Author: Tathagata Dutta
Disclaimer: If the following account bears any resemblance to real people or places it is purely coincidental.
A little stream of light began to flow in through the blinders. The morning light created strange patterns on the ceiling, the light danced around the ‘glow in stickers’ of a moon and stars. Amitav lying on his bed watched the cosmic interplay. He felt peaceful, though a little sleep deprived. He had his glasses on and his open tablet resting precariously on his chest. He couldn’t exactly recollect the last thing he was reading, only vaguely that it had something to do with land settlements in the Sunderbans. A loud beep suddenly interrupted his musings, he barely managed to utter a hoarse whisper- ‘Alexa Stop.’ Ineffectual as it was, he had to duly repeat his command preceded by some attempts at throat clearing. He knew it was past 8’o clock, not just from the alarm, but the loud throat clearing he’s usually subjected to around that time of the morning by his roommate. The roommate like Amitav was a PhD student in the same university albeit in the sciences. Amitav’s roommate maintained a strict nine to five office like work schedule. Thinking of which, the first word that popped into his mind was ‘ludicrous,’ given that a global pandemic was sweeping the world. Then he felt guilty for not being as steadfast in his commitment to his doctoral research. The sharp pangs of guilt immediately jolted him out of his bed. More like made him sit upright and reach out for his tablet and continue reading the book which he should have finished two days ago. A little while into the book, his mind and hand reached out for his cellphone. Scrolling through WhatsApp messages, Nicholas’ message- ‘Busy between 1-2 PM, come before or after,’ arrested his eyes. Nicholas was Amitav’s fellow graduate student. He was finishing his master’s degree and heading for a doctoral programme at Yale.
The government had extended the tax filing deadline to July, but Amitav wanted to finish the task by the usual yearly deadline of mid- April. This was mostly because he didn’t believe the pandemic would go away by then, more importantly he needed the tax refund- a paltry sum of about a thousand quid. Not that he was out of funds, but the university closure due to the pandemic had cost him an on-campus job. A job which brought him a few extra bucks just enough to order in a few times a week. Tax filing in the midst of a pandemic was no ordinary task. In the three years that he was in Charlestown in suburban Massachusetts he never bothered to buy a printer. Amitav knew he could walk in any part of the day or night, swipe his university card and print whatever he wanted on his department printer for free. Amitav considered it one of the perks of doing a PhD in the USA. The most trivial of things for most Americans, but something of extraordinary privilege for him. Afterall Amitav well remembered standing in a queue in front of the ‘Computer Lab’ in his undergrad college in Delhi with spare change in hand. In spite of standing for ages often enough Rakesh Bhaia, the Lab Assistant would come out and declare a lunch break just as Amitav inched towards the lab door. For some reason Rakesh Bhaia would delay his lunch breaks if Naina happened to be in the queue, so it was always judicious decision to drag her along.
The pandemic meant the department as well as all non-essential businesses like cyber cafes were closed for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the hopes of getting the tax documents printed became bleaker by the day. This is where valiant Nicholas with his home printer came to the rescue. It is because of such valiance Amitav decided to add ‘Sir’ to his name whenever he thought of him thereafter. Sir Nicholas’ house seemed like a polar expedition. Amitav decided to take his bicycle to expediate the journey. Just as he was about to keep aside his tablet and climb down from his bed, his cellphone began to buzz. A WhatsApp call from ‘Ma.’ Usually Amitav spoke leisurely with his mother, but today he had to cut her short if he wanted to reach the post office before it shuttered due to reduced working hours. All that he could exchange was the daily death toll of 4,000 in the USA and his plans of the ‘polar expedition.’
Amitav barely managed to shower but just had to skip his meal if he wanted the job done today. As he rode his cycle with a black slack bag hanging on his right, he couldn’t help noticing spring had converted ‘Boston Avenue’ into a ‘pink tunnel.’ Cherry Blossoms on both sides of the road swayed in the breeze. Amitav could see the post office just before he turned right onto the little bridge over the rail tracks on towards Sir Nicholas’ house on ‘Princeton Avenue.’ Surely enough Sir Nicholas had kept all the documents in good order and as a bonus presented Amitav with a ‘surgical face mask,’ a precious commodity in such extraordinary times. No doubt Sir Nicholas had obtained it with some dubious means, a detail that didn’t bother Amitav much. Armed with all his tax documents Amitav traced his steps back to the post office well before closing time, only to find delivery services suspended in that branch due to the pandemic. Amitav felt a little weak in the legs not just out of disappointment but also because he hadn’t eaten since last evening. Nonetheless he managed to steady his bike and slowly ride back to his house. He knew he had to grab a meal before undertaking another audacious attempt at a different post office in the Centre of Charlestown. He could now empathize with Sir Ernst Shackelton and his crew of the Endurance, who had to cross the choppy waters of the South Sea from Antarctica to the Elephant Island only to undertake another arduous journey from there to South Georgia before being rescued. This time round he decided to undertake his journey on foot given the steep bridge across the Charles river that he would need to cross. A bike ride would mean the exertion of a certain amount of energy to pedal. Amitav felt he couldn’t muster such energy as his body was out of touch with exertion given, he was cooped up in his house for several weeks due to ‘social distancing’ regulations.
Amitav walked slowly along the pavement of ‘West Street’ lined with pretty little houses. In between the neat rows of homes, the Charles peaked occasionally. This was his favourite stretch for walking. He admired as well as envied the owners of these what he thought to be ‘Palladian houses’ with riparian fronts. Slowly trudging along Amitav reached ‘South Street’ and then across the bridge into Charlestown centre. He stopped by to see empty restaurants and shops which ordinarily would bustle with people. He lingered a little extra while in front of his favourite ice cream parlour- The Coleen’s. Normally Coleen’s would be filled with children in the early hours of dusk as they paused to get an ice cream while on their way back from the Charlestown Brooks High School. Today it was completely desolate. Amitav knew his solitary walk was about to end so he made good use of the ‘face mask’ donated earlier in the day by Sir Nicholas. Just as Amitav turned right onto ‘Forest Street,’ he could see the imposing columns and grand steps of the Post Office from afar. This post office was nothing like the one near Sir Nick’s house. Amitav considered it to be extraordinarily large and grand even though it was the ‘central’ post office of Charlestown. Afterall Charlestown itself was a tiny speck of sand in comparison to Boston or Cambridge, the two premier cities of Massachusetts. Amitav noticed the street name on the sign board carefully. ‘Forest Street.’ He mused that in comparison to the practicality of ‘West Street’ and ‘South Street,’ ‘Forest Street’ in the centre of Charlestown seemed ludicrous. Maybe it was named after some rich and powerful ‘Mr. Forest.’ Maybe it was some surrealist attempt at naming a town centre street. Amitav climbed the grand steps of the Post Office and stood in a queue in front of the only counter open for the day. Hideous looking ‘red tapes’ were placed at irregular intervals on the floor. While ‘social distancing’ regulations recommended 6 feet, a mere glance was enough for Amitav to know the red tapes could not have been 3 feet apart from each other.
When his turn came Amitav through his mask and a heavy transparent plastic sheet that now hung from the counter window managed to tell the lady manning the counter that he wanted to send his tax documents to the IRS. Amitav wanted the cheapest as well as the most secure delivery option. The extraordinary life motto of Bengalis- ‘Shoshtay Pushtikar’ roughly meaning ‘the most nutritiously cheapest option’ would not apply today. He was asked to get $7.75 envelopes if he needed tracking. Amitav immediately calculated two envelopes each for federal and state tax filings would cost him $15.50. He had already spent $29.50 for the tax filing software, meaning a straight deduction of $45 from his whatever tax refund he could expect. Nonetheless with a brave heart and faint glimmer of hope for tax refunds he grabbed two envelopes from the rack beside the counter window and proceeded towards an ornate rectangular table near the French windows of the post office. Amitav was careful to bring his own pen in order to avoid touching a ticking viral time bomb- a pen kept for public utility usually chained to the table. As Amitav diligently filled out the address of the Internal Revenue Department (IRS) in some obscure place in Austin, Texas, he could feel someone hovering near him. Slyly glancing through the corner of his eyes he could see a fairly attractive young girl probably in her mid-twenties with a rather fashionable mask (at any rate more fashionable than his blue surgical mask), lingering near him. Amitav entertained no delusions of a ‘meet cute’ moment and was sure the girl probably wanted him to clear off and not share the table with him in the time of Corona. In order to not disappoint her Amitav quickly finished filling out his envelopes and rejoined the queue. Luckily enough there was just one person in front of him. A middle-aged white lady leaning against the counter and giving two heavy boxes for delivery. When his turn came Amitav handed his two envelopes and leaned on the counter waiting to swipe his credit card to complete the transaction. The lady from behind the counter suddenly in an agitated voice began to tell him to stand behind the ‘blue line.’ Startled Amitav looked at the floor and not finding any ‘blue line’ gave a perplexed look at the post office woman. This quadrupled the agitation in her voice, Amitav gave a second look and finding a ‘red tape’ walked back. This calmed the postwoman who proceeded to complete the transaction and in a matter of seconds Amitav approached the counter once again (with some trepidation in his heart) swapped his credit card. The whole farcical incident unfolding in ‘real time’ annoyed him. Amitav was in half a mind to call her ‘colour blind’ for confusing red and blue tapes on the floor. Then again, he thought the postwoman must have thought Amitav was an ‘Asian,’ even though not the right kind in this context. Afterall Amitav did have some Mongoloid features-especially a rather roundish face, probably even more accentuated by a ‘face mask.’ The term ‘colour blind’ didn’t seem appropriate for the occasion, so following age-old wisdom Amitav said ‘Thank You,’ collected his receipt and headed out.
Amitav traced his steps back through ‘Forest Street’ to the bridge on the river. He was feeling a bit tired after all the cycling and walking about half the town suddenly after staying cooped up for several weeks. The post office incident had also left a bad taste in the mouth. Halfway through the bridge he paused a little to see the yellow bright sun of a long spring day slowly turn crimson red. The woods along the river was filled with the chirping of birds returning to their nests for the evening. The geese on the river all of a sudden took flight and their quacks drowned the chirping of the other birds. The idyllic scene cheered him a bit, slowly Amitav made his way home pausing at the round of ‘West Street’ to see a little boy pedaling hard on his miniature bicycle with his ‘mum’ running behind.
Back home, after applying copious amounts of hand sanitizer, Amitav set a kettle on his kitchen stove and waited for the whistle. He then turned off the stove allowing the boiling water to simmer on the still hot stove. In the meantime, he took out a white teapot which came with a tiny steel infuser. Amitav placed exactly two tea spoonsful of green tea, (after all it was precious commodity he had acquired on his last research trip to Burma) into the infuser and poured the hot water from the kettle. Carefully placing the teapot head, he carried it to his study table in his bedroom and let the tea sit for a while. He flipped open his laptop and began to read an article by Rich Cohen in the Paris Review, which he had been meaning to read for some time now. Quite unconsciously in an automated mode he poured himself a cup of tea and began to gently sip on it as he read about hidden meaning of Stanley Kubrick films. Suddenly his cellphone beeped and saw a WhatsApp message from ‘Ma’ on the home screen. Amitav’s heart leapt a bit. It was already past five in the evening in Charlestown, which meant it must have been three in the morning in Calcutta. Amitav’s mother never texts at such an hour. With a global pandemic raging outside and a parent over sixty-five years in age, his mind immediately turned towards a crisis at home. Indeed, it was. A crisis thankfully only in the realm of dreamland. Amitav’s mother had seen a nightmare in which Amitav’s clothes had caught fire. Amitav breathed a sigh of relief and texted back- ‘I am fine Ma, just had an ordinary day…don’t worry. Goodnight.’