A small bird outside their window looked thoughtfully from side to side and preened itself. The prominent spike on its head was perfectly set, as if by a good hair stylist. Pycnonotus cafer – the red-vented bulbul.
Soon, it was joined by its friend. They sat close enough but respectfully away from each other and Sneha wondered if birds too were into ‘social distancing’ now. She finished her glass of Boost and got up for her classes.
As she walked to her room, Piya set off her raucous calls. Sneha checked her water cup and food tray quickly. There was clear water and well-soaked Bengal gram inside the large cage. “Piya, Piya, Piya!”, she said endearingly to her lovely pet.
Piya inclined her head from side and side, nodded excitedly and moved from one end of the rail to the other. Sneha gave the cage a gentle swing before going to her room.
Virtual classes were not half as much fun as being with her animated friends
Sneha switched on the laptop and watched the screen blink to life. Anuradha Ma’am appeared with her presentation on the human circulatory system. “Good Morning girls! Hope you all are staying safe and washing your hands often. Remember to keep frequently used surfaces clean and sanitised,” she started off with her standard greeting.
She was dressed in her trademark beads, dark lip colour and kohl-lined eyes behind glasses. She was obviously at her house with drapes in the background, bookcase crammed with books and a healthy house plant behind her.
Sneha saw her classmates moving inside rectangular boxes on her screen – many at a time. Then rapidly, most went black soon after they had wished their teacher.
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in India in early 2020 – or late 2019, depending on which report you choose to believe. In Kolkata, where Sneha lived, winter was just bidding goodbye and spring was setting in.
A sudden lockdown was announced
Before Sneha’s mother could sort out their winter clothes and send them for dry cleaning, everyone had landed right into the national lockdown – offices, educational institutions, markets and places of worship were all shut. The city wore an alien look.
Sneha had just been promoted to class 10 – the final year of secondary school. in the forthcoming year she would appear for her board exams – the first major examination in her life. It was both thrilling and intimidating. The books carried over from class 9 and new exercise books were neatly covered, stuck with rectangular labels. She had finished writing out her name in flowing handwriting.
Baba, who was spending time at home like other fathers, received the mail from her school a few days later. He read it loudly, frowning slightly.
“In view of the ongoing pandemic and in accordance with central and state guidelines pertaining to the same, regular classes are being indefinitely suspended. For now, we are switching to a digital medium of education for our students. Teachers will extend maximum support to ensure that no student misses out on her syllabus. We seek your cooperation through this unprecedented, challenging phase. Together, we will emerge victorious out of this. Please stay safe and healthy with your family.”
“Hmm,” he said contemplatively, not looking happy at all.
“What does this mean?” asked Sneha in alarm,” What about our practicals and extra classes?”
Her father replied thoughtfully,” I know it’s going to be hard, but I suggest you get used to it as fast as you can. We will tackle this!”
He smiled forcefully and gave her a jovial wink.
It was far from easy
In no way did her room resemble her classroom. Her eyes wandered to the dresser with her bands, baubles, and nail colours, to the money plant on the windowsill, even to the fan above her head – so different from the old, brown fans in school. She began missing her friends terribly – even those whom she wasn’t particularly fond of. It was dreary sitting all by yourself staring into a laptop screen, trying to identify where her besties–Harleen and Kehkasha–were in the boxes jumping to life one by one.
Every evening, she asked her parents about the lockdown. When would it be called off? When was she going back to school again? Her grandmother needed a dentist’s consultation, but everyone kept dissuading her because she was a senior and in the vulnerable group – meaning she was even more at risk than the rest.
One microscopic organism had upset all their lives
Sneha googled and read as much about the COVID-19 virus as she could. Originating from Wuhan, China, it was progressively sweeping across the globe like a raging fire, as population after population tested corona positive. Entire nations were being ravaged and economies were crumbling under its impact. Italy, Spain, France, the UK and US were all in its grip. They were developed countries where health infrastructure was far superior.
There was no medicine for it yet. A vaccine was being developed, but it could be over a year before clinical tests confirmed it fit to be marketed. Medical experts stressed on boosting one’s natural immunity. Everyone was instructed to wear masks in public, maintain social distancing, keep one’s hands sanitised and avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes.
Most stopped going out for their morning and evening walks – let alone visiting one another. The housing society where they lived gradually took on a ghostly, abandoned look as housekeeping staff stopped arriving for work, and dry leaves piled up everywhere.
It was bewildering at first – then progressively dismal
Sneha tried to keep herself occupied with her studies and hobbies. But she was an extrovert and soon got bored of being by herself.
“Ma, when will we get over with this?” she demanded yet again one evening.
Her mother smiled a tired smile,” I don’t know, Sneha. We just need to be patient and strong willed right now.”
Her grandmother overhearing their conversation joined in with her bit, “What a weird situation! In my entire seventy-five years, I never experienced anything like this!”
Soon they were in week four and there were discussions that the lockdown could be extended further by another month at the very least. Cases were rising steadily all over the country, including in West Bengal.
It was a strange, gloomy world they were living in. Watching the news on TV was depressing. The reporters were strangely kitted out in masks and protective caps over their heads, holding microphones covered in plastic sheaths. Their hands, gloved like surgeons, held booms away from their bodies as they interviewed.
PPE kits were in shortage – medical workers were protesting about their acute vulnerability without them. Daily conversation included terms like hand washes and face masks with triple layer protection.
It was as though being imprisoned in her own house
One morning, Sneha felt despondent beyond measure. Soon she would have to go and switch on the laptop and log in for classes. She was not looking forward to it in the least. Truth be told, she hated it. It had been weeks since she’d been anywhere. Not to her school. Not to her friends. Not even to the local pizzeria on weekends with her parents. Was it fair at all? She felt tired. She longed for a drive with windows rolled down. She yearned to speed into the countryside, her bob of hair getting tousled in the wind.
Piya called loudly and she jumped with a start. As usual, she’d been lost in her thoughts. It struck her suddenly. How must Piya feel inside her cage all the time? This thought had never occurred to her before.
It was a given that her beloved pet was happy so long as her bowls had clean water and food. That she was fine with her bath under the flowing tap, water splashing over her head as she wriggled and fluffed her feathers. Just a few weeks inside her house and she was feeling imprisoned. Didn’t Piya miss the open sky, the branches of tall trees, the wind gently blowing over her as she swayed on one?
How crammed her cage looked, never mind that it was beautifully painted in peach and gold! Sneha found it tough to focus on anything over the ensuing hours.
A call for action
At lunch, Sneha announced, “We’re going to let Piya fly away.”
Her family looked quite astonished. “Are you okay, Sneha?” asked her father anxiously.
She had insisted on a pet because she claimed she was lonely without a sibling. She had specifically wanted a parrot because she could teach it to communicate like a human. She loved it dearly. Now she wanted to let it go. Teens could be temperamental, but this?
Sneha cried, her voice quivering, “Baba, I’m hating being indoors all the time. Only four weeks and I’m going crazy! How must she feel being in her cage forever?”
It took a while for the three to realise she was serious. Why were adults so slow on the uptake when you quickly wanted them to see your point? Then they smiled knowingly.
“Sure,” replied her father approvingly, “We’re going to the terrace after lunch.”
So, up they went with the cage, Sneha talking sweetly to a slightly bewildered Piya.
It broke her heart but she knew it had to be done
They placed the cage on the edge, closer to the old mango tree. There she could escape and perch with no hostile eagles or crows to frighten her.
Sneha opened the little door and tapped gently. “Go, buddy,” she said softly, “I know how it feels to be trapped and I cannot keep you like this.”
Piya tilted her head knowingly and nodded. Then, she hopped towards the open door and thrust her little head out. Her intelligent eyes looked around, gauged what was happening and swiftly she squeezed out into the open. Then she flapped her wings and flew away into the old tree.
The cage was empty.
Sneha brushed away her tears. For the first time in her life, she felt a sensation of loss and happiness together. It made her feel strangely grown up. She realised that through the lockdown, life had taught her a brand-new lesson.