When the shutters opened up, the line was already longer than a hundred meters in length. In fact, it had started queuing up towards the dawn, when in better times, you could see people walking on the road at frantic paces to maintain their health. Guptaji, the shopkeeper, to put it mildly, was pleased with the turnout. After more than a month of sapping off his savings and hiding from creditors, he would be able to sell more of his stock and bring in some dear money. He had decided last night that he would save much of this money for rainy days; everyone knew that there was going to be no dearth of difficult times in the near future. But today morning, he changed his mind; he would use this money to place another order and repay his earlier debt. Nothing pleased him more than earning money and then investing it in his commerce. His life was all about that ledger sheet. Balancing out the columns and striving for that perfect balance; that harmony; that bliss; that nirvana.
A lot of the people in this line were there for a similar reason of bliss. When the government had announced last evening that the liquor shops would open up, there was a wave of jubilation that passed through each one who was gathered here at this early hour. And what a gathering it was! There was no inkling of the social distancing that the media was going gaga about. People compressed together, drawing satisfaction from their proximity to the counter. Guptaji had to send one of his boys out to spread out the line with proper distancing. They had been warned by the police last night that there would be fines and the shops might even have to close down if the norms were violated. Guptaji knew very well that the police would be here soon enough for their “fees” to let the shop run. He did not want them to close down the store because these idiots had lost their minds. So the errand boy went about drawing lines on the road with his piece of worn out chalk and telling people to distance themselves from each other. But the distance started thinning as he moved further and the people stubbornly ignored his instructions. So he gave up the task; his boss could only see a particular section of the line and that’s all that mattered anyway.
The shopkeeper lit an agarbatti in front of Ma Laxmi, prayed for her blessings and served the first customer. Cash. He did not have change to return. The customer did not mind. This was going to be an amazing day, Guptaji could tell. The next customer knew exactly what he wanted and Guptaji’s boys knew exactly where to find it. Another simple and efficient transaction. The machine beeped as it read the barcodes, the cash register rumbled as it accepted the cash offerings, Guptaji sat with his POS machine and made the card transactions, the boys shouted orders at each other, bottles clinked as the were served to the customer, the customer beamed as he left the counter, Ma Laxmi overlooked the booming commerce from her LED lit asylum. It was just like the older times, Guptaji thought as he looked at his shop; even better, he thought as his eyes fell on the growing line.
The line that was taking a life and character of it’s own as the cool of the dawn faded and people’s will to isolate melted. There were some women who had joined the list of prospective customers and been made to queue up separately by Guptaji. He respected women as goddesses and was not a man to make the goddesses wait. Heaven forbid that one of these be an incarnation of Ma Laxmi sent to test his faith! This, however, did not please the ones who had been standing in the line since the morning. There were murmurs of discontent in pockets all along the line but vocal accusations were met with harsh abuses by the fat shopkeeper.
“Is this a railway station?” Gopal asked the nonchalant man in front of him. “What’s the meaning of a separate line for females here?”
The neighbour looked back at Gopal and smiled. Shrugged his shoulders and said “Maybe they want a drink as well. It’s okay.”
“I think they are just proxying for their useless husbands and boyfriends who want to cut the line. Lazy people. Sometimes I think I should get married just for this. It would help me skip so many lines. Railways, banks and now this, a daru theka! Who would have thought!”
Not finding this guy willing enough to comment, Gopal turned to the one behind him.
“Tell me kaka, what is the world coming to? Separate lines for females at an alcohol shop?”
Kaka tut-tuted appropriately and said that this was kal-yug, when women had lost all their morality. “My woman stays at home and minds her place. She let’s me drink in peace every evening. That’s how often I drank before the government took away alcohol from me - every single evening. Damn those fools running the country. I will never vote for that dry nation advocate again!”
The guy behind kaka exclaimed “Every evening? Kaka, you have hit a jackpot! There are no such women to be found these days! I wish I find such an agreeable woman to marry. Life would be so nice.” There was a spur of laughter from everyone around him.
“You don’t want a woman in your life buddy. You just want a slave. No woman will ever marry you!” his friend chided.
The group compressed together and the the conversation continued as such, discussing the declining morality of women, the simplicity of patriarchal times, blaming the media for a promiscuous culture and so on.
There were other pockets that had recovered from the shock of a separate queue for females and had moved on to more important topics. Shiv was telling everyone that would listen how the virus was a Chinese conspiracy.
“Believe me brothers! This is all China’s doing. I read in the news that they were developing this virus in a laboratory.”
“Laboratory?” his fellow man retorted. “The news said that it’s because someone ate a bat!”
A lot of people made sounds of disgust. “Yes, that’s what I read as well!” “Unbelievable!” “Those Chinkis eat just about anything!” “Who the hell eats bats!” “That is plain disgusting.” “Those stinky rats!”
Shiv shook his head “No-no. Believe me. That was all a cover up. I got all this information from my a friend of mine. I can even show you that message on my phone right now! He is very learned, he is even preparing for IAS! He told me that the Chinese were developing this virus in a laboratory. They leaked it and covered up the accident. They have the vaccine as well. Look how quickly they were able to recover from the entire thing!”
“But why would they leak it on their own people?”
“They are China! The government just wanted to do some population control so that’s how they did it. Do you know any prominent Chinese politician who died because of the virus?”
Everyone looked to each other for the answer but clearly they did not know any prominent Chinese politicians, let alone one affected by the virus.
One gentleman thought deeply and accepted defeat “Their president, Mao, is safe.”
Shiv slowly nodded, welcoming his victory. “Mao is safe” he nodded. “And his Maoist agents are still going strong in our country.”
“That’s how China works - Maoists and viruses!” Shiv continued. “They leaked the virus, infected enough of their people so that they would spread it to the world, and then cured their own people. Their economy is going strong now while the rest of the world is dying. We have been in a lockdown for so long. There isn’t enough money now. I was saving for my sister’s marriage. It’s all gone now!”
“The government should do something. Why don’t we declare war on China? Are we afraid?” someone added angrily. There was a wave of consent and the conversation diverged into how the Indian and Chinese armies compared.
Rishi and Ravi had decided to meet up here after days of containment in their homes. They had much to share with each other.
“The lockdown has made a slave out of me!” Ravi exclaimed. “I spend my days cooking food, cleaning the house and doing laundry.”
“Tell me about it” Rishi chimed in. “My days are so hectic. I thought that we’d have to do this for a few days only. But my bai has gone missing now. Doesn’t pick up the phone. It’s Shruti’s fault that she laid her off. I told her she should give her some money but she thought it’d wasteful. So here we are, with me doing the chores day in and day out.”
Ravi shook his head “I thought it would have been easier for you, now that you are married and Shruti is in the house.”
“I thought so as well! But Shruti cribs about doing the house work. I think she is much more spoilt than I am. And maintaining a 3 bedroom house is not easy. I think we overdid it. We should have gotten a smaller place.” Rishi checked his watch “I just hope these guys would hurry up. I need to go back and reply to client queries.”
Ravi pointed to the ladies’ queue. “You should have brought Shruti along. We would have been done in a jiffy!”
Rishi sighed “I asked her! She says she needs to work. These IT people think they have all the work in the world. Those companies are still making their employees work as if the world was not yet upside down. That’s Shruti’s excuse for everything these days - she can’t make lunch because she needs to work, she can’t dust the house because she needs to work. It’s as if the rest of us are lesser mortals.”
Ravi laughed, “At least she is paying the bills!”
“Her smugness becomes unbearable at times though” Rishi grunted. “She sits there on her video calls acting all important and shouting into the computer as if she is the only one in the house. And she is paying because she is earning. I supported her when she said she wanted to keep working after the marriage, didn’t I? I should demand some money from her to do all the house work. My salary had been cut in half in Feb and they are talking about another cut. The house loan and the car loan are killing me as is. The entire situation sucks!”
Ravi smiled “Well, look on the bright side - they opened the thekas.”
Rishi nodded “That is true. That is true! I just wish these drunkards would hurry up. I just need to replenish my stock and be pandemic-proof for another month or so. These bewdas will be back in the line tomorrow looking for another drink. These lines will go on forever now.”
“Yes, these lines are everywhere now” Ravi agreed. “Grocery stores, milk booths, now alcohol shops! That’s all I do these days. Wait in lines.”
Thus went on the conversation between the two friends, each sharing his share of woe with the other and lightening his load.
Meanwhile, Biswa was lecturing his cohort on how the government wasn’t doing nearly enough.
“They are not doing enough tests!” Biswa declared. “What is the meaning of this lockdown? What good has it done? The numbers are still rising. The government should be testing all of us instead of being tyrannical and forcing us to stay indoors.”
His cohort listened to him. He was dressed in a shirt and trousers, shiny shoes and a golden watch; his demeanour demanded audience. So people within an earshot slowly gathered in a circle around him and his voice gained weight.
“Do you know what they say in America? They say that the economy is what matters. The ones who die supporting the economy are martyrs. Such brave people! While we? What do we do? We hide in our houses and put on our masks and pretend like it will save us from this virus? We are pitiable.”
A lot of people nodded in assent. One voice asked “But the government is doing tests. They say that we have managed to keep the numbers down. What’s that word they use - flatten the curve?”
Biswa laughed at the comment. “You are naive my friend. Who gives those numbers? The government of course. They will change those numbers to make themselves look good. The real numbers are far worse. We are already suffering from the pandemic and the government just wants to crumble the economy more. They will blame the low GDP on the pandemic now. It was already going down before we were hit by the disease. It’s all to cover up their own mistakes. These politicians don’t think of anyone but themselves.”
No one disagreed with this - “That’s true!” “Bloody pigs!” “They should all go die in a sewer!”
Biswa waved a hand to stop the murmurs “Do you know about South Korea?” He looked around at his audience. The audience looked amongst themselves. No one knew about South Korea.
“You know, they controlled the disease there within weeks. Weeks! That’s all that they needed. Do you know how?” he looked around again.
The crowd looked at each other again. They were still clueless.
“Testing, my friends.” Biswa pronounced. “Testing, and more testing. That’s what they did. They tested each and every one and quarantined whoever came out positive. It was that simple! No lock down was needed to end the disease there. Our government tests only those who complain of symptoms. And over 80% of the cases have very mild symptoms. You wouldn’t even know if the person next to you has the disease.”
This had an immediate effect. Suddenly the crowd distanced themselves from each other.
“Relax,” Biswa said. “Don’t panic. Panic will do you no good.” He went on to explain the intricacies of statecraft and economics to his willing crowd. No one knew what exactly his areas of competency were, but clearly he was a man of infinite wisdom that needed to be heard out.
Much ahead in the line, a young man, bored of standing so long without having someone to talk to, asked the older gentleman behind him “Tau, what time did you get into the line?”
The older man looked up and smiled. “I have been here since the dawn. I live at the construction site around the corner.”
“Oh, that apartment complex under construction? But the work stopped there, right?”
“Yes. The work stopped. It has been a while. But we still stay there. Where else would we go?” the old man asked.
“Are you from another state?” the young man asked. The thick accent of the old man had already betrayed him. “I heard that there are people walking to their villages. You did not go?”
“I am an old man, son. I wouldn’t be able to make that journey home. Plus the contractor has my money. He kept a big chunk of everyone’s payment. He said we’ll get it only if we complete the work. Some of the men left anyway, saying that their families were waiting for them back home. They said that it was better to be broke and penniless at home than a slave in the city. Young people have so many dreams” the old man smiled. “But life in a village is much cheaper and easier than cities. That is for sure. So they left. Some got on buses, some got on trains. But those were the lucky ones. Many just started walking. Men, women, families! I wonder what happened to them all. I get terrible news from the young boys in the camp. They search it all on their phones. I hope those people made it home.” the old man got lost in his own thoughts.
The young man grew pensive as well. “That is heartbreaking tau. The plight of the poor has become even worse in these times.”
The old man nodded. “Yes. It is the poor who always suffer the most. The rich keep on enjoying their riches. But there are a few good people who help us. There are vans that come around and give us some dal chawal everyday. Nothing of a meal but enough to survive. Some ladies even come around and distribute clothes to the women in our camp. As if the men do not need clothes. But we are beggars, son. And beggars are not choosers.”
It was finally the young man’s turn at the counter now.
“Tell me tau, what’ll you have? I’m buying.” he smiled.
“God bless you son! God bless you!”
The young man got his bottles and bought the old man a couple of cheap quarters that is a staple of people of his economic caste.
“Thank you beta” the old man beamed again. “You are a good man.”
The young man smiled as they said their goodbyes. “Keep heart tau. Stay optimistic. This too shall end.”
The two men then went their own ways, each lost in their own thoughts.
So continued the day, which melted into a hot afternoon. The police came along and hurled abuses at the ones who were not maintaining distance amongst themselves. A few were hit with lathis but no one seemed to have any complains. The inspector sat in the PCR van and looked at the scene with nonchalance. The main constable went inside the shop and asked the shopkeeper to load Inspector Sahab’s van with some good beers and whiskey. Then he warned the shopkeeper to maintain the line properly else he would have to come back to close down the shop. The shopkeeper assured him that the line would be maintained without fault. The constable nodded meaningfully and turned around. Noticing that the bill had not been paid, the shopkeeper asked timidly “Sirji, what about the bill for the alcohol?” The constable glared at him. “Gupta! You want to keep your shop open, do you not? You seem to be a businessman. Does it make sense to incur losses of lacs because you were foolish enough to ask for a few thousand?” The shopkeeper turned down his gaze and apologized. The policeman went back to the van and Guptaji turned to his shop. He was seething with rage. No one called him Gupta! Even his wife called him Guptaji in their tenderest of moments. All policemen were pigs! He spat on the ground and shouted at two of his boys to let some steam off. One even got a smack on his head and the shop was back to it’s expected level of chaos.
The van was loaded with the requisite amount of alcohol and the engine purred to life once the other constables were back after their quota of fun beating up some people.
“Look sirji. Just look at these fools!” The head constable told his inspector. “You would think that there’s a mandir handing out prasad out here. Have you ever seen such a line?”
The van guffawed together as they slowly ambled down the streets. The line, however, continued strong till the shopkeeper shut down the shop, sometime after dusk. A few more days like these and he would cover up for all his lost time!