The Lockdown Part 2

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

This is a story of an unlikely hero---an old Sikh, widower who, owing to his resourcefulness, compassion and love for his fellow human beings helps them negotiate these turbulent and uncertain times of the Corona Virus as they undertake a trip together.

Ten minutes later, seated  at the back seat of the Mahindra Scorpio, he watched as the car slowly glided out of the narrow lane of his house and move its way to the road to the airport. His journey had begun. May the all powerful Waheguru keep him safe!

After about an hour he reached the Amritsar airport. The driver helped him with the luggage. He tipped him a generous amount. Then he moved towards the entrance pulling the red VIP suitcase behind him with the back pack slung across his left shoulder.  Butterflies were beginning to move in his stomach.

There was a long line-up to enter. When his time came to show his ticket and passport to go in his  hands trembled and there was a tight knot in his stomach.  The “CISF Jawan’ who checked his ticket and passport nodded to him gravely and indicated with a slight tilt of his head to go in. It was a surreal moment for him. He was going to the west at last!

After checking in his bags  and  fulfilling his security and immigration clearance he was , at last, ushered into the lounge from which his  Spice jet flight would take him to Delhi This was a domestic flight. From Delhi he would board the flight for Toronto with a stopover at Heathrow , London Airport. That would be an international flight.

He sat by himself and looked at people around him. They were of all shapes, sizes and ages. He wondered where all of them were going. Were they going abroad like him or were travelling domestically? Everybody was immersed in  themselves. The vast majority were engrossed in their phones, either they were talking or scrolling through the screen or reading, or listening with the headphones plugged to their ears. He was perhaps the only one who was not tied to a phone.  He looked around to see if there was anyone with whom he could start  a converstion. He was  from that old fashioned school that till now  enjoyed and participated in physical human interaction.

A young woman of about twenty five came and sat beside him. She was dressed in jeans and black top . Her hair which was naturally black had streaks of blonde of highlights. She had a pretty face and a pleasant demeanour. He smiled at her as their gaze met and she smiled back.

“ How are you? “ he asked, in his heavily accented Punjabi English.

“ I am good” she answered in her North American Accent, “ and You?”

“ I am fine he said”, suddenly conscious of his rudimentary knowledge of English.

“ Good” she answered. He thought that would be the end of their conversation, but to his surprise, she wanted to continue their interaction. He was pleasantly surprised when she asked him where he was travelling to. When she knew that he was travelling to Toronto her face lit up and she said , “ wow we are going to the same continent! I am going to New Jersey!”

He came to know her name wasNavneet Kaur and she lived in a city called Newport in New Jersey. She  was born and raised in America and worked for Nestle as a Product Manager. Her grandparents whom she had come to visit lived in a tiny village in Gurdaspur district of Punjab.

Speaking with her lifted his spirits and the germ of nervousness that was brewing inside seemed to  have been exterminated and he was breathing much easier now. For some unknown reason though she was not related to her in anyway  he felt at ease in her company  and he realised she was a kind and helpful human being.

This was further confirmed when the announcement came on the PA system about the time to board she guided and accompanied him to the line-up and gently asked him to have his passport and boarding card ready for checking. What touched him most was that she deliberately paced herself to match his pace. Being a young, healthy individual she could have easily gone ahead by herself and left him to fend for himself, especially in light of the fact he was no relation of hers. Even in today’s world respect and regard for the elderly was alive.

After she had found his seat and had him comfortably settle in, she requested the traveller, a middle aged swarthy man, besides him if he would like to exchange his seat with hers. Initially he grimaced and expressed displeasure then finding that it was a better seat than his, he agreed. She put his back pack and her laptop in the loft  above.

As he did not know the procedure to strap his seat belt she helped with that and most importantly did not laugh at him for his clumsiness. He thanked  the “ Wahe Guru” for sending her to guide him, because the religious and devout man that he was he had no doubt  she was sent by Him to help him.

The plane reached the Indira Gandhi International airport in New Delhi near midnight. He never did imagine that it would be so large  and busy. Had it not been for Navneet he was certain he would have been lost. But he realized that she would not be  here to help him with the next leg of his journey and it would be good  for him that he learn to  be independent. While she would take an direct  American Airlines flight to  New Jersey he would be flying to Heathrow by British Airways and from there would be taking Air Canada to Toronto.

The smart young woman that she was Navneet scanned the electronic boards and quickly determined the terminal and lounge from where the flight would be  taking off. She figured it would be a long walk for him so she took one of those internal airport transits which transported the old and the frail to their respective terminals and lounges.

The security and immigration check was extremely stringent. The security staff were not rude but were abrupt and not deferential at all. As he was  a heart patient he was not that quick at following instructions and that made the security personnel lose their cool. Navneet explained to them his problems and very diplomatically handled the situation. He was immensely grateful for this  and was beginning to admire her hugely.

By the time immigration and security was done he was completely drained out, so along with Navneet he had tea and a sandwich, the cost of which, almost gave him a small stroke. Navneet wanted to pay but he firmly refused. What  even if the price was exorbitant he could do this for his benefactor, for sure.

The sheer volume of people at the airport was mind boggling. He had always assumed that air travel was for the wealthy. At least that was the way when he was growing up or was a young man. Things , however, had changed dramatically, especially, after the advent of the age of technology, and, now, no longer, was it the domain of the well heeled only. The middle class had also made bold forays into this niche mode of travel.

Both of them sat quietly. While the young girl dexterously worked on her laptop he tried to  collect his thoughts. Strangely, a very old memory came back to him. As a kid he grew up in a village of undivided Punjab  when India had not gained its independence. His best friend was a Muslim boy named Ashraf with whom he spent most of his time. They studied at the same school and  were neighbours. Their parents also knew each other. They had such fun growing up and  there was nothing they did not do together. They climbed  trees ,stole fruits ,  scaled walls and ate each other’s Tiffin. Villagers said that they were one soul in two bodies.

Then one evening in the month of July 1948  when he was at Ashraf’s home some announcement came over the radio. They were both little boys at that time and did not understand what it was pertaining to. A little while later Ashraf’s dad, Naseer uncle came onto the room and with a grim face asked his son to follow him inside. Ashraf, took his leave saying, “ I will be back in a minute” but he never came back even after about ten minutes had elapsed. In his place Nasser uncle returned and in a matter of fact way said that he should stop hanging out with Ashraf. He further requested him not to come to their house and also stop inviting Ashraf to his house.  “ Son” ,Naseer uncle said, his voice straining with grief,” you are both too young to understand, but we are from different faiths and now the country is being divided on the lines of religion. It is not safe for you to be together”.

That was the last time he saw his best friend. In the month of August of that same year his family began their long journey towards India. The village that his parents and grand fathers had called home for so many  years had become a part of Pakistan the country that belonged to Muslims and they being Sikhs had no place there.

The people responsible for the partition of this great country he thought could never have a clear conscience and could never have a peaceful night’s sleep. How can you, when because of your insensitive decision it led toone of most heinous genocides in human history. The conflagration that erupted  gave rise to one of most bitter animosities between two nations that to this day has resulted in creating one of most volatile and charged borders anywhere in the world.

Navneet had finished working and was packing her laptop into her bag. She saw him looking at her and gave a sweet smile. “So you are done working”, he asked. “ Yeah sort of, replied to all my mails” she said. “another half hour and then you will be boarding. My flight  for New York is in another three hours. Here Uncle take my number” she handed him her business card. He looked at it and carefully put inside his wallet. “ if you are planning to visit the States just give me a call and I will be glad to take you around” said the yuppie.

Presently the call to board was announced and he had  the familiar knot in his stomach once again. Like before, Navneet guided him and he was once again overwhelmed with gratitude and thanked her once again profusely. He had this habit of thanking everyone effusively and his late wife would be annoyed and expressed her displeasure many times. Perhaps she was right. He should be more business like and thank only once or not at all. Maybe, because in his life he had seen so little kindness  that whenever someone went out of his way to lend a helping hand he would be agog with emotion. The young girl said that it was no big deal and that what she was doing anyone else in her place would be doing .

She waved at him as he was ushered into the vestibule that would take him into the aircraft. He waved back and a feeling of sadness filled him. He was this way. He forged relationships quickly and wanted to cling to them and never let go.

After about twenty minutes he was all settled in and  was blown away by the size of the plane. The Air Canada  Boeing 777 plane flying to Toronto had a capacity of more than 350 passengers. Each of the rows with two aisles could seat ten passengers. He had an aisle seat as was requested by him. He was a diabetic and had the frequent urge to empty his bladders and it would be extremely embarrassing for him to get up and inconvenience other passengers every time he had to pee if he was allotted the middle seat.

The  passengers that sat next to him were a young couple who were going to Canada as first time immigrants. They were from Mumbai. The man, Abhisek,  was of short height while the girl, Madhuri, was pretty and they had a seven year old sprightly son, Siddharth, who was storehouse of energy. He knew what was going through their minds now. A perfect storm was brewing there. Immigration is a tough thing. It tests you at all levels. People take this step with the hope of ameliorating their lives and with  the prospect of a brighter and more comfortable future. Sadly, however, as he had heard first hand from many people who had ventured to foreign lands with big dreams they had to taste the dust and live a  life of precarity, heart break and hopelessness. The problem arose from the fact that for reasons of economics, politics and false national pride the immigrant was considered inferior to the locals, which was not actually the case though, and his educational qualifications, experience and knowledge was looked at with suspicion and all of a sudden all those degrees which you spent a lifetime to acquire became a scrap of paper. You literally started life from scratch. In India, where by dint of your hard work, tenacity and acumen you occupied a high rung in the imaginary ladder of social standing going over to the country of your choice, you were demoted to the lower rungs, if not, the lowest rung of this ladder.

Both  Abhisek and his wife, Madhuri were respectful and went out of their way to make him feel comfortable. Like many of his generation who were not exposed to technology in their youth but were introduced to it when they reached retirement age his expertise in it was at the basic level and often while doing stuff on his computer, a gift from his daughter, he was stumped and he had to speak with his grand daughter, Simran, who would in a jiffy diagnose the problem and solve it. The entertainment system built into back of the head rest of the seat before him was complicated and he was having difficulty coming to grips with it. Abhisek, taught him how to operate it and asked him what he would like to watch. He was not a big fan of the Tv and he was not into watching “ soaps” like his late wife. He asked the young Cost Accountant from India to set his system up so that he could listen to old Hindi songs. Perhaps, it was because of these melodies from yesteryears or it  was the result of the lethargy arising out of  strain of travel he went into reverie. In it he saw Mandeep and he travelling together! Mandeep looked so happy and buoyant and she said ,” so at last we are going to a foreign country!”

“ Sir , Vegetarian or Non-veg?” the air hostess asked and it broke his reverie. Pinky had told him to opt for  vegetarian diet as a non-vegetarian one might  lead to gas and indigestion. “  “Vegetarian”, he replied.

The rest of the journey went by in a blur. He mostly slept and when he was awake he chatted with the nice couple going to a new country to start a new life.

He had lost sense of time as he was going through so many time zones, however, when the announcement came on the speaker that it was about seven p.m local time and they would be landing in Toronto in another half hour that he realized that it was evening.

He had the familiar knotty feeling in his stomach. He knew it was because of his nerves. With a gentle thud the plane landed. Pinky had insisted that he opt for wheel chair assistance, which he gently and firmly refused.  “ with Wahe Guru’s blessings I am still able to walk without much difficulty. Let them use it who need it  more than me”.

He collected his carry-on bag and bade goodbye to the wonderful young couple. He sincerely wished them the best in their new quest for a new beginning. He tussled the hair of the kid  who gave him a high five.

He collected his checked bag from the carousel and took help from a Punjabi girl who was volunteering at the airport to find his way towards immigration and customs check. There was a long line up but the good thing it was moving fast. After about an hour of landing he was finally done. He carefully pushed the baggage cart and moved towards the exit.

His heart was beating and butterflies squirmed in his stomach as slowly he  came outside into main arrival terminal. There were a sea of people of all shapes and sizes and all kind of ethnic background. Anxiously he scanned the faces before him to pick out his daughter’s family. Suddenly, he heard, someone call out, “ Dada ji! Dada ji!”  from the side. He turned and saw his granddaughter, Simran, pulling at his arm. She had grown into a lovely young girl since the last time he had seen her which was  about 5 years ago when his daughter had visited India. Quickly she bent down and touched his knees, “ Payri paona Dadaji”. He was happy to see that her daughter had inculcated good culture in her kids. Within  a few minutes the whole family was there and there were hugs and greetings all around.

A few minutes later they were all settled in Pinky’s Toyota Sienna and were zipping through the 401 Highway, one of the busiest highways in North America. Pinky gathered all the news about her extended family in India while Sandeep listened and in gave his comments  intermittently. He asked the kids about school and they answered  back in their rusty, broken Punjabi. He liked the fact that they did make an effort at speaking the language though, no matter how difficult it was for them.

Presently, after about  forty minutes they reached home. It was in the city of Brampton, which, as Sandeep told him was predominantly inhabited by people from India,  with the majority of the people from Punjab. “ You will not miss home, one bit Dad” , Pinky said, “this is a Mini Punjab”. He nodded as  he was aware of this fact.

Pinky’s house was a  large detached house with a quite a big lot. It had a large front yard with  a manicured lawn and a lovely garden. He recognized Sedums, Rudbeckia and Geraniums in the mix of flowers. The driveway was large and could easily park six cars and there was also a three car garage. The locality was called Fletcher’s creek and he would learn subsequently that it was one of the better communities in the city of Brampton.

The inside of the house was equally impressive as the exterior. He  did know that Pinky had a creative side to her but he had never thought she would have the penchant, flair and fine taste as was manifest in the décor and  the harmonious and aesthetic way everything was arranged and placed in the house.

As a father he felt pleased and happy. If only Mandeep was alive she would have felt elated too. Too bad she could not see how well her darling daughter had done in life.

He was a given a separate room in the main floor. It had a large king size bed with  beige coloured sofa set. There were matching side tables with bed lamps and a large closet with polished doors. The room had an en-suite and the floors of the washroom were made of fine sparkling tiles. He felt uneasy in this meticulously clean environment. So long Mandeep was alive, their house, if not a model home, was till moderately clean and presentable. After Mandeep’s death things went south as he was never accustomed to cleaning and scraping and his bathrooms and rooms soon began to display the signs of neglect. As such, he was reluctant to invite any people or ask any one home.  Taking a shower in the state of art stand –up shower he felt thrilled and at same time nervous as he did not want to create a mess or break any of the expensive gadgets in there.

After  the shower he had a sumptuous typical Punjabi dinner that had all the mouth watering dishes which he liked. There was Mattter Paneer, Dal, Saag and Tandoori Chicken which he ate along with Nans and Basmati rice. For dessert he had Gajrela with Gulap Jamun. He knew Pinky was a great cook but that she was this good made  him feel proud. After dinner he stayed up for a while chatting with the family and then before he could realize what was happening the cumulative effect of the long  tiresome journey and the jet lag made him doze off to a deep heavy sleep.

He slept for 36 hours  straight and then when he woke up to he found it was mid day. He was comfortably tucked in the large sprawling bed and Pinky was in the room taking his stuff from the suitcase and neatly arranging it in the closets. He had tea and then lunch and then Pinky took him out.

It was fall time and the  leaves of the trees were beginning to turn orange. The city of Brampton was predominantly Indian, with many Indian stores and restaurants. It kind of felt odd that even being thousands of miles away from his homeland he was exposed to the Eastern way of life. The owners and the employees of the shops spoke Punjabi and in the city you could see turbaned Sikhs cycling, taking the bus or whiling their time at Malls.

He slowly got accustomed to the way of life here. Life started early, with no maids or domestic help to lend a helping hand, things had to be done by yourself and  this meant waking up early. Pinky, he noticed woke at the crack of dawn and after freshening up she prepared breakfast and packed lunches for the family. Making the lunch for the kids was no mean task as she had to figure out the fine balance between taste and nutrition. For herself she usually packed a light salad and for Sandeep it was usually “Parathas” and “sabji”. The quintessential Punjabi loved food and had a penchant for greasy food and Sandeeep was no exception.

 The yellow school bus arrived dot at 8 o’ clock at a specified boarding point. Parents and kids  came and  stood at the place and when the bus came, it put on all way flashers and the big “ Stop “ sign  that was on two sides of the bus was deployed. It meant no vehicle could pass the Bus on either side till the time the sign was retrieved back. Any one violating the rule was subject to  a severe traffic ticket and  a hefty fine.

Pinky had delegated the duty of taking the children every day to the bus stop to him. He did not mind , on the contrary, he felt good that he was contributing in some way to the family. Pinky and her husband left around 8.30 . While Pinky took her 2017 Toyota Highlander, Sandeep drove his Infiniti F35 to work. He remained in the house by himself surfing through the many channels of the IPTV. He mainly watched the news  and that too the Indian news channel Aaj Tak. He thought it be paradoxical, coming thousands of miles from India and then  trying to connect with his homeland.

The kids returned around 3.30 and he went to the main door to welcome them. The kids Jasraj and Simran were both good kids as Pinky had instilled good values in them. They were also extremely disciplined. After coming from school they discarded their school clothes and changed into their home outfits. Unlike India where you had people helping kids here they had to things by themselves and made them remarkably independent.

Pinky had earmarked the week-ends for travel and excursion. After finishing her weekly grocery shopping in the morning the whole family went to visit places of interest or sightseeing. The first week end they all went to the Niagara Falls.

Viewing the falls at close range  gave him the goose bumps. Here it was at last – the natural wonder of which he had heard and read so much as a child. He was not a bright student at school but the subject of Geography interested him a great deal and he had been especially interested in the falls. He knew that every second 28 million litres of water travel down it every second. It is comprised of three waterfalls, from the largest to the smallest, the Horseshoe Falls( also known as the Canadian Falls), American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls. The height of the falls in some sections is over 176 feet.

A couple of weeks later they were at the Waterfront. It was a lively , vibrant place and he admired the wonderful upkeep and  maintenance of the place. The impeccable narrow lanes that winded through the lake shore were filled with cyclists and skaters of all ages, sex and size. He felt a stab of regret. If only Mandeep was here with him to enjoy  and take in the beauty of the place.

A memory of an evening came back to him. This was during the last stages of her disease. She had  undergone a round of chemo and as it always happened afterwards, she was feeling nauseous and drained completely. She had by this time realized that she was fighting a losing battle and her days were numbered. She had suddenly held his arm and her eyes looked at him with a strange look. He would never forget that look as long as he lived. There was pain, hope, hopelessness, fear, sadness, and  a cry to live and go on living. She wanted to speak but due to the extreme exhaustion she  could not form the words. With extreme gentleness and care he  patted her hands and placed the other hand on her forehead. She had with great difficulty withdrawn a folded piece of paper from under her bed and gave it to him.

It was kind of a farewell note. She had written that he should not grieve for her after she was gone. She had further requested that  he should travel and visit the world as that was one of her most cherished wishes of hers. She had concluded by saying that when he would see all the beautiful places she would be seeing them as well through his eyes!

So it was with this motivation that he soaked in all the sights and sounds of all the lovely places that he visited. And he visited many in that short span of summer of the year 2019. He went to many national parks, lakes, waterfronts, malls and he enjoyed them all. One fine morning when he went out he felt a blast cold wind hit him. He almost winced. Pinky who was with him at that time smiled and said, “Welcometo long deep freeze”. It was the end of October. He was informed that from now on he could expect only one thing and that is cold, snow, wind gusts and bone chilling temperatures.

And  it was true. The next few months the entire family was confined to the house and only left when there was a dinner invitation at any of the many friend’s place. Some days when it was not that cold he would go out in street with the kids in tow. It was a novel experience! Being born and raised in a tropical country like India he had never been exposed to snow, so witnessing the snow fall sent waves of rapture through his body. After many years he felt like a kid. Wonder was an essential ingredient of a child’s life and it was this spirit of exploration that lent charm to his world! Looking at the ways the snow fell generated in his old and weary mind a kid’s enthusiasm. At times the snow flakes were light and fluffy and the wind carried them far. Sometimes they were heavy and wet and fell in straight lines. Then there were times it was like little white worms that swirled and swayed as they fell on the  ground. Another peculiar thing he noticed about those nights when you had a heavy snow fall that it was not pitch dark at all, even though there were no moon or the stars, it was a soft subdued haze, almost like you were visualizing things in diffused lighting. Later, Sandeep had explained that this was because of the street lights being reflected back and forth off the snowy ground and snow ground.

Eventually, the harsh winter petered out and spring stepped in like a blushing newly wed bride. The weather improved slightly and even though it was still chilly the bone chilling wind had subsided considerably and the sun started coming more regularly than it was accustomed to in the past few months.

At this time there arose a buzz about a new virus that was doing the round in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in China. The news reports , initially, though concerning, was not alarming and even the World Health Organisation termed the situation as controllable and  stated that there was nothing to panic about. With the passage of time though the situation became grim and was attracting the attention of the world. The Virus know as the Novel Corona Virus had begun to inflict major damage as far as human lives were concerned and quickly the WHO revised their earlier stand and denoted the outbreak as a pandemic.

 

TO BE CONCLUDED IN THE THIRD AND FINAL PART


Submitted: November 07, 2020

© Copyright 2020 suj. All rights reserved.

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