The Perfect Riddance

Grey water-filled sacks billowed over the Mumbai sky, coughing over a city that was already sick. Dangerously sick! It had been a month since a Chinese student had landed at the Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport with a student visa, a plastic jar with his mother’s dried-fish and LIVID 2020.

Lung Infiltrating Viral Disease 2020.

“A thousand more cases in Mumbai!” Lovely Sachdeva read the headlines aloud.

Jaspreet, who’d just woken up, corrected him from the bedroom, “It’s almost two thousand, Lovely.”

She tossed her phone on the pillow and rubbed her sleepy eyes. Pushing back her uncombed hair, she grabbed the edge of the mattress to assist her generous rear in sliding off the bed. As she did, she inspected the growing hairiness of her legs and made a mental note to buy a new razor. She walked to the hall, clutching her nightie to one side.

“Kitty, KITTY,” she called out before settling on the sofa. She resumed the discussion on LIVID with her husband, “Is this thing turning serious?”

Naa ji, it’s just some flu-shu. It will go away,” Lovely folded the newspaper into the tiniest square possible to access the local Andheri East-news.

Ketaki was in her room, getting ready for work. Twenty-two, but far more mature than most girls her age, she had this unusual mellow about her. A tidy, raindrop face sat timidly on her tall, lithe body. Not that remarkable. Unless there was a smile on it: a tantalizing curl of the most desirable lips. Peppery. Tangy. A smile made those sad eyes light up like a thousand fireflies trapped in a lily bud. She pulled on an earth-toned kalamkari kurti over her blue jeans and smoothened it, rummaging through her wooden jewellery box at the same time, looking for her favourite peacock-shaped earrings. She dabbed some lip gloss and slipped the earrings on.

The new haircut did look good! Jaspreet had taken her to a hair-stylist, shown him a picture of a rock star of indeterminate gender, and asked him to cut Ketaki’s waist-length tresses short like in the photo. Hanging like ruffled taffeta around her cheeks, this new style was chic; Boardroom Barbie meets Michelle Obama. It was 8 a.m. and time for that compulsive glance at the phone. It hadn’t rung at the designated hour in these six months. No one from her past life had called her. Except for Kusum mausi, who had told her to ‘settle down in Mumbai’ and that they would meet sometime in the future. ‘If possible’ had been the suffix that had said it all.

I need to move on. It’s high time.

She repeated the words in her head, thrice: another daily ritual: this one adopted recently. A stab of pain sawed at her heart just as Lovely’s pressure cooker whistled. The warm aroma of aloo-tamatar curry, the Friday-noon Sachdeva-staple, followed. She sat at the edge of her bed, dithering, relenting to those recalcitrant pangs of sadness. Should I bunk office today? She ran her toes over the frayed cords of the floor mat: the tassels, the knots, the piece of cello tape that was stuck to its corner. Why does it still hurt? When will I stop being sad? The air-conditioner chugged hungrily and spat out a fresh gust slapping her out of her trance. She got up and dragged her laptop bag and herself out of the room.

“Look at you,” Jaspreet squealed, “You look sexy!”

Ketaki pushed her hair behind her ear, still getting used to the choppy ends.

“I told you that you needed a makeover! This haircut is awwwesome – it brings out your cheekbones so well,” Jaspreet dragged the ‘awe’ to emphasize the compliment.

“Thanks, Jazz.” In these few months, ‘P.G. aunty’ Jaspreet had become ‘bestie’, Jazz.

“Doesn’t she look lovely, Lovely?”

“Funtastic, funtastic”, Lovely patted his bun to check the state of his own hair.

Ketaki clattered down the stairs, only to halt near the mailboxes in the foyer, looking for patches of dry land to exit Plot No. 5, Aster without ruining her sandals. The streets of Andheri East had split open like a whale’s belly, spilling watery guts and slime through which traffic snaked its way around. Pinstripes of rain drummed half-heartedly on tin roofs and shanties. She pulled her raincoat tightly around herself and her laptop bag and hailed a rickshaw.

“SEEPZ?”

Cheryl decided she needed to take things in her own hands. She kicked her chair back and rose on her polka-dotted wedges, straightening her pink polyester dress. She looked like a tiny, plump flower vase, especially with that mini-forest-sized floral clip that had acquired most of her cranium. She pursed her fat, painted lips and marched towards the decoration committee.

“Hey fat boy, you pull out the flowers. And you, purple shirt, you just pin them up,” she earmarked activities.

“Ok, ma’am.”

“Where is that blessed water cooler? You have to keep it here, no? You, you chhotu fellow, get OFF THAT STOOL. You…you girl…go check the buffet. Mind those spellings. It’s G-A-R-L-I-C chicken, not C-A-R-L-I-C!” She bustled around inspecting all the festoons and bouquets, picking faults and yelling instructions.

A flurry of activities later, the reception gleamed like a bridegroom ready to receive his bride, aglitter with tiny spotlights that hung from the ceiling.  Shortly, four freshly-waxed cars rolled in. The first to emerge was Ved Chaudhury. Dressed in a blue suit and an aquamarine tie, he summoned his handsome smile as others alighted from their cars. He smoothened his wavy, dark-brown hair and removed his Gucci glares, revealing all of his fine-looking face that was the colour of weathered cork.

Shashikant Bokadia hurried to welcome the guests. The fifty-year-old chartered accountant, grandson of the founder, Gangadhar Bokadia, was the COO. Born and brought up in Mumbai, he was the number-wonder – the man who could crunch numbers faster than his daily samosas. Adept in handling government agencies especially related to taxation, compliance and legal aspects, he was a huge asset to the organization. Ved could rely on him for accurate information on issues like import and export regulations, especially the tricky parts related to cross-border taxation.

Shashi trotted to the entrance, pushing his spectacles back up the ridge of his avocado-shaped nose. He always wore a white shirt over trousers, sometimes jeans. He needed a good belt to hold them in place on his thin waist. His tiny eyes were at sixes and sevens – one of them seemed to look down at his sparse moustache while the other one looked straight ahead.  

The fleet of cars were welcomed by staff holding large umbrellas. A dot of the traditional vermillion, a roll of tribal drums and it was time to party! It began with the demure clinking of champagne flutes but soon graduated to a hybrid dragon-cum-bollywood ‘dance-till-you-pass-out’. The two-tiered cake was rolled in post-midnight. The guests took a break from dancing, only to resume after a round of cognac and cake. 

Ketaki was at home, tucked in bed and ruminating over what she’d understood from her day-long meetings: LIVID 2020 wasn’t just flu that would go away! This virus was multiplying fast, especially in coastal cities. Some exceptional measures were going to be announced in the coming week, she had been told. She had a busy weekend ahead: she had to summarize the findings of the epidemiology department, the projections that they had shared, and prepare a draft document for Home Attire to follow in case the crisis escalated.

Unlike Ketaki, Mumbai wasn’t tucking in for an uneventful night-as-usual. There was an eerie disquiet. Maybe on account of the rains having taken a bow and exiting, leaving the centre-stage for overpowering humidity. Or, maybe, in deference to the stealthy stalk of the viral disease that was creeping in to kill many.

It must have been past 10 p.m. when, in Bandra, a woman lugging four shopping bags collapsed on the bonnet of her taxi. She gasped, clawing at the headlights for support. A dog barked, a car whizzed past her and a paan-waala watched from his shop, across the road. As she slumped, her shopping bags followed suit, retching their contents on the cobbled pavement.

In the wee hours of the morning, Shashikant Bokadia felt a tightness in his throat. His lungs felt flaccid like a worn-out vest, flopping instead of contracting for the next breath. He cried out, but his voice refused to cooperate.

Mumbai was getting sicker, and this weekend was poised to seal its fate.

Ketaki held the midday newspaper in her icy fingers. More startling than the news of Shashikant Bokadia’s death were the headlines,

ANJALI SIKAND, WIFE OF DEHRADUN INDUSTRIALIST GAUTAM SIKAND, DIES OF LIVID 20 IN BANDRA, MUMBAI.

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