Altaf Ali and Rachel Soanes had been on the last two flights to leave Mumbai airport before the lockdown. Both had boarded with bad coughs. Bacteria, numbering in the millions, had carved out colonies in their respiratory systems well before they had arrived at the airport. In both cases, the pathogens were preparing for the second stage of the disease—a barrage of toxins.

Altaf did not pay any attention to his cough. He was a heavy smoker who routinely puffed through two dozen cigarettes every day. Whatever was left of his health had been battered by three decades of working for a construction company in the Persian Gulf. This had left him with a permanent tan, deeply creased skin, a prematurely bald head, and a disproportionately large paunch. There wasn’t a day when Altaf didn’t wake up with aches, dizziness or nausea. To his mind, a cough, even a bad one, hardly counted.

Altaf’s prime concern was getting back to work as soon as possible.

When he had joined the Gulf company in the late 1980s, it had been one of the largest public works contractors in the region. They built air bases in Saudi Arabia, installed radar stations in the United Arab Emirates, and maintained oil platforms off the coast of Qatar. At first, Altaf had been hired as a mason on daily wages—the lowest paying job in the entire organisation. He was a part of an army of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who built rooms, offices and barracks in the middle of the desert. The turnover within these teams was very high—more than two-thirds of the men didn’t make it past the first six months.

Bombay Fever: By Sidin Vadukut, Simon & Schuster, 376 pages, Rs350.
Bombay Fever: By Sidin Vadukut, Simon & Schuster, 376 pages, Rs350.

Altaf ploughed through his first two years without taking a single day off. By then he had lost his sense of smell and taste. But he was promoted to foreman with a proper monthly salary, some health benefits and a month’s annual leave that could be forfeited in lieu of pay.

It was another three years before Altaf asked for leave—this, for his mother’s funeral. She was buried on a Monday and he was back at the labour camp in Ruwais that Saturday. In his thirty years in the company, Altaf had only claimed eleven months of leave.

In more recent years, his organisation had fallen on hard times. The decline began with the Gulf War of 1991. Altaf’s company was owned by a family of minor Kuwaiti nobles, most of whom were killed or had gone missing after the Iraqi invasion. Much of the company’s wealth—cash deposits, gold reserves, share certificates, land deeds—vanished along with them. While the organisation was revived after the war, it never regained its past glory. Thousands of workers lost their jobs.

Altaf Ali kept his. He was by no means indispensable. Yet nobody had the heart to fire one of the company’s most loyal employees. The experience, however, left Altaf even more paranoid about his job. He took even fewer vacations, worked even harder and complained even less about the low pay or the brutal conditions.

A while after his flight took off, a stewardess approached Altaf Ali. She waited for him to stop coughing for a moment. ‘Sir, we have free rows towards the back. Perhaps you could go there and lie down?’

‘No. Here I am okay.’

‘Please, sir. You can lie down and get some sleep.’ ‘I am fine, Miss.’

The stewardess left frowning. A few minutes later, another member of the cabin crew, a man, approached Altaf. This time he spoke to the passenger in Hindi. ‘Sir, your cough is making a woman here quite upset. She has small children. If you move to the back, you will get some privacy. Sir, please?’

Altaf got up from his seat, mumbling.

When he was woken up shortly before landing, Altaf sat up and buckled himself in. He was famished, but it was too late to call for some food. And then he noticed the seat back-pocket in front of him. Someone had left him a couple of cheese sandwiches and a bottle of water. Altaf ate quickly, without looking up even once.

As he sat back, somewhat content, he suddenly realised something. His chest still felt heavy, and he could feel sticky patches of mucus along the back of his throat. But he was no longer coughing.

He was pleased.

Thank god. Finally this horrible cough has healed.

In reality, Altaf Ali had not healed at all.

*****

Rachel Soanes had not healed either. Like Altaf, Rachel had also fallen asleep on her Air India flight. Like him, when she was jolted awake before landing, she found that she felt much better than she had in Mumbai...

...The plane landed smoothly and Rachel let out a sigh of relief. She waited impatiently as it taxied to a stop. When the seat belt indicator lights went off, a few passengers got up. Most would remain on board for the onward flight to New York. Rachel, along with a handful of others, would disembark.

Two hours later, Rachel Soanes checked into her four-star hotel. The cough was resurfacing—she coughed on her way to the lift, up to the seventh floor, and kept wheezing till she brewed herself a cup of tea. As she sipped on the warm, soothing liquid, Rachel went over her notes from the meetings back in Mumbai. She sighed. It had all been very depressing. Nothing fruitful had emerged. The Indian private sector had little enthusiasm for her non-fiction programming skills.

She looked out of the window at the skyline of this new city that was nothing like Mumbai.

Maybe this is where I will finally find some work.

She ordered a small plate of sushi for dinner, and then went to sleep.

In the morning, feeling better, she went to the lobby, where she was met by the head of a local television channel

‘Good morning Rachel!’ he said. ‘Instead of talking at the office, why don’t we go straight to the location? Why waste time?’

Rachel agreed immediately.

This is great. He sounds as if I already have the job.

The large, round building was only ten minutes away by road. But it took another hour for Rachel and the man to get their access badges, run their bags through several X-ray machines, fill in forms, walk through full-body scanners, and finally make it into the cavernous chamber. It was a hot, humid day and the heat seemed to aggravate Rachel’s cough. By the time the man walked into the central hall, she was coughing into her handkerchief every few minutes. The silk fabric began to show a sprinkling of droplets of blood.

‘And this,’ Ranveer Singhvi, editor of Secretariat TV, said looking at the huge space around them, ‘this is the Lok Sabha. India’s lower house of parliament. The most important room in this country.’

Rachel coughed hard.

Bombay Fever will be released on 10 August. Sidin Vadukut, a Mint staffer, is the author of three novels on the vagaries of office politics, and a collection of essays on Indian history.

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