Amazon Trickles into the Barak
Covid-19 crept in, picked things up at the Southern California community college where I work, and turned it all upside down. First, a professional-development day was “repurposed” to prepare professors for the “possibility of remote teaching.” Next, we moved classes online—all but those that couldn’t be offered in a virtual environment, like dance or volleyball. But the deadly virus that looks like a cutesy pincushion delivered an unlikely gift. The college discovered it could be innovative (a word educational institutions have flailed beyond recognition but now found themselves in actual need of) and refashion even dance and volleyball for the digital ether. Public communications were—are—my responsibility.
Through days of ceaseless work, I had not once considered my parents’ situation in rural Assam, India. They live in a village along the Barak River, which has its source in the land of our ancestors, Manipur, and exits Assam at the border with Bangladesh. I remember I was sitting on the toilet in my Santa Monica home when an alert popped up on my iPhone—yes, I am one of those—and the cold hand of fear grabbed me. I read the article once. Twice. Then I couldn’t.
It was March 21, and the Los Angeles Times headline read: “Experts fear India will be the next coronavirus hotspot.” Seven thousand eight hundred seventy-eight miles away were my parents: my father whose eightieth birthday this year I will most likely miss and who made me kites every year as soon as our paddy fields were shorn of grain, my mother who cut her hair short like a man even though the other village women laughed at her and who, in order to support us, raised ducks, fished, made pickles for sale, tailored clothes during Durga Puja, and established a little English-medium school in a Muslim village a few miles away from ours, which was predominantly Hindu. I attended this school from the year it was established, 1987. I was three. She carried me there every morning, strapped onto her back; if the bus was too full—anyone who has traveled in India knows its people possess a superhuman capacity to make room where there is none—she would sit right on the step. Or so she’s told me.
I moved to a different state to attend college, and emigrated to the U.S. after I married an American. When I left that village—with its leprous road; its standpipes at the head of each lane, delivering treated water in the morning and evening; the women who called my mother “man-acting”; the brown Barak, which shed its plain turbid face to become a creature of majesty at dusk; the Shri Krishna temple next door, whose bhajan singers, at least one inevitably off-key, woke you up too early; the Bengali shop in front of the police officer’s residence, which had introduced packaged snacks like Little Hearts biscuits—I thought I would never want to return. But that day in late March, on the toilet, I wanted some goddess to swoop down from the too-perfect Southern California skies, strap me onto her back, and fly me home.
A couple of days later, when I had calmed down somewhat, I called my parents. They were on “total lockdown” for twenty-one days, thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, about whom they are warmly complimentary, with the air of children being asked about their parents when Mummy and Papa are listening from behind a moth-eaten curtain. (The lockdown, set to expire on April 14th, has since been extended to May 3rd). Baba said Modi had asked them to applaud, to make some noise for health and sanitation workers; he’d gotten out a stainless-steel plate and banged on it with a ladle. When I had malaria as a child, my parents nursed me at home, the nearest hospital back then almost an hour away by bus. I still remember my mother crying, forcing quinine down my throat, holding me through the terrible chills; if I had died then, my final memory would have been my happiest.
I wanted to remind Baba there were no health or sanitation workers in the village to applaud. . . but I let it pass.
“What about food, Baba?” I asked. “Do you have enough food?” They had rice from their paddy fields, he said, and some vegetables; Mama had just gone fishing in the little pond and caught ngamu—snakehead, mudfish—and they made a fine curry out of it. I read recently that in the mythology of my people—the Meitei-Manipuris—when the Supreme God asked his son to create man, the first result was ngamu (the Supreme God was not exactly satisfied).
I did not want to bring up the L.A. Times article. I said I was just “checking up” because I’d “heard about coronavirus in India.” But my father has a tendency to ramble when he wants to distract you—or, I suspect, himself. He told me about the weather (very hot and humid, waiting for rain, which had been sporadic compared to years past); a neighbor’s husband dying (of cancer); and the state of his dog, whose name is spelled Bony but is pronounced, for some inexplicable reason, Bonnie (the poor long-haired creature has a skin disease). That’s when I dropped it, seized by who knows what demon.
“I read this article,” I said, “and they said India could be the next Italy, or China. And do you know there is only one hospital bed for every 2,000 people?”
That last bit was not just completely unnecessary, it was in poor taste, considering that if my parents were to get Covid-19 and need hospitalization, there would be no place in the village to treat them.
Have I mentioned that, as I was talking to Baba, I was walking the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood—still free to get outdoor exercise under Los Angeles County’s “Safer at Home” orders? At the end of the walk, I would stop at the mom-and-pop down the block, look over their fruits and fresh-baked breads, and, thanks to my Kafkaesque job, be able to buy whatever my eyes, then my belly, settled on.
Baba went silent. I said I loved him and to be safe.
“We are in the village,” he said.
For the first time in my life, I was thankful for that obscure village in India’s neglected northeast, which had never attracted visitors beyond missionaries and traders of petroleum, chilies, coconuts, timber, pineapples, and tea. I was thankful that the Barak would bring only fishermen and boatmen, not tourists. If my parents would be safe from catching the novel coronavirus anywhere in India, that haven would be Khunow.
Then my mother got on the line; I received another pile of rambling. Out of nowhere, she dropped a gem. “Do you know,” she said, “we now have Amazon coming to the village?”
She made Amazon sound cute, pronouncing it Emma-John. We were speaking in Meitelon, my mother tongue.
“How do they find the right address?” I asked. In my childhood, we were the only family in the village to own a mailbox. Baba had painted it to match the green gate, and a madwoman, now and then, filled it with stones and love letters.
“All getting very advanced these days,” was the reply. Fair enough.
So, reader, what did I do that night but the most American thing possible? I climbed underneath my Cost Plus World Market quilt (from India), and on my constant companion, my surely-by-now unsanitary iPhone, went to Amazon India.com. For the half hour it took me to select the treats I would ship to my parents—crunchy peanut butter, Horlicks, cashew nuts, raisins, tea biscuits—the pandemic fell out of view. Instead I imagined the looks on my parents’ faces when they got the box and my father ripped it open with a sturdy country knife.
It wasn’t until I reached the point of entering the address that I believed it might be possible. I’d asked a brother-in-law to send the information via WhatsApp. There are no house numbers or identifiers in the village. There is just that one road, and dirt lane after dirt lane splitting away from it, houses clustered around each of them in no particular pattern. Amazon included a field for me to give a “landmark” (“Opposite the electricity office”). Another for the name of a neighbor who might hold the package. Yet another for a narrative description (“Walk down lane opposite electricity office; take left turn . . .”). I waited for confirmation. And when it came, saying my parents would be getting all that food on April 22nd, I wanted to fall at the feet of the goddess Amazon and worship her.
It has been three weeks since. Tonight, I logged on to the Amazon India site. They report that due to Covid-19, as of April 8th, they are “prioritizing delivering existing orders . . . in select pin codes of certain cities.” The nearest of these, Kolkata, is 829 miles from my village.
Who was I to think I could buy peace?
Tomorrow I ought to call my parents again. I will ask if my mother has gone fishing lately, and did she catch more ngamu. I will let them ramble all they want, and try to forget that my father, who has a mole on his nose where a naseeka would go, will be eighty this year.
April 8, 2020
As of the date of publication, Amazon India has yet to deliver packages to the author’s native village.