Behind The Masks


Shivaji K. Moitra 


© Copyright 2021 by Shivaji K. Moitra 


          Photo by Swarnavo Chakrabarti on Unsplash
                                                                Photo by Swarnavo Chakrabarti on Unsplash

The hellish curse, the inferno, the vicious plague, the pandemic, by whatever name we may wish to describe the most terrible scourge of modern times, still seems to be an understatement.

The disease that sprung out mysteriously in a secretive part of the world and quickly assumed the form of a terrible demon that demolished all geographical and political barriers to inflict unprecedented casualties, untold suffering and extreme despair on the human race has now been christened Covid-19.

This unknown, primitive and miniscule demon displayed scant respect for the man-made boundaries of colour, creed, caste or religion and unleashed such a deluge of death and suffering on Mankind as not witnessed in the history of modern times. The vicious pandemic it caused has crushed manís pride, hammered his ego, destroyed his arrogance and has shrouded his glory in a haze of intense gloom, chaos and despair.

It has now killed nearly five million human beings, ripped apart thousands of families, orphaned hundreds of children, displaced millions of the poor and shattered the economies of almost all countries on earth. As a consequence, it has churned up unexpected problems, huge dilemmas, profound debates, fictitious claims and outrageous ideas.

Although, it is too early to consider the current scourge as a divine retribution upon Mankind for its unrestrained greed, selfishness and arrogance that caused the destruction of the earthís flora and fauna, the eco-systems and our environment, there is no denying the fact that today Mankind is at the receiving end of an ordeal of its own making.

To me, from the outset the epidemic appeared like a Frankenstein monster let loose upon humanity for its grave sins. It did hit my country India really hard.

As the first wave of the pandemic progressed and spread across the country and the daily count of its victims swelled gradually, their terrified near and dear ones ran from one hospital to another seeking urgent medical care for them only to be turned back rudely with the advice to quarantine themselves at their homes because most of the state-run rudimentary healthcare facilities were ill equipped to treat the Covid infected.

The rich however flocked to the handful of much better equipped private hospitals and clinics and received adequate medical care.

Hundreds of those infected succumbed to the virus either due to pre-existing illness or due to lack of proper treatment. Yet, the number of deaths remained low in comparison to the population of the regions and far less than the number of casualties in the countries of Europe and the U.S.

Although worried about the unexpected crisis, the people on the street remained calm and unshaken. They went about their usual business quietly and rather stoically without unduly burdening their minds either with the fear of death or the dark thoughts of a grim future until the government enforced the lockdown.

Concerned about their livelihood, they accepted the lockdown grudgingly because they believed that they could rely on their immunity and Godís grace to traverse the turbulent present and the ominous future.

Nevertheless, just as every cloud has a silver lining, just as every adversity reveals our strengths and weaknesses and exposes our fallacies and prejudices, the current pandemic has also revealed before our eyes some of the most fascinating portraits of life.

The vicious second wave of the epidemic however crashed upon India with a vengeance and spread rapidly like wildfire. Armed with lethal mutations, the virus began to take a heavy toll on the unsuspecting citizens including doctors and the medical staff.

The huge jump in the number of Covid afflicted within a couple of weeks overwhelmed the already ill equipped hospitals and clinics and the lack of adequate beds, medicines and oxygen supply greatly impacted the treatment of the patients. Denied beds and ventilators, thousands of seriously affected soon succumbed to the pandemic on the streets or in their houses. For the poor, the demise of their sole bread-earners stunned their grieving families and left them at the mercy of the Gods.

Soon the mounting death toll unnerved the governments and unsettled the medical fraternity. The spiralling count of the dead and the terrible stench emanating from the houses, hospitals and morgues seemed to subdue the nonchalant attitude of the general public at last and made them obey the rules of the lockdown imposed by the authorities.

Nevertheless, across the chinks in the stony walls of gloom and despair, I could witness many hidden facets of human behaviour, interesting episodes, several hilarious instances of misdemeanours, inspirational tales of scientific ingenuity, numerous moving anecdotes of extreme courage, fortitude and resilience on one hand and of unparalleled selfishness, craftiness and nasty opportunism on the other. The deadliest epidemic of the century revealed incredible personalities, unmasked before my eyes people the good, the bad and the ugly and helped me get a ringside view of those incredible happenings that changed my beliefs and turned upside down my existing perceptions of the bad guys, gentlemen and ladies I had known for long or may be not and of course the people counted among strangers. Interestingly, they included my very own people, my blood relations, distant relatives, neighbours, acquaintances and people I had only heard of.

My father had been in the service of the Indian Railways and our small family had to move around along with him whenever he was transferred to a new location until my father retired and settled down in a small town. My mother wasnít a woman of cheerful disposition. She had been a lady of serious nature, a rather insensitive woman who often regretted my fatherís modest means.

I grew up like a drifter, a dreamer, a rather wild boy with a passion for fishing and wondering about the marvels of nature. I loved to play, wander across the countryside and watch the wildlife around me.

However, somewhere during my late teens I veered back miraculously to concentrate on my studies and finally got myself a decent government job for a living. Thereafter, I married and continued to live in my fatherís house. But after a few years my father passed away and I had to move out to a rented apartment along with my pregnant wife and my young daughter since my mother and my married sister despised the idea of sharing with us anything left behind by my father.

I earned enough for a humble existence and I harboured no indignation or ill will against them. However, I found it rather bizarre when the pandemic prompted them to lock up the house and escape to some safer destination. My wealthy relatives on the other hand chose to stay put. They believed that their financial strength and superior social status could keep them beyond the reach of the deadly virus. My cool and calm attitude towards the plague though hugely surprised all of them. In any case, I had nowhere to flee.

When the pandemic struck hard and its victims began to meet their deaths gasping for breath in thousands, the very sight of a Covid victim struck terror in the hearts of everybody around and very few souls dared to come to their aid. As the panic-stricken administration almost collapsed before the unfolding tragedy, the puzzled family members of the critically ill often faced great difficulties in shifting them to the hospitals and Covid centres.

In my neighbourhood, it was time for the bad guys Mantu and Madan to shake off their dirty aliases and emerge from their befuddled state to assume the roles of the angels.

Soon they could be seen on the streets and alleys playing the role of the Good Samaritan.

Mantu happened to be the ubiquitous fishmonger in my neighbourhood market who had earned the hilarious nickname of ĎBottle Mantuí for his evening drinking bouts and his subsequent antics in the marketplace. Madan, his bosom friend too was no man of virtue. He had three wives and drove an auto rickshaw for a living and spent the evening boozing with his infamous mates. Although neither of them had any records of felony, they had earned scornful nicknames from the local youths who made fun of their late evening brawls, violent fights and antics. The dignified men and women however cast disdainful glances at them and gave them a wide berth.

I couldnít believe my eyes when I saw the duo driving their auto rickshaw across the empty streets, lanes and by lanes again and again to pick up the Covid infected and transport them to the various hospitals, clinics and Covid centres without any fear of their own lives. Gleefully shouldering the responsibilities shunned by the authorities and the respectable society, they dedicated their small three-wheeled vehicle to the service of the victims of the pandemic.

ďIncredible! Drunkards turned saviours overnight?Ē I mused.

At a time when the dead were being unceremoniously thrown into mass funeral pyres or graves, a handful of people like Mantu and Madan came out of the shadows to ensure that the humane face of humanity does not vanish altogether. The castaways of the society had miraculously transformed themselves into fearless messiahs to keep the hospitals, mortuaries, crematoriums and burning ghats operational when Mankind seemed so fragile and scared and the members of the respectable society, the ladies and gentlemen and the wealthy philanthropists were conspicuous by their absence.

Their exemplary acts changed my perception of true human beings and reminded me of the old idiom: A friend in need is a friend indeed.

However, my next door neighbor, a retired old man, proved to be just the extreme opposite. He had been an astute man of few words whose selfish attitude often enraged me. But when the epidemic claimed his only son working in another city, he shocked me with his nonchalance. He displayed no sign of mourning his sonís untimely death and went ahead with his normal chores. He showed me the stunning despicable side of human behavior.

The raging pandemic and the lockdown imposed by the authorities had closed down almost all the restaurants and eateries across the nation. It caused great distress to the patients under quarantine either in their own houses or inside the Covid centres and their family members due to the great scarcity of cooked food. Their miseries prompted the humble neighbourhood housewives running small home-delivery businesses out of their homes to step in.

Before the pandemic, I had often made fun of their culinary skills and their low-priced humble dishes. But I was surprised when three such ladies put up their crude handwritten signboards at some conspicuous spots inviting the quarantined people in need of hot and clean home-cooked food to contact them. Throughout the next couple of months I could see them cycling across the neighbourhood roads, lanes and alleys like angels carrying half a dozen or more tiffin carriers at a time to deliver food to the Covid infected households.

I had belittled their meagre endeavours earlier. But presently their courage and moral values stumped me and I was seized by a sudden pang of conscience.

Meanwhile, I received the sad news of the death of my auntís son due to the virus. I didnít know him well enough since both my uncle and aunt had been renowned doctors and their high social status kept them far beyond my reach. Nevertheless, I was stunned and astonished by the news because I knew they could arrange the best treatment available for their son. Money too wasnít a constraint for them. Yet the vicious virus claimed his life.

ďSadly, money, superior social status and ego meant nothing in the end,Ē I wondered.

As more and more doctors, nurses and other medical staff began to succumb to the dreaded epidemic, most of the doctors stopped visiting their roadside chambers in the towns and cities. Denied easy access to the doctors for much needed medical advice and treatment, their regular patients as well as the Covid infected men and women began to suffer in silence.

But a few bold doctors dedicated to their mission became the shining exceptions at every town and city. They kept their doors open for the patients even at the risk of being infected themselves.

In my town, it was Dr. Pal, an unassuming diminutive figure suffering from a peculiar twitching of his lips and facial muscles who proved to be more than a God for hundreds of patients in need of urgent medical attention amid the lockdown. Many Covid patients including several of my friends and acquaintances were fortunate enough to receive his medical advice and treatment and were cured of the dreaded disease while under home quarantine. Ironically, before the pandemic many people believed that Dr. Pal was eccentric and shunned him both because of his affliction and his propensity for prescribing very few medicines. The pandemic greatly changed the peopleís perspective about the doctorís knowledge and medical prowess.

Surprisingly, my faith in God and the inexpensive ways of maintaining personal hygiene kept me and my family safe and sound until the pandemic gradually ebbed and a semblance of normalcy returned to peopleís lives.

By the time I and my wife could manage to get the Covid vaccine and look forward with a certain degree of confidence, the world had changed a lot, the meaning of life had been transformed, its purpose and destination had been redefined, the definitions of progress and happiness had done a complete somersault and the distinction between need and greed had been laid bare in the most bizarre manner.

Families that survived the year-long onslaught of the virus thanked God and reassessed their values and priorities while the smart and the clever who could relocate to safer places in time and came out unscathed by the fury of the pandemic thanked their stars. But for the surviving members of those middle class and working-class families ravaged and ripped apart by the pandemic, the future seemed dark and hopeless. Having lost both their loved ones and their hard-earned savings, they struggled to rise from the ashes and pick up the scattered pieces with trepidation.

Like the captain of a ship that had miraculously weathered the terrifying sea storm and remained afloat, I gazed suspiciously at the horizon and steered carefully towards the calm waters in the hope of touching land soon and embarking on my dreams again.

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