The mortar and pestle made a gratifying sound, like that of crepitus, but on repeat. The mortar tilted and its contents sprinkled out in grains and gobbets into a piece of rolling paper laid on the glossy perlato marble slab. Zain stuck a filter: made from a business card a life insurance agent had slid under the doors of every flat in his apartment house when lockdown became imminent. He rolled the paper, and with a gentle flick of his tongue and a twist, he sealed the joint. He kept himself engrossed in this activity and rolled a further twenty joints - just enough to get him through quarantine. He grabbed one joint from the array, picked up a lighter and slumped into the chaise longue on the balcony.
Even though slumped, he had in front of him a sweeping view of the entire city, stark naked. It was quiet. The people and the animation that constituted the city had sequestered away. From time to time, the air filled with the blaring noise of ambulance sirens. People were dying and so was the metropolis. Zain took a deep breath and his lungs filled with fresh oxygen. It compared to the invigorating air of the evergreens lining the fringes of the Himalayas. As men retreated, nature advanced and flourished. The silence was reverberant and doleful. He lit up the joint and dragged on the weed. Steadily he felt the runway of thoughts evaporate and his reflexes dawdle. He patted around the jeans and pulled out his phone from one of the back pockets. It was dead.
What was the time? He couldn't tell. Zain glanced at the glaring sun and discerned the time to be mid-morning.
What day was it? His brain froze and he couldn't remember what day it was. He began back-tracking.
Zain harked back to Friday. It was the last time he had taken a shower - the morning of Friday. In an instant, the entirety of that execrated day flashed before him. He felt his stomach churn, analogous to the feeling he had experienced when he saw the word 'Positive' etched on the screen for the first time.
In a blue funk, he had crammed a third of his wardrobe, his phone, a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste and a couple of flasks brimmed with warm water into a Hilfiger duffle bag and careered across to a vacant apartment on the other end of the same floor.
He had screamed - 'I'll call you soon, Ryka. Love you!'
He galloped across the floor then skimmed over the dusty entrance to 402B, swerving and unlocking the door in one sweeping motion. Zain slammed the door shut, unzipped the bag and pulled out his phone. He dialled Viaan and the call went straight to voicemail.
'Hey, Viaan! There's been a situation that has forced me to move into your apartment. I hope this wouldn't be a problem. Call me back or text me once you receive my message.' He then rang up Ryka.
In a steely voice, he had elucidated the need for him to stay away to a puling wife on the other end of the line. But, as the hours passed, he grew queerly despondent and insomnolent.
Viaan's flat was indistinguishable from Zain's in terms of the plan and the dimensions. But, all there was to Viaan's acquisition were the semi-furnished interiors. Excluding the lounge on the balcony; was a couch facing a desolated wall-mounted television unit in the hall, a modern kitchen comprising rosewood cabinets and marble tops and a bedroom with an aluminium closet and an attached bathroom. There weren't electronic gadgets of any sort, no clocks, no pictures. It had been vacant since the time of its purchase, except on Sundays, when Zain opened its doors to the maid for a weekly clean-up.
That night, he had stared at the ceiling and admonished himself for being mediocre with his career and acquiescing to a single bedroom flat.
The sun rose, pulling away from a curtain of clouds and beamed into the hall - Saturday.
Saturday stood out because Zain had visitors. They had nailed wooden planks diagonally and horizontally across the front door, precluding his any attempt to escape isolation. There was no messing about with the government officials. After hanging a couple of informative banners over the planks for extra measure, they vamoosed.
'RED ALERT - COVID 19. NO ENTRY'
Zain unmuted the traffic in his head. He hoped it would drown out the resounding silence. He decided to ventilate the events running through his head, give voice to them. Then, out of the blue, he creased up and guffawed at his sheer idiocy. He blamed the weed for making him stupid. All he needed to do was charge his phone and everything else would inadvertently fall into place.
Reanimated by this discovery, he began emptying the duffle bag. It rained clothes, but there was no sight of a charger. The torment that Friday had been, he had forgotten to take the charger.
He flumped into the couch, defeated by a trivial yet cruel game his brain was playing with him. He tried to guesstimate the amount of time it would take for his phone to die at minimum usage and hence derive the number of days he had spent in isolation. Zain took one step too far and his brain fused.
He could feel the world spinning around him. He tottered and like an oil spill guzzling the ocean waters, a wave of darkness commenced from the corners of his eyes. His eyes drew shut and Zain let himself collapse gingerly.
In an incredible moment of awareness, he took cognisance of the situation at hand and anticipated he would resuscitate soon enough. His body rested on the couch, quiescent and cold. The potency of the weed combined with the concentration of THC that now flowed in his bloodstream put him into a weed nap.
Zain entered the world of dreams.
In front of Zain stood a bridge that spanned over a river of time. On the other end of the bridge was one large cumulus cloud. It was flocculent and through the tiny holes, exuded refulgent crepuscular rays of light. Behind him, a storm was brewing up. It was edging closer and closer to him with every passing second. It shrieked and rumbled, intending to fling Zain into the river below. Petrified, he climbed on to the bridge and hurtled towards the pedestal lit up by the rays at the other end. He surmised it to be his haven.
The bridge was bedecked with a series of mirrors on either flank. It created infinite reflections of himself, all hurtling towards the pedestal.
Zain ran faster; his reflections did the same. He slowed; they slowed. He panicked and so did they. Then came the dreadful realisation. He was still at the start, stuck in an interminable loop. Time stood still on the bridge. The river was the right way, yet, here he was - on the bridge probing for a facile way out. He poked his head out from over the mirrors and glanced at the river. It was ticking away.
A thorough inhale and exhale later, Zain climbed over the mirrors and dived into the river below.
After piercing past layers of time, he steadied himself and thrust upward. He surfaced. Then, using all the muscles of his arms and legs, he swam across the river. From the shore, he observed the storm chewing at the bridge and, in the process consuming his infinite reflections. Now, the final hurdle stood ahead of him - a small hill inclined at a comfortable angle.
He ascended the hill with unexpected ease and the pedestal shot up into sight. He limped and stumbled onto the pedestal. The flatness of the cloud overhead took him by surprise. He smiled and it turned on a machine underneath.
Zain could hear giant gears rotating and clanking below, forcing the pedestal to open inward. He gasped and irrupted into freefall.
An unfettered hypnic jerk contracted through Zain's body and he leapt out of the couch. He was drenched in sweat.
He slapped the wall behind him with the face of his palm. Solid wall. The relief was ineffable. He was back in 402B and the dream was over.
He plodded over to the sink and washed his face. The joints still rested on the marble top. He began counting them and the number bewildered him. Zain had rolled twenty and smoked one. However, there were only sixteen on the slab.
The only attainable explanation was that he had gone on to smoke three more joints over the course of the morning. His brain had deactivated the process of creating new memories since the first joint. Zain had floated around the apartment, stoned and clueless, before passing out on the couch.
Disappointed with himself, he dumped the remaining joints into the bin. He walked out into the balcony and looked up. The sun had scaled up and now hovered precisely overhead. The mid-morning sun was the last sight Zain could vividly remember, excluding the dream.
He strolled back in and replayed the dream. He placed himself on the bridge and intuited that the mirrors had a deeper meaning. It struck him.
The reflections were imitating his routine during isolation. Zain had made his days monotonous. He had waited for the time to revolve around him and repeat the same set of activities every day. He had chosen to remain stuck in this rut and whine about it. The infinite reflections on one side were the days already spent and, the ones on the other side were the days about to come.
Zain proceeded in the direction of the main door and sat beside the doorstep. Ryka would arrive soon with his lunch.
He cracked his knuckles and pursued his derivation. In his dream, Zain had chosen to pull himself out of the loop and flow with time. There was a knock at the door - Ryka.
Now, in real life, he had the freedom to make a choice. Zain could continue drowning in the quag of time or choose to flow with it.
He opened the door with a smile.