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Opinion | Covid’s castaway security guards

A security guard from Mumbai channels Tom Hanks from 'Cast Away' by adopting a stuffed panda as his lockdown companion

Ram Singh, 66, is a security guard in suburban Mumbai who was requested to stay in the building’s premises for the duration of its lockdown. (Photo: Anindita Ghose.)
Ram Singh, 66, is a security guard in suburban Mumbai who was requested to stay in the building’s premises for the duration of its lockdown. (Photo: Anindita Ghose.)

I only visit the building where Ram Singh is a security guard at intervals. And so I have been able to observe the changes in the stuffed panda that sits beside him over a period of time.

An oversized panda, much larger than the size of a healthy seven-year-old, is hard to ignore. Singh told me he had rescued it from a discard pile and that it served to intimidate a stray dog that sometimes wandered into the building lobby. The residents named it Laxman Singh, a name Ram Singh took to fondly.

At first, Laxman Singh only sat on an identical red plastic chair beside him. The day I saw it resting with its feet up, blanket over its legs, a cap positioned over its eyes to block the light for a restful afternoon nap, I asked Singh about his friend. It kept him company, he said. And listened patiently while he read out news, unlike the restless young delivery boys, who were the only people he was interacting with while the building was in lockdown for two months. Singh had been requested to stay on the premises for the duration, with the RWA organizing meals for him. He is now back on an 8-8 shift. But it was a lonely couple of months.

Akela toh mehsoos hota hi hai. Manushya ek samajik prani hai. Akele rahega toh tabiyat kharab ho jayega…ya dimag fresh nahi rahega (Of course I feel alone. Man is a social animal. He’s likely to fall ill if he stays alone… and it’s likely that his mental condition will deteriorate)," he tells me.

Laxman Singh reminded me of Wilson, the volleyball that Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) befriended in the 2000 movie Cast Away. Wilson the volleyball serves as Chuck’s personified friend and sole companion in the four years that he spends by himself on a deserted island. The trope was created by the film’s screenwriter, who consulted professional survival experts while researching the film.

Singh, who is from Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh, battled another disease in this period: panic. A month ago, when he complained to one of the residents about a stomach pain—diarrhoea is the first symptom for some covid-19 patients—they panicked, didn’t listen closely to what he had to say, and sent him to a doctor with strict instructions not to return. The doctor dismissed it as a clear case of severe indigestion, possibly due to the new diet imposed on him by the RWA, a departure from his fresh roti-sabzi routine.

While Singh doesn’t hold a grudge (Darne ki baat hi thi. It was right for them to be scared), he is back in the building lobby on his own terms now, and with his own tiffin. The 66-year-old is confident about his immunity. As someone who has seen smallpox and cholera outbreaks, he is convinced the coronavirus can’t beat him down. His morning routine includes a giloy kadha and 40 minutes of yoga—including all the prescribed breathing asanas—and the day’s news on YouTube. He prefers Zee News and Aaj Tak and walks a distance to get a copy of Yashobhoomi, which is the only newspaper he trusts.

Singh has been in Mumbai for three years in the same job. He has a diploma from Pratapgarh’s Industrial Training Institute and worked as a wireman with a rolling mill plant in Kolkata for 20 years before this stint. He labels his state of mind as happy, and as very happy the day of the month he sends 5,000 home.

His family—his wife, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren (his son died some time ago)—only call him once every four-five months. Discovered during the lockdown, he believes Laxman Singh might be a suitable companion going forward too. He listens and doesn’t talk back. Nothing can be better than that.

What do they talk about? They discuss how to stay safe and also gossip about why some residents order out so much. A running joke has been that no mask will fit Laxman Singh’s strangely-shaped face. That’s the other benefit, he tells me. A friend who will never fall sick, or die.

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