Shishir (Winter) 2020 Stories - Vipul Lunia


As Fate would Mask it

By Vipul Lunia


Nakul wore his fake Carrera watch that showed date and time, to match his red tiewhich looked like it was being used as a rope to tie stuff together. He couldn’t afford to buy a new one as he didn’t have thirty rupees to spare for luxury. But he was wearing his best clothes, carrying his best bag (he only had one) and his best shoes to hide his ‘perforated’ socks. Although he didn’t have any money for the haircut, but he did shave using his old razor and managed to do it with only a single cut. With a smile on his face, Nakul came out of the room looking like a good boy, which both his mother and wife wanted him to be.

Nakul knew it was an important day so he did everything in his power to prepare himself for it. He prayed to God for about two extra minutes than usual, touched his parents’ feet for their blessings and asked his wife and kids to pray for him. But after all this if he missed the bus, it would all go to waste. So chanting God’s name, he left home in a hurry to catch the 9am bus to MG road. As a lone bread earner for a family of six, he could not afford to be out of job for a very long time.He was desperate. If he managed to do well in the interview today and land the job, he might be able to salvage his family’s reputation or whatever was left of it.


Bus dropped him in front of the building on MG road. In the lift with just three minutes to spare, he consoled himself that he will reach just before the gate closed. But just then he saw Pawan coming towards the lift. Although Pawan didn’t see him but Nakul tried to hide as best as he could. Nakul owed him money and was not picking his calls since many days. He prayed that somehow he would gounnoticed.


Out of pressure and nervousness, Nakul farted loudly. That was the last thing he wished and yet it came true. Pawan turned around to see the perpetrator. And as a reflex Nakul hung his head so low that Pawan could not have seen the face without disturbing the ladies beside him. And while exiting the lift, he hid his face behind the file, pretending to be ashamed of the fart.


When he reached, the doors were about to be closed. He managed to squeeze himself in and grabbed a chair at the end of the room, trying to catch his breath. He nodded in the direction of the people looking at him, and tried to be as polite as possible. In that moment he was more than aware of himself. He was sweating profusely, his hair dishevelled, he was panting loudly, his shirt with dark armpits coming out from his pants and his torn ancient bag exhibited for all to see. But that didn’t seem like an interview room at all. May be they were briefing everyone before the interview. But as soon as Nakul was able to make sense of what was being said he realized, he was in the wrong room.


Organized by some Pharma company, that was a meeting of the people who had volunteered to let their family members, who were infected with the deadly virus, be treated by the new medicine. He was about to get up and leave, when he heard someone mention an amount of 75000/- for volunteering. He still wanted to leave but just couldn’t. Torn between right and wrong, he kept thinking about the amount and things his family could do with it. He argued that he had anyway lost the opportunity he came for, so might as well staythere and find out how this panned out.


After the session, he kept thinking about the money and kept convincing himself that he just have to bring an infected family member for the medicine. He was trying to remember if any of his acquaintances, neighbours or friends was infected by that virus. But none came to his mind. What a useless lot, he thought to himself. Instead of taking the bus back, Nakul absorbed in his thoughts, started walking. The figure of Rs 75000/- didn’t leave him even for a second because it was easy money. All he had to do was convince someone infected to be treated with the medicine. But who? Where to find that someone who will help him?


They mentioned with confidence that although these will be the first trials but they were sure that the medicine will be almost 100% effective. So if he was not able to find someone with the infection, maybe he could infect someone with that virus. Pharma Company’s medicine will cure the infection anyway. That way no one will be harmed and he could still get Rs 75000/- for his family. Nakul had a smile on his face when he was convinced that he would secure the amount. But yet he didn’t know whom to infect and how to infect. For the latter he came up with the idea of an infected piece of cloth or any other article from the civil hospital on the way. But the answer to the first part was still eluding him.


He thought of many names, but he didn’t have the heart to do such a thing to them. And suddenly his father came to his mind. If the money was for his family, then the person infected with the virus should also be from the family. Andfather would be the perfect candidate, he thought. For the last decade, he has been lying there doing nothing while his medical expenses have eaten into most of the family funds and his own savings. It’s about time that he helped in replenishing some of that. And besides with the medicine, he will be cured of that virus and who knows, might also be cured of whatever was ailing him then.


Sure of what he was about to do, he made a detour to the civil hospital to pick up an infected article. As he was rummaging in the bin outside the ward of virus infected patients, wearing a thirty micron polythene bag in his hand, one of the cleaning staff shouted at him from a distance. Scared that he would not be able to justify his act, he picked up whatever he could and made a run for it. He ran as fast as he could, out the premises, out on the main road and looked back. No one was chasing him. But then why would they, for stealing trash? He then noticed that he had picked a mask from the bin. He carefully wrapped it in the polythene and placed it inside his bag. He rubbed some earth on his hand to sanitize it and carried on for home.


His children were playing hopscotch in the common veranda of the chawl. Earlier they used to run to him when he used to return from work, but now they didn’t bother because they knew he was unemployed so won’t have anything for them. They didn’t even acknowledge that he was walking past them. Inside his mother was praying while his wife was cooking, cursing her fate on having such a mother-in-law and such a house. And as soon as she saw her husband, she added his name to the list. He ignored her and headed directly towards his father. He sat beside him and while taking out the mask, talked to him about it.


“Baba, today I visited an old friend of mine who has become a doctor now. And I told him about your condition. And look what he gave me,” said Nakul showing him the polybag. “He said that just wearing this mask would cure you of your disease.” He looked at Baba for some response but he just kept staring at him. Nakul looked at Baba guiltily and somehow looking in his eyes made him feel that he knew. Whatever he was doing was not wrong, he will get cured- he repeated to himself. And then carefully he put mask on him. He remembered that the virus infected only when it came in contact for longer duration, so he asked Baba not to remove it, as if he could. He did not dare to look into his eyes after that and swiftly turned and walked towards kitchen where his wife was still cursing.


“Listen Lata, make sure nobody goes near Baba till tomorrow morning. I have administered a new treatment which can possibly cure him. Come here, look at that mask,” Nakul called his wife.


“I don’t have time to look at your childish games. You don’t have to do these things anymore. I know now that nothing can cure him. And yet you keep spending money for his medicine. Well it’s your money, do whatever you want with it. But save some for your children too,” Lata replied and went back to her under the breathe cursing.


“Fine don’t look at it, just make sure you or children don’t go near Baba, okay? Especially that mask, it has medicine which might harm them.”


Lata turned to face him and said, “Your children take after you.”


“What does that mean?” asked Nakul.


“That means that they don’t listen to me, so it will be better if you tell them yourself.”


Nakul shrugged and left. Till midnight he made sure that nobody went near Baba. Although erratically, but Nakul slept through the night. But when he woke up, he found his younger son sleeping in the foetal position alongside Baba. He stared at the scene wide-eyed and turned white as if he had seen his own death. Something jolted him back to life and he rushed to wake his son up. He picked him up and took him to the bathroom where he cleaned him with a detergent soap. Dissatisfied, he bathed him again. Even the loud cries of his little son, didn’t stop him. Seeing him mad like that, nobody dared to interrupt him.


He asked his son to not to go out anywhere, even school. While asked his older daughter to leave immediately for the school. He then readied his father for a check-up at the Pharma Company and if everything went as per plan then possibly return with medicine administered and some cash in his pocket. His only worry was if his son would get infected, for which he kept on praying. He hired a taxi to take Baba to the pharma company. While leaving he instructed his wife and mother to disinfect the house, especially Baba’s mattress.


Procedure at the pharma company ate up his whole day. When they told him that his Baba had symptoms of the infection, his face broke into a smile. But then they told him that he had to bring him back tomorrow for administering the medicine. Nakul asked them if they could keep him for the night as it was not safe for him to be at home. But they refuse saying they were not equipped for it. Nakul knew he cannot take him back home after what happened last night, so he decided to lodge him in a cheap guesthouse nearby for the night. He called home to inform them about the situation and added that they will return tomorrow. He then instructed his wife to maintain distance from each other and listed down pointers on which she needed to be precautious.


That night his father’s condition deteriorated. It was difficult for him to be inside the room with his infected father for longer periods and yet he couldn’t leave him because of his worsening condition. Noises of pain started to emanate from his father who had not spoken a word since many years. He was worried for him now. He wished for the morning like he never did before. Till then all he could do was wait. He could not comfort him like he should have because of the fear of infection. All he could do was to pray which he did with all the concentration he could muster. Next day Sun brought him the relief for which he prayed through the night. His father returned to his vegetative self after the medicine was administered to him. Also Nakul collected his first instalment of forty thousand and happily took his father home in a taxi.


But back at home, a lock welcomed them. An enquiry with the neighbour revealed that all his family members had been quarantined because of the viral infection. The neighbour added that when his younger son’s condition faltered, they tried to contact Nakul but were unable to reach him. So they went on their own to the hospital where all four of them were found positive for the infection and were quarantined. Nakul didn’t believe what he was being told. He thought that someone was playing a joke on him. How can that be happening to him? He took his father to his bed, where he fell like a log. And then immediately left for the quarantine centre.

Nakul cursed himself for doing such a lowly thing for the sake of a few bucks and makinghis dear ones pay for it. At the quarantine centre he was not allowed to meet them but was informed that his younger son and his mother were very critical. On hearing that, the tears beading in his eyes started to flow like the broken tap in his bathroom. In his desperation, he went up to the Pharma Company to purchase their medicine for the virus. They refused to sell citing government rules and regulations. When they saw Nakul begging on his knees, crying profusely, the official was ready to sell him just four shots, ten thousand for each shot. Nakul handed back the forty thousand he had collected from them that very day. He dropped those shots with an official at the quarantine centre, who had agreed to administer them for a small sum of money.


It was already past ten at night when Nakul decided to head home. Now he was worried about his father whom he had left on his own on that bed. When he arrived home, he found him in the same position he had left him in. He went over to check him and found his eyes half-open. He gently called him, “Baba, Baba, Baba….” While nudging him to at least acknowledge his presence. But his Baba didn’t respond to any of that. Nakul thought maybe he was hurt, because Baba knew what his son thought of him, being good-for-nothing and all. But that was just an argument, he didn’t mean it. He said, “I am sorry Baba, open your eyes, at least open your eyes.” He pulled his eye-lids open and found a question for himself, ‘Why?’, for which he had no answer.


He slept beside his Baba like his younger son used to sleep, in foetal position. He knew now that the medicine didn’t work. His only hope of release from all that was to catch the infection from his dead father. Lying there he stared at his fake watch which had stopped working. He noticed the date and time, it was exactly the moment when he entered that conference room.


Vipul writes based out of India, listening to the stories of the land. His work so far has been published in Visual Verse, Women’s Web, Story Mirror and recently shortlisted for an Anthology. When he is not writing he is out for birdwatching. Someday he hopes to rediscover the lost bird species like Himalayan Quail and Pink-headed Duck


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