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1.7 Listening Room
 Folk Tales of Virus Land 

Words by Anindita Das

January 2024

Folk Tales of Virus Land delves into the harsh realities confronted by migrants, particularly those from the northeastern region, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The story explores themes of discrimination, desperation, resilience, and the indomitable human spirit.

This story was longlisted for the top 100 in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021 which received over 6000 entries.

Folk Tales of Virus Land_Mysticeti Magazine.jpg

Illustration  by Shilpa Sivaraman

Unlike some unfortunate khar khuwas, Maina did not look like a ‘Chinki’. A matter she took great pride in. Then again, she never cared for the pungent taste of khar, unlike most Assamese who swore that relishing this particular type of alkali-based curry was the true testimony of authenticity.

 

Now on the road though, Maina missed a good meal that included her mother’s special freshwater fish khar.

The wind rushed off with everything on the road – dry leaves, plastic, and an immense amount of humid dust. Maina shielded her face for a moment, still taking carefully measured steps so she didn’t put too much of her weight on her left heel. She adjusted the thin straps of the worn-out black duffel bag on her shoulder. It was still in a good condition. Her father had parted with it when she decided to come to the capital, a reward from the household where he served as a driver. They were kind people and often gave away the things that were of no use to them, or they were simply tired of. Not anymore. Kindness does have an expiry date during the pandemic.

A tin canister fell from Bardhaman Didi’s head, rolled ahead on the road with a clattering sound and let loose the paraphernalia of her life – papers, dry makhanas, comb, diligently squeezed out fairness cream, well- worn clothes, torch, etc. Predictably, no one came forward to pick it up. Maina put down her bag, wincing as it scraped against her sore shoulder, and tried to pick a few things. She felt her gesture wasn’t much appreciated by anyone, including Bardhaman Didi.

All anyone knew about Didi was her hometown, Bardhaman in West Bengal, and that she belonged to a lowly sweeper caste. Even in this motley group of migrants walking home, she was relegated to the back of the line. The unsaid place reserved and accepted for people from lower castes.

Little ahead was the Channa wallah’s family - Bishnu, his wife Radha, and their four-year-old son, Bablu. Blissfully unaware of the situation they were in, Bablu was having a great time. He wasted no time in trotting ahead with his toy horse whenever his mother, Radha let him down from her arms.

A painful hissing began in Maina’s left ear. The constant beating of the wind on the highway does that to anyone. She gave it a good ring with her little finger, and it felt better momentarily.

She had no idea how old Radha was. Her face was always covered, always masked under her pallu. She had a feeling Radha was much younger than herself.

 

There was also Munna and Kishen, young friends accompanied by Munna’s balloon seller uncle, spiry old Sitaram. The friends often spent their time teasing and making fun of their uncle, who didn’t seem to mind.

Many more walked beyond these now familiar faces.

Maina was quite pleased with the fact that she was the most well educated in the group, a graduate in Geography. She understood that Bishnu channa wallah was from Katihar. She knew where Bardhaman Didi came from and where Munna, Kishen and old Sitaram was headed to.

But not one of them had heard of her small town in Assam, Lakhimpur, except perhaps the one other khar khuwa in the group. It was a truly nondescript town when compared to the big capital. Yet, they were proud of its market, the numerous pukhuris, and fertile paddy fields. Not that anyone cared about these things. It was about 2000 kilometers away from where things mattered.

 

If things did matter at the capital though, why were those living there given only 24hr warning ahead of the lockdown?

 

Maybe it was because they never truly belonged there.

 

 

*

 

It was not like Maina’s parents did not want her to be married off. The final conversation in this regard went like this.

‘It is best if you get married soon, the boy is a peon in a government office. So, what if he is not a graduate?’ Her father wiped his forehead with a gamusa and sucked at the tamul paan mixture now well-crushed in his mouth.

Surprised Maina retorted, ‘Ha? What of me finding a job?’

Her father pleaded with her to see reason, ‘Maa… there are no jobs in the city, let alone in our small town…I don’t want you to waste your time dei…’

But she had a different plan, ‘Deuta, I am talking about Dilli…’

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing, ‘Ki Dilli? Xunisa ne Maina’s mother… have you heard what this girl is dreaming of… where she thinks she is going?’

A man of mild manners, Maina’s father tried his best to dissuade her, but his arguments fell on deaf ears. Despite being a driver, he had never gone beyond a radius of 500 kilometers from their town. On the other hand, she was determined to be someone who would go far in life.

 

*

 

 

Maina always assumed that she would find a good office job at Dilli. In time though, rejections mounted, and the realization that there wasn’t ever going to be a job. She finally gave in to the pestering of a friend and joined as a helper at a parlor.

During those days, she often slept with a hidden kotari in her hands. Ready for the nightmare that visited often…

She has finished her work at the parlor. She’s waiting for a bus at a deserted bus stop. The streetlight is not working. It feels like the middle of the night even though it is half-past seven. A shiny sedan rolls in with loud music. They spot her alone and start bothering her, “Madam come. Oo Madam come, get in.” Maina plays deaf and looks the other way. They start honking impatiently, reverse the car right in front of her. “Chinki, bhau kyo kha rahi hai? Come na.” Maina’s ears turn red in indignation. She starts walking away. They keep calling her. Still, she plays deaf. Still, she tells herself, “Don’t hear! Don’t hear! It’s not you they are calling.”

When she woke up agitated, she could only cover her ears with her palms. That’s all she could do. She could never admit it wasn’t just a nightmare. It was a fear she had lived.

 

 

*

Around midday when the sun was at its worst, the other khar khuwa, Deep Jyoti made his way to her side. Like many others from her part of the country, his name consisted of two names that could stand independently. Deep or Jyoti. Jyoti or Deep. The reason for this generosity in names was not known, nor was his generosity in smiling all the time. His pimpled cheeks were offset by his small, happy Mongolian eyes. He looked every bit what the mainland people would call him - Chinki.

Two days ago, when they met first met, he declared that they were to be fast friends as they were amongst the ones who had to go farthest. He meant it.

Deep Jyoti fell in step with her, ‘I sent my cycle ahead… on the lorry... Now I can walk with you dei.’

‘Ha?!’ uttered a curious Maina. What does this boy mean?

‘Isn’t walking harder than cycling? Shouldn’t you have gone with the riska wallahs.’

‘Era… why would I want to ride with them when you are here? You are Asomiya.’

‘Suit yourself, don’t blame me when you get blisters.’

 

Dhet teri! I won’t… by the way, what do you have for lunch? Xandoh Guri?’

*

They changed routes soon after they were caught by the khakis. The entire group was made to sit on the asphalt road like chickens. Men, women, children. Channa wallahs, riska wallahs, labors, almost-beauticians, sweepers, masons, smiling pimpled faces. All the same.

Then there was a bitter rain of disinfectants by men dressed in cloud suits. It was meant to kill the virus or something. They weren’t certain.

After that unpleasant ordeal, they started avoiding the highways and followed the dirty, narrow train track. They were always on the lookout for exhausted khakis carrying lathis. They were the worst. They thought nothing of unleashing their lathis and cracking the backs of migrants. The reasons could be any of the following:

Squatting on dividers at any time.

Walking on highways at curfew hours.

Sleeping at the station, in shelters, or inside empty buses.

Gathering anywhere.

Breathing without masks.

Being a virus in general.

Or dying here and there without a plan.

 

It was not always the same set of people walking. Some stayed back when one of the family members got tired. Some hitchhiked with lorry wallahs when they could. But lorry wallahs ranged from hardcore opportunists, asking for money as high as train fares to kind-hearted ones, who were ready to hide you in their cargo for free.

No matter how they proceeded, they all usually met again, ahead somewhere.

Bishnu, Radha, and their son fell back. Bardhaman Didi maintained a steady pace and kept to herself. Kishen and Munna went missing from time to time. Old Sitaram never worried as he knew they would be back. New people also joined. Ever friendly Deep Jyoti would often be showing them around.

The next day, it happened.

They had entered a town and were looking forward to a meal. Her little pack of Xandoh Guri was well spent and there was just enough for two more meals. She was happy that she did not have to share it with others. They were all unfamiliar with these special flavors and did not appreciate it. Even Deep Jyoti preferred to have spicy street savories, but he always made it a point to share whatever he had happily.

 

They sat down on a road divider lined with Gulmohar trees that were not blooming. They were far too exhausted to find a shady place to have their meal though always vigilant for a stray khaki lurking close by. Occasional red-capped government vehicles and singing ambulances fled past hastily. On a leafy plate, Deep Jyoti held out his Choley Kulchey leftover saved from the last meal. The ordinary tartness of the dish now had attained a heat-induced level. His good mood made him oblivious to its sour flavor. Maina refrained from eating more of it after one bite and decided to stick to her humbler meal.

A few feet away Bardhaman Didi went through the contents of her bag. She sometimes talked to herself while taking out the cloth wrapping her blisters. They smelled like something one could not mention. Kishen and Munna threw pebbles at her more out of curiosity than to chase her away. The nasty expletives that followed made even seasoned ruffians like them go red.

Old Siyaram had the best appetite and ate whatever came his way, sometimes Kishen’s share too.

A few of them went off in search of government-installed cool water filters. Sometimes, they would get lucky and find a Gurdwara with food along with water. When they didn’t, they simply continued to walk till the next stop.

Three bikers appeared on road. Like the migrants, they had no business to be there during a lockdown. They spotted Maina and unsuspecting Deep Jyoti having their meal, and their faces distorted with hatred.

As they inched closer, the vehement lashing of words began, “Go back corona! Go back you viruses!” Maina’s ears rang as though she had been slapped hard. Instinctively, she shut her ears and covered her face avoiding eye contact, but Deep Jyoti wasn’t fast enough. Though he still smiled, the shine rapidly left his eyes. The bikers continued to abuse them at the top of their voices.

When it seemed to be over, the first biker swerved back sharply. For fleeting moments, Maina held her breath, expecting another barrage of abuse. The bike slowed down painfully. The pillion rider took off his mask. Looked at her long and hard before spitting out with full force. Red paan-filled phlegm from his mouth stung her all over. In a reflex, she scattered her remaining meal on the ground. The paan stains clung to her kurta, bent on settling there forever. Throbbing intensified in her left ear and now permeated to the entire left side of her head. The bikers sped away along with their taunting voices. Salty tears threatened to spill out of her eyes. She wanted to scream, yell, say something. No words came out.

Deep Jyoti regained his composure faster. He offered his handkerchief to wipe off her paan stains along with his ready smile, ‘Don’t be angry… those bonmas they talk nonsense! Thankfully, not many more days on the road diya.’

 

Maina looked at Deep angrily. How could he brush aside something like this so easily? It was all thanks to his attention-seeking Chinki looks that she had to go through this ordeal. She did not deserve this. She was a graduate not some twelfth dropout like him. But she had no energy left to fight.

*

On the seventh day, when a distraught Bishnu rejoined them, there was a big uproar. Radha and little Bablu had been hit by a lorry while sleeping at night. Hospitals refused to take them in without a Corona test. Bishnu lost precious time calculating whether to spend the remaining savings on the test or to keep it for food for the rest of their journey. Death did not wait for anyone to make up their mind during a pandemic.

Still carrying his son’s toy horse, Bishnu would be seen either crying or walking or both. People tried to cheer him up initially but after a while, nobody paid much heed.

Everyone was calculating something else. How many kilometers to home? How many blisters on their feet? How much water’s left in the bottle? How many coins clinked in their pockets?

When she could let down her guard, Maina lay on the ground counting stars. Up in the sky, they looked peacefully unaware of all kinds of viruses, while down here, she could never keep her kotari aside.

Bardhaman Didi now tolerated her except at mealtimes when it was an implicit rule that Maina had to make herself scarce. No food would be shared amongst them, it was matter of survival. Then there was Deep Jyoti who was still smiling and hanging about her. Even though she made it abundantly clear that she didn’t want to get caught in his misfortunes. The paan stains were now permanent on her unwashed kurta. That didn’t help matters for him.

 

Old Sitaram was the first one to be caught hiding a fever. So far, he had been amongst the swifter ones. Once the fever took over, he could not keep up for long. He started sweating profusely and grew listless. There was no need to get a test done, when his nephew, Kishen left his side and started walking separately, everyone knew. Sitaram was left behind talking deliriously about Ramlila plays back at his home where he played the role of Lord Hanumaan, “Jai Siya Ram! Jai Siya Ram!” Whether he made it or not, no one knew.

Leaving Sitaram behind soured Munna and Kishen’s friendship. Even though they were not related, Munna was distraught in the old man’s absence. Fights began in earnest between the two friends, over the best places to sleep on the road, over someone drinking more water from a bottle, and some such. Until one day, Munna hit Kishen hard enough to bleed him from the head.

Munna disappeared from their band, people said he found a spot in an auto going towards his home. Others said he was seen sleeping inside a Sulabh Sauchalaya. Kishen bandaged his head with a piece of clothing.

 

When he had bled into it enough, someone else offered another piece of cloth.

Maina’s ear pain had a life of its own now and produced yellowish pus. She strained to hear with her other ear. Her sandal tore on the fifth day. The same Bardhaman Didi, who wouldn’t allow Maina to touch any of her belongings, took out a big needle and helped Maina fix her sandal.

Despite the social distancing, they were closer now. Friendships of hunger, fatigue, and misery didn’t follow any of the usual rules.

 

 

*

Maina spent two feverish nights. This couldn’t be the virus; this was her ear acting up. Rebelling against the erratic wind. In the mornings, when her temperature went down, she was quietly relieved.

Deep Jyoti wasn’t faring too well either. He simply stuck with Kishen who had finally stopped bleeding from his head. He was no longer running about from the front of the group to the end and back. Maina suspected Deep’s lack of enthusiasm for meals was because his money was fast getting over. She offered nothing either. After all, things had not been the same since the incident.

Bardhaman Didi now slept a little closer to everyone unlike at the beginning of the journey. Nobody had the energy to start a squabble over it. There was even talk of collecting money to buy her proper sandals. It was ruled out in favor of getting a bandage for Kishen.

Bishnu agreed to do the last rites of his family at the next town, rather than waiting to get home to Katihar. The group could be a part of it that way and pay their respects.

When they reached the next state border, there was major rejoicing in some parts of the group. The celebrations and laughter lasted till they reached the bridge to enter the state. It was, however, sealed away by the khakis. It seemed that the scared and frustrated khakis who weren’t allowed to sit at home didn’t want anyone else to reach theirs either.

The sealed gates had a strange effect on everyone. Bishnu grew hysterical and started walking towards the police station screaming, ‘I’ll pay! Please do the test! Do the test for my Bablu… For my Bablu’s mother! I’ll pay! Please do the test!’ Overcome by grief and guilt, he had reached a breaking point. Others in the group had to physically haul him back before they were all caught by the police and packed off to Delhi, the very place from where they all started in the first place.

After much deliberation, Deep Jyoti and a few others found a way to avoid the sealed gate and walk along the shallow river under the bridge instead. The ones with bigger bags hesitated, as did those who did not know swimming. Maina joined the ones who stayed behind.

 

*

The decline was swift after crossing the river for Deep Jyoti. Weakened and dehydrated, his smile sunk into his cheeks. A day after the crossing, he collapsed on the side of the road, saying he would rest for a while. He no longer had the strength to go on. Word spread that it was the virus. When the news reached Maina, she told herself there was nothing to be done. She kept on walking with the rest of the group.

On the other hand, a much calmer Bishnu managed to find a brahmin to do the last rites of Radha and his son, Bablu. This time, he readily gave away all his savings.

In the following days, they heard that Deep Jyoti had tried to enter a grocery store to buy biscuits, but he wasn’t let in as he belonged to the virus community. Maina refused to dwell on it. ‘Only Chinkies landed themselves in such troubles.’ It was not her problem.

Yet she felt bad about leaving him without a word of goodbye. Maybe she could walk back for a couple of hours and find him in the town. Or she might bump into him on the way. It wasn’t a change of heart; it was just that he was such a simpleton. Besides, didn’t he say that they were amongst the ones who had to go the farthest.

Everyone discouraged her from going back alone but her mind was made up. She said in a loud voice to match her single-sided deafness, ‘I am going back but I will catch up soon! Very soon, samjha?’ Bardhaman Didi nodded sadly.

Hours later, she met another group of migrants. She could barely hear what they were saying thanks to her painful ear. But from their happy gestures she gathered that an NGO was distributing free food a couple of kilometers away. They had had their fill, and she should hurry if she wanted some. They also mentioned Deep Jyoti wasn’t in a good shape, but a full belly could change everything. You never know.

Maina nodded readily and hastened her steps in the general direction. A silent rehearsal of the pep-talk she would give Deep Jyoti began playing in her head… ‘Deep, bhat khala? I have money deisinta nai… get up, let’s go… let’s find a lorry for us… we are almost there… the pukhuris are waiting… Maa Deuta are waiting… besi door nai… sinta nai…’

 

 

*

Chaos ensued shortly after. At first, many masked people were running towards her. None of them were wearing Deep’s gamusa mask. She tried to stop a few, and make sense of what was happening. They all seemed to be trying to escape something.

A heart-wrenching cry pierced her ears. Just like that, she could hear everything clearly again, including her nervously thumping heart. Like the cry had unlocked something in her ear.

 

The khakis were unleashing their angry lathis on a teenaged boy. Some angry migrants were stoning a police vehicle, shattering the glass windows. NGO volunteers caught in between weren’t spared either.

Maina didn’t realize when she started running. Eyes peeled. Panting.

She saw him lying on the ground with his mouth open. A few khakis were watching him while holding handkerchiefs to their faces. The senior inspector spoke to the constable in a hushed angry voice.

‘Tsk-tsk what a mess… didn’t I tell you to keep things in check?’

‘But Sir… how could we allow these Chinkies to do what they want? Aren’t they the ones who brought the virus in first place?’

‘Baba re… I told you a hundred times to keep things in check.’

‘Sir, I only said no free food for the likes of him… the others could get infected… pagal ho gaya… started fighting… demanding food. The balls!’

‘Hmm… What of the family?’ ‘None, Sir.’

‘Good! Dispose of the body, I don’t have more time for this.’

‘Where Sir? The crematorium is full.’ ‘How should I know?’

‘Sir will you call the in-charge of the park’s makeshift crematorium?’ ‘There you go again… asking me to do things for a bloody Chinki!’ Maina had heard enough.

She took one last look at Deep’s face.

A thin line of blood trickled down his face. He wasn’t smiling.

She started dragging her heavy feet away. She strangely thought of his cycle waiting to be picked up at the next town.

The wind howled its heart out and tore at her eardrums. She embraced the pain, no longer straining to hear anything.

Glossary

Khar: Akali based vegetable or fish curry (Assamese) Khar Khuwa: People of Assam who eat Khar

Makhanas: Lotus seeds (Hindi)

Channa Wallah: All sorts of roasted nuts and beans sold by hawkers in India. In particular, it refers to certain types of gram

Pallu: The loose end of a sari, worn over one shoulder or the head (Hindi)

Gamusa: A handwoven article of cultural significance for the indigenous people of Assam

Tamul Paan: Areca nut and betel leaves

Maa: Mother. Can also be used as an endearment for daughters in Assamese

Deuta: Father (Assamese) Dilli: Colloquial for Delhi

Xunisa ne: Have you heard? (Assamese) Pukhuris: Ponds (Assamese)

Kotari: Country made knife (Assamese)

Chinki: A racial slur used to discriminate against people from the North-Eastern states of India on the basis of their looks and affinity to people from China. In 2012, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs recognized the use of the term "chinki" to refer to a member of the Scheduled Tribes (especially in the North-East) as a criminal offense under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act with a penalty of up to five years in jail.

Chinki, bhau kyo kha rahi hai? Come na: Chinki, why are you showing attitude? Come here.

Riska Wallah: A cycle rickshaw puller (Assamese)

Dhet Teri: An exclamation used to express impatience, contempt, disbelief etc. (Assamese)

Xandoh Guri: Or Sandoh or Hando is a type of popular Jolpan, an Assamese Roasted Rice Flour Porridge

Khakis: Indian policemen who were khaki-colored uniforms

Lathis: Long, heavy iron-bound bamboo sticks used as a weapon, especially by police

Lorry Wallahs: Lorry drivers

Choley Kulchey: A north Indian bread eaten with spicy chickpeas curry Bonmas: A rogue, ruffian, bad person, criminal, naughty one

Ramlila: Any dramatic folk re-enactment of the life of Lord Rama according to the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana

Jai Siya Ram: A Hindi expression, translating as "Glory to Sita and Rama"

Sulabh Sauchalaya: An Indian public toilet Samjha?: Understood? (Hindi)

Bhat Khala?: Have you eaten? (Assamese) Sinta Nai: No worries (Assamese)

Besi Dur Nai: Not too far to go (Assamese) Baba Re: An expression of impatience

Pagal Ho Gaya: Lost his cool (Hindi)

Anindita Das is an advertising Creative Director. She self-published her debut book, ‘What The Pandemic Learned From Me’ - a light-hearted Amazon best-seller, written as a modest pursuit to provide relief to the people struggling during lockdown. The book has reached over 100 countries through publications like Hindustan Times, Business Standard, Wallstreet Sentinel and British Columbia Times.

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