January 9, 2020
No. 5 Hospital, Wuhan
It was very clear that he was dying. The doctors and nurses around him had tried everything they could. His face was hardly visible under the tubes and mask that covered his mouth, struggling to make sense of the world. He tried to remember how it had all gone wrong, but old age had a curious way of affecting people's memories. He tried to cling to the last thing he remembered, the one memory of his sweet grandson Li Wei, standing with him under the mellow sun, staring with wide-eyed curiosity.
"Yéyé, is this the fish place?", Li had asked.
He had laughed heartily. This was not just any fish place, it was one of the biggest markets in the entire district. His countenance had turned from amazement to awe as he saw truckloads of live exotic animals going in and out of the market. You could buy any seafood you could imagine here, maybe more. It was a market of extremes- deafening noise, reeking produce, continuous flow of people. He tried to keep all this in mind in the white silence of the hospital room.
One of the nurses moved to inject more of that vile medicine in one of the tubes, while another stood by the monitor to check his heart rate. He had not been able to eat much for a few days and had been ashamed of being fed through a tube. An elder doctor moved into his line of vision.
"What's his status?", he asked.
"He is not responding to any of the new medication", the nurse said. "I don't think this is just pneumonia, sir. I think he has caught something else. There is a high chance of….."
And the voices started trailing off. Under the mask, his breath came and went painfully. He tried to get the attention of the medics, saying softly, "Wǒ wúfǎ hūxī, I can't breathe, I can't breathe!", but in vain. He tried to remember again the last thing he had been thinking, but all he could remember was the smell of fish.
April 11, 2020
Karim woke up at the crack of dawn. In the past, it had been very difficult for him to tear himself away from his bed at such an early hour, but now he had gotten used to it. He moved towards the sink and splashed water on his face, reciting the prayers of the cleansing ritual. He dried his face with a clean towel, making sure to get the water from his bushy beard. He covered his bald head with a skull cap and rolled out the mat that he had bought last year during his visit to Morocco. It was a little costly, and he had haggled a lot with the seller, but it had been worth it. He had loved the golden filigree work on the border, and the design of the Mecca was absolutely stunning. He took his position on the mat, lifted his hands and brought them down with the words "Allah hu akbar".
After he finished his prayers, he neatly rolled up his mat again and put it back in its place. He then turned and sat on the chair and desk he had kept ready with pen and paper, and began to write.
" Mein saans nahi le sakta, I can't breathe", he wrote. "These past few days my community members and I have suffered immense disgrace. There have been many religious gatherings around the world, but the government and media have chosen to lay the blame only on us. Yesterday, a few of my neighbours started throwing stones at my window and abusing me, and I almost lost an eye. All I am guilty of is trying to spread the message of peace, the message of Allah, not a virus. My community has been my only family, but I cannot defend it anymore Whatever my crimes may be, I am ready to receive my judgement at Allah's door. Khuda Hafiz."
He put his pen down, lifted his chair and placed it beneath the noose hanging from the ceiling. He stepped on the chair, removed his cap, put the noose around his neck, and kicked the chair away.
March 21, 2020
The stack of bodies was piling higher than ever. With each stint, Enzo was getting more and more frustrated. As part of the ambulance driving team, Enzo had made many trips around the city, transporting critical patients to the nearest hospital through rush hour traffic in the nick of time. He had prided himself on his driving skills, and not one of his patients had ever died in the back of his van. In fact, there had been one woman patient who was so obese that she could not move, and had started bleeding without any injury. She was horrified, and the medics confirmed she was pregnant and delivering. The woman had delivered right there, wailing and healthy. He and Marco, his partner, had had a hearty laugh about it.
The situation now had completely reversed. The roads were completely empty because no one was going anywhere, but he had more work than ever. These days he drove more dead people than live ones, to and fro across the city, finding them places to rest, alone and without mourners. He was forced to cover himself in this cheap plastic suit, with a plastic shield on top and a face mask underneath.
This was his last trip of the day. There were 20 in his van this time. He drove through the silent streets, which used to be filled with tourists, and was unexpectedly overcome with tears. A few minutes back, he had been informed that Marco, the love of his life, had lost his fight with the virus. He had to immediately return to the hospital to be tested.
He slowed down his van at the curb, and parked near the church he was heading for, and let out a stream of emotion. He wanted to scream and tried to remove the shield and mask, but it was too tight. He spotted a few people coming towards him, and shouted: "Non riesco a respirare, I can't breathe, I can't breathe!!"
But then everything went out of focus and turned blank.
May 27, 2020
Silent Valley Forest, Kerala
She could not bear the pain any longer. She did not know which part of her hurt more, her broken jaw or her swollen belly. She had been so ecstatic when she realised what was brewing inside her, and had joyously announced it to the whole herd. Everyone had congratulated her on the new phase of life and had presented her with bananas from their own share. She felt so elated that she had taken to ambling away long distances from the herd, whispering stories and sweet nothings to the little one inside her. She was sure that it was a girl, and was going to name her Urvasi, the most beautiful of the land. She prayed every day to Unni Kanan to keep her girl sound and safe.
She never knew that the gods had a different plan. Two days back, she was on one of her walks with Urvasi, but she had lost track of time and had wandered too far. She had almost reached close to the herd of the hut dwellers. She was about to turn back when she spotted a pineapple lying on the ground. She approached it with apprehension and, finding no one near, gobbled it in one go.
She had no way of knowing what was inside it, of course. When the explosion came, it had agonised her immensely. No amount of screeching and thrashing would make it go away. She flapped her ears and swished her trunk, but her efforts made it even worse. And now, after two days of continuous suffering, she had finally decided to give up.
She stood there, half-submerged in the Velliyar river, waiting for redemption. The sun rose in the sky, and she spotted a few of those hut dwellers among the trees. She tried to raise her trunk, but she thought she heard a faint sound,
"Amma, enikk śvasikkān kaḻiyilla, I can't breathe…."
The hut dwellers were calling out to her, but she wanted to listen to that voice instead. Her legs gave way, and she collapsed.
May 25, 2020
The incessant ringing had woken Jack up from a great dream. He had been about to kiss Angie, his high school crush, but he couldn't listen to "Boy With Luv" for the third time on his phone. He picked it up reluctantly.
"Do you know what time it is, Jack? Get your ass off the bed and get to work, now!!"
For the past month, Jack had been forced to work at his uncle's Cup and Saucer Food Products on Chicago avenue, mostly cleaning floors and arranging shelves. The pandemic had caused a great scare in people, and shutting down of companies had meant letting go hundreds of employees. He knew he should be grateful that at least he had a job, but it was beginning to get on his nerves.
People no longer stood and chatted with each other. No one really cared who was behind the mask and wanted to rush away as fast as possible. That day too began in the same way. He drove to the store, went through the sanitization process, put on new gloves and mask, and picked up the mop. Customers came and went as usual, noiseless and far off, so when he heard raised voices, he got concerned.
"What's going on?", he asked Matt, the other cleaner.
"Some black guy tried to pay with a fake bill. They're calling the cops on him right now."
Jack shrugged it off and went back to work, but when the police arrived he couldn't resist. He stood at the entrance and watched as two of the officers tried to put the man in the police car, and when he resisted they put him down on the ground.
It was starting to attract a few people, and Jack couldn't make out what was happening, so he went outside. He parted the crowd and moved to the front, but what he saw made no sense. The arrested guy was lying face down on the ground, and one of the officers was pressing his knee on his neck, another was holding his hands and sitting on his back. The onlookers were getting enraged and shouting at them. One of them even started recording.
"Let him go, he's not resisting anymore, let him go!" they were yelling.
But above these voices, Jack could hear the black guy's voice too.
"I can't breathe, I can't breathe, Mama, Mama," he kept saying.
Jack stepped forward and tried to intervene, but he was pushed back into the growing throng.
"I can't, my stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts, " he said.
"He will die! Let him go!"
"Give me water. Don't… kill…. me."
"Remove your knee, don't do this!!"
"I can't breathe, I can't breathe."