• Joel Koechlin

ONE LOCKDOWN AT A TIME (E2) - A Short Story, In Two Episodes And One Epilogue


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, places and events are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.


[Read first episode here]


PART TWO, THE PLAINS

Through parched lips, Charlie was cursing aloud while struggling against the virulent head wind. What was wrong with him? Or rather, what had got into Merytaten? Where the hell was she gathering such energy from, on this particular day? She was pedalling effortlessly two hundred metre ahead of him and he could not catch-up. Worse, the gap kept gradually increasing. He tried to exonerate himself by inventing excuses such as "no wonder, I carry more load" or "you bet, her cycle is brand new, less friction in the gears!" The sad fact he had to admit to himself was simply that, after many days on the road, Merytaten had built-up tremendous stamina, while he had brought himself close to exhaustion. A fair karmic retribution for having doubted (and openly criticised) her physical capacities during the early days of the journey!

Two days earlier, they had sailed down the 60 kilometres from Sindhuli Gadhi to Bardibas in an exhilarating mood. Not only was it effortless for most of the distance but, in addition, the scenery revealed had been gorgeous. During several hours the rain had stopped, the clouds had lifted their curtain of mist, and they had enjoyed a splendid view on the plains below, while gliding effortlessly from one hairpin to the next at full speed.

Fate appeared to be working in their favour. It was the end of the mountainous region and, as a bonus for their past sustained efforts, it dispensed a special boon. Just before reaching Bardibas — the junction town where BP Highway merges with National Highway 1, the umbilical cord connecting directly to the border with North-East India (at a narrow strip of West Bengal leading to adjacent Assam), and what they hoped would become the gateway to their freedom — Charlie spotted a splendid, brand new hotel. Despite being obviously of the kind that was far beyond their meagre budget's reach, he boldly declared:

"This is where we stay tonight!"

Merytaten had a dubious look painted on her face, that expressed something like, "my Love seems to fantasise today..." Undaunted and driven by some weird intuition, Charlie abruptly veered off the highway, rode the fancy driveway (adorned with flags and mushroom-shaped lights) leading to the sparkling new building, as if he had been driving a limo. Merytaten hesitantly followed. A man who introduced himself as the hotel manager stood at the entrance, quietly smoking a cigarette.

"We are closed," he said.

"Namaste! Your hotel looks beautiful, Sir; brand new, it seems?" replied Charlie, ignoring the manager's words.

"Yes, we are planning our inauguration as soon as possible. The lockdown has been delaying this for months, now."

The manager looked at Merytaten, the mountain of luggage on the bicycles, the strain of fatigue pulling down their face, then said with a hint of concern showing on his brow:

"Where the Hell are you going by... cycle?"

"Returning to India, after 4 months of lockdown, Sir."

The man opened his eyes wide, "Impressive! Kakarvitta? If so, you still have a long way to go..." He paused.

"Now that I think of it, we have our demo deluxe-room that's kept ready. Give me a minute and let me check. You could be our first clients! Given the circumstances, I will let you have it at a fair price."

Two nights. Two nights and one day of pure ecstasy, they spent in this godsent harbour of peace and luxury! After so much hardships and many nights spent in dungeon-like hotel rooms, uncleaned (by lack of staff, missing because of the lockdown) and swarming with mosquitoes, adjoined to stinky, filthy toilets and of course no room service, this island of clean modernism — with full amenities including air-conditioning, pressed bed-sheets and steaming hot water —appeared to them like paradise earned... The timing also coincided with a pressing need to give full attention to the bicycles' maintenance: cleaning, greasing, adjusting brakes and gear-shifters; looking for cracks in the luggage carriers and loose bolts, inflating and checking the tires. After all, they were entirely depending on those faithful mounts, and the slightest problem happening on the road would quickly turn into a nightmare. The bicycles were their lifeline — literally. Under the tough circumstances, prevention was better than cure. Charlie gladly put himself to the task during the idling day, while Merytaten kept herself busy washing sweat-saturated clothes and rearranging their belongings.

Once the chores were completed, resting their battered bodies on the soft king-size bed, voluptuously spread all across, turned into a beatific occupation for the rest of the day. In their dreams they wished to be first clients for ever!

Sadly, the harsh reality soon or late catches up, and the next day, Charlie was desperately trying to close the gap between himself and Merytaten, while fighting the damned headwind that sucked all his energy. By contrast with the high mountains, the plains were monotonously flat and boring: along the straight road, the surrounding vegetation had shifted from high trees to cultivated fields and paddy. The occasional small towns, ugly in the lockdown disarray and lifeless, kept filing past. The rare people walking outdoors looked at them as if they were coming from another planet, creating a weird, uncomfortable feeling. One could feel that the message of fear issued by the authorities had taken root into the vast majority of inhabitants, creating a depressing atmosphere of suspicion and on occasion, open hostility; not only towards them, but within the population themselves, too.

Unable to close the distance, Charlie was on the verge of crying for mercy when, fortunately, Merytaten spotted a dhaba in recess from the road which at last showed all signs of being open, and she opted for a break. Charlie followed with a sigh of relief and at once collapsed on a charpoy while she ordered some rajma and rotis.

"I have grown softduring the comfortable Bardibas break," he thought to himself. Merytaten, not easily fooled, chuckled gently, but didn't comment. The rajma-roti (washed down with a large glass of milk tea) did its job of rejuvenation, and they were soon back on the road, head down, back hunched, legs pressing hard on the pedals — for the wind had not forgotten them in the meantime. They covered 75 kilometres that day, and by dusk, under pouring rain, reached the sizeable town of Lahan, where they hoped to find an open hotel.

There was one, only one in the entire town.

It looked pretty miserable (even more so in the wake of Wonderland at Bardibas), but where was the choice? They showed up at the entrance. A large sign-board with faded-paint read in big capital letters, HOTEL ROYAL. Popping out of nowhere, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered around them. A man sprang out of the group, armed with a giant sprayer that is normally used for destroying pests and rodents. He started to inundate them copiously with his devilish instrument, from head to toe, asking them to turn their back to him, where he completed his task with extreme zeal. With a dazed mind, Merytaten speculated idly and wondered "wether the machine contained a safe disinfectant, or else could it be a left-over of rat poison, who will know?" This done, the man turned towards the cycles and kept on spraying vigorously all the same, not leaving one square inch of luggage possibly contaminated by the feared, ferocious COVID virus. Charlie thought, "are we acting in some science-fiction movie — or what?" Having fulfilled the hotel book-keeping formalities and paid in advance, at last they could settle in one of the worst hotel room encountered during the entire journey and crash on the bed — but not before demanding the bed-sheets to be changed. This was the amusing part, and paradox: one would be sprayed with high doses of disinfectant but one had to sleep in bedsheets shared with ten previous customers!

Hostility was oozing from everywhere; it was raining like hell; the wind was still howling outside, showing no sign of abating, and there was still over 200 kilometres to go. The future looked grim.

Then again, unforeseen Help knocked at the door. Merytaten remembered a fellow student from her college days who seemed to have been originated from these parts of Nepal. She had not seen him in almost ten years, but could it be worth trying to to contact him, she pondered? Following a few message exchanges with ex-college pals, she got a number and called a young man going by the name of Amir. The call was answered at first ring and as soon as Amir had appraised the situation, he replied without a moment of hesitation.

"Of course, Merytaten, we can and will help! It so happens my dad and I are coming to Lahan tomorrow to pick up a vehicle from a service center. Can you stay put one more day?" was the life-infusing reply. It also turned out that Amir's village of origin was at less than 50 kilometres from Kakarvitta, the border town. In addition, his father being a respected doctor, and head of a major Nepali hospital, both were exempted from the prevailing movement restrictions; they carried valid travel permits. The next day (after one more night spent hunting mosquitoes), both Amir and his father turned up in Lahan. From then on, it was only happiness! Merytaten and Charlie felt like they had been taken in charge — again — by a pair of guardian angels. They only had to surrender and let themselves be carried away towards the border in a comfortable car immune to wind and rain, with the cycles and luggage somehow stuffed in the boot.

Such circumstances are propitious to create long-lasting bonds based on gratitude. And so very grateful they felt! Another day spent with the family, relaxing and eating delicious mangoes grown in Amir's own farm, contributed to elevate their spirits and prepare them for the next upcoming challenge, and hopefully the last: crossing the Indo-Nepali border. On this front too, there was good news; by fact of proximity to the border, their hosts had more reliable information than any previously available. And yes, it was confirmed that the border could be crossed, as it had been reported by several acquaintances of Amir who had done this in recent days. This was a good reason to cheer up! The Indian border post would accept the travellers crossing on foot (no vehicles allowed — but again, is a cycle considered as a vehicle? Or is it invisible?), provided they could show valid identification documents, and a flight ticket from Bagdogra (the neighbouring Indian airport) to their ultimate destination, where they would have to observe a 2 weeks-long self-quarantine at home. Suddenly, from the sombre perspective experienced at Lahan, the future looked bright again. However, they knew there would still be hurdles on this last leg of the journey; they had to be prepared to face them with equanimity and determination.

The next day — that is, exactly ten days after departing Kathmandu — from the back seat of a Mahindra Scorpio, Merytaten and Charlie were watching the rain splash on the windscreen with such intensity that the wipers struggled hard doing a poor job of clearing it. The driver of the taxi commandeered by the good doctor to take them to Kakarvitta, was struggling to see through. Leaning over the steering wheel, he had a tough time imagining rather than seeing the treacherous constellation of potholes that had punctured the road with the help of persistent heavy rains. The scenery was monotonous behind the constant curtain of water. A flat, endless plain, water-soaked fields, a few scattered scrawny trees, the occasional nondescript village, always deserted, the pouring rain and overcast sky, all added their own components of dread to the heavy lockdown atmosphere.

There was tension in the air. The border was approaching and while Charlie was on one hand feeling elated at the thought of reaching the goal, a tad of tension could be read on his brow, as often happens when one has to face a foreboding unknown. Merytaten, too, shared the feeling, but they both kept it to themselves, doing their best to relax.

By eleven in the morning, they reached Kakarvitta. It was a ghost town, showing soggy streets flooded with slush and empty of humans. The normally busy bus stand was deserted. Rain was pouring like if the entire sky was trying to vomit its content on this particular region of the globe. Suddenly, the driver stopped and said.

"I have to drop you here. The border is coming up in a few hundred meters."

The man was tense and worried. There was a first check post manned by a few armed Nepali soldiers, and he didn't want to risk any entanglement with them. Charlie paid the taxi then asked him to wait for a while, just in case they had difficulties to cross the border. The driver, terrified, wanted nothing of it, apparently worried that he could have his vehicle confiscated. Without another word he got out, released the bungees holding the cycles on the roof-rack, took them down. Merytaten and Charlie stepped out of the vehicle. The driver opened the boot, dumped all the luggage in the thick mud, returned to his seat, started the engine, executed a prompt U-turn and zoomed away, never looking back.

Under the incessant rain, they gathered the luggage, threw a tarp over it, parked each cycle on its side-stand making sure it wouldn't sink in the mud, then sat side by side on a small concrete wall, looking at each other with torrents of rainwater dripping in the eyes.

They had rarely felt so lonely and miserable.

What now?

From this new vantage point, they looked around and observed. There was a river a few hundred meters ahead — the natural border between Nepal and India — with a long, narrow bridge that had seen its days, spanning the river. A new bridge was under construction, slightly upstream. The entire approach was a chaos of boulders, mud, sand dumps, earth dumps, granite blocks and prefabricated concrete slabs littering the area haphazardly. But soon they came to notice that, despite the heavy rain and the lack of paved road, there was the occasional isolated individual, or small groups of pedestrians, carrying a few bags or even dragging wheeled suitcases (of the kind they would use in an airport) through the thick mud. It would have been hilarious to watch, had not the scene conveyed such a pathetic message. Charlie and Merytaten understood these were the migrants they had heard about. It confirmed the intuition they had earlier, that on these far-off reaches of eastern Nepal, there would be few. Next, it appeared that a similar trickle of scattered people was also coming from the Indian side, headed towards them. And as this new reality dawned upon them, their spirit, which had sunk somewhere close to the 36th nervous breakdown, soared up by a few notches. The rumours were true: it looked like the border could be crossed, and apparently both ways!

"Come on, let's go," said Merytaten abruptly, and she got up. Charlie followed in stride and they both started pushing the heavy cycles along the muddy track, towards the entrance of the bridge. The whole place was in lockdown mood. So, they wore masks as expected, and a cap on the head buried under the hood of bright colour ponchos protecting them from the rain. Keeping the head low — adopting the same technique as at the many check posts crossed on past days — they casually walked forward, without undue haste, towards the Nepali border post. The barrier was standing up. Two soaked and lonely soldiers were pacing in front of the post, weapon hanging loose on the hip, while the officers were presumably sitting inside, protected from the heavy downpour still going on. The soldiers were engaged in animate discussion between themselves, and watched them pass. Merytaten and Charlie kept moving on quietly, flashing their identity documents held in the right hand. One soldier nodded at Merytaten absently. They kept walking along the post; the soldiers were still conversing, looking at them with a vacant eye and no apparent concern. They went on, walking at a casual pace, pushing the cycles along the post, reached the firm concrete ground of the bridge, never looking sideways or back. They kept moving on.

Next thing they knew, they were standing dead in the middle of the bridge, with the powerful mud-laden river flowing under it. The Nepali border post was far behind, and nobody had stopped them; no question asked. The cloak of invisibility experienced all the way since Kathmandu seemed to have worked one more time. Without a word, they straddled the cycles and started pedalling without haste towards the incoming Indian border post.

Charlie was gliding through some kind of live dream where the bridge would continue forever, or melt away into some weird dimension where he would find himself all alone and free, near his home. Instead, reality caught up and the bridge abruptly ended. There was a makeshift Indian border post there, composed of several military tents aligned one after the other, and many desks manned with staff of both genders, all masked. Two armed, purposeful Jawans stood firm in the middle of the road, harbouring that kind of don't-mess-with-me look. This was looking darn serious. Both Merytaten and Charlie stopped dead in front of them. They were told to park the cycles on the side. Charlie felt a slight pinch of anguish in the pit of his stomach.

It looked like the magic cloak of invisibility had suddenly crumbled; the spell was broken, the Jawans were seeing them!






EPILOGUE


Read the Epilogue, here

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