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When The Mahamari Comes Home

Posted: May 29, 2021
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While juggling multiple roles, don’t forget you are important too.  Make yourself a priority because no one else will with #KhayaalRakhna

While the world has been reeling from this pandemic, a look at how it must seem to the poor and the downtrodden, through the eyes of a fictional character.

Sadashiv uncapped his bottle and splashed some water on his face. March had turned unusually hot and dry, but the heat was not yet as oppressive as it would be in May. And yet, he felt hot and flustered. Beset by a sudden spasm of hacking cough, he clutched his gamcha (thin, coarse cotton towel) to his face before spitting out a wad of phlegm. His chest felt on fire. Every time the cough rose in his throat, it felt like needles were poking into his lungs. What had started as a mild dry cough had worsened significantly and now his chest hurt from the effort. Of late, he had been feeling more tired too.

The city was reeling under the onslaught of the mahamari (pandemic). On the radio they said that there was no cure. The pictures shown by the news channels on the television were even more dismal. People were dying in numbers that far outnumbered anything Sadashiv had seen in his lifetime. Not even in the Latur earthquake, near his village, a few years back had so many people died. A natural tragedy, even an illiterate like him could understand. It was not in human hands to control such an occurrence. It was the will of the Gods. But, what was this mahamari? Where had it come from? Which God would create something this bad?

A few days back, Prime Minister Modiji had appealed to the nation with folded hands and advised everyone to stay indoors. He had begged people to maintain social distancing, wear masks and keep themselves safe inside their homes.  Apparently, if you remained in your home and did not meet anyone, you could not get infected. Fearful for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, many people had chosen to heed the advice.

There were hardly any pedestrians and there were no passengers to ferry in Sadashiv’s auto-rickshaw. The only people that he could see on the streets, as he sat by a once-bustling street, were those who covered their faces under voluminous scarves or masks. They scurried like rats and balked at the prospect of physical proximity with another human. Everyone was scared. The fear was evident even on the tiny slivers of faces that showed from behind the masks and scarves.

Sadashiv was scared too. He knew he should stay home. That was the only way to save him and ensure the safety of his wife and infant son. But, his wife and son had been sick for the past week with high fever. He needed to tend to them but he could not do so without earning some money first.

Last night, the Chief Minister had announced a lockdown on the city. Public transport like the BEST buses and the local trains were shut. But, some auto rickshaws and cabs were allowed to ply, although with some precautions. What if someone needed transportation in an emergency? So, when the auto rickshaw union had called for volunteers, Sadashiv eschewed his own safety and stepped forward.

The little money that he had saved up had long since been depleted. He needed to earn some money before the day ended today. There was milk and medicine to be bought. His wife and child needed that.

But, he had little chance of succeeding in the wake of absent passengers.

Later that evening…

Sadashiv pushed open the door to his shanty. His wife lay prone on the charpai (traditional woven mat). The baby lying next to her was crying weakly. But, she seemed oblivious, as if in a drunken stupor.

“Radha!” he shook her. She moaned in delirium. Her eyes fluttered open briefly but she seemed not to recognise her husband.

Sadashiv picked the baby up. His son was hot to the touch. His breathing was shallow, each inhale a laboured rasp. His colour white, like the ash from the fire in the hearth.

“Radha…Radha…” he shook his wife with more urgency, suddenly fearful. Groggily, she opened her eyes again. They were blood-shot and swollen.

“Get up Radha,” Sadashiv shook her again a little more forcefully, panic starting to seep into his weary voice. “The baby…there is something wrong. We have to go to the dawakhana (doctor’s clinic) NOW! Get up!”

Radha mumbled incoherently, attempted to get up but fell back again. She seemed to have no strength. Sadashiv shifted is son to his other arm and felt Radha’s forehead. She was burning up too.

Mai!” (mother or Devi maa, the goddess), he mumbled and hauled her up. Unshed tears of frustration, weariness and worry prickled his tired eyes. Cradling the baby in the nook of an arm and supporting his wife with the other, he staggered towards the rickshaw parked some distance away.

There were a few people loitering near the dawakhana. But, the shutter was down and a big fat lock graced the shutter clasp.

Dawakhana is shut,” a wire-thin old man with more bones that muscle on his frame, seated at the cemented parapet in front of the dawakhana, informed him. He coughed into a rag at the effort the utterance required. “Doctor has been deputed to the Municipal Hospital,” he wheezed.

“But…that is fifteen kilometres away,” Sadashiv was dismayed, looking at his infant son. His voice broke. “Isn’t there anyone else to give medicine? My child will die!”

The man shrugged and looked away.  Another’s problems were not his concern. He had enough of his own.

Sadashiv’s shoulders sagged. His chest felt weighed down. Each breath was a laboured effort. His entire body throbbed as he tried his best to bear his wife’s weight and support her. But, in spite of that, Radha’s legs gave way. She sank to the ground, too depleted to stand even with support. “Take the baby and go to the hospital. Leave me!”, she mumbled.

“No! No, I’ll take you both,” Sadashiv insisted as he bent down and hoisted her up. Leaning her head on his shoulder, he led her back to the rickshaw. The effort drenched him in sweat. He felt short of breath and his legs threatened to give way any moment. But he held himself together by the sheer will of his love for his family. He mopped at the beads of sweat at his forehead and thought, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel so hot?’

The war zone in the middle of the city

Even at that time of the night, the Municipal Hospital looked like a war zone. The parking area was chock full of vehicles and the hospital looked like an over-stuffed suitcase, about to burst open and spill its contents at any moment.

The OPD inside was crammed full of people in various stages of sickness. Some were coughing uncontrollably while others lay on the floor, curled up, too sick to move. A few sat propped against walls, waiting to be attended to, their eyes staring vacantly at nothingness. The few hospital staff scattered among the sick looked tired and irritable. They snapped at those who clutched at their clothing or worse still, accosted them as they bustled about with supplies. The PDA blared announcements that got swallowed by the cacophonous buzz. It was difficult to get a word in edgeways.

In desperation, Sadashiv looked about him. Who could he approach? Who could he ask? Who would help?

The heat inside was oppressive. It was worse inside than outside. The constant opening and closing of the main doors of the OPD had ensured that the air conditioner has probably gasped its last quite a while back. Sadashiv’s throat felt scratchy and parched. The lack of oxygen, probably due to the swirling mass of patients, made him feel dizzy and nauseous as he was jostled endlessly in the small space. It took every ounce of his mental fortitude to not give in to his exhaustion. He could not afford to feel weak or nauseated. Not right now. His family needed urgent help. They depended on him.

Spying a nurse by an information kiosk that seemed marginally less mobbed than the others, he gulped a steadying breath and all but dragged Radha as he made his way there. The kiosk was surrounded by people clamouring for the hapless nurse’s attention but, with sheer determination Sadashiv managed to elbow his way through to the front.

“Sister…” he yelled to be heard above the din. “Sister, please…my baby is sick. My wife is sick. Please, help.”

“Wait your turn,” the nurse replied without looking at him. Her voice, coming from under her mask, was almost lost in the racket.

“Sister, please…” pleaded Sadashiv, more loudly, on the verge of collapse himself.

“I told you, wait your turn,” she snapped, finally turning her head to look at him. “I’m busy. Can’t you see? Everyone wants help. Either wait or get lost.”

Sadashiv’s eyes pleaded with her but the nurse had already looked away to scream at someone, “Don’t touch that! I told you, stand back! Don’t touch anything with your dirty hands. Move back…move back…NOW!”

In his arms Sadashiv felt, than heard, his son’s ragged breathing quieten. The child’s body, which had had a threadbare pulse with just enough strength to slightly inflate his chest, seemed to recede into its own exhaustion. The child went limp in Sadashiv’s arms, his small head dangling from the nook in Sadashiv’s elbow. Sadashiv looked at his son. His pallor had a tinge…was it blue?

“Babu…babu…,” he called out, his words an agonised rasp as he shook his son. The child remained unresponsive. Radha, slumped against the kiosk frame, seemed to be hardly breathing herself. Her face shone white from under the pallu of her green saree with which she had covered her mouth. Her eyes, partially open, were glazed over and her head hung limply to one side, as if her neck refused to support it.

“Mai!”, Sadashiv prayed to the Goddess. Fatigued and frustrated at his inability to do anything, a hoarse cry escaped him. He nudged Radha with one foot. Wordlessly, she slid to the floor and slumped to her side. Her partially opened eyes stared lifelessly at Sadashiv.

Sadashiv’s knees buckled at the sight. He clutched the lifeless body of his son tightly to his chest and desperately tried to hold on to some support as he fell. His hand closed around the kiosk frame as he sank down.

The last thing that he heard, before his own eyes closed and he too succumbed to perpetual oblivion, was the nurse yelling, “Don’t touch! Stand back! Stand back, all of you. Don’t touch!”


Author’s note – In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are many families like Sadashiv’s who have or will succumb to oblivion. And, they are not even at fault! It is us, the educated middle and upper class idiots who are to blame. It is us, who brought this pandemic home to them.

So, it is also up to us to combat this…not just for ours but also their survival. So, maintain social distancing and respect the lockdown. Respect the measures that have been laid down for the safety of the people. There can be no hope unless we become the hope.

Image credits Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada, Used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license via Wikimedia Commons

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Sonal is a multiple award winning blogger and writer and the founder of a women-

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