Gautam, of course, was prepared for the pandemic before it even hit. He had become increasingly taken with alternative medicine in the year or so since he had retired, and before I could so much as think of stocking up on kitchen essentials, he had purchased all the tinctures and multivitamins and all the herbal remedies we could ever need.
There had been a surge of ideas when he first retired, his whole being recoiling against the idea of a sixty-year-old laid out to pasture. ‘Is that it?’ he’d ask me during his final months at work. ‘Is there no more use in me?’
He would fidget as he spoke, his legs jangling involuntarily to their own dissatisfied rhythm. There was so much restlessness still in him. ‘Gautam …’
‘I mean it, Simi’, he would say, nodding insistently as he frowned at me. Another involuntary marker of his unhappiness. ‘I come from a long-lived family. Ma and Daddy’, and he would point at the room next door where my parents-in-law slept, ‘they’re well into their eighties. My grandmother died at a hundred, and if I have the same longevity, am I to spend the last forty years of my life slowly turning into a vegetable?’
‘Gautam!’ I scolded each time he complained, but I felt his frustration. He was too young to step off the treadmill. Retirement came as a relief for most, but I saw how the idea of it terrified Gautam: the unstructured days, the loss of authority, the loss of utility.
‘Forty years, Simi’, he groaned. ‘Forty years. It’s another career.’
‘Some people’, I said to him, feeling the feebleness of my support. ‘Some people take up golf.’
Some people did take up golf. Mr Rastogi a few doors down had done this, playing more after his wife Suparna’s death. He had settled into a nice routine; his days ran to a military precision: newspapers at six, breakfast at nine, golf at eleven, a glass of whisky and soda before dinner. It was all ordered for him, his days, his future, without variety and without surprise, and he was content.
I hadn’t heard of Mr Rastogi’s satisfaction with his slower pace of life from him directly, even though his wife and I had been friendly. In general, I found that people in the neighbourhood tended to stay away from us. We were the taxman’s family, and I was only glad that children weren’t subject to the same paranoia that their parents were. Our two had made friends aplenty when they lived at home, had laughed and loved and gotten into trouble with others of their own age, but their friends’ parents hadn’t become our friends.
Gautam told me it was natural. The papers were always carrying reports of a tax raid on a business or a smallholder, and people were understandably wary of an unguarded word spoken in the presence of a senior functionary in the tax department.
After the children left home, I began to attend the events organised by the temple—the garba dances and the janamashtami vigils and the navratre fasts—much to the amusement of my family who liked to think of me as an apostate. I found that the ladies I met were cordial enough when we interacted, but they never suggested meeting up outside the temple. Others did meet. They set up little groups for morning walks or evening walks; they drank cold coffee frappes at the Café Coffee Day near Aurobindo College; they visited the mall to take in a matinee at the multiplex, and they compared the outfits they planned to buy and gift for Diwali. They involved their husbands in their socialising too, and I often walked into the temple to hear a woman jostling another about a rude joke her husband had made during an evening drink.
‘It’s all happening out there’, I complained to Gautam one evening. ‘I tell you, the temple is the biggest social networking site. It’s bigger than Facebook; it’s bigger than WhatsApp. And they’re all meeting up outside of the prayer meetings. They’re holding drinks parties; they’re going out for movies and concerts and all sorts.’
I would trail off in frustration, and Gautam would offer his own tepid comfort. ‘Don’t worry’, he would say. ‘We have each other.’ And he would add, seeing my unhappiness, ‘Besides, there are people other than those in this godforsaken neighbourhood. We have plenty of friends.’
Suparna Rastogi had been kind, though. She had just retired, and like me, I suppose, sought to find a mooring in the temple gatherings. ‘I don’t know half these ladies’, she confided in me. ‘My daughter always scolded me for being oblivious, but the truth is I’ve been occupied by my work all my life.’
She was a friendly face in the temple, giggling with me at the rituals the other women imposed on our gatherings, joking that neither she nor I appeared devout enough for the satisfaction of the other devotees. ‘Bow more’, she instructed, her mouth rent with the effort of looking serious. ‘You need to prostate yourself fully before God to show you’re sincere.’
It was clear to the others that our attitude was less than ideal, and we were usually left to our devices at the back of the temple hall while the temple meetings progressed. This suited us, of course, and we began to bring in snacks in addition to the offerings we presented to the Gods—caramelised peanut brittle, winter’s juiciest Mausamis, tea we drank out of Thermos flasks. We were never invited out for morning walks, were never involved in the Café Coffee Day meet-ups or the cinema outings or in the drinks evenings. But we never met outside the temple either, Suparna and I. I had mentioned the possibility a few times—casually, in such an offhand manner as if it was of no real importance to me—that we meet up for a walk or with our husbands, and though Suparna nodded enthusiastically, nothing ever came from my overtures.
‘It’s the tax collector’s stench’, Gautam said phlegmatically when I told him. He reclined in bed, his back resting on two bunched up pillows. The position was uncomfortable, clearly, as he took a pillow from my side of the bed and pummelled it into an acceptable shape before stuffing it behind him. ‘Hmm’, he said in satisfaction, and then, looking solemnly at me, ‘No one wants to think of tax, darling. No one wants to get too close.’
And then she was dead. Suparna Rastogi, careerwoman, co-conspirator, fellow novice in temple intrigue, found that a life of leisure was too draining and passed peacefully away in her sleep one night, felled by a heart attack that didn’t rouse her from her rest. She died less than twelve months after she had stopped working.
My sister’s husband had gone in a similar fashion. He had complained bitterly about the office while he worked, bemoaning workplace politics and the lack of dedication of his younger colleagues, but as soon as he retired, he seemed to shrivel into himself. He spoke less, no longer went out for his pre-work morning walks, didn’t contribute his ideas for his neighbourhood’s annual charity drive or Diwali fair. And my sister, who had so looked forward to his years of retirement, saw how his lack of employment depleted him.
‘He became a husk’, she told me shortly after his death. ‘He couldn’t adjust to a life where he wasn’t constantly being solicited for advice. I think his heart broke.’
Perhaps Gautam foresaw the same heartbreak as he spent his final months at work looking for a post-retirement career.
He looked first into extending his employment at the tax department, but as he had maintained a scrupulously neutral position throughout his career, neither kowtowing to a political party nor badmouthing the opposition, this wasn’t forthcoming. He looked for non-executive directorships, and though this would have seemed a natural next step given his intimate knowledge of taxation, Gautam’s neutrality continued to work against him. He hadn’t let anyone slip through the tax net, hadn’t ingratiated himself with any corporate giant, and now he found no one sought his services when they knew he would remain loyal to his principles and not to any future employer.
Towards the end of his final year, he began to explore other options: a PhD in accounting, setting up a school for underprivileged children, retraining as a counsellor. I told him to take his time, to see where his fancy took him. We had carried out all our obligations. Both children had been educated; both were married and had children of their own. Gautam always said he didn’t see the grandchildren enough, and I told him that retirement was his chance to finally spend time with those he loved.
‘We can have the grandchildren over for weekends’, I said. ‘Give their parents a break.’ And, as he paused to listen, I felt encouraged enough to go on. ‘We can travel too. Go to Hong Kong; go to Italy.’ His eyes shut, he leaned back against his chair. I heard Ma move in the room next door, and I knew I had to rise soon to prepare tea. But Gautam hadn’t moved. He hadn’t opened his eyes, and I continued, ‘We can walk along the banks of the Tiber, Gautam. Learn how to make fresh pasta. Speak a new language. Learn to paint.’ He smiled at that. ‘Who knows, but a new path might open up.’
The door creaked open, and Ma poked her head out. ‘Sorry’, she said. ‘I won’t disturb you.’
But he was up in an instant, his eyes alert, his smile gone. ‘Come, come, Ma’, he told his mother. ‘Today, I’ll prepare tea for all of you.’
I rose to go into the kitchen, but he pushed me back down on my chair. ‘You relax today’, he told me. ‘I’ve got this.’
We never did end up travelling, though Gautam says we will. He never took up golf either. A week after he retired, he began to volunteer at the local school for underprivileged children, going in for two hours every morning to teach Maths and English. He set up and abandoned a blog on personal finance. He wrote a couple of newspaper articles on corporate debt. He took up and gave up on a dozen hobbies, and I would often walk in on him after my morning chores were completed to find him sitting at his desk, a book unread in his hands. I would wonder if he had fallen asleep, but he would turn towards me at my approach, and I would know that he would have been at a loss to occupy himself. There were books he had collected for years in the hope of reading them when he had more time, and now that he did, he was unable to focus on them. His mind, so sharp, so full of energy, was unable to resign itself to its new, slower pace.
I worried that Suparna’s and my brother-in-law’s fate would befall him, that he would simply fail to wake up one morning. It did seem such a diminishment for my proud, dynamic, idealistic, and dare I say it, inflexible husband to live from day to day, to look forward to the next meal and to his bed at the end of the evening. There wasn’t enough to occupy him, no local friends, no employment he found meaningful. Others in the neighbourhood remained distant, and though they were always respectful when Gautam and I went out for a morning walk, there was no real conversation and no desire for intimacy. Gautam, it appeared, would be seen as a taxman for as long as he lived. He was the enemy—an informer, an enforcer—and no amount of small talk would change that.
Even Shami Rastogi, who I had condoled with after Suparna’s passing, hadn’t tried to get to know Gautam. Gautam told me he didn’t mind, of course, but I knew he needed to find something to occupy him. This wasn’t him; this had never been him, and now that he was told a lifetime of rest stretched out before him, I was scared he wouldn’t know how to survive.
Some months into his new life, he started to dabble in alternative medicine. The beginning itself had been innocuous enough; his mother developed a cough that lingered. An elderly relative had died of pneumonia, and Gautam worried the same end would meet his mother. He took her to the doctor, and after the doctor prescribed her antibiotics that left her feeling nauseous, he began to look up alternative therapies. He took her to the homeopath, and after his mother told him she preferred the sugared pills the homeopath prescribed, he began to research up other treatments he could offer her.
Dabbling, he said, as if it were just a school science experiment, as if it were simply a recipe put together with whatever lay unused in the fridge. And it largely was that, Gautam poring over books as thick as a dictionary and playing with herbs and powders and mixtures with names so arcane that merely uttering them endowed him with unquestionable authority.
I could have told him for free that most of it was common sense; a little clove oil applied to an aching tooth, a little honey and ginger for a sore throat, but he busied himself with his research, unearthing tinctures where ancient remedies had always sufficed, telling me names of concoctions and chemical combinations with such relish that I held my tongue.
It kept him busy, this new obsession. What was more, it brought the family closer too. He was more solicitous with his parents, who grew to complain of every minor ailment in response. A morning yawn would unearth an aching jaw, a misstep would reveal a twisted ankle. I wasn’t sure if Gautam saw through his parents’ attention-seeking behaviour as he dealt with every complaint with the utmost seriousness. The children called more often too, and anytime one of our grandchildren had a scrape, Gautam was consulted. He told them to apply a turmeric paste on scabs and wounds and to boil apple juice with cloves and cinnamon and ginger as winter set in—‘part placebo and part restorative’, and though they both rolled their eyes at their father’s quackery, they listened.
The neighbourhood remained safe from Covid for the longest time. It was an elderly neighbourhood, by and large, with most residents having bought their houses when South Delhi land prices were affordable. Children had been educated and had moved out or moved abroad; mortgages had been paid off. Some had sold off part or all of their homes to monetise their assets, but a substantial chunk of the neighbourhood’s earliest residents remained.
They kicked into action as soon as news of the virus spread, locking in supply chains and paying workers and cleaners to stay at home. No one went to the temple; no one went on morning walks. No one interacted with one another. We all turned into our own little household bubbles, secure from the rest of the world.
No one knew how the news of Gautam experimenting with medicine spread. We didn’t have any local friends, of course, but late one morning in mid-April, the landline rang, and a hesitant voice asked to speak to Gautam. I didn’t recognise the caller, and when I asked who it was, I was told it was Mr Choudhury from further down the road. ‘I hear he practises medicine’, said Mr Choudhury in a hopeful voice, and I called out for Gautam.
A steady stream of callers followed. I grew used to waking up to him pronouncing his impossible words—Astragalus and liquorice root and Eupatorium and Byronia. His prescriptions grew more bizarre as the day progressed, telling those who complained of breathlessness to take Aspidosperma in mother tincture, and while I laughed with juvenile delight at the name, he would wave his hands angrily at me to bid me quiet. His pronouncements would grow more indecipherable in response to my irreverence, and when I heard him say, ‘This is prophylactic and also treatment if infection has occurred’, I would take it as my cue to leave the room.
The arcane nature of his pronouncements didn’t lose him his followers. They only grew, persuaded, no doubt, by his assurance and by the fact that a man who had been responsible for the country’s tax intake could be trusted with their health. The fact that he had never been trained in medicine or the fact that he blanched at the thought of blood was neither here nor there.
Soon they were all calling; all the Covid-19 naysayers, all the nervous parents and the ageing hypochondriacs and all those who declaimed alternative medicine. The wives usually called first, using their acquaintance with me from the temple as a means of establishing contact. They listened with rapt attention as Gautam spoke, and in return for his advice, we began to receive gifts; homemade sweets and pickles, coffee table books and silver-tipped tea fresh from the mountains.
The month of May sped past, and it looked like Covid-19 was losing steam. Jobs had been lost; migrant workers had walked thousands of miles to return home, but the damage to life seemed to have been mercifully limited. They called it the Indian miracle, the apparent victory of a young population over a virus in summertime.
Late one evening, as Gautam leant back against the bed, adjusting his pillows before looking to pilfer one of mine, I said to him, ‘It’s been good for you, this coronavirus business.’
He had just concluded his after-dinner clinic. He had bathed, had retired to his study in his freshly starched pyjama kurta and had accepted calls for one hour before joining me in bed. He would have carried on with his doctoring, but I had cleared my throat outside his study, and he had brought his conversation with his patient to a rueful close. ‘It’s late now’, he had explained. ‘And I don’t want to disturb my elderly parents.’
‘Yes, of course’, I had heard from across the line. ‘Thank you so much for your advice.’
He’d come into the bedroom exhilarated, his skin flushed, his manner animated. He pretended to complain about his long day, then paused at my remark. ‘This coronavirus business’, he echoed. He studied me for a long minute, considering my words. He didn’t smile or give any indication of approving of my hilarity, and instead, his eyes grew narrower, and he frowned as if he couldn’t believe me capable of my sacrilege. ‘Really, Simi’, he said as he pinched a pillow from my side of the bed, ‘You surprise me.’
I laughed again as he shook his head. ‘Shh’, he said, pointing to where my parents-in-law slept. ‘They’ll think you’re having a breakdown.’
I laughed louder as he pursed his lips in pretend disapproval, and as he turned to switch off the bedside lamp, I stole my pillow back and placed it safely under my head.
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