Padma arrived as morning dawned on Atrium apartment complex and was the first entry in the Maid’s register. She noticed that the Hindi speaking security staff were donning masks.
She took the elevator to the 13th floor and reached Apartment 1301, the house of Akka, retired Teacher Jyoti Miss, as the residents fondly called her. Padma was surprised that the door was wide open. The morning newspapers and the milk sachets were still not picked up from the doorway.
Hearing her footsteps, she heard Akka call out “Is that you, Padma?”
Padma went inside and found Akka attending to Thatha’s bathroom rituals.
“Thank God, you are early today, Padma,” sighed Akka. “Appa is a bit unwell since morning and this is his 4th visit to the bathroom in the past one hour. Last evening, he overindulged in the festivities and now I am suffering. Look, he is smiling at my misery, wicked old fellow.”
“Akka, I will make black lemon tea and he should be fine after that. If he doesn’t get better, we can take him to the hospital,” Padma suggested as they lifted the obese octogenarian father to his wheelchair and into his room that was awfully reeking. Padma opened the windows and let fresh air in.
“Akka, take him to the living room for a while. I will clean this up first or he will get sicker here.”
“When did Meenakshi papa leave, Akka?” Padma enquired.
“Oh! they left past midnight. There were rumours that flights from India could be suspended, because of the virus issue and hence they decided to leave a day earlier. Meena’s husband was already suffering from cold and was worried that they may not let him in if his cold aggravated”
“Kutty Papa looks so like you, Akka, same face cut, complexion…”
“The complexion is from Appa, I am not that fair. Could see that Appa was happy to see the baby too. Don’t know if he will see her again. Would be hard for him to pull another year in this condition.”
“Don’t talk like that Akka, Thatha is strong. He is military man, no? He will not leave us so easily”
By noon, Padma was finished with her chores and prepared to leave. Akka gave her a big slice of cake from the last night’s part held to celebrate Thatha’s 82nd birthday. Also, she was given another package containing some imported toiletries.
“These are masks and some handwash liquids too. Wear them when you go out.”
Padma laughed” Don’t worry Akka, it is so hot in Namma Chennai that the virus will not be enter our city.”
“Let’s pray so.” said Akka as she saw off Padma.
Her daughter Meenakshi had flown in from Dubai for the occasion two days ago with her husband and Kutty Papa, whom she was seeing for the first time in flesh. And now they had to leave even before she had her fill of joy of holding Kutty Papa.
She was so thankful for Padma, the selfless maid who doubled up skilfully as her sick father’s home nurse. The old man, a retired army colonel, was a tough person to handle. He had multiple health issues with acute bronchitis and speech impairment following a minor stroke. No home nurse could put up with his tantrums for more than a week. But Padma had a knack of restraining the old man and he never complained either.
The Chinese virus was spreading to outside world and governments were issuing travel advisories.
Her phone rang. It was her son in law. He had developed fever as they landed. He was taken aside at the airport by the health authorities for further screening and he feared that he may have contracted the virus. The baby and Meenakshi were fine and allowed to go home.
Jyothi remembered her son in law had cold even when he had arrived. She desperately prayed that he didn’t test positive. Though the birthday party was a simple family affair, the maid Padma being the only person outside the family, her apprehensions grew. What if he had the virus? Thatha would have been infected. They said that old people with prevailing health issues were most vulnerable. What about Meenakshi, Kutty Papa? Padma? And What about me?
Padma wasn’t worried. She still reiterated that in Chennai there are not many cases, and because of the hot conditions, its not going to affect locals. Only people who returned from abroad have it.
Meenakshi’s husband was tested positive and put in isolation in Dubai. Meenakshi and the baby did not have any symptoms and hence were not tested but were told to report any illness to the authorities without fail.
Atrium apartment went into a tizzy. Jyoti Miss’s son in law was tested positive for nCOVID virus! The news leaked by another resident living in Dubai spread like fire. The Welfare association panicked. Her neighbours left abruptly. Padma was stopped at the gate.
Padma was worried.
“Don’t worry, I will manage Appa.” Akka had reassured her. “You take care of yourself and wash hands regularly. Do not come here. Wear the mask I gave you when you go out. I will call you back when this settles down”
The virus was spreading rapidly. The Prime Minister announced lockdown.
A week later, Thatha died. They took his body directly by ambulance to the crematorium from the hospital. Padma met Akka there and helped her through the rituals. Thatha was the first nCovid casualty in Chennai.
“Padma,” Akka beckoned her. “Get into this ambulance, you are also getting tested”
Before Padma could protest, she was ushered into the backseat and the ambulance sped away. Akka reassured her “Don’t worry, silly. It’s a precaution only, just imagine that we are saving a thousand others. Let’s break the chain.”
Tamil Words Glossary
AKKA- Sister, also affectionately used to address elder ladies
Thatha- Garndfather, also affectionately used to address very old males
Kutty Papa- small baby, also affectionately used to call infants
Photo By: Vincent Ghilione
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