Quarantine Chronicles of a Guwahatian
Two weeks ago, I shared on G Plus my eventful return to India on an Air India repatriation flight after completing my Fulbright fellowship in the US, and then the experience of being quarantined at Delhi for seven days. And then on 27 June, after a clean bill of health from the hotel medical team, my passport was returned and I entered the final phase of my repatriation journey – the journey home to Guwahati.
I arrived at the airport three hours before the flight, the Arogya Setuapp duly downloaded and registered. After the initial face recognition security check from behind a glass counter, my bags passed through a scanner-cum-sanitizing machine. Once inside, to my great relief, I was allowed to check in my two suitcases free of cost, Needless to say, saving Rs. 12,500/- for contents whose value was less than a third of that amount made a huge difference to my repatriation history.
Domestic Terminal 3 of IGI airport was a pleasant surprise after the unreal, far-from-normal events at the international terminal. Past the security checkpoint, stores had opened up, the food court was doing brisk business, and masked travellers hesitantly lounged, browsed and entertained themselves in half-disbelief. Near the Air India gate, a young officer handed out forms to fill and a packet of mask, visor and sanitizer sachet and made repeated announcements for social distancing.
Inside the aircraft, just like the international flight, attendants were suited up, and did not walk the aisles. Passengers warily negotiated their space, bags and seats, scared of being contaminated by strangers. It was all familiar, the mask and visor, the sweat and crowding, but it felt good to leave smog-laden Delhi and head back to the soothing green-ness of Guwahati.
I had also heard a lot of Assam government’s efficiency in handling the COVID-19 situation, and I was not disappointed.
We were welcomed at Guwahati’s LGBI airport by courteous officers and handed forms to fill. Our bags came doused in sanitizer, and thankfully I found a trolley to load my heavy suitcases. The airport was a hub of activity, with separate sections and counters for travellers to Guwahati city and other districts or states. I was directed to a counter outside the arrival terminal, where a group of young, masked officers checked my passport, noted my contact details and led me to an air-conditioned bus. There was a Rs. 90/- bus charge, but I was happy to pay it, thankful that the government had arranged for AC buses, after the unpleasant experience of the non-AC DTDC bus journey in the Delhi heat and smog.
Dusk was falling, and I was grateful not to have the familiar Assamese mosquitoes taste my foreign-returned blood as I sat in the bus, mindful of stickers discouraging passengers from occupying adjacent seats. My co-passengers, mostly men, looked on, bored and disapproving, as I heaved and shoved my two 23 kilo suitcases on to the vehicle. No one offered to help, or even made a pretence of getting up from their seats, and I missed my Delhi co-passengers. After a half hour wait, by which time it was dark, our bus started on its journey to Sarusajai stadium, where the actual health screening procedures awaited us.
It was a jerky half-hour ride through the Rani bypass, and it felt like eternity. Long stretches of the road had disintegrated because of the rain, and as the bus negotiated the occasional ditch, my suitcases rolled across the bus aisle, slamming into seats, passengers’ legs and then dancing back to place.
As the bus turned onto the main road, my errant suitcases toppled over near the door. My male co-passengers stared, bored and disapproving, as I struggled to turn the suitcases upright. And when the bus came to a halt at the entrance to the screening hall, they waited for me to remove my suitcases (and theirs) from the bus door, and got off. No ‘thank you’ came my way, and it was time to lug suitcases again.
Up the first ramp we travelled, my three suitcases and I, and up the next one, until we found ourselves in a large hall. Sarusajai stadium had turned into a COVID-19 screening and testing centre for air travellers, with chairs laid out neatly, three or four feet apart. We were given forms to fill at the entrance to the hall, and every officer I met was courteous and helpful. Things moved like clockwork: form numbers were announced, and passengers were called to a large podium with numbered cubicles, inside which sat officers in masks, shielded by a plastic separator. We spoke to one another through microphones. We displayed our forms and they noted down the addresses from which we had arrived, our home addresses and contact details. And then I found myself at the testing booth, where a PPE-clad medical official inserted a pipe through the small window right into my nose. I asked if I could take a picture to show my family, and he complied, trying hard to disguise his amusement at this weird request. So there I was, phone camera on selfie-mode, clicking the grotesque sight of my tongue sticking out as the gentleman inserted the probe into my throat.
Finally, the back of my palm was stamped, and I was done. I was then handed a packet of snacks and a bottle of water, and directed to the travel desk. After three eventful hours, I was home, courtesy Deputy Secretary & OSD, NRHM, Assam Pomi Baruah. It was good to be home after almost a year abroad. Nothing had changed, and yet the world I had returned to was not the one I had left.
The next morning, 28th June, a group of four police personnel arrived to seal the house. They asked if I was comfortable, if I had a separate bathroom to use, and if I needed groceries. Then they took selfies, posted the notice on my quarter wall, and left with instructions to stay indoors. Two days later, my older son arrived from Hyderabad, and underwent the same procedures. Unlike me, he was quarantined at the Gateway Grandeur hotel in GS Road, where he spent six interesting days, eating three meals a day and amusing himself with the regular spats between irate guests and exasperated hotel staff.
He is home now, my bearded, long-haired 26-year-old, to complete the rest of his quarantine at home. We have both tested negative, and we are loving the quarantine experience. I have met my two sons after a year, and they are meeting each other after six months. We have been spending our time cooking, cleaning, chatting, gossiping, watching ‘Dark’ on Netflix and generally ‘hanging out’. I have work to catch up on, and to prepare for the webinar invitations that I am getting, to speak about my Fulbright experience, my experience of teaching and living under COVID-19 lockdowns in a foreign land, and my repatriation journey.
It is good to be back and to whine about the same old systemic failures. It is great to catch up friends and family on WhatsApp group calls and Zoom sessions. It is wonderful to catch up with colleagues and students, and present on Facebook Live and Google Meet, wearing a bit of eye make-up and jewellery at camera level and pyjamas underneath. Strange times require stranger measures, and I am loving the challenge.
I refuse to let the horror of the community spread affect how I look at the world. I want to believe that good times are just round the corner, and my beautician will open up shop soon.
Until then, I will watch YouTube videos on ready fixes, enjoy the pollution-free Assamese air and force myself to exercise. Life is not easy, but then a little masala is good for the soul!
(Dr Padmini Bhuyan Boruah is Professor & Head, Department of English language Teaching, Gauhati University. She has recently completed her Fulbright Scholarship at San Diego, California)