Scoundrel Time

 

Fifteenth day under lockdown, twenty-second in self-isolation, and I had already lost most of my muscles. Not that I was a wrestler before that. Not even a fan of that violent sport. Sports like wrestling are based on fake hatred. And fake or real, hatred is like a virus. Once you get it, you become its carrier for life. All you do then is spread it around.

But total inactivity makes its own claims on our bodies. It unleashes a violence of its own kind. Slow, quiet, invisible, destructive. And as of today, I was losing my mind, too. Shouted a sentence or half of one at my saintly brother every time I passed by his room on my way to the bathroom.

“Why are you still in bed?” I said.

“This bed has handcuffed you.”

“What are you up to, sitting over there?”

“What makes you stand against the window?”

“Throw that phone away.”

“Why don’t you kill that fly?”

“I know you stay up the whole night.”

“Too much caffeine’s gonna damage your muscles.”

It was almost evening, and I was feeling my flabby triceps sitting on this toilet called the Indian seat. Must tone them. With workout. Enough of watching bat horror movies.

I washed my hands for twenty suggested seconds and went straight to the third room in the house that had a treadmill, two dumbbells, a yoga mat and a wall mirror in it. While on the treadmill, you have to look towards your right if you want to check on your triceps or hips in the mirror. The first thing I saw was my face. A thick black Balochi beard and an upturned moustache. The rest of it was pale as poison.

Fresh air. I needed fresh air.

I went out of the room, across the corridor, and unplugged the fridge cable that was hanging on the way to the stairs, threw it onto the dusty railing, climbed two steps at a time, and arrived on the roof of my house. It’d been four years since I last came here.

My Pakistani-American friend, Ali, had wanted to see the twin cities before boarding his NYC flight in three hours. Given the time constraint, there was no question we could go to the Margalla Hills. This second-floor rooftop was the only viewpoint readily accessible. And it showed him almost half of Islamabad and a little less than half of Rawalpindi. And from the hug he had given me in front of the international departure gate, I could tell he was happy. With the roof.

With humans and automobiles indoors for the last two weeks, the air was fresh. I felt the color of youth returning to my cheeks. On the rooftop of a big house across the road, some children were shouting their high-pitched and meaningless words at the blue sky.

On the roof behind mine was a pale petite girl wearing a pair of skintight blue jeans and a red T-shirt. And a green surgical mask. A glance at her was no less refreshing than the oxygen I had come looking for. I sensed some sort of intimacy. Agreeability. After all, we shared a longing for fresh air. And for the color to return to our faces. Mine moustached, hers masked.

In one corner opposite the storeroom over the stairs stood a four-legged water tank. Tall enough for me to hide behind it. Between the storeroom and the tank were the remains of a room that was built illegally on this second-floor roof by one of the former owners. It was removed by another, upon being served a notice by the Capital Development Authority. Its marbled floor still remained, surrounded by a low, less than one-foot high, wall. I jogged and jumped, and once again looked around. She was gone.

The wall was the perfect height for some extra activity for my legs. I decided to do what I had recently learned from the Bollywood queen, Kareena Kapoor. Courtesy of YouTube. I put my right foot on the step, then the left one. Removed the right one and then the left, brought back the right foot and repeated this forty times, instead of one hundred times as recommended.

I wanted to wipe my sweaty forehead. But first I had to wash my hands. I opened the tap of the tank. Red iron rust began flowing out. As I waited for the water to clean up, a black bird emerged from under the tank and went flying across the road and towards the children shouting their meaningless words at a now orange sky.

I came downstairs. My brother was in the kitchen, which meant ginger and honey tea was coming. When he brought a hot cup smelling of cinnamon and cloves, I accepted it. Silently. He didn’t speak either.

The part of the night after supper was more or less the same as all nights in isolation. I watched all those memes and humorless jokes churned up in a world cocooned under the fear of an invisible biter. Some recurring subjects of the memes were:  housewives mocking their quarantined husbands, couples inventing novel positions, bacteria launching law suits against viruses for endangering their existence in the wake of what they call a sanitizer pandemic, the untested poor making fun of the rich getting positive results for the disease, older siblings bossing around younger ones.

I switched off the Internet to put my twenty-two-year-old brother to sleep in the other room.

The following day, I drank the same amount of liquid, went to the bathroom almost the same number of times but shouted less. In the mirror, my face looked pigmented. When I unplugged the fridge cable to make my way to the stairs, I threw it onto the dust-covered railing with a very mild anger. I was fine. But I had to get some fresh air.

And there she was. Blue jeans, white shirt, green mask, oiled hair. I couldn’t see her shoes but, if I could, I would see them first. That’s my seeing sequence. Bottom-up for women. Top-down for men. I jogged and jumped and looked around, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I could but, only if she removed her mask and happened to be less pretty than the one I had, once upon a time, wanted to marry. But she didn’t remove it. I thought I should do the Kareena Kapoor steps.

One, two, three, four … nineteen … swiiiiish! The black bird had come so close this time that my right eardrum could feel the air pressure its wings beat. And before I could think clearly, it came again. This time for my nose, smelling like dogshit. To avoid contact, I jumped up and slipped off the edge of the illegal wall, almost collapsing on the marble floor. I stood up and exhaled frantically from my nostrils, to push the smell out. I realized it was a bat, not a bird. A smelly ugly bat.

I turned around to see if my neighbour was still there. She was. Her eyes smiling. Was she laughing at me? Seriously? Didn’t she know we must stay away from bats?

I went to bed early. Midnight. That’s earlier than even my pre-quarantine bedtime. With no sleep in my eyes, I thought of muscles and upturned moustache and fresh air and green masks and smelly bats. I recalled proofreading an essay written by an ecocritic-turned-environmentalist friend. It was a comment on the return of the Pakistan Super League, back from the UAE after all the years of terrorism in the country. She had argued that reopening Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium was tantamount to a death sentence for at least five non-vampire species of bats that had called it home for over a decade now. To her it was a national loss, as these bats were fighting off the insects. She also gave a brief description of the deviant bat movement, interpreting it as bats protesting human intervention in their ecosystem. The essay recommended that the government should not schedule any matches in the stadium unless these bats were given new homes that were equally spacious. Hinting at the impending threats, my friend concluded that by driving thousands of bats out, we were inviting their wrath. Not only would the insects dance around and dip their noses through our permeable skin, but the bats themselves might also move into our houses. To be honest, I didn’t like the essay much. I never liked anything pro-bat. So, the only tweak I made was to the title, which went from “Save Bats, Save Humans” to “Bats on Strike.” Just out of my obsession with puns.

In the morning, I gurgled, drank a room-temperature smoothie, ate a bowl of nuts and fruits, and checked Facebook. I had always felt that if the apocalypse was ever to happen, it would be announced through a status update. And this time it was for real. Hundreds of thousands were infected. Thousands had lost their lives. But no matter how depressing I found it I couldn’t quit Facebook. It gave me a realistic picture of the world. I liked it because it was lifelike. And it allowed me to follow all the world leaders for their influential tongues and funny faces. I often moved the cursor around their profile pictures. That gave me a feeling of being in touch with power.

As I scrolled down, I saw a post by one of my educated friends. A double-click redirected me to a YouTube video called: “How not to catch Corona?” Five anchors of different current affairs shows on the panel. The host introduced them as senior analysts. Perhaps to avoid social media trolls, he also gave a quick disclaimer that the panellists were not experts on the disease “but are certainly blessed with a critical eye…” “But then there is no expert on this new disease in the world yet,” interrupted one of the panellists to authenticate his presence.

Leaving the show ‘open,’ I switched back to my previous tab. Scrolling further down the newsfeed, I saw a few images of friends better groomed than ever before. I finger-combed my beard and went further down. A writer friend had shared what she called her quarantine reading tips and list. I was at Tip#3 “Don’t read dystopian novels” when I heard the word “bats” in my earphones broadcasting the YouTube tab. Leaving the tips there, I immediately clicked on the show tab. One of the anchor-analysts was saying: “You must not forget that it’s a bat virus. You must not forget that we have a lot of bats in the country. You must not forget that our urban planners have done nothing to do away with them. You must not forget that there are many supporters of bats here. But you must not forget that we have no choice but to kill all the bats in this country…”

I immediately copied and sent the link of the show to my brother and some others from family and friends.

On one of my bathroom visits, I stopped by my brother’s room.

“I saw a bat on our roof.”

“Upstairs?” he absent-mindedly pointed towards the ceiling with his index finger.

“Yep,” I said, and he just nodded as if it were no big deal. For a moment I thought I was right, he wasted all his time on silly online stuff.

“You watch the educational videos I forward to you. Don’t you?” I demanded.

“I do.”

“So, you know it’s a bat virus. Don’t you?”

“I do.”

“And bats are sitting right on our heads.”

“Are they?” he touched his hair. Shampooed and shining.

“You don’t sound concerned about it. Do you?”

“But you only get the virus from infected humans.”

“How can we be so sure about that? Its origin is bats. Bats host this virus. Bats might be spreading it more speedily than humans. Didn’t you watch that Mubashir Luqman video in which he says the virus is in the air. What do you think that means? It’s not humans that are flying around in the air. And the virus doesn’t ride the stupid kites those boys are yelling at. The bats, it does. Bats… And as we speak, bats are sitting on our water tank.”

“It’s covered.”

“But they are drinking water from somewhere. A leaking pipe or a cracked wall. And I don’t know how many of them are hiding up there. They can contaminate our water.”

“Come on, Bhai.”

“No, we must go upstairs and raid them. Stand up. Pick up your badminton racket.”

He didn’t move.

“Okay, fine. I am going alone. If they attack me, don’t repent.”

I went on the roof. Looked back a couple of times towards the door to the storeroom, but the door didn’t open. I’d have to do it myself. I wrapped my face in a blue Saraiki ajrak and, lying near one of the legs of the tank, looked under it. No bats there. Then, racket in my right hand, I went around the tank. On its eastern side, the tank was so close to the wall that whatever was left in-between was a narrow cave. This was where it smelled like dogshit. They were in there. I covered the cave opening with my racket and went to its other end to scare them. Hasty, imperfect strategy.

Swiiiiish… The racket fell and there it went a big black fat bat. And lo, it landed on the water tank on my pretty neighbour’s roof. Excellent excuse to be acquainted. Two birds with one stone. A beauty and a bat.

Downstairs, my brother was in the kitchen, making ginger tea. How naive of him to think one could live through a pandemic on ginger. ‘Ginger is useless, kid bro,’ I wanted to say.

“They’re in a cave between our water tank and the wall.”

“Who?”

“The bats. One of them is now sitting on the tank of the house next door.”

He nodded. Disrespectfully.

I went downstairs, out onto the street at the back and knocked on her front door. Barely the third knock and there she was: pink joggers, grey trousers, blue T-shirt, green mask. Petite, pretty girl. Her eyes were dark. I couldn’t tell if they were naturally that beautiful or it was just the carefully placed kohl. Today, I was going to save their depth, that proverbial lake-like depth. By killing all the bats.

“Hi.”

“Hello.” The L of her hello was impeccably American. Not a borrowed “Laam” phoneme of Urdu. Her voice wrapped up in honey.

Who gets romantic with bats around in the middle of a bat pandemic? Anyone standing at this door, racket in hand, with a savior mission in mind.

“There’s a bat on your tank on the roof.”

“I see.” Did she recall me jumping to avoid the bat?

“I need your permission to go there and kill it.”

“Kill it? But why?”

“You haven’t watched Mubashir Luqman’s show on ‘How not to catch Corona?’, have you?”

“Noooo…”

“That bat is carrying the virus. The bat virus we are all wearing these masks for.”

“NO. It’s Corona virus. Don’t blame…” Her shrug was the missing noun phrase from the syntax of the last sentence she uttered before the door slammed shut.

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In-Text Image By: https://preview.redd.it/bfs9tgygpn341.jpg?width=960&auto=webp&s=4a0f521e7635b5773c7fac30565330848481c99b

Feature Image By: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_WsE6M_RjBIY/TMz2EbaWZAI/AAAAAAAAce4/MmYOQ_61Hqg/s320/Vampire+Bat+photo+by+Barry+Mansell.jpg