August 31 will have King Mahabali, fondly called Maveli visiting his favorite subjects of his erstwhile kingdom Kerala, the southern Indian state this year. Kerala celebrates Onam, her harvest festival on that day. It is the practice of the once erudite, fair and efficient king to visit his subjects on Onam from the ‘other world’. He ordered his customary palanquin readied for the journey. He found his bearers uncharacteristically reluctant to carry out his orders. They explained something was amiss in Kerala. People weren’t allowed close proximity. This ruled out the bearer-operated palanquin.
The next best option was a cab. Public transport would deny the king privacy. This year he decided to carry his umbrella paying heed to his queen’s advice, unlike the two preceding years. He was drenched to his bone in the heavy rains of 2018 and 2019.He paid the price. He was down with pneumonia on his return last year. This year he chose discretion over valor. Tucking his umbrella under his armpit, he climbed into the cab. Something he wasn’t used to. He missed his palanquin on which he used to lounge on. He wanted to ride shotgun, but was politely ordered by the driver to the backseat. The driver looked askance at the ornamentally embellished passenger by adjusting the rearview mirror. The king strange to questions gave his details to the driver who crosschecked with the copy of his Aadhar card his office had already furnished to the cab-operator. The king was amused at a transparent barrier that separated him and the driver. The insignia on the barrier read ‘break the chain’. Very soon, the driver handed his passenger a mask. The passenger who resembled a well-nourished Sumo wrestler on his way to a fancy-dress competition than to the wrestling mat looked bemused at the ‘piece of cloth’ the driver gave him. The driver sensing his customer’s reluctance to don it begged him to use it. Noncompliance would invite imprisonment and/or heavy fine once in Kerala, he pleaded. The king unused to taking orders donned it reluctantly.
Almost reflexly, the driver requested the passenger to receive a liquid from a plastic container in the hollow of his palms. The king’s amusement grew. As directed by the driver, he spread the faintly pink-colored solution with pungent odor on his hands from which it evaporated instantaneously. Letting the weirdness sink in, the king dozed off as the driver finally got down to the job he was supposed to do- drive. The driver was thankful to the mask as it considerably muffled the snores from the backseat. The king was woken up from his deep slumber as the cab was thrown about on the pothole-ridden roads. He imagined he was driving on horseback! His dislodged crown lay at his feet, next to the umbrella, to where it was also thrown. He realized he had reached Kerala. He recalled the terrible condition of Kerala’s roads from his two previous visits. Destructive monsoons had practically tilled the roads badly. Woken up from deep slumber, he looked through the doors. He was dumbstruck to behold his subjects wearing masks just like himself. All of them. The police, shopkeepers, shoppers, and tiny tots. Masks obscured the beauty of the women his kingdom was famous for. That broke his heart. A keen observer, he noticed the usual gaiety he used to behold in his kingdom missing. His once favorite temple- the Padmanabhaswamy temple he used to pray in when in the capital city was found locked. ‘No entry’ boards hung from surrounding barricades.
He became distraught. What had happened to his kingdom? The previous two visits weren’t happy ones either. Floods had wrecked mayhem. Many subjects were killed and rendered homeless. But outside the car the sun shone brightly. Small puddles of water on the roadsides spoke of a kinder monsoon this year.
He was hungry. He badly needed to eat. The queen had prepared a light breakfast considering the long journey ahead of him. At least a lime juice the capital city was famous for would suffice. Moreover, hypoglycemia from medicines for diabetes was beginning to bother him. He tapped on the barrier to alert the driver to whom he gesticulated about his rumbling empty stomach. The driver, himself famished parked before a tiny eating place. The place wasn’t good enough for a king! His passenger decided. His reluctance had the driver explain that no decent hotel functioned these days in Kerala. One might have food parceled from these dingy ‘eateries’. ‘No sadhya (the elaborate vegetarian meal served and eaten from banana leaves on Onam) then?’ he asked the driver who smirked. The king concerned about hypoglycemia decided to settle for parceled food. He walked to the tiny unkempt ‘eating place’ where flies and stench from ‘neath a broken ‘sidewalk’ welcomed him. He ignored his subjects’ stares from above their masks. He ordered for his favorite lime juice and had snacks parceled, which he relished inside the car with a grateful and hungry driver. Reasonably satiated they headed for the palace. Flower traders who used to throng the city around this time were missing. Passing before the Medical College, he noticed people wearing strange outfits emerge from the gates. They looked swathed entirely in white. Instead of footwear they had their feet covered in blue plastic. They had masks on of course! And goggles too.
Once nestled in the comfort of the cozy ‘king-only’ room in the palace, his orderlies recounted to him the gory tale of a viral pandemic that was killing and infecting his subjects. The cause for his dispirited kingdom dawned on him.
Livid with anger and distress, He hollered ‘if only I had my army, I would’ve attacked china’. Recognizing his indignant customer, the driver left in a huff without collecting his fare.