Lockdown Series 3

Little Aadi is always  most happy when his father and grandmother stayed home not going to the “office”,  which is where they both vanish early morning long before he wakes up. He has tried many tricks in his books to stop them from going which includes hiding his father’s bag, his granny’s footwear and purse and so on. But whatever happens they would go much against his plea and wails. His 2 year old sister is also his accomplice in the crime nowadays.  Some days his father would be whispering to his mother that he has no work today. But his granny would go even on Sundays – Aadi has been to her “office” which is a cool house with lots of trees in the middle of the city.

But a month ago he noticed that words like Corona, COVID and then Lockdown started dominating the adult conversations. His sister who had started picking up words and repeating them would run round and round shouting “Lockdown, Lockdown” like it was some slogan. Aadi understood that this is not so good a situation for his house. But the only thing good about this is the attention and care he got from his loving father and grandmother. His mother was always very aloof and sad, though she took care of the two children well.

It was fun to wake up and see his granny make wheat steam cakes, even more fun when she would patiently feed both the children slowly and with love. It was a pleasure to have your body oiled and bathed by your father by the well side with water heated in the sun. His grandmother would make some snack either in midday or in the evening. The kitchen and the two rooms in their rented house would always be clean and sparkling. There would be no fishy or eggy smell as all vessels would be washed and cleaned. The most exciting part was that his granny would involve both children in all activities like … cutting vegetables, carrying water, washing clothes and so on. For a few days, this lockdown seemed like an enjoyable game. The best part for Aadi was when the Anganvadi he went to closed indefinitely. The teacher visited them one day with a packet but Aadi hid behind the door till she went away afraid that she had come to take him. However he would have liked to see his friends and play.

Aadi’s little mind started getting restless when he realised that his favourite snacks like  unniappams, mixture and biscuits which his grandmother used to bring from her work place were no longer available. If he asked for one of them, his mother would look away or tell him to ask his father. His father would be silent and his granny would quickly reply “tomorrow”! Tomorrow never came for many days… he missed the thrill and excitement of seeing his granny return from work with a bag full of treasures each evening – unniappams for him, biscuits for his sister, fish and vegetables for dinner.  At times she would get his favourite vegetable beet root and fruit pomegranate.  His father would come much later with milk and batter for dosas and or idlis which would be breakfast next day. Occasionally he and his sister would be gifted a new toy.

After a few days of staying inside and playing with his granny and father, Aadi and his sister wanted to go out and meet their friends, two girls who were elder to them but with whom they played. In moments of generosity the 6 year old girl would lend him her cycle to go around their house. But nowadays they are never seen outside and he had heard their grandmother shouting at them not to get out. One relief was that their father had stopped going out for work and coming back drunk in the evenings. Many a night Aadi would go to sleep hearing his abusive shouts and screams. The nights were now silent and peaceful though there were squabbles still… His grandmother and mother never went to that house these days nor did they visit as they used to for borrowing some onions or a coconut. He heard words like social distancing and staying away from others…so it was just smile and a wave! He wondered if they had all got a new disease…

The high point in the life of Aadi and his sister was the visit of his aunt and uncle on a bike. Laden with many eatables, his uncle would willingly take him on a long drive – with wind catching his hair.  Aadi would look forward to these visits. Most often his aunt would bring tasty chicken curry which they would all happily have with rice. They would go only after the children slept not wanting to sadden them. It seems like ages since they visited. He often heard his granny talk about police checking and being careful to them over phone.

The best part of the days now is going with his father to the paddy field and big tank, a bit of a walk from their home. His father would change into his much used work clothes and laden with a bucket, a net and some other implements they will start after an afternoon nap. His mother would warn them not to get wet, not to swim, not to stand too much in the sun – a set of usual instructions. His granny would tie a towel around his head. They would almost always get coconuts along with raw jackfruit and also some juicy rose apples from an overgrown garden with no fence. The high point of this expedition was the turtle they caught after much struggle. On such days Aadi would obey all that his father said because he wanted to be with him. These outings were a window to a vast world that was green, cool and calm.

The day they took the turtle home, his granny was upset about what to do with it. The brown and black turtle lay still like dead. Aadi and his sister tried to see its head which stayed withdrawn inside. His granny called her aunt who gave a culinary class on how to cook a turtle. His father invited his aunt and uncle to join the celebration. Their arrival laden with onions and masala, tomatoes and curry leaves made his mother heave a sigh of relief. A huge cauldron was filled with water and set to boil in the impromptu hearth his granny made outside the kitchen. What happened next shocked and pained Aadi a lot.

As the water started to boil, his father and uncle washed the turtle and put it in the boiling water. As if knowing that its end has come, the turtle put its head out and looked at the world with beady black eyes. Aadi ran inside crying to his aunt who was preparing the masala. It was only then that he realised that they were going to have the turtle for dinner. He was planning to keep it in a shallow pot as a pet… All dreams shattered, Aadi cried himself to sleep sad. He was terribly disgusted and upset about the small animal being boiled to death. The next day morning he woke up to hear his granny narrate tales of hunger and deprivation in her childhood and how her mother would come up with such unexpected supplements to feed their large family. But like Aadi she too could not bear to see the boiling animal or eat the meat that is supposed to be tasty. His uncle and aunt made much fun of him about his cowardice when they next met.

The fishing expeditions to the tank and the narrow gutter through water overflowed were always more exciting. The fishes were caught and taken home where his mother and granny would clean and make curry or fry the fishes. There were fishes with moustache, long tail, smooth, slippery and scale less skin… Although his granny ate the fish she would say the taste is nothing compared to the fish from the sea. On alternate days, a fish vendor on a two wheeler would honk past and stop – many a time his granny’s face would light up and fade when he would shout the price mercilessly ! That was when Aadi realised that there was no money in the house to buy fish… He also understood that his granny and father not going to “office” meant no unni appams, no biscuits, no pomegranates and oranges…. and he wondered how long this lock down would last.

He also started noticing that the weekly trips that his mother made after much argument with his father to the hospital had stopped. Every week she would have headache, toothache, back pain or inform them that the little girl was feverish. This would mean a trip in the bus, parottas and beef curry from the restaurant or masala dosa and vada. Aadi preferred Sharja or ice cream! But with no buses or autos his mother’s ailments miraculously vanished. It dawned on him that there was no money too and the arguments between his parents nowadays were connected to spending money.

As weeks passed by and he found his usually happy granny unusually silent and lying down most of the time. Aadi’s little mind also throbbed with anxiety about how long his father and granny will have to stay at home. The excitement that the tapioca plucked from the field without the owner knowing, the fallen coconuts they chanced upon on the way to the tank, the mangoes, jackfruit,  pineapples  and rose apples  he picked up, the fishes caught and eaten with relish started fading when tea and biscuits, unniyappams and dosas vanished silently… Now it was wheat puttu with watery rasam or sambar with no vegetables and lentils most of the time.

For Aadi it also meant that his 4th birthday would pass by with no cake, no gifts, no trip to the museum and zoo that his uncle had promised, no gift of a cycle from his granny. For Aadi, the lockdown and Virus meant a sudden growing up to know that the adult world is tough driven by parameters that if dislodged meant collapse of so many interconnected things that kept life going…

Aadi suddenly acquired the habit of being silent not wanting to trouble his parents and granny… a tough lesson for a 4 year old that being impoverished and in some way imprisoned taught him.

As the inimitable Maya Angelou said “Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives”!

Anitha.S

4th May 2020

Aadi belongs to a family dependant on the daily wages that his grandmother brings every day after travelling 20 kilometres by bus to an urban house where she works as domestic help. His father is a painter and carpenter, employed by a contractor. His mother stays at home to look after the two children. Aadi goes to the nearby Anganwadi where he gets food. With no public transport and schools closed, this true account portrays life during lockdown for hundreds of such families…


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One Comment

  1. Avatar Santhi. S says:

    Delighted, saddened and inspired to read this piece on a little child coping, growing, struggling…with the trying times. I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s famous quote “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
    So good that Aadi’s father takes him fishing, happy that there is a pond and some abandoned paddy field for so many people to depend on for food and relief from isolation so close to the city.