Planet Bombay

India's City of Dreams through the eyes of a Brit who calls it home

Day 175: A Covid Scare in the Family

Public buses in Mumbai during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Public buses of the kind that D’s dad rode on his ill-advised journey.

15th September, 2020

D’s dad has been wracked with fever this week. It first manifested a few days ago (September 12th) when we were visiting the family in Worli. He started shivering violently after coming out of a cold shower, even though it was a sultry afternoon. The shivering continued even when D wrapped him in a blanket and turned the ceiling fan off.

We were unwilling, at first, to entertain the possibility that it could be Covid. Seasonal flu perhaps. Or even malaria or dengue, both of which are rampant at this time of the year. But surely not Covid!

D’s mum didn’t think it was anything to worry about — he had probably just caught a chill after emerging from the cold shower, she suggested. And, when the shivering eventually subsided, it looked like she was right. “I think he’ll be fine,” D agreed.

For a septuagenarian, the man is quite tough — he rarely falls ill and, when he does, he bounces back fairly quickly. He attributes his resilience to his agricultural background. Life on the family farm in the southern state of Karnataka had not been easy. But, for that matter, life as a young migrant in 1960s Bombay had not been without its hardships either. The city was still known by its colonial name when he moved here with an uncle at age thirteen. As a young man, he eked out a living doing various low-paid jobs, eventually saving up enough to buy a house and a small shop, handing over cash for the latter property in a purely verbal agreement with the seller. But he was forced to put up the shutters several years later when he was unable to provide paperwork proving his ownership of the shop in a legal case opened by relatives of the former owner. Life has thrown him some curveballs but he’s always soldiered on.   

By the time we headed back to Bandra, Dad was looking much better. His temperature appeared normal when I checked his forehead. We figured he just needed to get some rest.

But the fever spiked sometime after we left and D’s sister took him to a doctor who said that it could be Covid. He may have contracted it while riding a public bus to Juhu to visit some cousins, an ill-advised move for which he was duly upbraided by his daughters.

D and I immediately had him brought to our house. We didn’t know what else to do. There was no way he could isolate himself from D’s diabetic mum and the rest of the family in their small flat. If we’d arranged a swab test, we’d have had to wait 24 hours for the result, in which time the whole household could have become infected. Besides, we’d heard that senior citizens who test positive get taken to government-run quarantine centres and, having heard a first-hand account of the conditions at one such centre, we were keen to avoid that scenario as far as possible. 

Prior to his arrival, we hastened to get our place ready. D set up the sofa-bed and ordered cans of sanitizer spray, disposable masks and latex gloves from the local chemist. I went out to pick up a few supplies from the local shops and withdrew 10,000 rupees from an ATM.

Dad was in good spirits when he arrived, accompanied by D’s sister. He seemed to find it all rather amusing. The doctor had given him an injection for the fever and prescribed a bunch of pills which he had inexplicably swallowed all in one go. During his first night he sweated so profusely, despite the AC being on, that his bedsheets were soaked through by morning.

He’s been with us a few days now and the fever seems to have broken, but we plan to keep him with us until we can be sure that he’s in the clear. For the most part, he keeps to his corner of the living room, getting up only to use the bathroom. We spray everything he touches with sanitizer and scrub our hands at regular intervals, but it all feels like an exercise in futility. D and I have more or less resigned ourselves to the fact that we will become infected at some point, assuming that we are indeed dealing with a Covid patient. When either of us sneezes or complains of a slight soreness in the throat we instinctively feel our foreheads and check our breathing. At this rate, we’ll both be hopeless hypochondriacs by the time we’re through with this pandemic.   

D’s dad entertains himself watching Bollywood blockbusters from the 1970s on the TV and reminiscing about the days of bell-bottoms and three-rupee cinema tickets. When he’s not watching movies, he’s watching Republic TV, a hyper-sensationalist infotainment channel helmed by an insufferable motormouth and inveterate rabble-rouser named Arnab Goswami.

These days the channel is devoting almost all its airtime to dramatically sound-tracked coverage of an unfolding story that has gripped the entire nation for months: the untimely death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput in June. The death was initially ruled a suicide but is now being treated as a homicide, with Mr Rajput’s former girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty the primary suspect in an increasingly preposterous trial by media. The weaselly Oxbridge-educated Mr Goswami has seized the opportunity, like other right-wing commentators, to foster resentment against Bollywood elites, accusing Ms Chakraborty not only of murder but also of being involved in a Bandra-based drug cartel along with a number of other high-profile celebrities.

Day after day, our living room is filled with Republic TV’s blood pressure-raising histrionics. D and I can barely stand to hear another of Mr Goswami’s breathless diatribes or another rabid shouting match between the riled-up talking heads who participate in the channel’s gladiatorial debate segments. But D’s dad is never more relaxed, it seems, than when sitting in front of the telly watching each new twist and turn in what is shaping up to be one of the bitterest culture wars to roil this country in recent memory.

As far as we can tell, he’s his usual self again. Nonetheless, we are carefully monitoring his vital signs with a digital thermometer and a pulse oximeter, especially his blood-oxygen level, and we’ll take him to a hospital if and when we start seeing abnormal readings. This is what we were advised to do by A, the colleague of D’s who was taken to a quarantine centre with her entire family after losing her grandma to Covid back in June.

Remembering D’s kindness to her family in their time of need, A came round today with some delicious homemade mutton curry and some groceries. She stuck around for half an hour or so, chit-chatting with us from across the room. Though she took the necessary precautions, she didn’t appear at all uncomfortable about entering a potential Covid zone. I guess the monster is not so terrible once you’ve looked it square in the face, as she has done.  

A departed after entreating D’s dad to take care of himself and to stay away from public transport in future. We tried to pay her for the groceries but she wouldn’t have it.

Dad went up on the terrace some time in the afternoon to get some fresh air. He paced slowly, adjusting his lungi as he walked, while a slight drizzle drifted down from the sky. He is itching to get back home, and the kids are eagerly awaiting his return, calling him regularly for updates.

D’s brother has also been calling and texting for updates. For him, distance accentuates the feeling of uncertainty that we have all been experiencing to some degree — he is thousands of miles away in the United States and there is no possibility of him getting on a plane anytime soon. Eager to help from afar, he has offered to chip in for any medical expenses we may incur.

India now has nearly 5 million Covid cases and the number is still climbing steeply each day, but the recovery rate is pretty good at nearly 80 percent. In any case, the data can only tell us so much. We do what we can to keep ourselves, our loved ones and those around us safe — the rest is in God’s hands.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but we are encouraged to see Dad’s strength rallying day by day. This whole episode seems to have spooked him a little, though. Hitherto, he could be quite cavalier with his health, but now he willingly submits to the thermometer and oximeter and eagerly awaits the readings. He happily demonstrates his ability to hold his breath for nearly a minute. But perhaps his most impressive feat is being able to maintain a steady resting heart rate even while Mr Goswami hyperventilates with outrage on the TV screen, backed by an over-the-top music score that could have been lifted from the trailer of the latest Marvel movie!


“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” — L Smith

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