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Close encounters with King Corona: A fairy tale

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on July 02, 2021

IMAGE: ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

A journalist’s scoop on a global virus empire run with corporate efficiency

* It all began with an anonymous text on my phone. The message said that King Corona likes my writing and, if I was so inclined, would be willing to talk to me

* I listen to the chorus “I am the Virus” for almost a minute, before a receptionist picks up the phone and says, “Hello, Coronakingdom. I am the virus. How may I help you?”

* He wears the head of the virus but has a shape-shifting body, which is currently human. He gives me a hug and points me to a lesser armchair. “Welcome to our kingdom!” he says

* “I only do special cases. Celebrities, prime ministers, presidents. I’m at the stage where I only do it for fun, if it gives me a kick”

****

I’ve done innumerable groundbreaking stories in my chequered career spanning six decades. I’ve covered wars, interviewed dictators, blown the lid off celebrity sex scandals. I’ve seen generations come and go like coaches at a bus terminus. What’s coming up though is going to be the biggest story, not just on my CV, but for all of humanity inhabiting this present age. While other journalists crunch numbers, toe the government line and file localised stories, I’m the only hack who has been granted exclusive access to King Corona and his kingdom — the colony (location unknown) where the ruling elite of the virus hides, thrives and plots its next move.

It all began with an anonymous text on my phone. The message said that King Corona liked my writing and, if I was so inclined, would be willing to talk to me. Sensing this to be a prank, though not entirely convinced of my hunch, I texted back saying that I hadn’t written a book in years and the columns had dried up — that there were people better suited to the job, younger writers whom people actually read. If King Corona wanted traction, he should contact someone else. The anonymous source replied, “Look, it’s not about you, it’s about what King Corona wants. As for traction, we have enough of it already in the real world. Better make up your mind fast.”

My weathered journalistic curiosity was piqued. I texted back a matching no-nonsense response. “I’m on. How should I proceed? Am I speaking to a coronavirus?” Pat came the reply. “Yes, I’m part of the coronavirus community. But that’s besides the point. I’m sending you a number. Call the number right now to fix an interview.”

****

When I call the number, the ringtone is playing a snippet of the Beatles’ I am the Walrus, with one little change, “Walrus” having being replaced by “Virus”. I listen to the chorus “I am the Virus” for almost a minute, before a receptionist picks up the phone and says, “Hello, Coronakingdom. I am the virus. How may I help you?”

I introduce myself. The receptionist changes register, from distant and cold, like a star, to warm and welcoming, like a hotel usher. “Of course, the boss is expecting you! Blindfold yourself with three face masks and wait on your terrace. At the stroke of midnight, while the world sleeps, and India breathes its last, our commando unit will come and pick you up.” I ask if I need to bring a PPE suit or five, since I am going to be stepping into Viral Load Central.

“Don’t worry,” says the receptionist, sounding impatient. “We decide who to enter and who not to, and when. If we are inviting you here it’s not to kill you. We follow international journalistic protocol. We take no hostages.”

This is the scoop of the century, and yet I can’t resist a dig. “But you’ve taken the human race hostage, why should I trust you?” The line goes dead.

****

At midnight, I’m sitting on my terrace, when I feel the air around me getting heavy and moist. It’s like I’m walking in the high mountains, my head enveloped in clouds. I’m caught up in what seems like a tornado; I’m a whirling dervish in the eye of the storm. I pass out. I wake up on a cold black road, feeling a bit like John Malkovich on the New Jersey turnpike. The token blindfold is gone, gone with the wind. Up ahead I can see blinking neon lights that spell out the legend “Welcome to Coronakingdom”. I wonder if I’m going to get out of this alive. I take a deep breath and walk up to the reception desk.

A jaunty disembodied voice asks me to keep walking in a straight line, go through three revolving doors, until I reach a tunnel. “At the end of the tunnel you will see a light. The light is Him.” It’s the same automated, deep bass voice that I’d heard on the phone, a cross between Siri and Alexa blowing out through a retro down-firing woofer. I say “thank you” to faintly perfumed air and move on.

****

The King is sitting in a lavish armchair. He wears the head of the virus but has a shape-shifting body, which is currently human. He gives me a hug and points me to a lesser armchair. “Welcome to our kingdom!” he says. “Once you are through the tunnel, you have crossed the line from the invisible to the visible. In the real world you cannot see us with the naked eye, here you can.” Despite my years of experience in the newspaper trade, I’m nervous like a schoolboy, the words coming out all wrong. I try and open the conversation with a feeble joke. “Love your ringtone. But have you taken permission from the Beatles? Any royalties for Ringo?”

The King laughs, adjusts his New York Knicks baseball cap, puts his feet up, crosses his brown Lucchese boots. “You know what? We spared Paul (McCartney) this wave. Isn’t that good enough for you? What’s in a tune, man? It keeps the morale of the troops high.” Even as we speak, “I am the virus” blares on giant loudspeakers, as teams of viruses wearing name badges and uniforms scurry around doing chores, clapping their multiple hands rhythmically and shouting in unison to the chorus.

“King,” I say, “Thank you for granting me this interview. But seriously, don’t you think it’s time you changed the ringtone to Give Peace a Chance?”

The King laughs and laughs. “Like your sense of humour, man. Look, we don’t have nothing personal against the human race. One of your chief ministers was right. We gotta live too. Besides, you guys are darned plain stupid, man.”

By now can sense my newspaperman’s mojo beginning to return. It’s time to ask the hard questions. “I was under the impression that you folks need a human host to survive? So what’s this that I see around me?”

The King lights up a Marlboro Red. “What you see around here is the elite class of the coronavirus. We don’t need to go inside a human body. Have you seen one from the inside? It’s dirty and full of poo, urine and bacteria. The worker viruses do the invading part. We got a strict hierarchy going on in our kingdom. The ones you see here is the officer class of the virus. On the ground, the worker virus does the actual work of infecting, burrowing and whittling away at the lungs. We send inspectors to monitor their efficiency.”

“How about you? You haven’t infected anyone?”

“That’s why I called you, man. You’ve got the knack of asking the right questions. I only do special cases. Celebrities, prime ministers, presidents. I’m at the stage where I only do it for fun, if it gives me a kick. Just for a lark, you know. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I did Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Tom Hanks, Novak Djokovic... Tell you what. Trump’s insides are like iron. Man, those cheeseburgers and fried chicken. Works for him.”

The King offers to take me on a guided tour of the complex. He very obviously is on a high. Every second word is an F-word. He pumps his fists in the air and mutters repeatedly: “We did it”. The officers salute him at every corner. Giant monitors provide the ruling elite with real-data from every country, every single body that they’ve managed to breach is live-streamed into the headquarters. “Would you like to talk to one of our worker viruses, who are inside a body right now, chipping away?” We stop in front of a monitor. One can see the worker virus pause and stand still in the bloodstream. It wasn’t expecting the boss at this time.

“Hey B.1.617 #456093, what up?”

“Operation Black Fungus, sir. Mission almost accomplished, sir. Target on ventilator, sir.”

“Excellent,” says the beaming King. “Go ahead,” he says, turning to me, “Ask him what you want.”

“Hello, worker,” I say, grabbing the opportunity. “What’s the best part about your job?”

“The best part is that we get to travel the globe. We can enter and exit any host at will. We were nobodies earlier but now we have untrammelled power, even over antibodies. We get to play god. Tell me who doesn’t like power? You humans should know. And the money is good too.”

I’m sure I misheard that one. “What did you just say? What money?”

“We get paid in crypto-currency. That way we can transact across species and planets.”

“Ok, now, enough,” snaps the King. “Get back to work.”

“What’s this about crypto?” I ask the King, still in disbelief.

“I love crypto, man. After we have destabilised the human race, we gonna take over the crypto world and stabilise it. That Elon chap is too flaky. By the way, tell him to watch out. I’m planning to enter him soon. A personal joyride.”

He points to screens that have the latest figures of Bitcoin, Dogecoin and Ethereum. “Our coins will always be green. Humans provide clean energy. It’s another matter that Musk will call them blood coins.” I’m trying hard to separate bluster from fact.

I’m beginning to realise that the King thinks corporate strategy at all times. “Look, in 2020, we saw tremendous growth in the UK, Spain, Italy, Brazil and America. India was always going to be a huge market for us. We tried last year but couldn’t crack it. We tried harder. We learnt our lessons. We found a chink in the vaccine’s armour. Of course, we benefited from your utter bone-headedness.”

The King draws a comparison with McDonalds. “I love that movie, Pulp Fiction. Remember the dialogue between Vincent and Jules in the car, the one about how a Big Mac is called Royale with Cheese in France? I look at our virus community the same way. We keep adapting to different markets. It’s Big Mac in America, Maharaja Mac in India, and it’s the Royale with Cheese in France. It’s the same Big Mac but it’s a little different in different countries. You get what I’m saying?”

We are deep into this conversation. And we still haven’t spoken of the elephant in the room: Where did this virus originate?

“Now that,” replies the King, lighting up a Cohiba, Castro’s favourite cigar, “is a question only of interest to you humans. Your mental universe is so finite and pointless. Did it escape from a lab? Did someone do it deliberately? Was it an accident? Did it come from bats and pangolins? We pre-existed all that. Let me ask you one thing: How the f*** does it matter? Every species has its origin myths. We have ours. All I can tell you is that we have been around for a long long time. It’s just that we decided to show our faces now. I felt it was our time and ordered my troops to seize the moment.”

I know he doesn’t want to be pushed further on this. I know how to respect a line drawn in the sand by a tribal chieftain. I change the subject. What next, I ask. “Africa,” whispers the King, “Africa. That’s the biggest market in the world for us, bigger than India. Our scientists are working on it. Look, there is tremendous competition in the corona world. While the goal is to penetrate new audiences, we also have to sustain them. Once we get a foothold, we try and expand within that market. We are back in the UK this year.You must have heard the experts, how the Delta variant is out-competing the other viruses. It’s replacing whatever variants existed prior to it. It’s in my headquarters here that I decide which strain to wipe out and which one to make dominant. You guys keep trying to figure out ways of blocking the spike protein. Stay there. We’re too far ahead of the game. Must say that I love the names you have for us. Delta Plus! What next? Delta Silver, Delta Gold, Delta Platinum? We are not a credit card company, you know.”

“What about the other flu viruses,” I ask, “the harmless ones that used to be around, the ones that didn’t kill. And what about the bacteria that caused jaundice and typhoid? What about mosquito-borne viruses like chikungunya? Why don’t we hear of them anymore?”

“Because, my friend,” answers the King, “we have wiped them out. One jungle, one king. Those guys now clean our toilets and stables. Their time is over. I’m the real... what’s that your PM says, ah the real Vishwaguru. By the way, did you know I speak all the languages in the world? As a global enterprise, it’s absolutely essential. We franchise out our operations to local virus networks. We tell them: Work with us or perish. There is only one flag that flutters in the virus world. And that is ours.”

“Is there any silver lining to this carnage? People have stopped having sex altogether,” I ask. “At this rate, you will run out of hosts to infect”. The King is unflappable. “What are you saying, man? See the baby boom going on now in the human race? Earlier you people would produce one child or not even that. Now everyone is producing three. That’s good for us and good for you.”

It’s time to say goodbye. The King looks tired. He has to teleconference with his viral managers across the globe. He offers to answer one last question. I pop it like a wedding ring. “Thank you so much for this world exclusive, King. But, I was wondering, where is the Queen?”

The King suddenly looks sad, as if it was my arrow that had pierced his heart. “So busy I have been building this kingdom, I just haven’t had the time. It’s my only regret. It does get lonely at the top. Tell you what, my friend. When you go back to earth, see if you can find someone for me. If you do, call the reception.”

“Someone human?” I ask, confused, surprised and touched by his faith in me. I know he’s not the lovable Disney monster he’s making himself out to be. “Won’t you end up killing her by instinct?”

“I’m not that cruel to kill my wife’s species. If you can find me a real queen like Cleopatra, we can consider classifying the human as a host we can coexist with. I’ll live inside my Queen but not gnaw away at her insides. That’s a promise. Goodbye.”

I vanish in a cloud of dust and re-materialise on my terrace, bones rattled, three face masks wrapped around my eyes.

I’ve got my story.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BusinessLine

 

Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on July 02, 2021

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