On a cold January morning, I woke up to the whirr of a drone outside my window. As I stepped into the balcony, the sun was trying to break through the winter mist. A cold, clear zephyr burst through my ribs and rolled down the spine. My first impulse was to slip back under a furry quilt and gulp down a shot of vodka. But, the drone was hovering over my head.
1,2,5,7, I punched the m-pin for the ‘Aarogyam’ app on my phone. The face of the Prime Minister appeared on the screen with another smart acronym: BIMAR—Be Intelligent, Manage at Residence. On cue, the drone hung over the balcony and a light flickered for a few seconds and something that resembled the barrel of a gun aimed at my forehead. I waited impatiently.
Inspector Anil Jaiman’s face turned red with anger when he read the day’s reports. Nine shops had been looted in the past 24 hours, three persons had committed suicide and dozens of empty homes had been ransacked. In four places, hundreds of people had spilled out on the roads, demanding food and blankets.
He punched the keypad of the phone with the ferocity of a scorned boxer. His nostrils flared as he heard the sound of coughing at the other end and a recorded message exhorting everyone to stay home.
“Stay at home, my foot. Tell this to these brigands and protesters.”
“Jai Hind, sir,” his deputy answered the call, stifling Jaiman’s spiralling rage.
“Sitaram, people are laughing at us. There is complete anarchy; mobs are striking shops and homes everywhere. The curfew is a farce, everyday hundreds are defying it. Hindustan is now mobistan,” Jaiman fumed, letting out a litany of expletives.
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“Janab,” Sitaram’s voice was cold and depressed at the other end. “What can the police do when thousands are willing to defy us? They have been jobless for months now. There is nothing to eat in thousands of homes. Many families have fled the city to safer zones in the interiors—their vacant homes are easy targets. How many homes and shops can we guard with a small force, sir?”
Jaiman slammed the phone down. In his 25 years of service, he had never seen the fear of danda disappear from the city.
The drone fired its gun. On the app, the PM’s face was replaced by three stats: Temperature: 98.4, Respiratory Rate: 18. Days of quarantine: 78. A QR code with my face emblazoned appeared on the app. The Prime Minister’s face popped up again: Congratulations. You are not going to be BIMAR now. Corona se daro na!” The edges of my lips curved up.
Back inside the warm comfort of a quilt, I thought about the 12 months that had changed my life completely. A few days after I returned from a holiday in Penang, I first read about a strange illness that was killing people in China. Over the next four months, it swept through the world, bringing millions of people down with illness and economies down with a long lockdown.
Days turned into weeks, weeks into months but the illness just refused to go away. As the number of infections doubled every few days, dead bodies stacked up in morgues and hospitals got overwhelmed, the government kept extending lockdowns, bringing in more restrictions, locking everyone up.
In my small studio apartment, I got used to the loneliness; working from home during the day, spending the evening hours watching TV, and sipping coffee at night staring at the twinkling stars and the bitter moon. With the monsoon rains came the news of the closure of all call centres in India as governments in Europe and the US decided to shift them back to their backyards. In one day, thousands like me were rendered jobless, with low bank balances and high debts.
Late in September, as the government decided to roll back some of the restrictions, people started spilling out on the streets again. But, the freedom was ephemeral. Within a fortnight, the virus returned with renewed vigour, revelling in the post-monsoon hospitality.
The second round of lockdown was even more draconian. Now, instead of cops, drones were watching us from the skies. Every morning, they took our temperatures, scanned the lungs and counted the pulse and breathing rates. Those who showed any sign of illness were swiftly taken away and quarantined in stadiums and vacant apartments. Every morning I would wake up to the sight of obituaries written for familiar faces.
“New wave of infections is Pak conspiracy, says home minister,” Jaiman read the headline aloud. “Welcome back, mantri ji, you are back in form.” Jaiman tossed the newspapers aside. He strapped his belt on, walked out of his office and lifted himself wearily into his white Bolero. As he drove through vacant roads, Jaiman noticed the torched remains of ‘Ahmadia Autos’ on his left. To his right, many shops had their shutters taken apart, insides emptied. A few yards away, he could see corpses burning in a vacant stretch of land that had been turned into a crematorium.
When I saw him at a police barricade, reclining in a plastic chair, a cup of tea in his hand, Jaiman appeared lost in thoughts.
“Hello, Anil,” I walked up to him and said jauntily. We had gone to the same college, and, even if we had not, the mere delight of speaking to a fellow human in person after several months would have anyway cheered me up.
“It’s me,” I introduced myself from behind my N-95 mask.
“Ah, my friend, how are you? Where are you going?”
“Not BIMAR now,” I smiled from behind the mask. In response he showed a tag on his wrist. I knew the colour code: the green on his wrist meant he had been infected by the virus and now had antibodies to it.
“So you got it? How was it?”
“Mostly mild, except for a day of heavy breathing. But, now I think I am immune for life.”
“Hopefully,” I replied.
I pulled out my phone and showed him the QR code. Jaiman’s eyes twinkled for a second. “So you got the invite. Congratulations.” He scanned the code in a hand-held machine and beckoned a constable to remove the barricades for me.
“Good luck, mon ami,” I heard him say as I walked past the barricades.
The invite I had shown to Jaiman was for vaccination. After 15 months of trials, two pharma companies had rolled out shots that gave temporary immunity. Since the production was slow, people were being chosen through a lottery and given a clearance code if they were not ill.
“Two drops in each nostril after 15 days of quarantine. You will be examined again on the 15th day and given a code to open the box. Keep it refrigerated till then. Once you take the shots, put this tag on your wrist,” a nurse slid the vial from behind a glass. The tag was blue, it had the PM’s face and three letters: VIP—Vaccinated Indian Person.
On the way back, I noticed that I was completely numb. Instead of joy, a feeling of euphoria because my freedom was about to be restored, a vacant calm had fallen over me. My job was gone, savings had disappeared, unpaid EMIs had piled up, and the only industry that could have offered me a job had wound its way back to the US. More importantly, I had learnt to live alone, on meagre resources. And, frankly, I had begun to relish my own quiet world, the freedom to life beyond the gaze of the world.
My trance was broken by a tap on the shoulder. Four persons with masks and iron rods had crept up behind me. “The box,” he hissed.
For some strange reason, I felt neither fear nor anxiety. “Why do you want to steal? You will get it when your turn comes?” I asked wearily.
“We can’t wait,” one of them growled back. “Give it now or we crack open your skull.”
I placed the box on the sidewalk and stepped back. Within minutes, the vacant road swallowed the robbers.
I stood still on the road, thinking of what to do. I punched a number on my phone.
“Inspector Jaiman,” I said.
“Yes, hi. Did you get the vaccine?”
“Yes, but somebody’…”
“Oh, I mean someday, when all this is over let’s have a beer together.”
“Yes, mon ami. How can I say no to a VIP?” I could feel him smile at the other end.