Srinagar: On the sunny Thursday last week, my mother, in her fifties, wore an extra few wrinkles on her face, sitting cross-legged in the corner where I usually find her in her post-breakfast nap when I rise late.
“They are going to barricade the area,” she spouted, not waiting for me to close the door behind me.
“Trenches are being dug up across the streets.”
“Who told you?” I asked.
She named her source—the neighbourhood aunties, who always have something to share while all of them pick their Tchot from the willow basket on the bicycle carrier of our home-delivering baker.
We laughed it off at breakfast, confusing my mother, who didn’t know whether to believe her ears or laugh with us.
Twelve hours into becoming a Red Zone, Lal Bazar had offered our family nothing to worry about.
Everything seemed normal to us inside our living room, which is spatially just a stone’s throw from the house where four members of a family testing positive for the novel corona virus flagged us red; we have to cross three long streets to reach their door, though.
Our colonies are conjoined but separate. They live at Alamdar Colony; ours is Umer Colony.
I have never met that family’s head, who was the first in our locality to test positive, in their large white masjid, where I sometimes go for Friday prayers, or at their local supermarket, where I shop for our unplanned groceries.
All I got to know about his infection was from the bread-collecting women, all of whom strangely started claiming acquaintance with him.
They talked about it before a tweet from someone in the administration. I, however, didn’t believe them, because you cannot trust the information that says the man was asymptomatic for not less than twenty to twenty-five days.
If that be true, may God save America!
For me, therefore, what my mother had heard was no call for concern.
I spent half the day in my pyjamas and T-shirt working inside my home-office, before deciding to go out on my father’s scooter to buy my mother her diabetes medicine.
The truck-on-two-wheels, as I call our first family vehicle, is of immense utility in Kashmir where frequent lockdowns require you to have the skill and means to sneak out for buying a load of supplies.
There was eerie silence all across. No one was out on the streets. The shops that had cautiously kept the essentials available until a day earlier, were shut, too.
The single window open was that of the newly-opened medical store in our colony, and it, too, had replaced its temporary keep-three-feet-away table at the entrance with a plywood fence having a peephole at the centre.
I rode first to Habbak and then to Mala Bagh, picking up every piece of essentials I could find on the way. Till the junction where I only needed to take a left to complete the circle home, I must not have seen more than half a dozen terrified faces.
Near the last lane to my home, about eight masked men were anxiously looking at something. From a distance, I couldn’t understand what was happening, and continued to ride forward.
Then, I saw it! All routes to my home lay barricaded, with square pegs of huge barriers cemented in round holes dug up in the ground—just like the ladies had informed.
Asking no questions, hearing nothing, I took a U-turn to take a network of internal lanes to reach home.
“You were right,” I told my mother, with a sunken heart.
“They have barricaded the area. They may even strengthen these barriers were tin sheets and also block more streets by evening.”
Now, I was genuinely worried.
In my family, my father underwent a major surgery recently, my mother is diabetic, and we have a two-year-old daughter.
Others might have become equally anxious. Two of our neighbours have their daughters pregnant.
I generally don’t trust our system, so the numerous tweets and announcements I began hearing about “all support to be provided to people in Red Zones” were not at all comforting.
‘What happens if I need help? Where will I manage the essentials from?’ I thought, starting to panic, times the number of ‘do-not-panic’ appeals they made on all the online and offline platforms combined.
I quietly waited for the ambivalence to pass, for sharing things with my family would have worsened the matters. I hid myself in bed and put my phone away.
Turned out, I wasn’t the only one worried.
At around 10 pm, my wife alerted me about a message shared in our newly-opened WhatsApp family group.
“Some baker at Alamdar Colony has tested positive. Did you buy bread from him?”
I prevented an eminent heart-attack by reminding myself all roads to the hospital were blocked and by resisting to check my phone.
The truth being that I did buy bread once each from Alamdar Colony’s two bakeries, I was soon overwhelmed to check the messages in the group, with my nihilistic response at the ready.
“Who told you?” I asked my sister, who had shared the message.
“It is on Facebook, and right now they are making announcements in mosques for all their clients to volunteer for testing.”
“Do not trust until you hear from someone reliable.” I almost didn’t mean it, and prayed for her to succumb. “Relax. Switch off your phone and sleep.”
Myself, I couldn’t sleep.
I kept turning and twisting the facts in my head, hoping to rule out any possibility of my having visited the bakeries after one of them might have caught the infection.
Before midnight, I got up twice from my bed to try to hear any announcements. There was none, frankly, but I halted brushing thrice after confusing the sound of bristles against my teeth with a human voice on a loudspeaker.
At midnight, I switched on the TV to drown my worries in American sitcoms, which somehow worked, as I fell asleep after repeatedly touching my daughter’s forehead for any signs of fever.
The next morning, I didn’t check my phone at all, choosing the comfort of oblivion. Instead, I prayed for the security of my family.
But the stations of faith were not getting any closer, either. It was going to be my third straight Friday without congregational prayers in our mosque.
Previously, I used to visit the mosque at least once on a day when no one else would be there, to find my strength. But I could not think about doing it anymore, for the twin fear of getting infected or infecting the others, more latter than the former.
I needed my faith more than ever.
All three of our exists—the one at Botashah Mohalla, the one at Umer Colony, the one going to Malabagh—lay blocked, with impenetrable barriers.
Our world was restricted to the expanse of our colony, roughly 1.5 kilometres in radius. Every major medical store, hospital, food store was outside the perimeter. The stores within were not reachable to the suppliers.
And the only weapon I was now left with was self-belief, which was put to a severe test in the afternoon.
“Yes, it is true,” said my mother, “Aunty (our trusted next-door neighbour) said a police vehicle made announcements about the baker’s infection.”
According to Aunty, the infected baker was the one from whom I had purchased Tchevoer during the lockdown. Aunty’s son, she said, had known about his infection three days ago and had warned his family.
Coming from a rather reliable source, the information got the better of me. I panicked. My mind started fighting the threat of disease and its associated stigma together.
Then, I pronounced: “I did purchase bread from him. I, however, do not remember when.”
Everyone was left dumbfounded, frozen in action.
First reaction was nervous accusations.
“How can you be so careless? I was telling you..,” said my mother, realising midway she never told me anything.
And, I had done nothing abnormal!
Clearly, however, my confession was dragging everyone down with me.
Readying for prayers, my father, not realising he had not moved in the last five minutes, came up with superficial optimism.
“Nothing will happen. Do not worry,” he said.
Before anything else, we decided to stop buying Tchot from our regular bakery.
I found it bizarre. We cannot possibly produce everything at home. But I was likely the source that might have brought the bug home.
You cannot really talk logic or science at that point!
I know what fake news is, and I definitely know how to recognise one.
Yet the overwhelming influence of fake news I experienced at that moment shall be a matter of research.
We all gathered in the living room, inadvertently and usually staying three feet away from one another.
I pulled down the calendar to calculate the date of my purchase from the bakery.
“It was on the second or third day of the lockdown in India,” I roughly remembered from how the site of young boys going to play cricket had made me question their sensibility and efficacy of the lockdown.
“Even if it was on the sixth day of the lockdown, the farthest possible date, we have still safely covered the 14-day period.”
Like some propagandist state or its media pets, we clung onto that possible positive scenario and stopped counting.
That was not the right approach. The right approach would have been to call the authorities and report.
But call whom? There was no one in sight; no camps or nodal offices; no moving vans or helplines.
The loudspeaker van the people had talked about might as well have been their imagination of help coming from the administration.
No one entered our Red Zone. No ambulances. No fire tenders.
Nor could we exit.
We were Bahrar, the abode of stigmatised lepers confined to a zone and condemned to die, if they may.
Just when I brought myself some respite by confirming the truth about the baker from my media friends, a tragedy struck.
A very dear aunt died of cancer. She lived just outside the Red Zone, but her graveyard falls within the perimeter, in Alamdar Colony itself.
Just four people could attend her funeral.
How they managed to carry her body to the graveyard over the barriers at midnight is a story I didn’t dare ask them about.
I was one of the absent mourners, who could not even wave his goodbyes at her coffin when it passed through our back lane.
I could go to her grave but I didn’t, the reason being the same the Bahrar inmates prefer isolation for—stigma.
Challenges in life are more consistent than Covid-19.
My next challenge was severe toothache to my five-year-old nephew and his father. What a terrible coincidence!
The moment I got the call from my sister, I understood she needed me, for moral support, if for nothing else.
I needed to go. I wanted to go.
They live in the world of some other colour.
For three days, they managed by consulting dentists over phone and taking the medicines prescribed, but to no avail. Every time we called them, shrieks of my little nephew broke our heart.
I did the best thing I could to have them summon all their strength to fight it alone—show indifference. Finally, when nothing worked for them, I managed them a connection at the Dental College, where they had to reach by themselves.
As much as I have cocooned myself, I still need to go out every second day to buy essentials. I don’t want to say where I go and how, lest they would block these hidden passages, too.
The stocks are exhausting; the shelves are getting empty; the shopkeepers no more entertain us. And everyday, there is a new zeal shown by the administration to impose further restrictions in Red Zones, where, at least in our locality, testing hasn’t been done to check the spread of the infection.
Does it make any sense?
Only if you believe confining a people to a zone, without any support or supplies, will kill only them and no one else! This idea may even find public support until the colour becomes common.
“Looks like we are being punished for the family that tested positive in our neighbourhood,” comments my father. I think he is right.
The only creature coming to check on us has been the fence-hopping stray dog. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s extension in the lockdown, he, too, hasn’t shown up.
(The story is as narrated by a source to this reporter)