By Moutushi Ghoshdeysarkar
There was flu in the air. Mohit and Anil had both caught it. Though nothing severe, it was a new experience for the young men, unaccustomed to the Bangalore weather.
The furnished apartment that they had chosen to put up in near their office had plenty of scope for the elements to pass through. The sun kissed balconies were also windswept and they were even allowed into the bedrooms and hall and the open kitchen.
It had been about 2 months since the duo got selected through campus and had more or less settled up a comfortable abode for themselves, a home away from home. Anil was in charge, being adept in the nuances of the household.
Mohit was cherishing the realisation of a childhood dream, a pet. His mom a strictly religious disciplinarian had never allowed indulgence in such thoughts. He had spoken about it to Anil, his childhood friend, and they were on the lookout all set to become a proud pet parent, it would be a puppy to begin with.
Anil was in the shower so Mohit received the rather unnerving call, it was Anil’s mom; she broke down as she narrated the incidents of the previous night; Anil’s father was hit by a coronary attack and he had been hospitalized. Anil left by the evening flight and reached Kolkata by night fall.
Mohit stood there in the wide hall overlooking the kitchen, perplexed. He managed tea but cooking… Anil was an accomplished chef having won several accolades for his culinary skills and Mohit being a good assistant, they were rather enjoying cooking together. But left alone Mohit didn’t know where to start.
The maid helped in setting up a cook for Mohit, he managed with Maggi noodles for the day hoping for a better tomorrow. That evening, on 24th March 2020 at 8pm, the PM addressed the nation and announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days.
Mohit was flabbergasted! Anil was online; possibly for the longest ever chat they had since grade 5. His father was doing well and Anil had plans of being back within a week, but now it was going to be an indefinite stay over. Life changed overnight. Office shifted home, home was where work was, all kinds… if one was residing alone, he/she had to be the lone warrior defending the fortress!
People managed, so did Mohit, with google and youtube and of course phone calls. His mom was especially worried, she had never dreamed in her wildest dreams that Mohit would have to face such a situation and had not prepared him for thus in the slightest way.
It was over a virtual office meeting that he met Sheena. He was sitting with his back to the balcony that overlooked the tennis court. She was quick to ask if he resided in Block A… as he nodded with a surprised look she mentioned that she resided in the same block, a floor above in all probability. It turned out to be exactly so when the flat numbers were exchanged.
They spoke over a private chat window after the meeting. She offered to help and he grabbed the offer, they planned to meet by the tennis court after office. The initial days of the first phase of lockdown allowed people to get together outside and children to play. Sheena and Mohit walked around the well maintained pathway beside the manicured lawns intercepted with ornate gardens, they had a long chat starting with office and moving on to the details of his household management challenges.
On a spree she invited him for dinner and he agreed. At about 9.30pm Mohit appeared at the flat, just above his and knocked. The door opened, he stepped in and faced a girl, not Sheena but much younger, even before he had a chance to introduce himself she started blasting him. Mohit was somehow amused by this young person and thought of her as the personification of the word ‘grumpy’.
After she had spoken her mind, ‘grumpy’ showed him in and made him sit on the sofa. She stomped off giving him a final look turning her long neck before disappearing from vicinity. Almost simultaneously Sheena arrived, all apologetic and welcoming.
Mohit was so contented with the delicious food that he almost fell in love with Sheena, or he thought he did. They spoke of many things… sports, weather, the pandemic… mostly generic and it wasn’t until he was leaving that he reflected ‘grumpy’ being absent the whole time, she didn’t even join them for dinner.
Sheena was in his thoughts as he prepared for bed, it had been a rather beautiful day and it was all because of the chance meeting. He tucked himself in with the thriller he had been reading, Agatha Christie was still his favourite, he kept going back to her novels even after devouring numerous new writers.
He sat up sweating, he fumbled for the phone, and the screen showed 3pm. Mohit had had the most extraordinary dream. A girl was sitting on his chest and throttling him in his sleep, he opened his eyes and saw ‘grumpy’! It was most unsettling. He got up, visited the washroom, paced around for a while and sat up the rest of the night, occasionally flipping through the pages of the novel absent minded.
Hello dear readers, I have initiated you into a story from a long gone era, the year ‘2020’. This, my friends is 2090 and I am Enhanced Emotion Efficient Protocol Officer (E3PO) Geneva 458279-89, though everyone around here calls me Crogy as mom had named me when I first came into this home. Yes I am a Cyborg, a household essential these days.
I stay with Neel; he is Mohit’s grandson from his one and only daughter Mishka, whom Neel and I call mom.
Interruption, a call is coming through.
I had to take the call from the CDC  while Neel was taking bath; he has told me to take calls from specific numbers in case he was not available to take them. A female voice informed that she will be deeply indebted to Neel if he could attend a conference call arranged by CDC to bring experts across the world together and share their views about tackling this fungus that is threatening to wreck havoc.
Neel is a renowned molecular biologist. I am Neel’s secretary cum manager. Apart from being artificially intelligent enough to take care of the household I have also been programmed with ‘continual learning’ that helps me to comprehend human emotions, some of them which are straight forward have been preloaded, like the gesture of laugh is happy, tears dropping is sad, well in most cases.
Mom had asked me to capture human emotions that are happening around me, in Neel’s life, also what had come to pass in his ancestor’s life to get a better cognitive experience, by documenting them. It could act as a reference for the future instances and assist me in learning better. I am onto it and thus is underway a written narration as you are reading now.
Neel was there when mom gave me the advice. He laughed out loud and said, “Would you not spare the poor robot too?” Mom gave him an angry look. “All this is because I made you write. You ingrate!” mom said showing her teeth and making a chattering gesture. Neel hugged her and gave her a tight kiss. This is love I learned.
I told Neel about the call and he readily agreed. In fact he was discussing with me at breakfast along with assumptions about ‘Blue’ which I found irrational, that he might have a solution for the containment of this yeast which causes the fungal infection.
It is as if a Godzilla has awakened from a deep slumber. This yeast is ancient; the first strains were found in 1996, isolates collected in 2006 and then in the ear of a 70 years old lady, the first patient identified in 2009 in Japan and thus its name Candida Auris, ‘Auris’ is Latin for ear but in reality the yeast can affect many parts of the body and can cause invasive infections like bloodstream infections and wound infections.
Neel was wearing a white t-shirt and a black quarter pant, which I found, was making him look bright. Earlier he would just pick up whatever was stacked on top without noticing the colours. Finding his trend I started stacking up the other-way round that is put the clothes that came fresh from washing at the bottom of the stack. But off late he has become conscious of his appearance; he matches his clothes, combs his hair and I find him grinning at the mirror often. It all started with ‘Blue’ two weeks back.
An introvert by nature, Neel loves his solitude and yet he is outspoken, doesn’t shy away from talking to strangers and has the quintessential funny bone that could throw a group into fits of laughter. He has a large build with broad shoulders, a wheatish complexion and a face that looks friendly. I can’t decipher handsome or beautiful yet and I have not had a conversation with anybody regarding this particular human attribute. May be I’ll ask mom if we can call Neel handsome.
The annual convocation for the PHD students was two weeks back. Neel came back late from the university and started talking about a girl in blue dress. The only significant fact that I could capture from his incessant blabbering was that she was talking to a group of people about ‘zoonotic viruses’, the kind that caused the pandemic in 2020. It was called COVID-19.
She neither spoke to Neel, nor does he know anything about her. I felt the need to name her, owning to the number of times she propped up in the conversations ever since and the way Neel had to struggle to mention his weird assumptions about her every time starting with, “You remember the girl in the blue dress?” She wore a blue dress so I called her ‘Blue’.
I picked a knack for naming things and people and everything from mom. In fact I named our African grey parrot, who came to the house a few months after me, as ‘Impedimenta’ from the classic comics Asterix and Obelix cause she is big, fat and talks and talks and talks. But so does Neel these days!
He asked me to get ‘something to eat’, which I have learned, invariably meant a stuffed sandwich and a black coffee. Once I had served he said I should also chomp on some power and get some sleep with a wink, that I have learned, is supposed to be funny, and I made the customary sound “ha ha ha.”
I had a few chores to look into and then I went on to tend to the garden sprawling around our house. We live away from the city and his university to dwell in the old fashioned way that Neel loved. Thus our abode is different from the housing systems that dominate the cityscape. I have been to the city with Neel. The skyscrapers are so tall that they look like the beanstalks that Jack planted.
Wonder how I know about ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’? I take in data feeds from the Internet to expedite my learning. I have been reading the literary classics, the famous thrillers, historical fictions, facts and romantic novels; a long way to go though, after all ‘am only a year old, wink wink!
The meeting that CDC had called, as mentioned earlier was about to start when I came to see if Neel needed something. It was a ‘dramatic moment’ if I am getting the proper phrase, I walked in; Neel looked at the projected screen and rushed out as if he has seen a ghost almost toppling me over.
He suddenly disappeared and came back in a light blue t-shirt and dark blue denim full pants, took a turn and asked, “How do I look?” “Not again!!!”, I thought but quickly mentioned, “Nice!” I have learned that it is customary to say that one is looking good when they ask that question.
Neel asked me to stay back and sit through the session. I did so and it was quite interesting. There were 16 people from various walks of life and different countries; 7 ladies and 9 gentlemen excluding Neel. There were also a couple of other people who were assisting these 16 delegates with notes or references from time to time. The session went well with conclusive decisions being taken and a four step policy agreed upon to be implemented.
Neel was granted permission to use his laboratory at the university, which was otherwise closed due to the fungal invasion; a couple of other people would also assist him some of whom were present in the session. He was matching the expression – ‘glowing and blushing’, he must be too happy to work I figured.
Molecular biologists help in understanding formations, actions and regulations of various parts of cells. It is the study of molecular underpinnings of the processes of replication, transcription, translation, and cell function. The central principal or set of principals is an explanation of the flow of genetic information within a biological system, first stated by Francis Crick in 1957 and restated in Nature magazine in 1970. I have read it all, to understand Neel more than the principal.
Once the goodbyes were done Neel started jumping and hugged me and said he will make coffee for us. I insisted on bringing the coffee but he ruled out stubbornly, “You come along brother, we have things to discuss.” I tagged along. He asked the coffee maker for a ‘cafe au lait’ and cleared his throat.
“Crogy, do you think she noticed me?”
It was what they say ‘a bolt from the blue’. “Who noticed you?” I said expressing wonder. “That girl in the pink dress, Crogy! She was assisting Dr. Matheus.” He said excitedly and looked at me expectantly. I just stood there; I didn’t have an answer because I didn’t notice anybody noticing Neel, least of all a girl in pink dress! But I didn’t need to have an answer as he just continued speaking as in a monologue and let me tell you it had nothing to do with his work.
So now it was a girl in pink dress! This is beyond my neurons. First the girl in the blue dress whom I named Blue, now the girl in the pink dress, what should I name her? Going by the same logic, Pink! But I do know a little more about her, as I have seen her. I checked my recordings and it says that she has a big frame, upright demeanour and she maintained a calm facial expression, her lips were a matching pink with her dress, and her nose looked longer than that of an average human being. But still, let her be called ‘Pink’ as opposed to ‘Bigframe’ or ‘Longnose’!
Hoping against hope I assured myself that all will be settled by morning and Neel will forget girls in different dresses and focus on the work in hand as I am used to seeing him, it is a crisis situation after all if not a worldwide lockdown and people are counting on him!
We do not have a worldwide lockdown per say, like it happened in 2020, 2035, 2047 and 2059. In 2059 an alien organism from one of Saturn’s moons drove humanity to the point of extinction. Even after numerous science fiction movies dealing with the subject of alien invasion of various kinds, humans were not prepared to face what came from the space; actually a space station.
Astronauts had landed on the moon and collected samples. One of the samples could not be contained. It was a highly reactive substance hitherto unknown to humans and it was alive. It destroyed the space station and its crew. A year later a robo-crew went to check on the status and found everything incinerated. They came back with detailed reports and the alien came along. Millions of people and livestock got annihilated and it took more than two quarters of that year to get rid of it permanently.
The following decades had been a triumph story for the humans. Microorganisms of all sorts had been met with propitious resistance with resources and tech par excellence resulting in negligible depredation.
CDC – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Continual learning – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1566253519307377
 Candida Auris – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6079168/