Diogenes at the Chemist

Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

The following story was previously posted on my other blog, Planet Bombay, where I have been chronicling life under lockdown in Mumbai, India. You can read the other posts here.

I walked to the Mehboob Studios junction this afternoon to pick up a couple of things from the chemist. The junction, usually a swirling vortex of honking traffic, lay desolate in the dense, sticky  air. The odd scooter skittered by.

There were 10 or so customers standing in a line outside the chemist, adhering vaguely to the white socially distanced squares painted on the pavement and tapping their feet impatiently. I had hoped that the line would have shortened by this hour, when the heat was at its most oppressive, but no such luck.

I joined the queue of foot-tappers, taking my place within a white square that was fully exposed to the withering noonday sun. The customer at the front of the queue seemed to be buying a year’s worth of medicines. He reeled off a long list of items and the pharmacists behind the locked glass door moved lethargically to fetch them. Finally, a stuffed paper bag was passed through a small hatch in the door and placed on a chest-high stack of crates serving as a makeshift counter. And the line shortened by one.

There was a homeless man near me, sitting in the gutter with his legs splayed, clutching a half-empty bottle of coke. He seemed to have embraced his squalid existence, like a modern-day Diogenes. His reality seemed so far removed from those of us standing in the line that I wondered if he was even aware of the unfolding public health crisis. If he was aware of it, he didn’t seem bothered by it — what is Covid-19 but one more existential threat in a life that must surely be full of them?

The people ahead of me in the line fidgeted and fanned themselves. One man tucked his mask under his chin to wipe away the perspiration that had accumulated beneath the gauze.

A scooter pulled up where I was standing, the front wheel stopping just shy of my white square. This is what it is to be a pedestrian in Mumbai — there’s always some halfwit on a two-wheeler encroaching unnecessarily on your space. They even mount pavements during rush hour if there are no bollards to stop them. What is it about motor vehicles that makes their drivers act with complete disregard for everyone else on the street? I wondered.

Disgruntled, I stepped to one side to increase the distance between myself and the numpty on the scooter. But in the next instant the fellow was leaning over his handlebars, waving a banana in my face. Do I look as though I have a potassium deficiency or something? I thought. But the fruit was not for me. It was to be passed on to Diogenes, sprawled out in the gutter next to me.

I hesitated briefly, wary of any form of contact with strangers while a deadly virus was sweeping through the city, but I somehow didn’t feel like I had a choice. The old man took the banana indifferently, muttering something unintelligible. The scooter rider took off, presumably to carry out other low-key acts of philanthropy, and I immediately felt ashamed for having judged him too quickly.  

Minutes later the old man had scrambled to his feet and was shouting at some ragged kids who were begging at the front of the line, unleashing a string of unrepeatable Hindi obscenities. Perhaps the kids had provoked him somehow and he was simply retaliating. Nevertheless, the man was living up to the Diogenes comparison — the famously irreverent Athenian Cynic was not one to mince his words, once even insulting Alexander the Great to his face.

The customers in the line turned in unison to see what the ruckus was all about and immediately went back to their foot tapping. Just another madman acting up. Just another unfortunate soul who’d slipped through the cracks of society.

The cantankerous old man shuffled up to the door of the chemist, scorning the orderly queue and the carefully marked-out squares. He fished some coins out of a pocket and said something in Hindi to the shop assistant standing there. The assistant, like the queuing customers, initially ignored him. But the old man persisted and, either out of compassion or a desire to get rid of him, the assistant took his coins, handed them to the pharmacist on the other side of the glass and, moments later, passed a small bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate to the old man. Seemingly placated, the old man wandered off with his coke bottle, his banana and his chocolate bar.

Gradually I got closer to the front of the line, until there was just one man ahead of me — a grizzled, bespectacled man with the accent and laid-back demeanour of a Goan. He was enquiring in English about enemas and anal suppositories but the pharmacist didn’t seem to understand him. He repeated himself calmly and slowly until those of us within earshot were well acquainted with the particulars of his medical complaint. While the pharmacists prepared his prescription, I thought about the indignities that biology inflicts upon human beings as they age.

When I got to the front of the line I unthinkingly rested my elbows on the stack of crates before recoiling in horror at the thought of all the other elbows that must have touched it before me. I was never this obsessive-compulsive about hygiene before the pandemic. I was always blasé about purchasing vada pav and samosas from bare-handed street vendors or dining in cheap dosa joints where fat flies bob around in the turbulence of grimy ceiling fans and the tabletops reek of the greasy cloth used to wipe them down. Now I see the possibility — no, the inevitability — of contagion on almost every surface I encounter outside my own home.

As I was paying my bill I caught sight of hand sanitizer bottles through the glass and decided I ought to pick up a couple.

Then I headed home pondering the absurdities of life. The gate of the film studio across the road was shut — I wondered when we’d next see trailers with tinted windows rocking up or glitterati in glacé shoes gathering for a wrap party.

One of the kids, mistaking me for an American, asked me for a dollar. I noticed that the woman who used to sit every day with her disabled son by the paan seller’s kiosk was nowhere to be seen.

A statue on the Mehboob Studios roundabout.

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