By Dr Shalini Mullick
It’s been a usual day at work, struggling with shortage of staff and supplies and a surfeit of samples. Medical laboratories don’t function remotely, and the work-from-home rigmarole of the last year left us untouched. We do try impromptu meetings and troubleshooting over the phone and video calls. When that isn’t enough, we tape our N95 masks on the bridge of our nose to fix it better and attend to our work. Avoiding contact with others was needed to protect us from the virus. The last month, it has also insulated us from the stories of pain that each one of us is carrying within us. Stories that we could have shared with each other to unburden ourselves.
Contagion or not, seasons continue. Summer has set in. Central air-conditioning might work to the advantage of the virus, so we try and do without. Not taking the double mask off for a single moment at work also adds to the thirst.
The microwave beeps as I drain my third consecutive glass of water. I heap the kadhi (curry), with all the dumplings, on the mound of steamed rice. Smooth and velvety, my mother’s version is different from the one I dish out. Mine is a little thicker. My 12-year-old daughter relishes it. For me, my mom’s version is perfect. It tastes like home.
Coming home to mom, and the taste of our childhood, is special at any time of our lives, but in the middle of a ferociously raging pandemic, it offers a special comfort. The meal leaves me not just full, but also satisfied. Thirst lingers. None of the juices or fizzy drinks can compensate for the squish of cold watermelon. Another homecoming, as I reach for the bowl.
The virus that looms with unanswered questions about the future also unleashes memories. Of the room cooled by the khus-scented breeze of a desert cooler, lazy summer afternoons and refreshing watermelons. For all my love of fruit, chopping it was a task I always avoided – until the lockdown last year, when I would leave a similar bowl in the fridge hoping it would cool down my teenage son’s anxieties of having a doctor parent in the pandemic. The pieces would be irregular, chopped as part of a multitasking agenda, though.
Not like these evenly cut, uniformly sized pieces patiently sliced by my surgeon father at the dining table.
The kadhi and the watermelon; it feels like coming home to the parents once more.
Having lived at home right until my post-graduation, coming home to the parents is a privilege that I had longer than many others. After that, of course, the degrees of separation changed. Over decades, cities and milestones of life, coming home meant different things, but the emotions remained the same.
I walk across to the large glass pane windows of my dining area. From the 18th floor, I have a bird’s eye view of Gurgaon. The distant skyline of downtown and the low-rise floors in the alcove behind my apartment complex seem equally far away. I focus on one of the first-floor houses, with a swing in the balcony. We always had a swing in the garden or the patio.
More childhood memories; of a soft gentle breeze; of easy laughter with friends. Memories from a time when the words airborne, variants and mutants were not a part of our lives. Just the glimpse of the swing feels like coming home too.
So does standing at this window and seeing the parents have their morning cup of tea in that balcony less than a kilometer from my house. And so does reading mom’s message, “Have made rajma. Will send some”.
Coming home to parents is now picking the packed boxes left outside the door. It is being close enough to see their silhouettes in the balcony but not letting the children visit them. Breaking the bubble that they are trying to cushion themselves in isn’t something we can bring ourselves to do. Two shots of the vaccine for all of us, but we dial in only in the evenings, like we used to when I lived more than 2000 km away. We exchange food, empty containers, and love through packages left outside the doors.
Degrees of separation? Or degrees of closeness? The ever-bubbling cauldron of emotions doesn’t allow me to measure or quantify things anymore. All I know is that it is a comfort that goes beyond the kadhi and the watermelon; even if the food is all that I get to see.
It is also a silent prayer, a gleam of gratitude and a stab of fear. Every moment.
Dr Shalini Mullick is a practising doctor based in Gurugram specialising in pulmonary pathology, and a keen reader-turned-writer, who writes nonfiction, poetry and fiction.