My West Side Story – The Man with the Stetson

Subhash Mathur

Subhash Mathur was born and brought up in small towns in Rajasthan. During his school and college education at Jaipur, he was keenly involved in sports, journalism and public speaking. His civil services career has given him a platform for spreading his ideas about modernising tax administration to benefit the common man. Post retirement he is devoting his energies, along with his wife Tilak, to public and humane causes.

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series. The first part is fiction and the second fan fiction.

Part 1

I am past seventy and diabetic since 2002, amongst various other illnesses.

Thus, for me, an evening walk is mandatory. My doctor has permitted walking as my only exercise.

During these lock down conditions, taking an evening walk is not easy. Central Park is out. Walking on the main roads is prohibited. Only place is the colony compound although even that’s a forbidden fruit too.

But I use the colony space nevertheless.

Thus I set off every evening attired in an N-95 face mask and blue hand gloves. I usually take the mid way-break on a bench.

The other evening, I was surfing on my smart phone during the break when a gentleman wearing a hat approached the bench and requested politely ‘Sir, may I share the bench with you?’

I was sitting on a public bench and I possibly couldn’t say no to him.

He sat down at the other end of the bench. Secretly, I welcomed the intrusion hoping the guy would strike up a polite conversation.

I hadn’t spoken to a soul for the last three days, except on the phone. I was starved of human contact, so to say.

The man was attired in jogging gear but was surprisingly donned a large hat. Looked like a Stetson to me.

Within a minute he asked,

Man: Sir, are you a regular walker around this area?

Me: Yes. I try to come out at least six days a week.

Man: Sir how are you spending your time in these lockdown conditions?

Me: I manage quite well, thank you. No issues.

Man: Sir do you share the household chores with your spouse?

Me [getting a annoyed]: Of course.

Man: Pardon, my impudence but I wasn’t trying to be intrusive. Just small talk, Sir.

Me [pretending] : No, it’s alright. We are carrying on nicely. Thank you.

Man: And if I may Sir, how do you get your groceries and veggies and rations?

Me: [feeling more than angry] No issues Dear Sir, no issues. The neighbours are kind and the Janata store shopkeepers are very cooperative. We get by.

The man suddenly changed track: Sir, how long do you think this lock down will stretch?

[I was really getting annoyed now. The guy was asking too many questions.]

Me: I don’t know but I hope this lockdown is keeping us all safe.

Man: Exactly my point, Sir. How can one feel safe if one stays locked up in the house itself?

Me: [that made lot of sense as I pondered over that] and responded: But there’s no other way out? Is there?

Man : Dear Sir, aren’t you surprised that with so much medical advancement over the years that mankind still has no cure or medicine except social distancing and masks? The very same steps were taken 100 years ago during the 1918 Spanish flu.

[That hit me quite hard. My God, all that progress and we have slid back 100 years. So easily!]

Before I could respond, the man in the Hat started getting up to leave.

Me: [Hurriedly I asked him]: But Sir, just who are you ? How come I have never seen you before in our lane?

The man did not reply but instead stood up fully and adjusted his hat, pulling it down firmly.

As he took a step or two away from the bench, he responded:

Dear Sir. I am Covid-19, of course.

I sat stunned for a long time before returning home to share the tale with my spouse.

Shriprakash Rao attended St. Xavier's School, Jaipur where he was a sports enthusiast, with particular emphasis on cricket and basket ball. He was also a good short-distance swimmer.

Rao joined the Department of Customs and Central Excise as Inspector, and retired as Additional Commissioner in 2015. He traveled to many nations as a trade negotiator for the Central Government on several occasions for various trade agreements.

Rao is an avid adventurer who has under taken trekking expeditions across Himalayas in India and Nepal. He fancies his visit to Iceland to see the Northern Lights to be the crown jewel of his travels. He is a keen photographer while traveling.

Rao loves driving and has under taken many long drives across India, initially on his motor cycle and later on by car. He is an avid reader and a movie buff, especially of classic westerns.

Rao presently lives in Jaipur with his wife.

Part 2

The weather suddenly turned cloudy, with strong winds blowing. Covid-19 stepped away from the 70 plus pensioner. His conversation with the gritty old man made him think.

He decided to move out of the lane and try his luck at another location. Swiftly, he moved out to Takht-e-Shahi Road. But here he was confronted with a dilemma.

Which way to go?

On the left he saw a circular, red stone building staring down at him. It was the Reserve Bank of India - the nation's currency holder. The building looked pretty deserted. It was not work as usual in that office. The parking lot was also near empty.

But Covid could sense urgency in the air. The officials present were moving around busily or working intently on their computers. He was sure that these busy bodies were preparing the impact of the Covid on the economy.

He felt elated. That’s me. Have I forced these big wigs into desperation?

Covid then looked to his right. The prestigious, co-ed school was eerily silent. He smiled to himself.

He suddenly realised that children and teachers were silently busy on their computers. Had these guys shifted to online courses?

Why were they looking happy? That’s not how it was meant to be. They should have been cowering at home.

Covid then turned his attention to his left. The road led to the famous Ganesh temple. They had closed all temples. Was it out of fear? Of Him? But, were they still faithful? Probably, worshipping Vighnaharta in their hearts.

Perhaps. Daily idol worship was really so uncalled for.

But Covid said to himself ‘But I am the problem. Can they even see me?‘

Suddenly it began to rain. Tiny droplets battered his Stetson. Covid moved quickly into safety and took shelter in an open garage.

Surprisingly he heard joyous squeals of children. They were running around happily in the rain chasing one another. The children were holding a newspaper over their heads and trying not to get their head wet.

They must be the children from the out-houses of one of the palatial houses on Takht-e-Shahi road. The children of the ‘seths’ would naturally be glued to their iPads. Cyber space race was more up their sleeves.

Covid looked more closely at the newspaper and felt chilled to his bones. The headline screamed, “Covid vaccination is on its way”.

Covid felt defeated. Suddenly, Hope and Resilience looked on happily.

Editor's Note

This story is part of our series on the coronavirus pandemic of 2019-2020. Here is the complete series so far. Readers are welcome to keep contributing!


The Xavier's Jaipur spirit comes through!

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