I fished out the lipstick from my make-up bag, the stark red one that bordered on garish. The one I usually avoided. But sometimes the red on your lips could do things to the mood that a tub of choco-chip ice cream couldn’t. Then came out my brown eyeliner and those eyelash curlers. The curlers – perhaps part of a Christmas gift pack - always looked like oven tongs to me and lay morosely in the corner of my kit. But at this hour, they served as better mood enhancers than Ecstasy. I took them out with a flare that could only be likened to a model’s last-moment touch-ups before she would hit the ramp.

I looked at myself in the mirror. The top was new, with floral prints and frilly long sleeves. I had bought it just after I landed in Kolkata, but had left it forgotten in the brown bag. The hair straightener had added the professional touch. I firmly pushed away the few strands of white behind my ears. The grey was peeping from here and there, but in the last few days, getting my hair coloured was the last thing on my mind.

I sprinkled a bit of Calvin Klein and felt I was ready to walk the red carpet. I walked from the bedroom to the dining room. My MacBook sat on the dining table, the bottles of pickles keeping it company. I slid into the dining table chair like I would sit at my office desk. I was all set.

The TV volume went up in the bedroom. The office ambience that I was so desperately trying to create at my dining table was shattered in moments. The 6pm Bengali soap had started its re-run and there was nothing I could do about my mom’s refusal to wear hearing aids. Earlier the TV volume did play on my sanity, but recently things had changed. I had developed a kind of patience I never knew I had.

I got up to close the bedroom door. My mom’s eyebrows quickly shot up seeing me all made up.

“Just trying to get the office feel,” I explained.

She nodded. I looked at my mom for a few seconds more. Something I found myself doing often these days. She looked frail, propped up by the pillows, sitting on the bed. The open heart surgery had left her drained.

I went back to the table and there was a message in my mobile.
Husband: If you are free Aaryan wants to video chat now.
I: I have a meeting in 5 minutes. Calling after that.
Husband: Do remember to call.

I: I will.

I could feel the blood shooting up to my rouged cheeks. What was the need to add that? Would I ever forget to call Aaryan, could that ever happen? How could he even write that? I could feel my eyes welling up. The very mention of that name stirred up strange emotions in me these days. But I couldn’t even blame Sanjay, he was going through a trying time as well.

The meeting started on Skype. I was the only person joining from India, the rest of my team was in the US, in their respective homes, though. The meeting went on. I tried to look motivated, something that I wasn’t really feeling inside. All our big projects had been stalled and we were holding on to the existing ones, but it could start dwindling soon. I felt I was desperately swimming around in the doldrums where a storm of uncertainty had suddenly hit me.

I took a deep breath before I made the call to Aaryan. These days I had to really work hard to push back my emotions that rose like a wave from my heart and threatened to come out in convulsive sobs. I had never been away from him in my life. This was the first time. I didn’t know 10 days would become one and a half months. And still I didn’t know how long it would be before I could see Aaryan in person.

My fingers reached for the keyboard to make that video call. I looked at the weal my wedding ring had made on the third finger on the right hand. I had to remove the ring. The one that sat tightly on my fingers had suddenly started slipping off because of all the hand washing, dishwashing, clothes washing (the washing machine conked out and we couldn’t find a mechanic) I was constantly doing. I had suddenly lost weight too. My friends always said I was a fighter but I hadn’t fought in so many wars together, before.

The battles had started showing on my fingers, in the darkness that had made an appearance under my eyes, in my perpetually disheveled hair and in my drooping pyjamas.

“Mamma, you are looking very pretty,” said Aaryan, trying to take a closer look at me through the tab screen.

The red lipstick worked. The real me was well hidden. I smiled.
“Thank you my baby. What did you have for breakfast?” I asked
“When will I see you?” He brushed aside my question.

“Soon! As soon the flights start I will be there,” I said.
I was doing a horrible thing I knew. I wasn’t telling my 4-year-old the truth. I couldn’t go back when the flights started. I had to be sure of things here before I could finally leave. For starters, the lockdown had to end and things had to normalise.
My mother had said that she would handle the heart operation alone. The decision was sudden. The doctor said it had to be done, quickly. She didn’t want me to come, upsetting my schedule. But how could I not? She was the only one I had in this world. So it was decided I would be there for the operation and Sanjay would join me with Aaryan in the post-operative stage.

Since my father’s demise five years back my mother lived alone. She was always fiercely independent. In my childhood she was the only mom I knew in Kolkata who could drive a car and even a bike. When other moms were helping their kids with their homework my mom was staying up late and writing papers on archeology and presenting it throughout the world. On the rare occasions she was home, she stirred out of bed late. I was in school by then. She wasn’t a conventional mother. Sometimes I failed to understand that as a child, but eventually I accepted it.

I quickly got leave from work. It was beginning of March. Covid-19 had moved out of Wuhan and was spreading its tentacles around the world. They told me to just work from home for 15 days after I returned to the US. Self-quarantine they called it. That’s all the precaution I needed to take. I had then treated it as the hyper vigilant American management’s way of dealing with things.

Once mom’s operation got over and Aaryan and Sanjay joined me, I was actually looking forward to digging into Kolkata food and socializing with my friends. But I carried 5 jumbo bottles of hand sanitisers from the US. That was what kept us safe during the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 it would be the same this time. I was pretty sure.

Those seven days in the hospital were harrowing. I stayed in my mother’s hospital room slipping in and out of disturbed slumber, fitting into the slim sofa-cum-bed and feeling distressed when a child cried in pain in a nearby room. Every moan my mother made, every time she turned, I sprang to her bedside, checking and re-checking if she was breathing fine.

The more I did the rounds of the hospital, making the payments, talking to the doctors, getting the reports and interacting with the nurses, the more restless I got to have my family by my side. As the days passed by, the only thing that kept me going was the thought my son would join me soon.
International travel was suspended by India. Aaryan and Sanjay couldn’t make it to Kolkata. My son took the disappointment with stoic calmness.

He didn’t fret or cry, he just said, “No problem mom you will be home soon.”

I thought so too. Ma was recovering and I had tickets booked for March 25. It would be just a few days more.

I had gone to Spencer’s that day to buy some stuff for home. The sudden change in the ambience made me feel like a war had started and fighter planes were coming to bomb the city. People looked panic-stricken. The shelves were empty, the staff was running helter-skelter, unable to handle the sudden surge in demand, and there was talk of a lockdown. I panicked too. I just bought some stuff quickly. For a moment I was glad no one had touched my favourite Italian cheese. (Maybe because it was Italian.) I picked it up and rushed home with the intention to get my return tickets.

My mom felt I should leave immediately.

“I will manage. Why are you worrying so much Antara? There are two maids coming in the morning and evening. They look after me well. My friend also lives close by. You just leave. Aaryan needs you.”

I called up the airline. They said they could only give me a ticket for a connecting flight from Mumbai the next day. I would have to wait at the airport for 5 hours. Everything was okay as long I could be with Aaryan.

It was March 21. I dumped my stuff in my bag, never bothered to fold the clothes. My mom managed to get to the door to bid me goodbye. She looked determined, the same look she had when she navigated the Kolkata traffic behind the wheel and I gave her sideways glances of admiration sitting next to her. This time her body was not with her although her mind was set. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing to rush. She sensed my thoughts and literally pushed me out of the house. The Uber took me to the Kolkata airport and a flight to Mumbai.

Sitting at the café in Mumbai airport, something suddenly hit me. I was torn between Ma and Aaryan. For the first time I started doubting my decision. I had this feeling that I left an ailing 75-year-old to die just for my selfish interest to see my son.

The airport looked forlorn with a few masked people moving around. I didn’t know people could practice social distancing with such diligence in India. Everyone sat two seats apart. I had taken a corner table. My coffee had gone cold and mask wet from my tears. I hadn’t removed it to take a single sip.
“Madam, If you don’t mind can I say something?” someone was saying. The voice was trying to penetrate my wall of anxiety.
“I am wearing a mask and gloves as well. I am maintaining a safe distance. If you are okay, then I can talk. If not I will leave,” he said.

I looked up. He was tall and well-built. I could only see his eyes. Those were kind.

“Yes?” I said.

“You look distressed. Can I help you in any way?” he asked.
I told him about my predicament. The dam broke.

Any other day I would have asked him to take a chair at the table, but in my Covid-ridden mental state I couldn’t tell a stranger to sit next to me.

He kept standing, but listened intently.

“You are really in a tough situation. But it’s a coincidence you are coming from Kolkata and I am going to Kolkata.”

“Really? What’s the reason for your travel?”

“For my mother. She is unwell. I heard there could be a lockdown of a few days.”

“But the maids would be coming. Wouldn’t they?” I asked frantically.

“I don’t know. If there is a lockdown no one would be able to leave home. Our maids come in local trains and if those are suspended my mother would have no one.”

Fear gripped me. The words wouldn’t come out of my parched throat. Both my mom’s maids used the local train.

Our conversation ended. My thoughts took over, torn, disarrayed, meandering.

When he saw me in the flight, his eyes looked surprised but his seat was far away. During the two-and-a-half hours he didn’t get up to make a conversation. My mask kept getting wet from my new decision.

The flight landed at Kolkata airport at 11pm. I was taking my luggage from the console when he appeared.

“I will drop you home.”

It wasn’t a question. It was a command.

He flashed an id. It was the kind that boosts your confidence immediately.

We got into an Uber. He sat in the front next to the driver. I was in the back.

“You might be still in a dilemma, but I would say you took the right decision. Our mothers need us. They have become old. Everyone told me not to travel through Mumbai airport because going through the airport is a risk I am taking. But I can’t imagine not being there with her at this hour.”

There was no more conversation from the airport to Jodhpur Park. It was as if he was letting me process my emotions.

I had informed my mother over the phone, she opened the door the moment I rang the bell. I expected the maid to do it. The one on the night shift hadn’t turned up, my mother hadn’t told me.
Silent tears streamed down her eyes. I hadn’t seen her crying ever. She held me tight, another first.

The Janta Curfew was imposed the next day, March 22. On March 24 local trains stopped plying.

I now cook, clean, wash, work, video chat. I make khichdi on days the medicines nauseate my mom. I diligently give her the medicines, take her on walks down the drawing room, check on her at night and we talk about the things that we always left unsaid in my childhood.

It’s the same routine everyday without fail, except for the once-a-week trips to the local grocery and veggie vendor. Only one day I walked to Gariahat with my mom’s prescription. The city looked beautiful with the roads lined with flowers and fresh green leaves, no hint of pollution or a soul anywhere and the birds chirping in unfettered glee. The police asked me the reason for my lone walk. When I told them they dropped me home after I had bought the medicines.

Every day is an emotional battle for me now. But I would have lived with an excruciating guilt all my life if I hadn’t taken the flight back to Kolkata from Mumbai.

Some evenings I sit at the dining table searching Facebook between my Zoom meetings and work calls.

I didn’t even see his whole face. I only know the eyes and that mop of curly hair.

Photo: Partha Pratim Chattopadhyay

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