by AMITA BASU
Apr 15. Day 24 of India’s lockdown.
I embark for the fish-shop. Saleem’s phoned: he’s stocked rahu. We’ve spent weeks conserving groceries. Yesterday, the P.M. extended the lockdown till May 3 rd . A bleak prospect. Fish curry will fortify us. In the balmy midmorning, I stroll down streets
Bleak? Not for us. Nationwide, millions of migrant workers are stuck hundreds of
miles from home. Jobless. Public transport suspended, they’re walking cross-country. In
COVID-19 hotspots, police are brutalizing citizens out to buy rice. Medicines.
Here, in Bangalore’s suburbs, enforcement is weak. Juhi and I work all year in
different cities. Now we work, lunch, play checkers at one desk. A vacation.
Here’s the fish-shop.
A couple in ice-blue jeans, silk kurtas, and sunhats turn to glare. I understand: they’re
policing social distancing. I await my turn outside. Fingering their PM-95 masks for a perfect seal, they turn away.
Across India, outside shops, shopkeepers have chalked squares, six feet apart, for
customers to queue. No squares here. This fish-shop is tiny, its surroundings unpaved earth.
I know this couple. In Nike Airs and high-tech tracksuits, they walk every morning,
lakeside, their panting, snorting pugs.
The Sharmas. Utkarsh and Nikita. Everyone knows them.
“Basa, you have?” says Utkarsh, simplifying his English – Saleem’s illiterate. Also
shouting – though Saleem’s not deaf. Or is he shouting to break through the muffle of his mask?
“Yes, fresh basa!” From the small cooler, Saleem produces a lissome pink-finned
beauty. Its scales, in the sun, glitter million-silver.
“One kilo. Make Bengali cut,” Utkarsh instructs. “No back-pieces!” meaning the
fish’s dorsal side, with its bones hair-thin, steel-sharp.
“Back-pieces hard to eat,” Nikita explains.
Smiling, Saleem hands the fish to his sons at the worktable. The fish-shop is poor,
but the neighborhood has gentrified. Saleem’s intimate with the whims of the wealthy.
Eleven-year-old Hasan scales the fish with a wooden brush. Broad-faced, blade-
studded. Then fifteen-year-old Ali guts, cleans, and slices the fish. “Bengali cut,” repeats
Utkarsh, peering, ten feet away. Ali nods.
Over Utkarsh’s shoulders, beneath the counter, I espy a cat. White, stunted,
emaciated. Belly up on the gray stone floor. Playing with Salim’s black rubber slippers.
She’s starving. How does she lie there, playing? Perhaps the slippers feel chew like
I’ve not seen this cat. She, too, must be a migrant. Used to haunt another, bigger
fish-shop. With big shops shut, streets empty, rubbish-dumps picked clean – India’s vast
population of stray animals is also on the move. Desperate.
“Shop open all day?” Nikita interrogates Khadija.
Behind the counter, Khadija, leather-faced, looks up from basket-weaving. Her side-
hustle. Alone in the family, at the cash-drawer, Khadija keeps fish-free.
“No ma’am. Four hours only,” returns Khadija. “We follow government
“Bet they do,” Utkarsh mutters, “With nobody to enforce them.”
“You should follow instructions,” insists Nikita. “Four hours only, yes? Everyone
should come morning only. Like us. Then you close. Then everyone stays safe!”
Khadija nods vehemently. Smiling, she remarks in Kannada: “After Their Majesties
have transacted their business, everyone should shut up shop and go starve. For their safety!”
Saleem smiles at Khadija, then affably at Utkarsh and Nikita. They, not
understanding a word, smile back. These Indians speak only English.
The white cat rises, stretches, and walks into the back-room. Behind dingy curtains,
half-drawn, four cots lie pushed together. Under motley bedsheets also dingy. Here, under the hot tin roof where we stand sweating, the family eats and sleeps.
Up the empty road, in kurta and dhoti once white, eyes bloodshot, shuffles an old
man. Leaning on a stick, right forearm extended. Seeing us, he jingles the heap of small
change in his outstretched palm.
“Why can’t they put beggars somewhere inside,” Nikita wonders. “Feed them. Just
walking about, spreading disease. This is why the lockdown was extended. Here!” Ten
meters away, she throws a coin. Stiff-kneed, the beggar stoops, groping in the dust.
My blood boils. I hand the beggar the two packets of biscuits I carry for street dogs.
The couple’s disapproving gaze pierces me. “He’s not even wearing a mask,” Nikita calls at me.
“Surely he can afford a mask?” says Utkarsh. “Those cheap black ones? How much
can those cost? Ten, twenty rupees?”
I’ve had it with their policing. I approach the fish-cooler to select my rahu.
“Utkarsh,” Nikita murmurs, “Let’s find another fish-shop. These Muslims…” She
eyes me. Checks if I’m Muslim. “Everyone’s saying they spread COVID deliberately.
Congregating in mosques. And just look how they live!”
I tune them out. I watch Ali gut the basa in one dexterous motion. Hasan’s scaling
Saleem reemerges. From the bedroom, milk-bottle in right hand, infant on left arm.
Looking up, he catches me staring. “My sister’s,” he explains. “What a time to be
born!” He laughs at the cat, tugging at his trouser-hems. “This unfortunate has also just
entered our lives.”
Violently she tugs. Has hunger maddened her? “Enough,” murmurs Saleem.
She stops. She meows.
“Yes, Monkey,” says Saleem. “Soon. Have this, meanwhile.” His foot shoves
forward a bowl on the floor. He squirts down some milk. The cat drinks.
Setting aside the basa’s back-cuts, Ali plastic-bags the rest. Will the back-cuts go to
another customer, discounted? Or into the family’s pot?
Saleem weighs the basa. “Rs. 240.”
“PayTM?” asks Utkarsh, iPhone in hand.
Muttering, Utkarsh pays Khadija. Receives his change with gloved fingertips. Sprays
the notes. Utkarsh and Nikita leave.
Whistling, Ali throws a slice of back-cut. The cat catches it mid-air.
I watch Utkarsh and Nikita stroll away. “Selfish idiots.”
Basket-weaving, Khadija laughs. “There’s a saying, sir. ‘People are as stupid as life
lets them be.’ When there’re floods, potatoes are pricier. Rich people don’t notice. They
don’t eat potatoes. They eat fruit from Australia. A neighbor moves. They don’t notice.
Their neighbor didn’t babysit for them – or steal from them. We notice. Our survival, at the best of times, depends on neighbors. On strangers.”
Awaiting my rahu, I watch the cat eat. Emaciated – but maneuvering, around the
deadly bones, gracefully.
Amita Basu is a graduate student of cognitive science. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Fearsome Critters, Potato Soup Journal, Gasher, Star 82 Review, Proem, St. Katherine Review, Entropy, Muse India, Dove Tales, Novel Noctule, and The Right-Eyed Deer. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Curious Reader, Qrius, Deccan Herald, Countercurrents, and Parent Edge. She has finished a collection of literary short stories, and is working on a mystery novel about art. She lives in Bangalore, India. Some of her published writing is at https://amitabasu.wordpress.com/home