The flight on 6 March from my home in Mérida, Mexico to Delhi seemed eternal yet went without a hitch. My beloved city welcomed me back after an unavoidably long absence of several years with deep blue skies, perfect weather and practically pollution-free air. The mango trees and champa trees in our Oberoi apartment complex in Civil Lines were bursting with buds and filled with cackling parrots, warblers, mynahs, all competing for nesting spots, and noisily trumpeting peacocks my pre-dawn alarm clock.

Top on the list of my four-week visit was to spend time with my brother Ram, catch up with dear friends, roam the bazaars of the old city, track down my faithful durzee, and eat myself silly. I looked forward to events being planned to plug my book in Delhi, Bangalore and Goa.

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Two days after my arrival, on a beautiful full moon night, I joined a small group of our neighbours on the compound to witness the burning of the demoness Holika. My ulterior motive was to sample the gujjias and samosas being offered at the end. It turned into an ominous omen when we were informed the next morning that the playing of Holi and accompanying festivities were cancelled. For many, the mood in the city was already subdued by the recent riots in North-East Delhi. To add to the mood fears of the coronavirus were spreading its tentacles.

Top on the list of my four-week visit was to spend time with my brother Ram, catch up with dear friends, roam the bazaars of the old city, track down my faithful durzee, and eat myself silly.

In view of the possibility that India might follow the lockdowns in China and Italy, I decided to make the most of my time. My priorities were to spend time in Lodhi Gardens, eat chaat in Bengali Market, jalebis in Chandini Chowk, biryani and kababs from around Jama Masjid. My brother and I went on a manic shopping spree to Khari Baoli and loaded up on achars from Harnarains, giant bags of almonds, cashews, walnuts and raisins to keep us going in the event of what loomed as inevitable imprisonment. Social events were being cancelled. There were to be no large gatherings until further announcement. My book events were “postponed” indefinitely.

Sunday, 22 March a junta curfew was proclaimed. We were to shelter at home and bang on pots and pans on our veranda at night. It got worse. At 8:30 pm on 24 March Mr Modi declared a three-week lockdown with all but essential services to be shut down… liquor stores included, which was just as well or else we might all end up blotto.

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We made the most of what was available to us nearby. There was a convenience store at the petrol station by our gate that soon emptied out of essentials. The sabzi wallah was allowed into the compound three times a week. The fruit wallah was banished as it was learnt he had a relative with the virus.

Further down Alipur road was a fairly well-stocked fruit stand and a Mother Dairy which we could walk to. The Exchange Store was better stocked. But there were long queues to enter. Once after waiting over forty-five minutes I pulled rank (age) and the guard brought out a chair for me.

NDMC trucks spraying disinfectant arrived as did spooky figures in hazmat suits. Nurses protected only with dupattas over their faces were taking temperatures of some residents.

I was then informed my scheduled flight back to Mexico on 9 April had been cancelled. The airline rebooked me for April 12. That was soon cancelled. 29 April, 6 May, cancelled. I became apprehensive about the next scheduled flight on 21 May when the lockdown was extended another three weeks.

We learnt a neighbour had been hauled off to Apollo Hospital with coronavirus. Oberoi apartment was sealed and barricaded. No one out, no one in. NDMC trucks spraying disinfectant arrived as did spooky figures in hazmat suits. Nurses protected only with dupattas over their faces were taking temperatures of some residents.

On 19 April I received word from the US Embassy informing me I could get on an evacuation flight from Delhi to San Francisco the next night. I jumped at the opportunity. My son could rescue me in San Francisco. My problem now was exiting the premises. I was told I would have to first be tested for the virus. That never happened. My brother contacted the sub district magistrate of our locality to get permission for me to leave. Letters from the US embassy were forwarded to them. Still no word. How to reach the airport was another dilemma. There was no transportation.

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Ram roped in his school buddy and good friend Pablo Bartholomew who had a photographer’s press pass. He lived in South Delhi in another containment zone. His car was parked in the next block which fortunately was not in the containment zone. He could sneak out but would still have to vouch that after dropping me off at the airport he would go straight home and self-quarantine for 14 days. About two hours before I was to leave for the airport the release permit was emailed. I was to present myself at the police barricade at 9:00 pm and hook up with Pablo, my saviour.

My two suitcases were hauled down three flights of stairs and wheeled to the gate. The police checked my permits and Pablo’s credentials and gave us the green light. I said a rushed goodbye to my brother, was permitted through the barricade and off to Indira Gandhi International airport. There still remained the matter of getting from San Francisco back to Mérida to deal with… I felt I was in an action movie.

Image Credit Ram Rahman

Sukanya Rahman has recently published Dancing in the Family with Speaking Tiger. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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