by Samia Altaf
“Will we survive this?” my husband asks me as we lounge around the living room, glued to our laptops. “We are in the vulnerable group.” I look up at a bald man with thinning gray tufts over his ears, peering anxiously at me over black-rimmed glasses. Yes, we are certainly in the vulnerable group. What happened to that bright-eyed young man with fifteen pounds of black hair on his head, the one sporting sideburns that put Elvis to shame? Over his shoulder I see our son also looking expectantly at me, Camus’s The Plague in hand, open halfway.
“Dr. Rieux was only too well aware of the serious turn things had taken.” I think of our other boy, locked down in New York where the virus is on a vicious rampage. I send my child a panic-stricken WhatsApp message even though it is the middle of the night there. He answers, “I am fine ma, don’t stress,” and goes back to sleep. He is brave, that one, and sensible too.
So finally it has come marching in, with remarkable audacity and crackling energy, generating fear, closing down schools, colleges, businesses, shops, restaurants, hotels. Blowing away vendors and hawkers, leaving streets deserted and even the public parks locked. It comes, this COVID-19, not with the saints but with spring. Those glorious, wondrous, fragrant, colorful couple of weeks in Punjab when normally you can imagine that all is well with the world. A time when gulmohar trees burst into brilliant red flaming flowers, regular ordinary vegetation replicates itself overnight, as if possessed of some wild crazy RNA, in places you could not think possible. Rows upon rows of bluish-purple petunias, golden nasturtiums, hollyhocks, snapdragons, gleeful sunflowers, bold dahlias, and lush bougainvillea laden with voluptuous bunches of magenta, violet, and burned-orange clusters draped over walls. And roses!
Roses galore—hot pink, mustard yellow, blood red. And that very special flower, our very own ivory-colored motia and chambeli, that we’d gather in baskets and string together to wear on our wrists and in our hair, infecting the air around with its own heady fragrance. Baiji, my grandmother, was exceptionally fond of these and was surrounded by their fragrance the way the character in One Hundred Years of Solitude was by yellow butterflies. As teenagers, smoking surreptitiously on the terrace, we found this fragrant warning of her imminent arrival enormously helpful.
Yet something is not right with this spring. Even the flowers, in spite of their maniacal energy, look bewildered. At crossroads where the vendors hawked motia bracelets, they now push gray and black homemade cotton masks in your face, their own faces covered with the hideous contraption. Where previously tender rosebuds were plucked off the bushes every morning as soon as the first petal unfurled and rushed to the flower shops, now they are blooming willy-nilly on the bush. Spread out, gaping, petals falling off one by one, untidily sitting there for over a week, slowly decaying ignominiously in their own fading fragrance and their short-lived glory.
A deadly pestilence is revealing human fragility and helplessness. Memento mori. A confrontation with mortality from which we shy away. Except for some brave souls. Like that returning pilgrim, seventy years old, who presumably got infected in Iran and infected many others on his return. Presumably he died a happy man, for he had finally been to all his holy places and got to kiss the ground at Karbala.
More than 2,500 already infected, and we, short of testing kits, are only testing the ones really sick. Thirty-five dead. Only thirty-five, that’s not too bad, is it? we say. Look at New York or Italy and Spain, and those are developed countries. God is truly watching over us, we say.
The prime minister looks tired, not as expansive, but still natty. Impeccably dressed in his signature shalwar kameez buttoned firmly at the throat, anxious bags under his glazed eyes, though his lush, uniformly black hair is firmly in place. He seems quite befuddled; the ministers, more befuddled, cacophonous and babbling, blame each other for spread of infection.
There are many discussions about what to do. I was invited to one the other night: close businesses, stay home, social isolation, and hand-washing were the key, all agreed. On my way back, the rental car driver, about forty, stocky and graying and already paunchy, with yellowing teeth but an innocent smile, was coughing and sniffling but said that he wouldn’t stop working—his was a contract job and he has to pay rent and put food on the table. He can’t practice much hand-washing either, since there is no municipal water supply where he lives and private water procurement and storage arrangements are complicated. These cost about 2,000 rupees a month. He shares a two-room place with his wife, their two children, his wife’s old parents, and his younger brothers. His children, ages four and five, have a “problem,” and he has found the health system unresponsive in every counter he’s had with it. He has spent years seeking help, spent all his savings and sold his wife’s three gold bracelets, only to be humiliated. He does not know which disease his children suffer from. They were born with weak legs and cannot stand, he says, and since doctors won’t help, he is convinced God eventually will. For he gave these children, didn’t he? And so why should he do what the doctors say now?
The next day another driver, when I communicated my worry to him, reassured me. He was convinced that this Chinese disease—he had heard the American president call it that—would not take in Pakistan, “because we are Muslims, you see, and we pray and do wuddoo at least once a day.” He knows it supposed to be five times a day; he laughed, a bit sheepish, but rallied quickly. “Anyway, once is at least better than nothing. With wuddoo we snort water up our noses so any virus will get flushed out. These Chinese people, they are so…” he hesitated, looking for kinder words I think, for he had started with a vehemence that was headed somewhere else, “… are not Muslims. So that is why they got this disease.” He sneezed heartily, unabashedly on his steering wheel, as I sat in the back holding my breath and a tissue to my nose.
The construction workers building a house next to mine have all gone home to their villages—it is better to starve at home with family than alone in the city. They left in a hurry, for transport was closing down, leaving behind one skinny worker who was too stoned to move. Now he wanders around alone amongst the half-built walls and mounds of drying cement, singing sad songs from old Punjabi movies. He has nothing to eat, everything is closed—hawkers, dhabas, teashops, and in any case he has no money to buy anything even if it were available. At least the weather is good; he can sleep in the open. I hear his hacking cough in the evening from over my boundary wall. He calls out a loud thank you, for we send him dinner.
Early in the evening, Nazia, my young cleaning woman, arrives, dressed in colorful shalwar kameez, her hands hennaed and multicolored ribbons tied around her abundant and matching bracelets on her wrists. Why is she here? I had relieved her with pay for the next two months. She needs some help. Her family was celebrating her brother’s engagement, and during the festivities her two-year-old niece fell into the open sewer that runs past their home. The little girl is unconscious, Nazia tells me, it looks she has swallowed a lot of dirty water, and she is bleeding from her scalp. Is she breathing? Maybe. What should they do? There is no transport to get to the hospital. Hospitals are turning people away. There is the lockdown. She had to bribe the security guard fifty rupees to be able to leave her compound and come into the pristine enclave where I live. In a paradoxical fashion, I find this reassuring. COVID-19 or no COVID-19, some things do not change.
As I get ready to leave with Nazia to see what I can do, if anything, my husband repeats his question. Will we survive this?
Check the omens. Some life is going on.