Throat wars

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 31, 2020

Hardly have I landed in Chennai but I begin to sneeze. By afternoon, I’m coughing. By evening, when I call Bins on WhatsApp, I’m down to one breath per every three wheezing fits.

“Oh, oh,” says Bins, “Corona virus! I always tell you to avoid sitting next to international travellers!” Hacking and gasping, I manage to snarl out a response. “It is NOT some designer germ!” I tell him. “It’s just the usual old cough, gone rogue!” As if to prove the point, I begin another violent fit. “You sound terrible!” complains Bins. “Like you’re turning your lungs inside out and pouring them straight into my poor ear!”

For the next few days, that’s all I can do: Bark and retch as if expelling the entire lining of my throat out through my mouth. I catch colds very easily because I had a tonsillectomy when I was 14. Until I had the surgery, viruses would wander in through my mouth, get stuck in the back of my throat and cause my tonsils to swell up like a pair of red bullfrogs. The moment the tonsils were removed? Every passing virus in the galaxy used my throat as a safari park.

This time, the unwanted visitors don’t even bother to infect my throat. They go straight down into the depths of my lungs. And from inside there, using the finest and most spectral of feathers, they begin to stroke the insides of my airways. Teams of tiny, fiendish violinists are playing somewhere inside me, producing a disgusting rasping, growling sound that not only drives me mad but also makes it impossible to breathe. And when they’re not playing, they’re causing a tickle so extreme, that I’m ready to swallow a hairbrush just to scratch it!

The nights are the worst. There’s no question of lying down. If I’m horizontal, the oceans of goo inside my lungs begin to slosh about in a life-threatening way: If I don’t sit up in five minutes or less, I’ll drown. I say “lungs” but actually I have no idea where this river of clear fluid rises and falls. It’s as if my head and chest are experiencing a private interior monsoon. However much wetness I pump out via nose and mouth, the reservoirs replenish in seconds. I can’t sleep at all, except in snatches while sitting up, in a comfy chair, swaddled in a thin quilt and feeling miserable.

I alternate between playing the word game known as WordStorm with reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The novel is surreal and haunting, the word game is maddening. By morning I’m hallucinating in Japanese while continuing to cough like a maniac. Finally, on Day Five: Hallelujah! I can breathe. Yes, of course I have medicines to take. But they only work after the night-shift at the Abyss. When Bins calls to ask, “How’s the Corona?” I tell him he can safely cancel the appointment with the Undertaker. “I’m gonna survive,” I say, “this time.”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on January 31, 2020

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