/ Sanjana Dhamankar
Fiction — 8 min reading time
It doesn’t get cold in Mumbai. Even at four-thirty in the morning.
And I’ll tell you what, it’s bloody jarring.
The sky is forlorn and oppressive above me, as if smothered by innumerable periwinkle petals. The moon is pale and shy and low on the horizon. The silhouettes of the buildings, both new and old alike, are black and crisp like cardboard cut-outs. And it’s quiet, so ghostly quiet—if you can find it in yourself to ignore the hum of the electricity that keeps the streetlights from winking off.
It’s the type of scene that makes you think that right about now I’d say something incredibly eerie about biting chill and wind that speaks in harsh whispers.
But the truth is, I simply cannot. Because whether it’s summer or winter or even monsoon season like it is now, it just doesn’t get cold in Mumbai.
I wish it did though, standing now in this winding residential street in the marigold glow of a streetlight. I am warm and sweaty from walking here, and the mask plastered to my face doesn’t help as I try to catch my breath. My mother is panting softly by my side too, and I wish we’d had the foresight to leave the house with a bottle of water. If my father and the neighbours and the security guard standing morosely outside the dreaded gate before us are to be believed, we are going to be here a while.
“Didn’t I tell you we would make it?” my mother says gleefully.
I can see the sweat beading on her forehead, and the sleep weighing down her eyelids, but the crinkles by her eyes tell me she is smiling under the mask.
“We’re ninth in line,” I complain, because I’ve only gotten four hours of sleep. “I’d hardly call that making it.”
“Ninth place is good!” my mother insists sharply. “One more hour and we wouldn’t even have gotten a spot.”
“So what if we hadn’t? This isn’t the only vaccination centre in the city.”
“It’s one of the free ones, though. And it’s next door. And it’s like one day out of your life. And…”
“All right, all right, you’ve made your point. I’m standing here, aren’t I?”
The crinkles are back by my mother’s eyes, and she pokes my cheek affectionately. “Thank you for coming with me. It’d be awfully scary to do this without you.”
I eye my surroundings suspiciously. The dark is nearly solid in the places where the streetlights don’t shine, and there really is nobody else here apart from the eight other patrons and one very sickly stray dog with a limp and a lazy eye. I would be scared too, if I had to stand here by myself. But I know it isn’t the dark or the dog my mother finds frightening. No, this is a woman who has elbowed her way out of a local train during rush hour, barrelling through a sweat sandwich of two hundred other frantic people despite being half their size.
No, what she is scared of is the idea of going through this monumental experience with no one to hold her hand. I rest my head on her shoulder. It is in moments like these that I am reminded that she really is getting old, that she relies on me now.
I feel like a coin sinking to the bottom of a lake.
Weight. Warmth. Dread. Looming permanence.
Not feelings I’d expected to feel in a vaccine line.
It is around five-forty when it really starts to get crowded. There are sixty-five people waiting now, and more arrive every time the sky becomes a slightly lighter blue.
The vaccination centre is not open yet, which is why the usual limbo room where people can wait remains firmly closed. So, everyone stands most obnoxiously on the street; there is no sidewalk in a lane as narrow as this. The cyclists and the rickshaw-drivers are left to weave around us, grumbling curses all the way, but no one pays them any mind. They know the motorists will have no retort for ‘Where else are we supposed to go?’ that wouldn’t result in an argument and waste everybody’s time.
And no one wants to waste time. Not on a Wednesday morning in Mumbai.
Not everyone stands, though. Those who have been here since before me and my mom arrived sit cross-legged and droopy-eyed on patches of road that seem cleanest to them. The woman who is first in line, who has been here since two-thirty in the night, lays her head on her purse and goes to sleep. The feral stray dog stands guard by her side.
It is all a bit extreme for me; I do not think anyone should have to go to such lengths for a simple injection. But I do not say this out loud; I know what my mother will say.
‘You have been in the US for too long. This is normal.’
And I will not have a retort that will not result in an argument and would waste both of our time.
And I don’t want to waste our time. Not when I will be leaving again in three weeks.
So instead, I say other things. I explain to her how the vaccine works, and she tells me she is proud of me and my complicated biology degree. I tell her about the new book I’m reading and complain about authorial intent and misogyny. She teases me as I fume; calls me a child, an angry kitten poised to pounce and scrape the eyes out of anything that dares to wander too close. I gasp and hiss about how no one is social-distancing, how the man in front of us is wearing his mask over his mouth but not over his nose, and she laughs.
“You have been in the US for too long. This is normal.”
And when she says that, I think about how some things are unavoidable. And perhaps they are unavoidable because they are true.
So, we have the argument and waste our time.
I find that I do not mind it very much, though. This is how it has always been between us. Bickering about useless things. Maybe that is a love language too. I do not know anymore.
I would hope it is.
It is six-thirty when the arguments start.
“You can’t hold a place in the line for THREE other people! That’s not fair!”
“Sure it is! You’re just mad because you got here too late!”
“Hey! I was standing there first, you can’t just take my place!”
“’Course I can! You left the line!”
“I went to the bathroom!”
“That’s not my problem!”
It is funny, really, to watch, and I am thankful that the mask hides my blatant insolence. My mother makes jokes too. Plays off the stereotypes of the cantankerous mother-in-law, the world-weary grand-uncle and haughtily austere older son, predicting all their insults word-for-ugly-word.
‘God, this is what I get for coming to a government centre; this isn’t a line, it’s a fish-market!’
‘Who died and made her queen of the line? What does she think we are; her father’s servants?’
‘Jeez, could you back up a bit? Waiting in the crawlspace between my ass cheeks won’t guarantee you a vaccine appointment!’
It is the most animated I have seen her since we came down here, and I wonder if we’d stepped into an alternate sitcom universe while I hadn’t been looking. We actually begin to enjoy ourselves and try making small talk with the people who stand next to us. It is then that we find that they are not similarly amused.
“It is so hard to get a vaccine appointment. The centres are always full.”
“Yes, only one hundred people will get a shot here today. That is not enough.”
“At least it is free.”
“That is true. We should be grateful to the government. What if they had decided to charge?”
“Apparently they are charging in the private hospitals.”
“All the rich ones will go there. Sit in a waiting room with a magazine. Get it done peacefully. Not like this.”
“This is how it is for us. This is normal.”
I look around me. I see maids, plumbers, watchmen, chauffeurs, shopkeepers, electricians, delivery people, senior citizens on government pension. I do not see people like me.
I feel nauseous and clutch my mother’s hand tighter. We are humbled, and it is not funny anymore.
Fifty-two people get turned away that day. My mother is not one of them.
I watch them plead with the government officers; I watch the officers helplessly inform them that there are simply no more vaccines to give, and that they must try again tomorrow.
The stray dog jumps up on them as they talk, paws scrabbling insistently at their pant legs. I want to tell you that he does it for righteous reasons; that he has the courage to do what I cannot; that he has the courage to protest this indifference.
But the truth is, I simply cannot.
It is mid-morning now, and he is hungry, plain and simple.
But the things I feel are not plain and simple.
Fraying rage. Muted grief. Bone-deep helplessness.
Not feelings I’d expected to feel in a vaccine line.