“Get rid of Annu right away!”
The injunction came from the top.
And then came an oblong package that we hadn’t ordered. It was the implement to lure us into believing that getting rid of Annu wouldn’t be as hard as we were thinking.
Sinister as the plan appears to be, Annu is merely our regular help and the box contained a fancy mop intended to replace her during the scary spikes in COVID positive numbers in India. And the injunction, along with the hair-raising pandemic stories across the world, came from our son, half a world away from us, in the US.
To a person untutored in the ways of middle-class Indians – domestic help is an indispensable part of our lives, our frontline warriors against the daily battle against the dust and grime. And they really aren’t the luxury it would appear to the Western eye, but a necessity at a place where things get coated with dust before you can spell D-U-S-T. The vibrant, vivid Rajasthan that one sees in the travel brochures hides the truth of the unannounced, unexpected dust-storms, the extreme heat with it, which, in turn, necessitates cooking three fresh meals every day, which are rarely one-pot meals. Pots and pans pile up like mini-mountains with this uncompromising adherence to fresh meals every day, thrice a day.
A similar command from our White Hope had come on top of our Lockdown 1 and we had obediently followed it. What followed that, was however a nightmare where my dreams were about endless mopping, sweeping and washing, which would make me wake up in a cold sweat. By the end of the month, I’d done my soul-searching – not Corona, this endless drudgery would kill me first.
“Helloo?” I mumbled when I talked to Sonny the next morning, “Look, Annu is coming from tomorrow…”
The rest was drowned in a “Noooooooooooooo!!!!” as piercing as the siren of an ambulance.
“Listen…” I tried again, “It has been a month, Annu and us, we have all been isolating and are healthy, and….”
“Do you know numbers are climbing in India?”
“Well, yes, we have newspapers (sanitized) and Twitter.”
“So, Annu is returning. Yes, we will be supremely meticulous about sanitization and social-distancing and masking but I’m damned if I open and try the contraption that you have thoughtfully sent over!”
Aditya, our son, is in Illinois, and we are in Rajasthan. If the pandemic hadn’t hit the world, we three would have been together at this time, after a whole year. A visit we had been so looking forward to. We had been gleefully planning family trips, long lists of things we would do in our three months together, longer lists of what all we would be cooking and eating.
Instead, COVID-19 came.
Overnight the plans, the world went topsy-turvy and it hit us afresh how far away we were from each other. Fear gripped us like nothing we had known earlier. It wasn’t only the unpredictably dangerous novel virus, it was/is also the lockdown and the bans on travel. The thought that we wouldn’t even be able to be close to each other to comfort or console, if, God forbid, something untoward happens was the most unnerving of all. It’s a scenario we try to avoid thinking about.
Children of many Indian families are in the US, either working or studying. Even in the world BC (Before Corona) it was a tough decision to make but the plethora of better opportunities and the first-world amenities appeared to make the separation and the distance worthwhile. After all, we were just a long flight away. But when COVID-19 hit the US and international flights were banned, many of us wondered about the wisdom of that choice. Some went as far as to implore the kids to return and find work in India as it was ‘safer’. An argument which didn’t take into account two things, one, that very soon we, in India, would be hit just as hard, making home as dicey as ‘abroad’ and two, no pandemic could last forever, COVID-19 too would pass and things will go back to normal.
After months of being in suspended animation and of adapting to the weird reality of lockdowns; obsessively checking the spread of the octopus tentacles of COVID -19, oscillating between unrealistic hope and deep despair, most of us have come to terms with recrafting our lives to a new normal while we wait for the vaccine or the natural demise of the virus.
And during the unpredictable wait, we are finding new ways to be there for each other. One blesses the technology every day when we ‘meet’ twice a day and exchange all the newsworthy, and for that matter, news-unworthy tidbits. Much like he used to as a kid, my son blabbers about all that is happening with him; we discuss what we are bingeing on, on Netflix, and of course, the family-gossip is exchanged with as much alacrity as ever. The only difference is that earlier he used to lean against the door-frame, these days he is propped up against my pickle bottles – the perfect vantage point for him to keep the whole kitchen in his sight while I cook for the day. On the other side, it is we, who do the propping up, while the son gets on with his cooking – another art which he may not have learned as fast had it not been for the lockdown across our worlds.
I finally have the satisfaction of having passed on the family recipes, and the utter joy on his face is evidence enough that he has mastered the art which he, till now, thought to be complex witchcraft.
He, on his end, looks at us through a microscope, gnaws his nails as he reads up about the number-spike in India and then sends us the scariest articles he can find on COVID-19, and peers at us throughout our calls, maintaining a relentless vigil on whether we are following all safety-protocols and woe betide us if he finds us without our masks when our house-help is around.
From checking up on each other to gossiping to ordering care-packages online when we are physically miles apart is the new-normal we are getting used to and are indeed, so thankful for. The one thing that technology has still to achieve is to transfer the fragrances of home.
And a way to box our son’s ears, the next time he suggests getting rid of our help again.
Madhumita Gupta is a dreamer, animal-lover, writer, teacher, incorrigible movie-buff.