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Pandemic – Alokparna

Mar 20, 2021 | Fiction, Front And Center | 1 comment

Translated from the Bengali by Rinita Roy

March 23, 2020

Now beyond any doubt, people have begun to doubt each other. Beyond all suspicion people have grown highly suspicious of each other.
Wearing masks is legitimate now, also a dire necessity here and now touch is taboo!
The sky burns above. The ground beneath pulsates.
As of today, the whole world seems to have shut down. Even the shop downstairs has not raised its shutters. There are fewer people on the streets. Even the call to prayer from the mosque, has been silenced. On the empty streets, a breeze wafts aimlessly. The heavy sack of flour that I carried home from the next block in the scorching heat left me totally exhausted.

March 30, 2020

In the last few days her head itched continuously. Today she found a louse in her hair. It had probably flitted into her hair from one of her colleagues in office. I asked her for the name of the person. But got no answer. We didn’t have a fine-toothed comb in the house. The shops were all closed. The whole day she scratched her head as she tried to get the lice out.
I kept her at arm’s length.
The medical stores have run out of facemasks. And the supermarkets do not permit you to enter if you are not wearing one.

April 3, 2020

To the east of our apartment, in a double storied house lives a couple and their son. The mother is obese, has an injury on her right leg. The father has a propensity for vanishing from the scene like a pack of old unused cards. Every now and then he disappears somewhere within the house and then for a long time nobody can trace his whereabouts. The sixteen-year old boy is a roughneck. In the evenings while he walks on the terrace, he habitually spits into the flowerpots with great nonchalance.
We have bought three kilograms of onions and one and a half kg of eggplant. We will consume them slowly. Only three or four days’ worth of food is left for the fish in the aquarium.
On Facebook, people are seen having Dalgona coffee.

April 6, 2020

The eggplants are full of worms. The worms have spread to all the other uncovered food left in the fridge. I have just thrown out all the food. I find it difficult to breathe. I am getting increasingly restless. I gave her a mouthful for leaving the food uncovered.
I hesitate with the knife in my hand while I cut the onions.
Her insulin is almost finished; I need to restock the fish food as well.

April 10, 2020

Today I found a louse on my shoulder.
I squeezed it to death.
So far, my head did not feel itchy at all.

April 11, 2020

While returning home after buying the insulin pills, I saw an eagle that perched quietly on our apartment boundary wall. I had never encountered an eagle at such close quarters before. At other times I have seen them floating in the sky like specks of fried cumin seeds in a wok. The bird did not fly away even after seeing me. It might have guessed that I, or rather we being cornered slowly, day by day.
When she receives phone calls these days, she retreats into the other room with the phone. At least four or five calls come every day and the calls usually last for about ten minutes.
Finally, I could get the food for the fish today.

April 13, 2020

While washing the kitchen utensils I remembered having read a piece of news – in Uttar Pradesh, an impoverished mother, currently unemployed and unable to feed the hungry mouths, had drowned her five starving children in the Ganges. I told her. She said she had read about it. We went on with our work tentatively.
Our heads itch more frequently now. The two of us keep scratching our heads all day long.

April 14, 2020

Saw some red ants moving in a long line. They emerged from the kitchen and then the line of ants turned to the right. The procession went past a crumpled lump of paper on the ground and moved on towards the bathroom. Some of the ants in the line were holding small grains of sugar above their heads as if in great reverence. I remembered having read somewhere as a child that ants are able to carry weights twenty times heavier than their own. Hence, ants are always held in high esteem. About five years ago, I had dropped a gas cylinder and cracked the floor; when the line of ants reached the crack, they appeared confused, the procession almost broke up. From the organizing committee of ants, one communicated with the bewildered ones with great fervor in Ant language and then with great diligence helped them across the crevice. The procession crossed the doorframe and entered a small hole on the extreme left. Not one came out of the hole after entering it.
I entered the kitchen and found the sugar bottle in smithereens on the floor and shards of glass strewn all over.
How do the ants smell the presence of sugar?
Today is the first day of Baisakh, Bengali New Year Day. I just ripped off the pages of the last few months of the past year, 1426, from the calendar, crumpled them into balls and chucked them here and there. The ants got past one such crumpled paper ball of the past year and moved towards the bathroom. The undated old calendar on the wall, with the picture of the Goddess Kali, her feet firmly placed on Shiva’s chest, swings happily in the breeze.
Yesterday I got a kilogram of sugar. I also bought two hundred and fifty grams of coffee, forty eggs, three kgs of potatoes, half a kg chilies. I had to settle for a packet of vegetable oil since clarified butter was out of stock.

April 17, 2020

Felt drowsy the whole day long. Got up at noon and after a meagre lunch went back to sleep and woke up at eight in the evening. After that, for the rest of the night I lay awake restless till six in the morning. She started her online classes. Half asleep, I heard children’s voices. I hallucinated about my childhood. It seemed as if my mother called me in sleep.

April 18, 2020

I had a strange dream about how the fish food had run out, and the fish in the aquarium had started cannibalizing each other. The lone survivor, the Tiger fish had grown restless and moved around in circles and went on and on hitting the glass wall of the aquarium in despair. In hunger, it started eating itself.
Now the tiger fish skeleton circled the empty aquarium and bumped into the glass wall every now and then.

The fish food I bought the last time should last us the next couple of months.

There is a steady procession of vegetable vendors on the road outside.

April 19, 2020, 9.28 a.m. 

The sound of an explosion woke me up. Startled, I sat up bolt upright but did not find fire anywhere. I went out of the room to detect any possible source of fire and found her busy on a call. On seeing me, she stopped talking. I entered the kitchen but found the gas cylinder intact, and the knob secure.
Where on earth did the explosion take place?

April 22, 2020

The local drugstore does not stock shampoos that kill lice. People in this locality do not suffer from such infestations.
In the evening we both shaved our heads. In the mirror, we looked like two peaceful Buddhist monks. She discovered an old scar on the right side of my head. It was very old. I didn’t remember how I got it.

April 23, 2020

Since yesterday we have got together for sex six times. For the first time she agreed to rectal sex. Since we could not find any lubricant, vegetable oil had to be used.
She did not receive any phone calls today.

April 24, 2020

Only when I observed my big toes closely, did I realize that they have minds of their own. I assumed, in all probability, they were both Marxists. Like all Marxists they were highly opinionated. If you pricked up your ears, you could hear their whispers on anything and everything. I woke up at midnight one day and found them discussing the various facets of Buddhism as expressed in Manindra Gupta’s novel. I did not like to intrude into their tete-a-tete. I felt redundant. I listened in silence, and at one point of time I found that the dawn of 24th April had sneaked into my room and parked itself beside me.

April 26,,, 2020

These days I seem to repeat all my actions thrice… Otherwise a restlessness gnaws at my insides… I get a feeling that the task at hand is not quite complete… I wash the same cup three times over… I fold a shirt thrice… Think the same thoughts three times… But of course,,, I say it aloud just once lest she starts thinking that I am going mad…
There is a lizard on the wall of our room… It emerges out of the ventilator late at night and ogles me… It swallows hard… Then it runs towards the light in search of insects… It never succeeds in catching one… Each and every time I root for the lizard and lose the bet… If I only sided with the insects???
In the afternoon I put on a mask and went out for garbage disposal… The masked policeman at the crossroads asks irascibly where was I headed??? I pointed to a garbage bin three hundred yards away… Three times in succession…

April 29, 2020

Irfan Khan passed away.
Today she received phone calls again, twice in the morning and twice in the evening. Each time they spoke for about five minutes. All four times in the verandah.
Any news of death leaves me inert. At times, I am even unsure if I am dead or alive myself.

May 1, 2020

I was awakened by an uproar. Saw the boy on the eastside house beating up his father in their second floor room. Didn’t know for what reason. The mother, because of her injured leg, could only yell at her husband and son from the ground floor.
The story of the mother drowning her starving children turned out to be fake news. It appeared she was mentally unbalanced and a quarrel with her husband caused the disaster.
Rishi Kapoor died yesterday.
She likes Ranbeer Kapoor. I do not like Ranbeer Kapoor simply because he is her choice.
I wonder if the workers are celebrating May Day across all states today.
Today onwards, shops will start to reopen gradually.
I run my hand over the scar on my scalp and try to remember how and when … but I just cannot recall.

May 3, 2020

When I went to get insulin this morning, I met the man from the house on the east, the same man who had a penchant for indulging in a disappearing act. He didn’t know me. I knew him well enough. In spite of it, I saw him smiling at me through the mask. He returned home after buying a strip of pain killers.
The lizard has just caught a moth. It swallowed it slowly, with great difficulty, but swallowed it all the same, just the way we down our sorrows.

May 6, 2020

These days, the skin on my hand and feet started to wrinkle, as if soaked in water for a long time. Even without touching water, the toes stayed bent for some time but returned to normal on their own. I could not fathom why.
In the evenings I felt feverish, though my body temperature remained normal. I felt a twinge of fear rising within me. I washed my hands, right up to my elbows, several times. Hands wrinkled for the right reason this time.
Our hair is growing back like sharp spikes. No comb needed yet.

May 8, 2020

Tagore’s birthday today. The day to remember poet Rabindranath whose picture otherwise clings on to the walls like a lizard, for the rest of the year.
Her colleague’s name is Samiran. Samiran Pal. We would separate after the lockdown. Would follow other court procedures later.
In the evening I feel feverish again. But this time I abstain from washing my hands.

May 10, 2020

Samiran Pal. Passed his Higher Secondary examinations in 1995. He had a pet dog at home, a black Labrador named Ronny. Ronny Pal. There is a Facebook page with his name too. His elder sister is called Mona Pal. I don’t know the meaning of the term Mona. I don’t like such inane names. If someone with a name like that sings Rabindra Sangeet I find it contrived. Personally, I had nothing against the Monas of this world. Girls with names like Mona are like a packetful of puffed rice, cramped in a bottle and placed on a kitchen shelf in a corner that is least accessible. But they make very good sisters. On occasions like ‘Bhaiphota’ they genuinely wish their brothers well. Habitually they sleep with their eyes half open. They never score more than 75% in Maths. They cry while watching Bollywood movies. They cannot bear to see violence on the TV screen. If visited by prospective grooms, they sing ’Hey sakha mamo hridaye raho,’ hoping to kindle desire.
Last two days, I stopped feeding the fish in the aquarium. Just didn’t feel up to it. I also went without a bath for two days in a row.

May 13, 2020

Everything around me seemed to have suddenly sprung to life. The water bottle, the comb, the story book, the towel, even the door and the iron bars on the window, pillows and bed sheets, the wall clock, the television, the teacups, the steel plates, spoons – all seemed awake. Mute. Unmoved. Yet aware of our imminent separation.
The big toes spoke through the night. They were gossiping about Samiran Pal’s salary. I tried to get cozy with her. Could not. Scared of refusal.
During the day, I donned my mask and went out with an empty shopping bag. The police did not question people out on errands.
The lizard did not seem to find any insects on the wall. It kept staring at me. What could I do to help the situation?
Again today I skipped bathing.

May 15, 2020 11a.m.

At last I took a shower. Later I donated two thousand rupees to the Chief Minister’s fund. I fed the fish a while ago. They blessed me for my kind gesture.
Strangely her hair grew long, but mine were still short and spiky.

May 15, 2020 3p.m.

A while ago I tried to get intimate with her. I was rebuffed.
I remembered our kite flying days, My brother and I. On the terrace. Once the kite got entangled in Anu’s antenna. Their terrace was only a step away from ours and could be crossed over easily. The terrace was very slippery and dangerous during the rainy season, almost as hazardous as a marriage. I slipped and fell and hurt my head, my eyes were saved by a whisker. My brother pulled me up and took me to the doctor. We were scared to tell our father. I wore a cap even at home. The wound healed on its own. Without my knowing a scar developed on my skull, only to surface again in 2020.

May 15, 2020 8.45 p.m.

Since evening we fornicated like animals. I developed a catch in my waist. Didn’t realize initially. Later, I applied a salve.
The lizard made a meal of a spider a while ago. I decided to name it “Biju Pal.”

May 16,,, 2020

Samiran Pal warned me over the phone to stay away from her… I have recorded the call…I kept listening to it at regular intervals… Samiran Pal mispronounced his abusive words… He just could not get it right… I googled and found out you could make do with both… Both pronunciations were acceptable…
In the evening another eagle perched on the boundary wall… I didn’t know if it was the same bird I saw last time… Eagle on the wall… Eagle and the wall… I played around with the rhythmic words and phrases and amused myself…

May 17, 2020

I told her to take a final decision in a week.
The airlines started their flights as of today.
The boy from the east side house twisted his ankle on the stairs. He sat on the terrace, his legs bandaged and his cell phone tucked under his chin. He kept spitting into the pots of flowering marigold. His father just brought him a cup of tea.
My toes were in constant discussion about link between the turn of phrase in Garcia’s writing and the flow of water in the Amazon River. I enjoyed the tete-a-tete, but I learned that they doubted Marquez’s greatness. According to them, Bibhuti Bhushan was by far the most wholesome novelist ever. I blurted out, what did they think of Murakami? They ignored me.

May 18, 2020

She cried this evening. All by herself. She didn’t call me. She sat alone in the bedroom and cried. I never liked disturbing anyone sleeping or crying.
Samiran Pal did not call again. I wonder is he a divorcee or a widower? This morning I saw 26 pictures of their trip to Digha on Facebook, where she was tagged. In the afternoon, I gave ‘Like’ signs to all the pictures. I also saw some pictures of Kali Puja celebration at Mona Pal’s household. Mona Pal’s husband is Suman Pal. He own a tube light manufacturing factory. His bike is red. They son is five or six years old. They live in Bagnan.
Biju was trying to catch an insect. The insect flew off every time but did not land too far away. Perhaps it lost the will to live.

May 20, 2020

I love storms! I wish to be reincarnated as a storm in my next life. A whirlwind, in which the eye will remain calm like the eyes of Buddha, where the world will come to a standstill, where one can sit and experience tranquility.
Inside or outside there is a storm raging everywhere. Storms mesmerizes me.

May 22, 2020

When I went to feed the fish, I found the female guppy swollen with eggs. Outside on the streets more people could be seen moving to and fro. Tomorrow I would try to go out without the shopping bag. Her insulin was almost finished.
She informed me that she could not make a decision so quickly. Especially now, in these circumstances. I observed that her hair had now grown shoulder length, whereas mine was just about fit for combing.
Suman Pal sent me a friend request. I accepted.
The eagle did not show up again.
I donated another thousand rupees to the Chief Ministers Relief Fund.
Didn’t see Biju for the last few days. Where did it go?
My hands and feet started to wrinkle again. I wondered why, of late I hadn’t washed too much.

May 23,,, 2020

We all left our homes… We were out on the streets… However, none of us wished to renew our old ties… We seemed to have all changed… Changed drastically… We really could not recognize each other anymore…

May 25, 2020

Very sunny. Or very rainy. Everything is in extremes all around.
In the afternoon I dreamt my father was warning me not to go out of the house without an umbrella, in the scorching heat outside. The eagle returned in my dreams and perched on the boundary wall.
When I woke up, I found a welcome message from Suman Pal on Facebook.
Biju Pal came out again. It lost its tail. It looked new yet barren.
She informed me again that it would take her a while to make up her mind.

May 28, 2020, Afternoon

My hair is finally fir for combing. It does not itch anymore. In the morning I chatted with Suman Pal on messenger for a while. I felt we could become friendly.
They were cooking dried fish in the eastside house. I had to shut the window.

May 28, 2020 , 11 pm

Suman Pal wanted to know if she was really my wife.
I just didn’t know what to say.

May 29, 2020

A while ago, she told me that she had finally come to a decision. Asked me over to the bedroom.
The female guppy spawned today.
Office will start as of next Monday.

May 30, 2020

I have had fever since last night. I don’t have a thermometer to take a reading. I like looking at the aquarium. It induced a kind of indolence. From afar, I can see the fish have started to devour each other. I feel Samiran Pal will be the sole survivor. After eating up all the fish, he will start hitting the glass walls of the aquarium. Unable to break free, he will devour himself. Just as I am slowly eating up myself, the way she is eating up herself. Biju eats up his tail the minute he sheds it. Our next-door neighbor, the sixteen-year old boy, begins his meal with his old father and will finish with the marigold flower pots. Suman Pal will also eat up Mona Pal. The girl named Mona will sadly watch herself being devoured. Swallowed up completely.

Finally, supply and demand of masks have been equalized all over the world.

 

Alokparna

Alokparna

Alokparna is a software professional by the day and a writer by night. She is currently based in Bangalore. She has published four books,- Jhinjhira (short story collection), Haoyashohorer Upokotha (Short Story collection), Daastango (Monologue), and Rano Biswas karo naam noy (Novel)

Rinita Roy

Rinita Roy

Rinita Roy is a Post-graduate from the Calcutta University in English Literature. Graduated from Lady Brabourne College, Calcutta with English.
Joined Jamshedpur Women’s College as a lecturer, later became the Head of the Dept. Evinced an interest in students’ extra-curricular activities and remained involved throughout. Editor of College magazine, directed plays, coached students in public speaking for debates, elocution etc.
Now retired and a homemaker living in Kolkata, pursuing a host of hobbies like reading, writing, music, painting, cookery and gardening.

1 Comment

  1. Wasi Ahmed

    What a wonderful piece– so deftly sketched!

    Reply

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