first and now jab jab!” This time her mask has a seaside with a big wave over her mouth. “People asked if I had a reaction to the vaccine. They don’t seem to understand: I have a preaction not a reaction, before the shot. You been OK?” Like many others, we have lost a few close ones, friends and relations. “Sad. Sad. Sad. Vaccinations too late for so many. I told you about my nephews: Ashok, careful and steady, Anil the risk-taker. Of course it had to be Ashok who caught Covid, badly. Three weeks in the ICU. He just came out looking as empty as his bank account.”

She closes her eyes for a bit. “Still, we’ve almost made it through, haven’t we?” She is Number 29 to our Number 43 and goes ahead of us flailing her hands and muttering “I hate this. I hate this.” We meet again after our shots, near the silent televisions. She folds her hands in gratitude. “No more shots. But thanks to jab and jab jab, we met!” She bows her head at us, seizes her certificate when it comes and leaves with a wave. She’s the kind of durable figure hospitals need to keep up spirits, even if she hates injections.

We lose people on the journey — the strong and the weak, the young and the old. Like morgues and crematoria, the underworld must be crowded with newcomers.

Mathai Joseph is a retired computer scientist living in Pune

Published on May 11, 2021

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