Spooked in the times of coronavirus


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Usually I write ‘spooky’ stuff for Halloween however it turns out that there is ghostly business happening all the time, and even now, the viral trance of quarantine has probably pulled away the veil that usually keeps ‘spirits’ at bay.

My mother looked a little bewildered the other day, her chilled whisper reached my ears, “Guess what, I found that clump of hair again!” Ever since the lockdown in India, she has been sweeping the house herself as the maid was asked not to come in. And each time she cleaned she would find a handful of hair which apparently weren’t hers as she has short hair nor could it be my father’s. “The windows are all netted, so from where did these long, salt and pepper hair come,” she quipped.

Initially she didn’t think much of it. With all the garbage the grey hair went to the pail for the sweeper to collect. She mops the entire house with soapy water peering down to see if she could see her reflection on the floor! After two days (one being her backache day and the other, her ‘indulgence day’) she was back to her cleaning spree. There it lay, all curled up in a corner, the tuft of hair. She allowed another couple of days to sail by before she found more hair. Now she set aside the broom and wondered about this strange happening. “Thinking” has a certain spiral-set way with flashbacks and zooming forwards.

This period of lockdown has had strange effects on us. It has manoeuvred the mundane clutter off our heads and has brought to the surface slices of conversations that we had relegated to the garbage bag in our brains. My mother remembered a tête-à-tête she had with a neighbour many years back when we had moved into this house. Where this building stands today, there was a villa.

A lawyer lived there with his family. An elderly couple and a daughter with special needs. One fine day a real estate dealer came into their lives, trying to persuade them to vacate the place. Unfortunately, a few days later the old lawyer passed away leaving behind the widow — Mrs. Banerjee and the daughter. The old lady could be seen sitting on her rocking chair, in the balcony and combing her curly, long, salt and pepper hair after lunch.

It was a matter of days before the cunning, real estate agent managed to force Mrs. Banerjee out of the house, much against her wishes. However, her heart remained in the dwelling where she experienced many happy years of her life. The neighbour had told my mother about the old lady’s hair, lying around in her house. At that time, she had laughed it off as an old wives’ tale. But now the words had come back to haunt her.

“A house snatched away thus; will it not bring the spirit back? ‘it might have been sold away, but it will always remain hers,” said my mother. Thus, there she is quarantining with a ghost.

There have been stories doing the rounds in USA how for many people the lockdown has been less isolating than expected. Spectral housemates have been giving them company, with strange antics. There have been tales of creaky staircases, lights turning on and off themselves, sighting of a white man in his 50s, wearing a well-worn, Second World War-era military uniform and cap sitting at the table in an Airbnb lodging, who disappeared in a jiffy. Probably it has something to do with our heightened state of anxiety, our hyper-vigilance due to the pandemic.

An apparition of an old man, in a white flowing gown and long, grey beard, scares the day lights out of ‘covidiots’ who venture out, in Kemaman, Malaysia. It is actually Muhammad Urabil Alias, who patrols his village to keep social distancing intact, capitalising on the superstitious nature of the locals. Kepuh village, on Java Island, started deploying guards dressed as “pocongs” at night to make sure that people stayed indoors. In Indonesian folklore, these ghostly figures are said to represent the trapped souls of the dead.

Thus, ghosts are not only spicing up days spent in quarantine but they are also helping in containing COVID infection in certain communities. I wonder what it would be like if a ghost played host to the coronavirus … well, that would be another story altogether!

— Navanita Varadpande is a writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @navanitavp.

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