In the Shadow of a Pandemic

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

ARTICLES

In the Shadow of a Pandemic

Zerine Wahid | June 10, 2020 12:41 hrs

9.48 am, Tuesday: Still in bed after staying up late last night, writing. I am wondering if I should get out for breakfast or slumber on for some time more. As I contemplate, I am faintly aware of the noise in the kitchen, adjacent to my bedroom. Breakfast is being readied for the kids. I am now wide awake as the sizzle of scrambled eggs and the smell of burnt toast completely overwhelm the senses. Upset even before I could get out of bed as my husband has forgotten to switch on the kitchen exhaust, yet again.

Grudgingly sitting up on the big bed, taking time to gather my bearings, I head for the toilet. I leave the kitchen holding a tray of sugarless black tea and biscuits along with a warm glass of water. Munching on the biscuit dunked in tea, I recall the conversation with my mother from two days ago, hoping at the same time, the strong tea would ease me out of the morning stupor. I could discern the anxiety in her voice over the cancelled wedding and the accompanying frustration over the inability to decide on a future date for my brother's marriage. 

Sipping on the tea, I mentally run the errands and chores that I needed to complete, in my head. Later, after a few phone calls to friends and relatives to check on their well- being, I scroll down along the chats on WhatsApp. One friend has a birthday while another's father had just died. I type in the wishes and condolences. 

Browsing through the pages of the online newspaper, I navigate through the pages of my interest: literature, interviews, movie reviews, news from around the world, the state of the economy and the endless personal tragedies. The world appeared to be in limbo. The news repeated itself every day and nothing much changed.

I am distracted by the noise of sanitation workers spraying disinfectants below my apartment. Onto the streets and alleys, the gates and facades of homes and shops, the boundary walls, the public drains. Even a few vehicles parked beside the pavement. The fumigation sounded like a scooter revving up with full acceleration. Amid all this, I witness at least three vendors take up positions below the large mango tree on one of the by lanes of this quiet residential neighbourhood. The workers are dressed in fluorescent yellow vests to mark them out for the job. People steered clear of them as they proceeded with their urgent tasks.

The shady tree provided refuge from the mid-afternoon glare just as it appeared to provide momentary relief from the current thoughts of a hostile future. Waiting to sell their produce of vegetables, fruits, and farm-raised chicken; as they moved out from the regular marketplace, which was no longer lucrative to their business. All three vied for the customer’s attention. Though not too many were around at that time of the day.

I head back to the bedroom to pull back the curtains and let in the morning sunshine. Making the bed, my eyes fall on the shopping bags still slumped in a corner. I think of putting the formal shoes and clothes bought for the wedding, inside the wardrobe, away from the dust. The house spruced up, I pull in a chair to the balcony of my bedroom. The residents in the apartment opposite are engaged in their muted activities and conversations, as I look on from afar ensconced in my own private space. Humanity never seemed so distant. I missed most echoing voices of kids playing outdoors, though schools have remained shut for the last many days. 

A quick breakfast and I am dressed, masked in front of the mirror and ready to head out to the bank and the grocers. I instinctively reach for my lipstick but catch myself to remind that it is one redundant piece of makeup now. Accordingly, I forgo the trinkets which I normally adorn when I am out. The walk back home takes longer than usual although traffic is sparse. Most of the businesses are closed, including the café I used to frequent with the kids, wore a deserted look. I can almost hear the sighs as I pass by.   

The schedule at home had been upset: Non-essential shops, offices and most public places had been ordered indefinite closure. There was no timeline to adhere to. The restrictions on venturing outside and the imposition of frequently changing government protocols meant people worked, studied, ordered food, even shopped from within their confines. The rest of the day was filled in by cooking, cleaning, reading, teaching, and yes - the all-consuming phone calls, music apps, streaming channels, social media, and television.

Despite the aching monotony of domestic routine, a clockwork-like precision was seen in its adherence. The absence of any sort of recreation or distraction was perhaps a contributing factor. Every household presented a similar story, just like the dilemmas and complaints. All beset with the same worries and doubts, much like a secondary affliction.

Provisioning of daily necessities, food and medicines to subsist for some days, became an immediate concern. People hurriedly retreated into their secure abodes thereafter, cautious not to get caught in the curfew hours. The repeated visuals of despair and loss replayed constantly from across the world. The human race was ubiquitous in its traumatic worst. 

The casualties began to resemble display boards of flight schedules in airports. In reality, the updates pertained to humankind in various stages of extinction. Citizens relied on their coping mechanisms to survive stress. They dabbled in creative pursuits with the utmost urgency never seen before: dancing, singing painting, gardening, singing, composing, creating, lecturing, blogging et al, anything to keep the mind off the impending doom.

I sat glued to videos of curious animals venturing outside their natural habitats into human territory, trying to reclaim lost space. The sea of humanity in a mass exodus, some succumbing midway during their journey homeward. The floods inundating homes and the swarm of locusts, eroding all forms of greenery in its path. The unrest of panic-stricken minds was a catastrophe of biblical proportions.

Wondering if life had begun to imitate art after all? Hadn’t we all read about similar apocalyptic horrors in books and watched endless movie versions of it. Paintings and photographs too were etched in our collective memory, depicting pandemics. Except that, this depiction was like some nightmarish reawakening of the past.
The more I reflected upon it, the existentialist threat appeared to loom closer. I decide to extricate from the dark thoughts and refocus elsewhere. A few exotic birds made an evening appearance. A lonely wasp got adventurous and attempted to soar further up into the sky.

4.45 pm: Meanwhile, one of the vendors has moved away elsewhere, leaving the other two to engage in some sort of animated conversation, perhaps to ponder over what fate awaited them. The sway of the flowering trees to a sudden breeze cast interesting shadows on the streets below. The fragrance released into the moist air made for a heady mix. I kept staring transfixed.               

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