“And exhale…rub your palms, don’t wipe your face”, said my yoga teacher upon ending the class.
There are hushed whispers in the class among the ladies, about the person who’s just been quarantined in Thane. “He had come back from Dubai and showed no Corona symptoms.”, a lady said. “It’s way more serious than the government is letting on”, another said, wide-eyed. “Hospitals are sending people back saying it’s common flu. So many cases are going undetected.” A woman in bridge pose quipped, “Atleast China has robots to handle the sick. We don’t even have that.”
My memories went back to the SARS outbreak of 2003. Panic had ensued in the media and in my school, where teachers (they only meant well) would say things like, “Don’t come in contact with anyone from China! Wear masks to school! Boys and girls don’t sit close to each other!” In anguish I cried to my Dad one night, begging him not to go to work. I still remember his response, “There are many ways to die in this world. SARS is just one of them.”
When the news of Covid-19 first came out in January, the rumours flew fast and wild. “These Chinese are testing dangerous weapons on bats.” “The kind of food they eat, this was bound to happen. They sell land, water and air animals together in their supermarkets.” Shit hit the roof when an image from a 1981 Dean Koontz novel page did the rounds on Whatsapp. “They call the stuff Wuhan-400 because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside of the city of Wuhan, and it was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created at that research center.”, it read. Did Koontz have any idea that four decades later, his prophecy would prove fact is stranger than fiction?
I watched in awe as pictures of newlyweds kissing in masks emerged from China. I watched as toilet paper became a precious resource and gold rates soared high. I watched fashion week get cancelled, even as Naomi Campbell posted her space-suit like ‘Beat Corona’ airport look. The super-rich were retiring to their secluded private yachts, newspapers reported. N95 masks and sanitizers were increasingly being added to shopping carts as the stock markets veered dangerously low.
My own personal low came when my mom forbade me from attending my best friend’s wedding. Scheduled in the midst of a city-wide public gathering ban, my mother threw a fit at the idea of me taking a flight to Delhi. “Are you mad? What if someone sneezes on the catering! All the airport escalators and seats are infected!” This was after me not telling her that most of the relatives were coming from Kerala. My temperature rose just by the thought of my friend never speaking to me her entire life. I was ready to brave the virus, not the wrath of my friend.
Depressed, I tried to make the most of staying upbeat inside the walls of my home, competing for WiFi data usage. My grandma, who otherwise tends to be forgetful, asked me in Bengali whether “the difficulties” happening in the news would mean the postponement of my aunt’s annual trip from the States. My grandfather, up until now had been gleefully enjoying his daily paper and taking great pride in staying abreast of current affairs. One morning at breakfast he blankly stated, “the worrying thing is that the first death in India is that of a 70-plus man. Us old people seem to be at far greater risk.” Knowing better than to indulge their anxiety I repeated the golden mantra, “Keep washing your hands and don’t touch your face. If someone wants to greet you, just say Namaste”. I wondered if the ruling party would take credit for the Namaste brainwave. In any case, the reliable WhatsApp university was doing the rounds claiming the Upanishads advocate maintaining a three feet distance in society; that handshakes and hugging were an evil from the West.
Which brings me to Tom Hanks, for no good reason. Actually, he is the narrator of the Audible book I’m listening to this month, The Dutch House. Midway between him serenading me with his antics of being Danny- his character in the book; he got diagnosed with, you guessed it, Corona. The girls in my book club (yes, I have one) wailed. “How will I finish the book now?”, they said, as if he was whispering it live into their ears.
Humour was one way to stay survive the gloom. “Did you order Chilli Chicken?” my friend joked when I told him I had a slight dry cough. “Or receive a shipment from Alibaba?” The Punjabi pop music scene exploded expectedly, with songs like “Yaar Tera Kudiye Corona Varga”. Because what good is your lover if the death toll doesn’t rise by his sheer machismo? Mrs. Dow Jones, who explains finance terms in her Insta account, is going meme-crazy with posts on her “her ex” Warren Buffet would buy the market dip. Others like Rujuta Diwekar, the celebrity nutritionist, found it an apt time for some business-related gags., “For those who plan on starting exercise from tomorrow, gyms kal se band hai.”
My yoga teacher, mid-camel pose, suddenly breaks the air of dread, “I’m so worried schools will shut down.” Everyone looked at her, quizzically. “How will I handle the kids at home all day?”