This short story first appeared in the anthology The Lockdown Chronicles – 19 Malaysian Voices
“Who?” I howled.
“I am not deaf yet, why are you screaming?”, Mother scolded over the phone. “Sorry,” I said with more civility.
“Arrey, you met her at Amol’s wedding.”
“That was years ago, and I was pregnant with no patience for three hundred distant
relatives. You made me go to that wedding, remember?”
“Yes, yes and what a good time you had.”
I rolled my eyes. Curls of impatience unfurled from my nose. A good thing she could not see me. “ Anyway, who is this woman that you have invited on my behalf?” “I am only being helpful.”
If there were an award for good Samaritans, Mother would win it every single year. “She is sister Kunti’s mother in law’s sister. Aunty Shanti to you.
She is going to Kuala Lumpur because she won a free ticket at the Brussels Diwali Ball.”
Why do old Indian women win all the free tickets? The last time I won anything was fifth prize in the 6th Grade Christmas play, where I played the donkey in Joseph’s farm with apparent finesse.
Mother went on, “So, of course, I told her she could stay with you. I know you will look after her well. After all, family is family.”
I hated the idea of a house guest. She was not family; she was as related to me as Mahatma Gandhi.
“You don’t want to help?”, Mother’s voice dipped with disappointment.
Gosh, I couldn’t disappoint her any more than I already have. My mind flew back to the oceans of disappointments. The time I got expelled from school. That was a tsunami in itself. Or the time I lost my temper and swore to her face in front of the entire Sindhi community that I’d never see her again. I couldn’t even bear to think about the drunken sixteenth birthday.
“Of course, I will help. Like you said, family is family,” I said weakly with commitment I did not feel.
As soon as I hung up the phone, it was like Aunty Shanti had already arrived. I couldn’t shake the thought of a stranger in my space, and it niggled at me like a sneaky little worm. I tried to call off the deal in a hundred different ways. I even stooped as low as to bring up the mysterious flu from China.
“People say it is going to become a global pandemic. She’s old. She’s high risk!”, I messaged Mother, attaching a number of videos to support my claim. Videos with questionable blurry footage and bold captions alleging the Chinese were dropping like flies from strokes and heart attacks and whatnot. All from one mysterious virus.
But Mother has the stubbornness of a mule and the unwavering focus of a horse with blinkers and was not to be deterred so easily. She was the kind of woman who ventured out for morning walks despite the wails of typhoon signals, who volunteered to cook for a hundred out of a hundred square foot kitchen, and fought off men, women and children at the local supermarket for that last pint of yoghurt. She was my heroine and nemesis, in one.
With one fell swoop, she shot down all my excuses. “Shanti is seventy-eight; you can hardly call that old.”
The arrival hall of KLIA was packed as usual. I waited, hands nervously clasped, in a quiet yet desperate, last-ditch prayer that Aunty Shanti had boarded the wrong plane/missed her flight/gotten deported/any or all of the above. My hopes were dashed when my Whatsapp messages to her revealed two blue ticks. I zoomed in on her profile picture. Great. It was a black and white photo from at least a hundred years ago. It was no use me trying to identify her from the steady stream of tired home-comers and curious tourists that flooded through the hall. Then, quite suddenly, the world went black, and I found myself enveloped in a cloud of fabric and the cloying scent of rose, garam masala and sour yoghurt.
“Radhika!” the woman exclaimed as she released me from her clutches.
I gasped for air and managed a smile, “Aunty Shanti! Welcome to Kuala Lumpur!”
I am not sure why, but I had expected to receive someone who looked like the Queen of England, a handbag-wielding, beret-topped granny; but Aunty was nothing like that. For a woman her age, she was in good shape; her body lean, her stride swift and her posture upright. Her hair was thick and rolled up in a bun. Her sari, a youthful shade of sea blue. Her eyes twinkled amidst her crow’s feet and her nose was bulbous, sticking out like a little squidgy, shiny potato. She had only one ridiculously large suitcase. I hauled it into the back of my sturdy Honda, while she hopped in with the ease of a teenager.
The ride was pure hell. I had to hear about her two sons and three daughters, their assorted histories and geographies. The long drive home from Kuala Lumpur International Airport was greatly magnified and I cursed the distance. Finally, when we were a few minutes from home, I managed to get a word in, “You must be hungry,” I said.
“Actually, I am,” she replied quite eagerly. “They served eggplant on the last leg of the flight and I have an allergy, you know. As soon as I eat it, I break out in hives and my pulse starts racing and…”
Jeez, I stepped on the accelerator a little harder. I pulled up into the driveway and heaved her monstrous suitcase out of the boot. “It is not very heavy,” she offered, without helping. I felt dark angry blood pool in my brain and my fingers go numb.
I showed her to the guest room. “It is lovely,” she said, looking around. “Beds should always face northeast. Maybe we can move it later.”
I forced a smile, “We don’t really believe in Feng Shui and all.”
“I also don’t believe in Feng Shui,” she announced, “why follow Feng Shui when we have our very own Indian science of Vaastu Shastra?”
“You’re right,” I conceded.
That night, I hit the bed defeated . It was going to be a long two weeks.
Mohit asked, You don’t like her, do you?”
“Is it that obvious?” I whined, my chest constricting at the thought of Mother hearing any such thing.
“No, not at all. I can see it because I know you so well,”
“Oh, honey. I can’t stand her.
She wants to poke her nose in EVERYTHING. Do you know she wants us to consider relocating our front door? And, she wants me to wake up early to learn yoga from her. She asked me why I don’t put coconut oil in Anushka’s hair. Honey, have you ever smelled coconut oil?”
Mohit couldn’t help but laugh and that drove me crazy.
“It’s not funny. What if she gets stuck here? This dumb flu thing is getting worse by the day. I heard they are thinking of closing the schools.”
“We have less than a hundred cases. It’s not like Europe.”
“She is from Europe!” I bellowed, “What if they close the borders there?”
“You’re overthinking it. Two weeks are going to fly by and then she will be gone. Do it for your Mother. You always say how you miss her and how you wish you could do more for her. Well, here is your chance,”
He was right. He always is. Unfortunately.
In the days that followed, Aunty Shanti tested my patience like no other ever had. She was in my kitchen, in my refrigerator, in my cupboards, she was everywhere I was. By day five I decided I couldn’t carry on like this so I started going out with friends in the mornings, eating lunch on the go and leaving Aunty Shanti to her own devices at home. Every time I came back she was right there, sitting on the sofa with the television turned up so high I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. I am not proud of myself, but I have to admit that one night I cooked eggplant for dinner on purpose. She had to contend rice with pickles. Of course, I felt bad after, but also a strange sense of victory.
In the bedroom, Mohit suggested, “Shall we take her out to dinner tomorrow? She’s cooped up at home all day.”
I got defensive, “Why are you making it sound like it’s my fault? What am I supposed to do with her all day? I am not a tour guide. Besides, do you know she is trying to take over our house?”
“Come here, you,” Mohit took me in his arms and I sobbed into his chest. “Honey, you feel warm. Are you running a fever?”
“I am fine,” I said, feeling sick and tired. And frustrated. And helpless. And mean. And stupid.
The next afternoon, at a press conference, the prime minster announced a Movement Control Order. No work, no school, no nothing. The borders would be closed, nobody in, nobody out.
I was screwed.
Our Movement Control Order was a thinly veiled lockdown. Mohit, because he is a banker, still went to work every day. Me, the kids and good ole Aunty Shanti from Brussels were stuck at home like caged animals. I did get to go out every now and then to the supermarket and pharmacy, but I had to be gloved, masked and sanitized. And I was stopped at least twice at two police checkpoints manned by the army. Seriously, we need the army for this? And if the army was out here on Jalan Bangsar, who was out there protecting the borders? “They are not the army. They are riot control police,” Mohit laughed when I brought it up. Okay but still, these fellows had MACHINE GUNS to catch people violating the MCO. Why would you need a gun? We are trying to stop coronavirus not hunt down El Chapo!
Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all this the World Health Organization renamed the disease. They called it Covid-19. Nobody had any idea why. I think they picked an unknown word and stuck a number next to it just to make it sound serious and freak us all out. They were really playing this up, I tell you. I mean, why close schools? Can’t they see that children at home are far more fatal to the general population than a dumb flu?
Mohit took the matter more seriously than I did and before I knew it, we had boxes of masks and antibacterial wipes all over the house. He even ordered a digital thermometer and made us all record our daily temperature. “They have you right where they want you,” I said to him one day as he beeped my forehead.
“You’ve been reading the Daily Mail Online again, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I mean, no. But it is true. It makes perfect sense. This is just a ploy to plant a chip in our brains in the form of a vaccine so they can control us. It’s a master plan. Don’t you see it?”
Mohit’s face tensed. He was bunching his eyebrows at the reading on the thermometer. “What I do see is a number I don’t like. Let’s try again,”
He beeped me once more and it still read a hundred and two. “Let me call Siva.” Mohit said.
Dr Siva was Mohit’s drinking buddy and also our family doctor. His tentacles spread deep and wide in the medical fraternity and if anyone could organize a Covid-19 test without getting the government involved, it was him.
Mohit worked from home the next day. He slept with the kids while I was alone in our bedroom. Aunty Shanti remained in the guest room that now looked like it was in someone else’s house, because the sofa was where the bed used to be, and the bed was where the study used to be. I tried not to think about what she was up to while I was isolated in my room. On the contrary, I was actually beginning to feel grateful she was here because she was cooking for us all and looking after the kids. And I hate to admit it but her dhal was way better than mine.
Dr Siva set up a home test within forty-eight hours and I grudgingly permitted them to swab my nose, which of course I instantly regretted for I was sure they brushed my eyeballs. It was awful. The next morning my throat itched like a fuzzy tree and my limbs started to ache. I dreaded the results and prayed to the mother goddess fervently. Amma I will come to India and walk to your temple barefoot. And before I get to India I will locally go and climb the Batu Caves temple every day. And I will bring bananas even though there is the risk of being attacked by monkeys. I will drag the kids also to your doorstep, Amma. And Mohit. And the neighbours. And I will fast, Amma. Every day I will fast. Please don’t let me have this stupid disease.
But by day four I knew something dreadful had taken over my body. The mother of all headaches lasted three days. My insides felt like they were clobbered in a wrestling match and my chest heaved heavily against an invisible weight. And the cough, if you could even call it that. It was dry and deep and painful, rattling every bone in my body. I was all wrong about this Covid-19 thing. It wasn’t a dumb flu. It was a nuclear bomb waiting to explode inside my body.
Mohit got the call on the morning of day five. He looked at me with sadness. “What about the rest of you?” I asked, my heart sinking at the thought that I may have infected my family and maybe they were asymptomatic.
“Negative. All of us. Including Aunty Shanti.”
I could hear the sirens from afar. I peeped out the window and saw my inquisitive neighbours in their driveways craning their necks to get a good look at the health workers in their full body suits, masks, goggles and gloves. It was like a scene from the movies. I pinched myself. This couldn’t be happening, but it was. A fresh burst of pain pierced through my head and the inside of my throat felt like it was being cut open by knives.
There was a knock and I opened the door, but only a little. A plastic-covered arm appeared through the crack. I took the bag from the gloved hand and shut the door. It was hard not to cry as I put on the gear. There was a very thin line between life and death, and I was standing at the edge of it. I tried to tell myself that all would be well; I would be able to hug my children again, watch them graduate, dance at their weddings. I would be able to feel Mohit’s strong arms around me again, and grow old with the love of my life. But the truth was that every breath was belaboured and everything from then on became a blur. I couldn’t even focus on sliding my arm through the sleeve of the PPE. The room swirled like a whirlpool. My head started to disintegrate. My legs grew heavy. I remember voices, far away, muffled, as though travelling through water. I remember sirens and the whoosh of an oxygen tank. I remember the tightness of a mask around me, the elastic band cutting into my cheeks. My last memory was surrendering to the dark abyss, safe in the knowledge that Aunty Shanti was at home to look after my family.
“Mummy, it isn’t proper,” Anushka complained as I tried for the third time to get her braid right.
“Shall I call Aunty?” I finally asked.
“It is alright, child. I am right here. Come, let me do it.” Aunty was right behind me. Aunty Shanti sat down on the sofa and began to undo my messy attempt at hair art.
Anushka was seated cross-legged on the floor, still sipping her way through her hot Milo. “Are you sure you can’t stay another week?” I asked, the lump in my throat
threatening to make its way to my eyes in the form of tears. “Just one more week?” Anushka chimed in.
“I was only supposed to come for two weeks and I have stayed for three months,” she said, her fingers deftly plaiting three bundles of Anushka’s thick hair.
I looked around the house. The side tables had been rearranged, the flower vase had been moved to the entrance of the corridor, the table lamp was no longer in the living room. Nothing looked the same. Nothing felt the same. I had to admit, everything looked better. Everything felt better. I made a mental note to read up on Vaastu Shastra.
“I will never be able to thank you enough for what you have done for us,” I said.
Aunty Shanti reached out and wiped a tear from my cheek, “No need for thank you. We are family.”
Zainudin, Shireen & Krishnamoorthy, Viji (2020) The Lockdown Chronicles – 19 Malaysian Voices Malaysia: Media Master Publishing