Combating Covid-19, the Indian way

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on May 21, 2021

Mowing down: The coronavirus flattens all that lies in its path   -  ISTOCK.COM

The pandemic has brought the best out of the theorising Indian

It’s the summer of 2020 and the coronavirus is a novelty item killing the white man in far-off Europe and America. We are busy baking bread and writing lockdown poems. It’s the summer of 2021 and the coronavirus is a bulldozer, flattening all that lies in its path. For those of us who have lived only in peace-time, this is the closest we have come to war. Every family is affected. Every home has a couple of human bricks missing. We envy mosquitoes and cockroaches and squirrels who continue getting on with their lives with minimum fuss. We Indians are, at the best of times, a bundle of contradictions and vague theories articulated in muscular fashion. The contagion has brought the best out of the theorising Indian. Here are some glimpses.

I am the Eggman A man stands at a kirana store explaining to whoever would care to listen that he’s crossed the final Rubicon. After decades of being a vegetarian he’s had his first egg. Eggs prevent infection. He claims he had a sore throat the other day but after he consumed an egg he instantly felt better. He comes down with the virus in the next 24 hours. The fact is confirmed by the kirana store owner, the most reliable neighbourhood spokesperson in dark times. I’m wondering what came first: The chicken or the egg or the virus.

Ghee Whiz A friend calls to ask how I’m doing. I say I’m down with the virus. He advises me to put ghee in my nostrils. Now I’m wondering if I should swap my Dolo and Doxy for Dalda.

Population and pollution This theory is a pan-Indian favourite. The virus is god’s way of cutting down on both — two factors we have made immense contributions to. The Indian seems happy to pay the price.

Father as gold medallist A friend says that everyone in his family is down but daddy recovered quickly because he was a tennis player in his college days and won a gold medal for his state. Looks like he is still winning medals. I wish I’d played tennis in college.

‘How are you feeling?’ It’s the most common question on WhatsApp. Someone tells me he sends the same message to 10 people every morning. Initially, I respond to each message with a detailed analysis of my oxygen and fever levels, aches and pains. I realise that no one is interested in the fine detail. I simplify my answers to ‘All good’. I then realise that even this takes too long. I whittle it down further. ‘How are you today?’ I respond with a double thumbs up. Day after day after day.

The oxygen cylinder A neighbour calls with the offer of a spare oxygen cylinder. His friend has got one but doesn’t need it because he has managed to find an ICU bed for his uncle. It’s a classic dilemma of the times. Both my mother’s and my oxygen levels are fine. Everyone says: ‘Take it and keep it. Just in case.’ We decide to give it a pass. It saves a grandmother’s life that very afternoon.

The oxymeter It’s made in Hunan. Every time I stick my middle finger into it I’m thinking in metaphors. The oxy levels are slightly low, not dangerously so. I switch to my forefinger. I’m immediately rewarded. The oxy levels shoot up. China doesn’t appreciate metaphors.

‘Don’t watch the news’ At the peak of the second wave, this is India’s favourite thing to say. So don’t watch the news until you become a statistic on the news and when that happens, you won’t even be around to make that choice of not watching the news. Another version of this is: ‘Don’t check the oxymeter.’ The more you check, the more you will stress. One person I know doesn’t even buy one even though he is down with the virus. Denial is the best form of dealing with distress.

‘To each his own’ The Indian is speaking in a rush of clichés. Never having faced death on this scale, everyone is telling everyone: ‘To each his own’. We have taken the ‘aatmanirbhar’ slogan a bit too literally. At the same time, people offer their cars. We have two: My grandmother’s Maruti 800 and my parents’ Nano — enough to make it to the hospital in an emergency. I’m not sure an SUV will save our lives.

‘Don’t be negative’ This is what everyone who doesn’t have the virus tells those who have the virus and are going through hell. The answer is simple: ‘Don’t worry. Everybody is positive.’

Salman Khan and Corona It’s 6 am and the queues outside the RT PCR testing centre snake and snake like nobody’s cobra, as if a new Salman Khan picture has been released. It’s confusing because a new Salman Khan film has been released, albeit online, and there is a dead single screen next to the testing centre. Unfortunately, there are no tickets in black to get an RT PCR test. The results will take eight days to come. Go home. There really is no point.

‘My deepest condolences’ It’s the middle of the second wave and Indians are exhausted, not by the virus, but because friends, acquaintances and family are dropping like flies. We spend our living days and nights on social media, saying ‘My deepest condolences’. Those without words spend an extra second choosing the appropriate icon on Facebook: “Should I go for teary ‘sad’ or should I go for red-hearty ‘care’?” And then, we are done.

The hangover People are taking time to recover. The virus ‘exits’ but the after-effects linger, like October rain: Insomnia, mysterious fevers, mental confusion where one forgets where one was a second ago, difficulty concentrating on a TV programme or movie, crushing fatigue. One Halifax desi in Dilli says: ‘I just snapped out of it and never looked back.’ It’s called the Great Indian Will Power Argument. I say: ‘You can take a man out of India but you cannot take India out of the man.’

The vaccine centre A month earlier, after filling my details online via Facebook, I reach the vaccine centre, where my details are fed into another computer. The lady inside the vaccination room has a register, a ruler and blue ball-pen. We Indians cannot do anything, from entering a residential colony to getting a vaccine, without the ‘school register’, neat lines drawn in blue. She is intrigued by my surname: “Now, Palash ji, some write ‘Malhotra’ and some write ‘Mehrotra’. Why so?” We totally get into it. A good five minutes go by.

After the jab, a busybody shepherds us into what’s called the Post-Vaccination Room. We all crowd in. He says: ‘Now listen to me very carefully. After partaking of the vaccine, the ladies should not do household work, especially wielding the broom and the mop.’ I look at the ladies. None of them looks like they’ve gone anywhere near a broomstick. Then he fixes his gaze on me: ‘And gents — stay away from alcohol for two-three days.’ I nod my head vigorously. A teenager accompanying her grandparents starts to giggle. After these two essential neatly-gendered messages, we are ushered out of the crowded room, having infected each other to our lung’s content.

Thermometers At the peak of the illness, I’m using five thermometers and they all produce a different reading: Mercury, German non-mercury, digital, Hicks. There might be something to it when the fellow Indian says: ‘Don’t check. It will only stress you out.’

The lathi, the thela and the ghanti There is panic in my small-town because the local administration has decided to shut down grocery stores. The word on the street is that they will be allowed to open twice a week. There is confusion about the day and date. Since most small grocers live in houses attached to the shop front, Indian jugaad comes into play. Cute little doorbells appear next to the shutter. Ring twice and a gnome will appear with the contraband wrapped in newsprint. You look left, you look right, all clear... you stuff the mosquito repellent into your pocket and walk home with a strange sense of accomplishment.

On the day grocery stores are open, the cops decide to go after the pushcarts selling fruit. One is allowed to sell fruit. ‘Get off the main road,’ says a policeman, deploying his weapon on a hapless man’s leg. The fruit sellers rush into a little lane, right next to the down town Congress office. If you cannot kill the virus, kill the banana-man and his livelihood.

FOMO The virus has passed through the population, pretty much. Those who haven’t got it are suffering from an acute sense of FOMO. They keep saying: ‘Even I’m feeling a little feverish today.’ Trust me. You want it but you don’t want it.

The second week Well, it could happen in the first week itself. But there is a point in the infection when one is frightened out of one’s wits. What if the oxygen levels suddenly start to plummet? So many patients report that they were fine till yesterday before slipping into a downward spiral. A pilot friend loses his mother in a rickety Matador. He couldn’t find a bed or an oxygen cylinder in Delhi or Gurugram. Folks are popping ‘Dexa’ indiscriminately, based on WhatsApp Uni info. It’s a roll of the dice, a game of snakes and ladders, a lesson taught to us as children. Do not celebrate at 98. There is a snake at 99 and if it gets you, you will be back to zero, having lost the game. Everyone is on death row. All you can do is apply for Presidential Pardon and hope for the best. As the Bible says, eat and drink today because tomorrow you might not even be here. Sometimes, the feeling a Covid-19 patient gets is that of being lined up in military rows, a noose hanging over each person’s head. One just doesn’t know if the noose is going to fall on you or on the guy standing next to you.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BusinessLine


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

Published on May 21, 2021

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