People known to me would never give me a buzz between 10pm and midnight. Even a couple of old flames longing for a ribald repartee would wait it out because that’s when my cognition is at full throat. That’s when the newsroom climaxes in the birth of a new edition. Every edition is like a new baby. Some would pace about the newsroom — like a soon-to-be father does outside of the delivery room — worrying if the baby would arrive on the auspicious side of the deadline, while others would grudgingly endure the pain of labour, longing to hear someone say at the end of the day: “What a cute baby!”
Newspapering is also like holding a philharmonic concert. My family knew it for 40 years, so they take it as sacrilege to disturb when the music reaches a crescendo. And yet wifey called yesterday when I was about to lay down the baton for the day and when the last note was fading into silence. A second call after I disconnected the first one baffled me more than ever.
“Did you forget I shouldn’t be disturbed when I put the baby to bed?” I blurted out.
“Baby? Whose baby? Are you babysitting in the office?”
“I meant putting the edition to bed.”
“This is also a baby issue. Neighbour Sreedhar’s baby.”
“Listen, I have nothing to do with Sreedhar’s baby.”
“Cut the crap, Suresh. They have a baby ceremony, and it’s tomorrow morning. We have been invited.”
“So, you have agreed to go? So much for your Covid etiquette.”
“They have promised to ensure social distancing.”
“So, you want me to buy a gift for the baby?”
“Don’t sweat it. I have already picked up a gift hamper. I have promised to do a couple of dishes. On the way home, pick up the stuff I have listed on WhatsApp.”
In the last four decades together, I have never witnessed such earnestness, such sincerity on her side. These are times when the mother inside her, the teacher inside her, scrambles to perform a mission, never mind whose children she is dealing with.
The rest of the day was nightmarish with yours truly — half awake, half asleep — peeling potatoes, slicing vegetables and grating coconut. Then there were cashews and raisins to fry, coconut to milk, okra to sauté, cauliflower to marinate, and a mountain of dishes to wash.
“But tell me why you take so much interest in a baby function,” I finally decided to probe.
“Oh, anything about kids interests me, darling.”
“I am game for another kid so we can make life more eventful.”
“Oh really? The body fails while the spirit shines,” she chirped, struggling to hide a blush on her cheeks.
The masked-up teddy bear on the gift wrap grinned as the flying saucer clock perched on the bookshelf chimed five. The food containers, wiped clean with sanitisers, were transferred next door while a flock of mynahs nesting in the shrubs tweeted a good morning.
“Honey, stop ruminating,” wifey said, helping me fold her sari for ironing.
“I’m just wondering what today’s function is all about. I don’t want to go there and throw in ‘Happy birthday’ instead of ‘Happy Children’s Day.”
“Sreedhar’s wife said it’s the baby’s mask-up day.”
“Are you kidding? I have heard of baptism, naming and rice-feeding ceremony etc. Even circumcision day, but certainly not mask-up day.”
“You spend your life locked in the newsroom, not knowing the wide world outside. This is one of those newfangled days the Covid pandemic has gifted the world. Your paper writes about such bizarre days like Leave the Office Early Day, Fight Procrastination Day, Hangover Day etc. Add this to the wacky list, Mr Editor.”
“May I know what’s inside the gift box?”
“A box of cloth masks with Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Spider-Man, Charlie Brown, Daffy Duck etc printed on them. Besides, there are a few bottles of baby sanitisers and a packet of designer gloves.”
“Great choice. I am flabbergasted.”
“Don’t you know that, in India, saris and churidars are packaged with matching face masks? Tragedies offer more opportunities than happy times. Tragedies harness human ingenuity.”
The air at Sreedhar’s place was thick with the heady smell of sanitisers. There’s no trace of incense, the trademark fragrance that typically permeates a south Indian home. The living room looked like a newly opened pre-school, festooned with mask-shaped bunting. Sreedhar sat on a diwan with the baby wrapped in a PPE in his lap. At the centre of a rug printed with coronavirus genomes lay a brass tray, with a pile of face masks and a cup of baby sanitiser.
After Sreedhar performed the ritual of tying a mask around the baby’s little visage, guests lined up to put a dab of sanitisers on its forehead and pray for world peace.
Walking back home, I wondered if the baby masked a whimper or a chuckle at the comedies that delineate the pandemic times. I felt jealous of a generation licensed to mask their feelings, whether grief or glee.