Little sparrows are flying helter-skelter. It appears they are desperately searching for a shelter. Alas! That is the one word which elude both avian as well as the human species, at the moment. Even though men have homes, which they can call their own, they are running out of their sequestered walls in order to buy essential commodities required for immediate sustenance.
People are crawling out of their shelters like ants, trying to gather up their stocks. They are making hay as long as daylight lasts. The Covid-19 has struck and all attempts to stall its progress has failed. The virus has enveloped the entire world in a pall of gloom. Despair and despondency are running amok. Because the symptoms are akin to those of the common influenza, people are taking all precautions to impede the spread of the common cold as well.
When a police van arrived near Natasha’s house that day, people from neighbouring houses thought it was related to her father’s condition. Natasha’s father is a businessman dealing in leather-craft items. At present, he is at home, sitting and sneezing, with his mouth and nostrils covered with his palm. But his sneezing has sparked off alarms in the neighbourhood. Since the Coronavirus flu is a highly contagious disease, people the world over are augmenting their precautionary measures. So a sneeze here or a cough there is enough for the people to hit their so-called ‘panic buttons’.
As the hooters of the police vans died down, people slowly emerged from their self-imposed home-quarantines, to look at the culprit from head to toe.
“But Dad, there are no pulses available in that grocery store. The world has gone mad. People are hoarding their stocks like there is no tomorrow.”
Natasha, a girl of twenty, as slim and tall as the ace tennis player P.V.Sindhu, informed her father, who is seen very busy contemplating whether or not to ‘self-isolate’ himself. Newspapers and the audio visual media have almost gone berserk in reporting cases of this dreaded virus in our country.
Natasha lives with her parents in a sprawling house, a family edifice which is in a sorry state of disrepair owing to the lack of proper care and involvement from its present residents. The house, with latticed windows, had been built by Natasha’s great-grandfather, also involved in flourishing trade and commerce. It is situated on a lane adjacent to the Nizamuddin Railway Station of New Delhi. Natasha was born here and the midwives, who helped her mother during her prolonged labour, continue to remain on the payroll of this large establishment, still.
Besides being a student of History at the Delhi University, Natasha is also a singer. She has a special gift of rendering Ghazals and Thumris with particular finesse. She had sung the thumri popularised by legendary artist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan “Aaye Na Balam” at her elder brother, Ravish’s wedding, held last year.
But the house is celebrating for some other reason, altogether, at the present moment. Natasha’s own wedding is just a month away.
“All the girls in our household were given away decked in ‘ghagra-cholis’. From what I heard just now, it seems that my darling niece wants to wed attired in a traditional Indian sari?”
Natasha’s eldest uncle, who owned an automobile junction, remarked over the breakfast table, one day.
Natasha replied, rather too promptly. Manoj always complemented her when she wore a sari. Natasha, the staunch feminist at heart and deed, did not believe that saris showed off a woman’s cleavages to best advantage. Rather she strongly endorsed wearing the sari among her friends, as it accentuated inherent feminine elegance.
Manoj, her fiancé, is a UK- based engineer. Tall, fair, with a French cut beard that heightened his masculinity, he was everything Natasha ever dreamt to find in her life partner. In his quite frequent emails to Natasha, he often admitted that he adored and loved her and was eagerly waiting for the day when they’d get united.
The Coronavirus outbreak had left the entire family in a tizzy. Almost all the preparations were complete, with only the arrival of the groom being anticipated.
“What are we going to do?”
This question, with no apparent answers in sight, seemed to hover over everyone’s lips in the household.
“Europe has reports of more Corona patients than China. Look at Italy! There seems to be more people dead than alive. Manoj is coming from London. Let us all pray for both Natasha and Manoj.”
Natasha’s father mumbled as he looked up from his newspaper in the morning. They, Natasha’s parents, had chosen the groom for their daughter with extreme diligence and care. When Natasha’s mother had raised objections over sending their young girl to a distant, foreign land, he had been the one to reassure her.
“Manoj is a gem of a person. He’ll take care of Natasha and I’m more than sure about that. His parents have been known to me for many years.”
But the Corona pandemic outbreak had, of course, altered the normal course of events. Natasha’s household was one among many prepared to be directly affected.
Manoj Kothari was quarantined upon landing at the New Delhi airport. He had all the symptoms of the dreaded virus disease. He, along with a handful of co-passengers, from the British Airways flight that touched New Delhi from the Heathrow airport, were taken to a nearby private hospital where they’d remain under constant vigilance and care. This was, of course, days before the government barred all international flights from landing at any of its airports around the country.
Natasha was barred from visiting Manoj. The plans for their wedding were thrown up to the winds. Everything had gone awry.
“Natasha! Hey look you crazy girl! Stop weeping. Why? Just because Manoj couldn’t come to you straight upon landing, shouldn’t be a reason for you to have dark circles under your lovely eyes.”
Natasha’s aunt, her ‘phuphi’, had as much concern in her voice for this young girl in the family as everyone else.
Natasha’s friend from her college, Nandita, decided to drop by one day and try to cheer her friend up. She had just purchased a book online and decided to give it to Natasha as a gift, who she knew loved reading. The book was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In The Time of Cholera.
“Natasha, it’s the best of times for reading. That’s why I brought you this. Since our classes have been indefinitely suspended, what better pleasure than cuddling up with a book?”
“Nandita, I want your help. Say that you’ll never refuse me.”
“But before I promise, I must know what my darling friend is up to.”
Natasha held her friend’s hand as tightly as she could.
“I want to escape.”
“Escape? Whereto on earth?”
“Have you gone crazy? You know he’s been kept under quarantine isolation, don’t you? Wait for some time and Manoj will come to you by himself. But for now, it’s an absolute No-No to visitors.”
“I know about these guidelines. But I am desperate. Please help me, Nandita.”
So both these two girls decide to visit Natasha’s fiancé, Manoj, in a clandestine manner. It’s so arranged that Natasha would pose as one of the food suppliers, an arrangement made from the side of Natasha’s father to ensure that his future son-in-law is well looked after, and – then they’d manage to spend some time alone together.
The dress of a male food supplier was brought by Nandita. It was she who did the requisite make-up for her friend, Natasha, complying with the latter’s desires. So dressed in a khaki uniform, with a ‘topi’ on her head where all her hair was tucked in, Natasha emerged from her house, with a dark moustache and beard glued to her face with extra care.
Nandita smiled at her handiwork. She knew she had done her job well when both she and Natasha passed under the scrutinizing gaze of the latter’s parents. Natasha’s mother failed to recognise her daughter even when the latter smiled at her at the exit gate.
Manoj stared and stared. He couldn’t believe his eyes when the person who brought the food from Natasha’s household, removed all traces of make-up in front of him and behold! Out emerged Natasha in person!!
“What on earth…? How come…?”
The unfinished questions were soon silenced by Natasha, who put her fingers over Manoj’s mouth.
“No, no. Don’t utter another word. Get ready fast and let us both sneak out to the rooftop.”
Natasha’s note of urgency in her voice made Manoj sit bolt upright on his bed. Together they climbed the polished staircases of the hospital-cum-quarantine centre and reached the terrace. From where they stood, they could see the distant sun setting slowly over the horizon.
“Manoj, our wedding is just a month away. I came here to tell you that even if your blood sample tests positive, even then I’m willing to wait for you till the end of my days.”
Natasha’s eyes were locked with Manoj’s own. For the first time since he landed in India, Manoj felt hot tears running down his cheeks. He was mentally prepared to hear his wedding being called off because of the life threat that he may expose Natasha to. He loved her dearly and had expressed it several times in his emails.
Both embraced under the glow of the setting sun, joyous that they could turn the giant wheels of fortune in their favour.