It always bodes ill when the mobile pings in the middle of the night. It was Mom on a WhatsApp video call, looking deadbeat, still in her PPE regalia, calling from the hospital.
“Darling, I’m afraid I’m stuck here! There’s been a flood of patients and there’s no way I can leave anytime soon. I know, Amma’s leaving tomorrow, but you’ll have to tell her to stay till I get back.”
Amma was my four-year-old sister Tania’s maid, a vital cog in our household. I grimaced.
“Mom, Amma got a call from home and took off like a bat out of hell last evening!” I had freaked when Amma had told me: Tania and I led very separate lives.
Mom had been due here early the following morning (I was to pick her up from the tiny railway station). I had had to let Amma go—but (after a couple of beers) thought surely I could manage my opinionated little sister for one night and half a day—no issues. (Be firm but fair: they get the message.) Amma had left explicit instructions on toddler care and enough milk and cooked food. Dad would be flying down in his 777 from Los Angeles, and was to join us here too—at the small ancestral beachside cottage we had a hundred kilometres south of Mumbai, adjoining a small fishing village. Mom and Dad had honeymooned here, though famously, Mom had spent their entire first night there delivering the village headman Panduram’s first-born son—and saving both the mom and baby. Panduram had worshipped Mom ever since.
“Oh my God; darling, didn’t you know? All international flights have been cancelled. I don’t know when he’ll be back!”
I rallied. “No problem mom,” I got a little sheepish, “you see I called Luna over too—she’s driving down with Dumbo and Bongo tomorrow…they should be here by around lunch-time. She’ll be able to manage Tania.”
Luna was my girlfriend (since Grade 8 in school), and Dumbo her idiot spoilt brat little brother who was around 7. Bongo was their enormous clumsy Bullmastiff. Her parents too were abroad and had left her in charge of the little thug (Dumbo)—and now I suppose they would be stuck there for God knows how long.
“Oh…” I could see Mom frown, “I hope she manages to reach—they’re locking down everywhere from tomorrow!” Then, “you should have told me she was coming!”
“It was kind of last minute Mom; you know how we like doing things on the spur of the moment!”
“Well you take care and try to be responsible! And wear masks, all of you!”
“Nothing to it Mom,” I was suddenly gung-ho. We’d be more or less alone here, the two of us—the little brats we could handle easily. Covid-19 might be doing horrible things to most people but for us it was turning out to be a godsend!
“Bye Mom, and be careful,” I said trying to sound 40 instead of 21.
“Where’s mama? I want mama!” Tania sat up in her bed next morning and screwed up her little face, preparatory to a tantrum.
“Mom can’t come Tania…her hospital wants her.”
“But Amma’s not here!”
“I know, but Luna’s coming soon. You like her! And she’s bringing Dumbo and Bongo!”
Tania winked dreadfully. “I like Luna, but you love her!” Then she scowled, “but I don’t like Dumbo—he smells and pushes me!”
Frankly I didn’t like the snotty kid either. “Well I’m sure Luna will control him! And you can push him back. Or kick him like this!” She watched me carefully.
“Okay,” she agreed, and smiled.
Luna roared up in her father’s brutish SUV (borrowed without asking of course) by 11.30am, tiny, tousled and windblown, dragging a sulking Dumbo behind her. Bongo jumped out, barking.
“I had to drive like I was in Vanishing Point,” she exclaimed, “the cops were shutting down the roads everywhere.” And then: “What? Your parents have been stranded? And Amma’s not here? So who’s in charge of the store?”
Her brown eyes narrowed. “I am eh? I see! I would jump back into the car and drive home right now buster, except that they’re closing down the roads everywhere…the sob stories I had to tell the cops to let me through…” She grinned, “Bongo helped!”
“Er…we are in charge,” I corrected hastily in case she did take off. “I’m sure we can manage!”
“Sure, so what have you cooked up for lunch? I’m starving! Dumbo, stay away from Tania and stop chasing her with that cockroach!”
Dumbo, a tubby, flabby kid with a GI cut, was racing after a screaming Tania threatening her with a humongous cockroach.
“Stay away from me, or I’ll cockroach you!” he yelled.
There was a sudden soft thud and then a howl. Dumbo, scarlet, was flat on his back, clutching his tummy and gasping.
“Luna, she butted me and kicked me!” he bawled.
“You had it coming sonny boy,” I muttered, as Tania stood there, a triumphant gleam in her eyes.
Luna turned to me. “You taught her that? Awesome! Now come on, we have to cook and neither of us knows how to! Dumbo, shut up!”
Well, over the next few days we learnt. There were no home-delivery services here, nor did Amazon deliver and all the stores were closed. You couldn’t drive half a kilometre without being stopped. But once word got around that we were stranded here, Panduram and his wife Ratnabai ensured we had fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs, chicken and fish delivered by the local backdoor supply mafia. Thankfully, the house was well stocked with staples like flour, sugar, cooking oil, noodles, salt and pepper and spices. And also, a whole lot of Mom’s old recipe books! Ratnabai would sneak over with her cow, Dolly, early every morning and late evening, properly masked and would milk her in front of us—and the wide-eyed brats.
“Bhaiyya—milk comes from there?”
“It’s fresh and warm, just drink it up and pipe down!” Luna snapped, holding out the tumblers. “Or else I’ll have to sanitise it!”
The brats had settled their hierarchy (Tania 1, Dumbo 2), but now ganged up against us. If you thought we could get two minutes of exclusive canoodling together, you were sorely mistaken. If it wasn’t the brats being up to something, that big goof Bongo would try and squeeze between us, the moment we got close.
‘He’s my chaperone!’ Luna giggled archly.
‘Yeah,’ I growled, trying to push the fellow off: it was like trying to move a house.
We’d stopped watching TV—it was just too grim and the politicians made you want to throw up. The damn disease was sweeping through the country like Schwarzenegger playing with a flame thrower. Always at the back of our minds: “when would it be our turn?” Too many people we both knew had caught it, and some hadn’t made it. We kept our masks on and stayed one metre apart and in separate rooms, at least for the first five days after Luna reached here. “It’s like living in that Nevil Shute novel On The Beach,” she said, “just waiting for the nuclear fallout to reach us.”
“So should we freak out like some of the characters did?” I asked.
“Idiot—and who’d take care of the brats?”
Mom video-called us whenever she could. Both Tania and Dumbo turned pale when they saw her in her PPE suit for the first time.
“That’s not mama!” Tania said fearfully, backing away.
“That is Mom—she’s on Mars! She flew there on the starship Enterprise!”
“What?” Dumbo asked, his piggy eyes wide.
“When is she coming back?”
“When Captain Kirk allows her to.”
“When is Papa coming back?”
“He’s Captain Kirk!”
Lest the brats forgot school we held special lessons every morning.
“Okay, so, the sky is?”
“The grass is?”
“You wash your face with?”
“You brush your teeth with?”
That worked until the little idiots actually tried it! Tania stomped up to me.
“Gimme a break!” she drawled like Drew Barrymore in ET, holding up the shampoo bottle. “You brush your teeth with this!” She grinned slyly. “I made Dumbo try it first!”
Dumbo had gone bawling to Luna. “It tastes horrible!” he bubbled, his mouth full of suds.
But then Tania started sneezing and sniffling. And then coughing; followed by fever.
Oh, crap! Did kids get covid-19? They said that they handled it better than adults and anyway they were supposed to be targeted in the third wave, not now!
“Keep Dumbo away from her!” I told Luna after the first battery of sneezes. Frantic, I called Mom.
“Darling she’s probably just caught a cold. Have you kids been swimming?”
We had sneaked down to the deserted beach outside the house and swum, early morning and late evening—surely there couldn’t be a safer place: wide open, windy, with no one around. But?
“Yeah, she and Dumbo have been paddling in the tidal pools.”
Mom rattled off the names of some paediatric medicines and the dosages. “You’ll find them in the bathroom cupboard. Let me know how she is and if her fever rises. She’ll be fine!”
I sat up the whole night, by her bedside masked and gloved, spraying sanitiser everywhere; watching her, feeling her damp forehead from time to time—then washing my hands. I’d rubbed balm on her chest before she went off to sleep. I’d made her take some chicken soup, coaxing her spoon by spoon. I’d had to shoo Ratnabai away when she came with Dolly, that evening. (She had wanted to nurse her!) Luna and Dumbo were in the adjoining bedroom. But Luna had sat up too: calling or messaging me every 15 minutes to check. Tania had been restless at first but eventually had fallen asleep.
“You know…I hardly knew her!” I whispered to Luna, “until now! She’s something else! Luna…she’s on my watch! Nothing must happen to her!”
“Nothing will; she’s a tough cookie. Has she fallen asleep?”
“Yeah, thank god!”
“Bet she’s looking like an angel,” Luna said softly.
“They all do when they sleep; even my little turd of a brother!”
At seven the next morning Tania sat up perkily in bed and demanded “a softie-boiled egg” for breakfast. I felt her forehead. No fever. No coughing. The sniffles too had gone.
“Come on, blow your nose and brush your teeth and wash your hands properly: you smell like a drain! And don’t lock the bathroom door!”
She looked at me cheekily. “Yes naniji,” she said, dimpling.
Luna and I, on the other hand, were gaunt and hollow-eyed.
“Some night eh?” Luna remarked, yawning down the phone, “why do moms have kids?”
Mom called too. “Good,” she said, sounding relieved, and told me to reduce the dosage of the medication. “She’ll be right as rain by this evening.”
“Should we get ourselves tested again?”
“You could. But I think it’s all right.”
We had our hands full keeping the two brats apart all day. (They finally began using Bongo as an intermediary!)
Then that evening Luna and I were in the kitchen trying to make bhurji for dinner, chopping up onions and tomatoes, when Bongo barked.
“Just a sec,” Luna said and stepped out. She returned, her eyes sparkling.
“Look at this!” she said, taking my hand.
The corridor outside was very narrow, the rough laterite walls on either side leading almost right up to the slanting roof. The two little hellions were chimney-climbing up the walls—bracing their backs and bare feet against the walls on either side, levering themselves higher and higher. Dumbo was making a bit of a hash of it, but Tania had nearly reached the top and was grinning down at him: But if either of them fell…
According to Mr Bear Grylls this was a special climbing technique used by top-flight commandos to get up narrow spaces.
I was about to yell when Luna clamped her hand over my mouth. She dragged me to the bedroom across the corridor. Together we hauled the fat mattress off the bed and laid it down on the corridor floor beneath them. Then we leant against the doorway and just watched them.
Ranjit Lal is the author of 45 books, fiction and non-fiction for children and adults who are children.
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