ONE LOCKDOWN AT A TIME (Ep) - 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 previous episode here]
The rain had stopped. Merytaten and Charlie joined the tail end of a short queue leading to the first tent and counter. Soon, they reached the desk. A huge masked woman grabbed a white plastic gun lying on the table, applied the gun on Merytaten's forehead, pressed the trigger, then looked at a digital display and noted down the temperature in a book. "Please write name and sign here!", she barked. Merytaten obeyed and signed. "Move on!", the woman pressed on. Merytaten walked to the next tent. Charlie watched amazed as Merytaten was taking the whole thing in stride without recoil or a word of protest. When his turn came to face the gun, he got that disturbing feeling he was lined up like a distressed cow on the moving conveyor at a slaughterhouse. It was scary, but he kept his mouth shut, reassured by the fact that Merytaten and the migrant preceding her, had both survived the gunshot. He thought, "I will not eat beef any time soon," while he wrote his name in the book and signed, too. For good measure, the big woman picked a thick permanent marker and applied a black mark on his left hand's thumbnail, thus signifying he had successfully passed the body temperature test. Meanwhile Merytaten was already filling another book in the next tent, this time with her identity documents information, destination address and other required details. She signed again, in the last column. Charlie followed course and immersed himself in the same task immediately after her.
They moved on to the last tent. It contained a time-worn wooden desk, a sizeable number of green Godrej steel-almirahs that had seen better days; mountains of files and loose paper-sheets piled-up on top of them. Behind the desk stood a stern man dressed in a pressed uniform and sporting an impressive handle-bar type of moustache; his surgical mask was hanging loose under the chin. A white rectangular badge pinned on his chest dissipated any doubt one could have had that he was the senior police officer overseeing the border post. And his stance meant business. He began scrutinising Merytaten's documents, then Charlie's, with intent. Because the duo on cycles was not matching his concept of what a pair of migrants should look like, he threw a barrage of questions such as "Why were you in Nepal?" "What were you doing in Nepal?" "Why are you not staying in Nepal?" "Why don't you wait for the end of the lockdown?" Merytaten patiently explained that they had waited four months in Kathmandu, stuck in limbo and they were running out of money. It was a clear, unambiguous emergency situation. The man went on, "show me your flight tickets to destination."
They both fumbled into their bags and produced the printed copies of the tickets they had booked online while staying at the good doctor's house. It was also available on their smart phone. The man browsed, zoomed in, zoomed out, spent several minutes on these tickets, then spoke to his assistant in Bengali: for some unfathomable reason, he objected to the free passage of the non-conforming migrant couple pushing luggage-loaded bicycles. ("Does one has to be a field labourer to deserve the privilege of returning to one's own country?" Charlie mused...)
That's when Merytaten revealed her true grit, inside. The scene turned bizarre. All activities in each tent suddenly came to a halt. All — from government servants to migrants — froze and watched fascinated as Merytaten rose her voice while she forcefully contested the officer's apparent lack of goodwill. She demanded her phone call! She would not take no for an answer and wanted to talk to a senior official at the regional branch of the department overseeing the border post. Meanwhile, Charlie thought it was better to leave this to her as he knew well that, once she went into battle, it was unlikely that anyone could ever turn her down. So he stood by the parked cycles. In a detached manner he observed the scene like the other spectators, as if nothing of this would concern him. He knew the situation was in the best possible hands: when circumstances asked for it, Merytaten could reveal the temperament of a lioness. He looked around. Behind them, the powerful river kept flowing under the bridge at its own undisturbed pace; some light drizzle had returned, not comparable to the cataracts from the sky experienced earlier, and it was okay. Beyond the border post, there was a sizeable congregation of people standing and waiting; he assumed they were relatives of the incoming migrants, eager to welcome them back to India and soon to their home. And further down past this small crowd, at a cross-road less than a hundred metres away, small makeshift shops, food joints, tea shops, umbrella & raincoats shops, had sprouted out of nowhere to feed and supply this flow of people. Looking back at Merytaten, he could see her now speaking animately in her cell phone: she had obtained her phone call, after all! It went on for a while. Charlie felt like he was floating in a frozen slice of time that would never end. Not that it worried him, but he just belonged to an alternate, peaceful reality while all this stuff was happening elsewhere. Meanwhile, the trickle of pedestrian migrants kept on moving both ways. He noticed an old woman in colourful Sherpa attire, carrying effortlessly a large suitcase on her head, ambling towards the Nepali side. When he looked again towards Merytaten, the phone had changed hands and the moustache-adorned officer was listening with an air of deference, typical of a government servant alert to the commanding words of a top-ranking officer. From far he could just hear the man say "yes, Sir," several times, with intervals of conversation in-between. He handed back the phone to Merytaten.
From then on it was all smooth sailing. The officer signalled him to come forward, so Charlie left the cycles and bypassed the queue at the tents. There was one last book to fill up and sign here; he handed over a handful of photocopies, too. The assistant officer picked them, pinned them all together and perched the resulting bundle on top of a fifty-centimetres-high pile leaning precariously on the left corner of his desk, like a makeshift Pisa tower. Charlie wondered idly how long the tower would hold before collapsing into the puddles of water on the floor, and where these mountains of paper would ultimately end up: the Godrejs were overflowing, and so the top of all almirahs. "They will figure out something, maybe they have a godown somewhere," he thought. The last task remaining was to fill and sign a quarantine form — an undertaking that bound them to observe a two-weeks-long self-quarantine once they would reach home. And that was it. The officer gave a nod.
Merytaten and Charlie picked the cycles and marched towards the open road ahead. The Jawans did not object and let them pass with an impassive look. All was in order.
Both walked forward side by side, pushing the cycles; they passed the crowd of wellwishers (some smiled at them), reached the cross-road, headed straight for the first tea shop. They sat on a wooden bench and asked for two masala teas. Within minutes, the chai came in two paper cups. Merytaten and Charlie drank a few revitalising sips, looking into each other's eyes. They smiled, flooded with love inside.
They were in India. They were home.
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