Savita was folding socks when they announced the lockdown on the news. As she dropped each pair on the pile by the bed, she realized nothing could have prepared them for something like this. The enormity of a global pandemic was just beginning to hit their collective consciousness. Her husband, Sanjeev, sat next to her in the huge lounge chair they had bought from a furniture boutique in the mall close to his office. After two hours of trying each model, they had settled for this hulk of a chair which now almost consumed the room where they watched television. He watched the news with his mouth slightly agape, leaning in to hear better as if that would help him make sense of this imposed incarceration.
Until a year back, Sanjeev had worked in a big law firm downtown. Since retirement, he had taken to waking up by 10 in the morning, treating himself to elaborate breakfasts and by afternoon picking up the papers to leisurely glance at the goings ons in the world. He would roast a blob of butter on the pan and just before it burnt, drop in two well mixed eggs. He’d try to toss the omelette into the air as he had once seen on a cooking show but the eggs would do a half hearted jump and then rest flaccidly on the pan. After decades of pouring over legal briefs and running around the country representing clients, he was thrilled to spend his days with such laid back abandon. Savita regarded this new guest in her daily routine with mild amusement; she wondered how long it would be before sheer boredom got the better of him.
Savita herself had retired a few years back from the local school where she taught seventh grade Maths and Science. Popular with both students and teachers alike, she terribly missed her teaching years. Each day, she would walk into the classroom with purpose, turn to the blackboard to write an equation to solve. A sea of heads would bend down and scribble furiously, eager to impress the towering figure before them. The backbenchers, normally always out of line, would not dare disrupt her class. A long line of admiring students would form a queue around her room every Teachers’ Day, her desk weighed down with flowers, cards and presents. Years of adulation had etched deep haughty lines in her brows and the proud marching figure of Savita Ma’am easily betrayed her arrogance.
The couple had a daughter and a son, both living in Bangalore and working in IT companies. The kids had only recently moved away to work for bigger firms. They had spent all their childhood in the neighbourhood where their parents still lived. The houses were built close to an Engineering college and the chai tapri on their street was perpetually occupied by students out for a break. Many neighbours had let out spare rooms to the college students for some extra bucks.
‘Do we have enough food to get by for three weeks?’, asked Sanjeev. He cared more about this two egg omelette than he would like to admit.
‘They have said, supply of essentials will not be affected. I am more afraid about how we will get our hands on them though.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We aren’t exactly getting any younger, they are saying older people are more at risk.’
‘Hmm,’ was all Sanjeev could respond with.
They would not necessarily miss the banal company of their work acquaintances or friends but they shuddered at the thought of contracting this deadly virus. Savita had once had a severe asthma attack decades back which had never resurfaced but would make her more susceptible to infection. That night as she threw in a pinch of salt in the curry that she made for dinner, she carefully handled the spices in her small kitchen, not knowing how and when they would get their hands on them again.
Next morning, Sanjeev gingerly picked up the paper, unsure of whether he should even be touching it or not. In his head, he imagined how many people might have passed this around before he got it. The unsightly hands of the paper boy always battling a dripping cold came to mind. He put the paper back on the porch, washed his hands and made a mental note to call him in the evening and cancel their subscription for the near future. As he delved into his trusted world of Whatsapp forwards, he wondered how many of these simple things they would have to give up now.
Savita had made them both a simple frugal breakfast today which Sanjeev accepted with resignation. His omelette was the second casualty of the day. As he picked at the bowl of oatmeal in front of him, he heard a loud knock on their front gate. When he neared the door, he heard the voice of the next door neighbour’s tenant, Ravi.
‘Sanjeev Uncle, it’s me Ravi .’
Sanjeev opened the door to see Ravi leave a medium sized brown bag filled to the brim with vegetables and eggs. He says, ‘I thought it might be tough for you and Aunty to go out, so I bought you some things,’
Sanjeev feels a sudden rush of affection for this young man he has never really cared for before. Ravi started living with his neighbours, the Ojhas from Meerut, the year before last. Mr Ojha was a loud booming man with a protruding belly and the unpleasant habit of picking his teeth with his own fingers, even more offensive in the current situation. Sanjeev had never really warmed up to him or his family and both Savita and him would change direction on spotting them or wave politely from a distance. Ravi was a dangly fellow, the smallest Ojha being several times the frail boy. When he moved around with them, he stood out in sharp contrast.
Ravi was originally from a small town about four hundred kilometres away from the city. He was the eldest child in a family of four younger brothers and at the Ojhas, it was the first time he had a room to himself. His father worked as a constable in the local police chowki, easily swayed by criminals with deep pockets. He told himself that he only took the money to support his oversized family, an impossible task with a constable’s meagre income. But sometimes, he was not entirely sure.
Ravi had spent two years after school, slogging to get into the country’s top engineering schools, but had been unsuccessful. After the second year, he scraped through to the college here. A hugely relieved family bid him farewell to the big city where he lived off campus to concentrate better on his studies. He would diligently wake up each morning, often pairing brown corduroy pants with a bright yellow shirt. He read somewhere that flashy colours would get him noticed faster and he desperately wanted to stand out. In class, he tried hanging out with classmates from the city who briefly humoured him but soon retreated to their own little cliques. He spent most lunchtimes alone, hunched over his food, pretending to read his book but really trying to eavesdrop on their conversations to find some common ground. In the evenings, one of the Ojha brothers would check in on him. Those ten minutes of conversation were sometimes the only words he would say to another human being through the entire day.
Anything his classmates possessed, Ravi would also want. The current rage was the bite sized fidget spinners they would constantly play with in lectures. All professors in college balked at the sight of them and normally Ravi would side with the teachers. But their endorsement by his classmates was enough to convince him. One day, when class was dismissed, a boy followed the Professor outside, leaving his things behind. The students hurried out for lunch and as Ravi passed by the boy’s desk, he quickly slipped his fidget spinner into his pocket. He rushed out with his heart beating wildly in his chest. He was scared of being caught but had no remorse for what he had done. He wanted to belong and when he walked home that evening, he felt he was on his way to getting there.
The next week, the Ojhas wanted to eat out and invited him to tag along. Excited at the prospect of his first dinner out in the city, he donned a bright lilac shirt which he thought really brought out the colour in his eyes. The Ojha brothers exchanged glances when he got out but said nothing. On arriving, they ascended the stairs to reach a dimly lit Chinese restaurant atop a battered old building. Two broken red lanterns adorned the door to the dining room. On entering, you were greeted with the unmistakable gurgling of the aquarium’s motor. Brightly coloured unusually large fishes swam in two tanks by the door, their mouths rhythmically opening and closing as they surveyed the new guests with blank stares. The Ojhas settled into their usual spot by a dried up potted plant. Their regular order was slightly amped to accommodate Ravi. They talked about their day, gossiped about a distant relative’s estranged son and were pivoting to Ravi, when the food arrived. Indian style fried rice, noodles, chicken and vegetable dishes were quickly devoured. not too heavy on the pocket either. For years, Ravi would associate Chinese food with fish aquariums and potted plants, never able to fully enjoy them, preferring regular Indian food instead.
When they got home, Ravi was the last to get out of the car. He saw Ojha Senior strike up a conversation with two dark silhouettes. When he got closer, he saw Sanjeev and was briefly introduced to him. As he bowed his head with a namaste, he noticed the tall distinguished looking man probably nearing his 60s. The grays in his hair not adding age but lending him distinction. Next to him, about a head shorter was a young girl, certainly not a day over twenty. She was wearing fashionable black capri pants with a faded grey shirt. On her left hand, he noticed a smartphone with earphones wrapped around it like ropes; something he also did when listening to his heavily curated playlist of Bollywood hits. The familiarity in what was a seemingly innocuous habit really struck him. He imagined that they probably listened to the same music. After exchanging pleasantries, the two retreated to their house, shutting the gate after them with a loud clang. Ravi climbed the stairs to his room, the girl’s piercing dark grey eyes refusing to leave his mind.
Over the next few days, he gathers some information about her from the Ojhas. He is surprised to find that she is older than he is, almost twenty five. Also an Engineer, she studied at a private college in the city. Unfortunately, she was only at home for some time, leaving for Bangalore soon, for a new job. He was determined to get to know her but still sore from his failure at college, unable to muster the courage. He blushes to think that this is the first girl he has ever liked, suddenly listening to corny Bollywood tracks and nodding with newfound appreciation.
When he talks to Sanjeev now, he peers over his shoulder, hoping that by some miracle, she too would be stuck next door to him for a prolonged period of time. But Sanjeev enquires after his family, the Ojhas, college and more for the next five minutes, appreciates his generosity twice and then shuts the black iron gate behind him. Ravi walks home disappointed but also thrilled at the prospect of continued contact with the neighbours next door.
As days passed, their initial fear gave way to acceptance. The new order of things was unusual but certainly tolerable for those safely ensconced in their own homes. They had one maid who would do the dishes and clean the house. Savita had never allowed anyone else to cook for the family despite working full time for several years. She had inherited her mother’s paranoia for allowing outsiders in her kitchen. When she worked, something her mother had never done, she would wake up at 5 in the morning, simultaneously preparing breakfast and lunch. By the time Sanjeev would saunter into the kitchen, she would have three lunch boxes packed and breakfast ready on the table to devour. Now, the solitary domestic help had been asked to stay away. Savita reluctantly paid her monthly salary in full, not wanting her to gossip in the neighbourhood.
Sanjeev had taken out the vacuum cleaner from where it was stowed in the loft. Purchased some years back on Diwali, a thick coat of dust covered the never opened white box. He ripped it open and read the manual cover to cover. Soon, a loud whirring noise filled the house as Savita slid the machine around, extending the pipe to distant corners under the beds and cupboards. She found long lost earrings, the odd sock and countless curled up balls of hair.
In the evenings, Ravi would dutifully ring the bell at 6.30. After the usual exchange of polite namastes, Savita would rattle off her list. It was mostly everyday essentials like milk and eggs but at the end of the month, the list would include rice, pulses and spices as well. Sanjeev and Savita’s sole means of sustenance was this young boy from the Ojhas, whom they could not bear to tolerate. Today, Ravi lingered a little longer under the boughs of the pink bougainvillea on their main gate.
Savita was more than ready to bid him adieu but he showed no signs of leaving. He asked, ‘Where are your kids, Aunty? I heard they were in Bangalore, is that right?’
‘Yes, they are still there’, she replies, her right foot already arched to turn back.
‘Hope they are okay, are you planning to send for them when things get better?’
‘Can’t be sure, too soon to tell’, she replies.
‘My parents are very worried. My father is insisting that I come back when possible but I am perfectly fine here, no reason to go back.’
‘That’s great, we’d be miserable without you.’
This little affirmation is enough to make Ravi’s day. He giggles modestly and bows his head in a final namaste. Before he could even recover, Savita had flashed him a big grin and retreated to the confines of her house. Ravi hurries home, thinking his efforts have finally begun to pay off. He’s not sure if he would still be allowed in their home but he feels a step closer to getting there.
Sanjeev is pouring over his evening crossword when Savita walks in after meeting Ravi. He nods wordlessly as she tells him that the list has been shared. He is stuck at 6 Across – The act of resorting to falsehood (9). He takes a sip of his coffee and encircles the clue before moving on to the next word. Two hours later, he trudges to the dining room for dinner. They silently wrap the orange clumpy aloo gobhi in Savita’s razor thin chapatis, dipping them in bowls of arhar daal. They climb into bed soon after, both curled up with worn out copies of Perry Mason. Savita nods off first and Sanjeev follows soon after.
The normality of this new arrangement has begun to set in now. Sanjeev and Savita have defined comfortable schedules and barely acknowledge the news anchors bemoaning the rising cases on TV. Pandemic news soon almost becomes a footnote, like the innocuous date Savita would unthinkingly scribble on her blackboard in class every day.
With the inordinate amount of free time on their hands, they found themselves video calling distant relatives and friends. They could easily have reached out before also, but impending doom somehow made reconnecting with these far flung connections more urgent.
On Independence Day, they spoke to Sanjeev’s batch mates from school. Savita normally maintains a polite distance from Sanjeev’s social circle but even she can’t help but chortle at the antics of these sixty year olds as they recount their school days. They are both roaring with laughter as one of them does a flawless impression of his Hindi teacher. Savita can’t help but wonder if her students did the same for her. Students clearly spend a lot of time observing their teachers, Sanjeev’s friend was copying everything from hand movements, speech to body posture. What would her students have to make of her? She fervently prayed it was more flattering than what she was seeing now.
At 6.30, the doorbell rings. Sanjeev shouts out, asking Ravi to let himself in, the door had been left open. Ravi could scarcely believe his luck, he carefully lifted the latch and let himself in. He was not expecting an encounter at such close quarters so soon. He hurriedly cleans his shoes at the battered door mat, not wanting to drag in his muddy feet. He suddenly wishes he had worn a brighter shirt instead of the dull peach one he currently has on. He hears voices from the room adjacent to the lounge and ventures in with one last check in the mahogany mirror in the lobby. Savita and Sanjeev are grinning as they face a black laptop on the table, leather bound books adorning the wall behind them.
As he walks in, Savita gets up to meet him. She flashes him a quick smile before picking up the day’s list from the dresser. After giving it one last glance, she hands it over to him.
As he quickly goes through the list, in a sudden burst of courage, he asks her, ‘Where does your daughter work? I have heard that she’s an Engineer and I was wondering if she would be willing to recommend me for an internship in her company?’
He thought up this excuse at the last minute and was impressed with his own ingenuity. If Savita was surprised by this request, she did not show it, she was straining her ears to keep up with the conversation on call.
‘I’d be happy to help you, given all you have done for us. Why don’t you give me your number? I‘ll make sure she gets in touch with you.’
Ravi reprimands himself for not having visiting cards which he could have handed over with a flourish. He scribbles his number on a piece of paper which Savita finds on the dresser. He has barely handed it to her when she ran back to the call because Sanjeev had whipped out his guitar and was serenading them with an old song. Ravi has never heard this song before, its English words completely lost on him.
In her rush to head back, the paper slips from Savita’s hand and lands on the floor. A sudden gust of wind blows the paper away and it disappears underneath the dresser. Before he can react, she waves him a hurried goodbye from her position behind the laptop. She then guides him out with a gentle forcefulness, muttering something about catching up with old school friends. Before he knows it, he is outside the house, with the clang of the gate and Savita’s flash of a grin disappearing from view in an instant. Inside, Savita’s giggles soon join Sanjeev’s deep baritone of a croon. Ravi stands outside the gate, clenching his fist in disbelief and then vanishing from their lives as fast as the gust of wind, which had now mysteriously disappeared.
Sabhya is a writer based in Delhi. She juggles a full time corporate job which she feels one must do after a hard earned business education from Delhi University and the National University of Singapore. She writes occasionally, dabbling in short fiction and op eds.