My nine year old son, Srijon, shouted from the bed room.
That was Sunday morning. Unlike other days of the week, I woke up half an hour late. I was a little early to bed last night, had a bad headache. After I returned from my hospital duties, I started to work on my art. It was a painting of an elephant with its bent trunk, seen from a frontal angle.
I was drawing with white, acrylic fabric colour, on a piece of black cloth. My plan was to give this to my niece on her birthday. If not for the headache, I would have finished work last evening itself I finished our dinner half an hour before the usual time, before heading to sleep. My husband, Rupankar, said he would remain awake for sometime to help Srijon finish his homework. The world was in a messed up state, suffering from the Coronavirus pandemic. Like many other countries, India was under lock down as well. All the schools in the country were closed, as was Srijon’s. But the school was in touch with the students, through cellphones, the internet, screens to be precise.
Students were glued to their mobile phones during the usual school hours. Everything was being done online, their lectures, lessons, and homework too.
When Srijon called me, I had just finished my craft and was taking photographs of the work. I set it aside, and entered his room. He kept his eyes tightly closed, though I knew he was awake of course. I patted his head. He caught hold of my hand and pulled me towards him. I sat beside him on the bed as he lifted his head and placed it on my knee. I pecked his cheek, joyful, he got up to embrace me tightly.
He uttered repeatedly in a soft voice, ‘My good Mummy, I love you too much.’
We cuddled together for sometime, mother and son, until Rupankar returned from the vegetables market.
I directed Srijon to go to the washroom to get fresh, and be ready for the day. Entering the kitchen to prepare milk for him and tea for us, I asked aloud, ‘What would you like to have for breakfast?’
Rupankar forbade me, mischievously. ‘Do nothing!’
‘Why?’ I asked, startled. Srijon finished his milk hurriedly and ran inside to open the convection oven. He took out two cakes, one big, the other one smaller, and shouted, ‘Happy Mother’s Day, Mummy!’
I was overwhelmed. The father-son duo had made those last night when I was asleep. I was surprised, but pleasantly happy that my son had thought about celebrating Mother’s Day, and thought about his mother.
We had our breakfast with the larger cake.
It was already about eleven o’clock, and I realised I had to prepare lunch. I began washing the vegetables Rupankar brought from the market, with soap baking soda and potassium permanganate. This had become a compulsory unspoken necessity, to save ourselves from Corona infection.
My mobile phone rang. I dried my hand and picked up the phone. The call was from the Superintendent of my hospital, Dr. Bijit Ghoshal. All of us, the doctors called him with BG, for he always, always busy.
He said,’Doctor Mukherjee, Please to come to the hospital at once.’
No! I won’t! Why should I? Today was my off day.
I enquired, ‘Is there an emergency, BG?’
‘No, not exactly. I just received some new operating equipment for COVID 19 treatment and aligned procedures. You know, I am the only doctor on duty today here. I have a training program at NB… the North Bengal Medical College for the next two days and have to leave early tomorrow morning. So someone else must know the how and the why about these today itself. No other doctor is available now. I am sorry to disrupt your holiday but it will only take about two hours; for the discussion. Please come?’
I was unhappy for sure, but I should go. As I started to dress up, Rupankar assured me that he would take care of lunch. He hoped that we might have lunch together, if I returned early.
‘Try not to spend too much time at the hospital,’ he said. I nodded, put on a protective mask to cover my nose and mouth, and opened the door.
Srijon hurriedly said, ‘Mummy! Please! Just a minute.’
He quickly packed the other piece of cake into an aluminium foil. The size was generous and he said, ‘Mummy, have this one if you are hungry.’
What a sweet boy!
It was the tenth of May, the heat outside was scorching. India was under lock down, in the third phase, continuously for the forty-seventh day. All public transports, including autorickshaws were off the road. I could have asked Rupankar to drop me on his motorbike, but I didn’t want Srijon to be alone at home. I started walking, it was a twenty minutes walk.
The security guard informed me that BG was in his office. I headed there. Some doctors and paramedics of my hospital had been sent on duty to the new Covid hospital, which started functioning within a short span of time, a tough feat to achieve in this country. My hospital became understaffed as an aftermath. BG was telling the truth, he was the only doctor on duty for that day.
On the other hand, regular patients with regular ailments were much less in number at that time. The government had advised social distancing, all the public transports were unavailable, people were in fear of being infected by Coronavirus and widespread unemployment prevailed due to shut down of all economic activities. All of this had a direct influence on the number of people coming to hospitals everywhere, except of course for the virus itself. Only emergency and maternity cases were being admitted and even those who were admitted, were discharged as soon as their health and case permitted
BG was signing some papers. He pointed to a seat in front of me, and handed over a bunch of printed papers. I glanced through them and waited for him to wrap up his work and get started.
‘You must be cursing me, because I have probably spoiled your family time?’
‘Oh no! Please don’t say that!’
‘Thank you for understanding, okay, so let us discuss the directives.’
Before he could even begin, he was interrupted by a phone call. From his responses, I gathered that it was the CMO, the Chief Medical Officer of the district on the other side of the phone. BG was assuring him that everything was taken care of. Both the mother and newborn were okay. He would report to him with updates again after two hours.
We resumed our discussion. There was a new operating procedure directive sent out by the government regarding laboratory testing for Corona, reporting protocol, patient transfer and patient discharge. The laboratory technician joined us as some of the directives were related to her work. She was eager to know about the details of the collection of saliva samples, sample preservation, dispatch and reporting procedures. Before leaving, she also added that the saliva samples of the mother and newborn had been sent for Covid test. BG nodded.
About a minute after she left, there was another call, the Superintendent of Police of Alipurduar district. BG informed him too about the health of a mother and newborn. I became curious. I wanted to know what the deal was, what BG thought important enough to mention to these high profile callers. He remained silent for a few minutes, then told me the story.
Lockdown was declared in India on the twenty fourth of March on a notice of just four hours. The government directed everyone to stay where they were, to buy time and keep the pandemic in control. But the daily wage earners and people working under contractors, faced a lot of problems; their earnings stopped, they could not pay rent where they lived, food became scarce. No one knew how long this thing would last.
How many of them were suffering? There were no estimates, no idea of quantifiable data. A large portion of that population, were trying to return to their native places. Where, at least, shelter would be free. Since all the modes of transport were unavailable, thousands of people started walking along the highways, the railway tracks, through forests. For some that walk was for more than a thousand kilometres. They walked day and night, with families and children, with their little belongings, without proper food and water. They earned a new name of their class, the Migrant Labourers; they already had that title in their class category, but never before had it become so important and borne such significance.
On that morning, on Asian Highway, near a police check post between Ethelbari of Alipurduar District and Gayerkata of Jalpaiguri District, a trailer was parked under the scorching sun. There was a cry for help ringing about it and the Police officers intervened, finding a woman in distress.
A group of about one hundred twenty migrant labourers were returning from Vaishali of Bihar to Kokrajhar of Assam, covering a distance of more than six hundred kilometres. Atiur Rahman and his twenty seven year old wife Tania Bibi were in that group. Tania too was a labourer at the factory where her husband worked. They walked for about a week and reached Siliguri.
Tania was pregnant and was hoping to to reach home as early as possible. A trailer that delivered fish at Siliguri was returning to Coochbehar, and they hired that vehicle, hoping to reduce their more than one hundred and fifty kilometres walk of three days to a four-hour ride..
During the ride Tania suffered intense labour pain. She gave birth to her baby in that trailer. The police personnel of Birpara Police Station and of Banarhat Police Station, who were stationed at the check post came forward to help send the newborn and the parents to Birpara State General Hospital by ambulance. The Superintendent of Police assured them a vehicle to take them home once the hospital was done treating them.
I stood up to leave.
Just around then, the ward boy entered and informed about a new patient in the emergency room, the one with a toothache.
BG looked at me, expectantly. I could do nothing but smile, ‘Do you want me to attend to him?’
‘How can I request you for that? Not without embarrassment, no. Although, maybe? I could not even visit the Maternity ward, everything is so hectic.’
‘Okay, I will attend that too. Thank you! Take care, and goodbye.’
After a short visit to the emergency room, I entered the Maternity ward. There were two mothers. One of them was waiting for her labour while the other one was with a newborn on her lap. She was feeding the baby.
Tania smiled at me. I asked her some routine questions. She was all good. I checked up the newborn, it looked healthy. I asked her, ‘How was your experience today?’
She replied, ‘Well, we have always been scared of the police, and were for the whole journey frankly so. But they helped me enormously. My perception about force has changed.’
I smiled. The mother said, ‘Madam, please suggest a name for my baby.’
I thought for a moment, then said, ‘He must be called Kovid.’
’Covid? As in the name of the disease?’
‘No, Tania. I said K-O-V-I-D. It means learned, wise or poet, in both Hindi and Bangla. It’s a play on Covid. Isn’t that appropriate?’
Her eyes shined, and uttered the name twice. She was happy.
I asked her, ‘Do you know what is special about today?’
‘Yes, madam. The nurse told me. Today is Mother’s Day.’
‘And you have become a mother on this special day.’
She was shy, pulled the end of her clothes to conceal her smile.
I turned away to move, and suddenly remembered what Srijon told me in the morning. Someday that newborn, Kovid, would tell his mother, ‘My good Mummy! I love you so much!’
I opened my bag, took out the cake, handed over to the lady, and said, ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’
A The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop piece.
Born in Kolkata, India, in 1956, Samir Mallick is a Dental Surgeon, a chess enthusiast, avid reader and traveller. He has written travelogues, poems and stories in many periodicals and anthologies, including articles in scientific journals. He can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org