Given the ongoing crisis over COVID-19, “quarantine” has become a household term, taking over our thoughts and actions, becoming our life itself. Confined at home, I turn the word over and over in my mind and it takes me back to an event two decades ago, when I had first encountered the word — a memory of loss but of having, at least, tried.
I was, at that time, a young architect, working alone, building a house on a hillside for a scientist’s family, about 30 km from Pune. It was quite the adventure, staying as a paying guest, biking it almost every day to the site and back. Along my route, I had to negotiate Katraj Ghat, which included a small ghat section, followed by a tunnel hewn out of sheer rock. Coming out of the tunnel onto the other side made one feel as if one had left Pune and city life far behind. The valley looked wilder, gentler, as if from an older time, yet to be touched by city life.
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The exit was also marked by an old colonial building, flanked by trees. I would often see langurs there, sitting in groups on the trees and, occasionally, by the roadside, waiting for tidbits from passers-by. One day, as I exited this spot, I noticed that the langurs were all over the road, tense and excitable. I could see that one of them was lying injured on the road unable to move, clearly hit by a passing vehicle. I was at a loss, wondering what I ought to do. Those days the mobile phone had just come into the market, it was expensive to call but I found it to be an essential tool for the remote site I worked on. I called a friend, a well-known ornithologist and naturalist, and asked for his advice. He dictated the number of the nearby Katraj Snake Park, known to rescue wildlife. Katraj Snake Park was at the base of the ghats, and, soon after my conversation with them during which they had taken down the location and the details of what I could see, I saw a beaten-up Jeep climbing up the ghat. It had three people, the two in the front including the driver in basic khakhi uniforms and chappals. At the back was a girl with Caucasian features, tattoos on her hands, piercings in her ear, wearing fatigues and impressive leather boots, definitely the one who was going to make the rescue, I thought. When they reached where I was parked, they got off the Jeep to take a look at the animal.
The men moved quickly, their faces barely registering any emotion. One of them removed a jute sack from the back. Working carefully, they picked the langur with their bare hands, put it in the sack, secured it and placed the sack at the back. The langur’s face was contorted in pain, but physically it could barely react. Meanwhile, apart from expressing her horror at the accident, the girl had not participated in the rescue at all. Appearances could be misleading and I realised she was possibly a volunteer with the Snake Park. Soon, with the langur in the backseat, the Jeep left.
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I still had my site work to take care of, but the thought of the animal writhing in pain kept coming back to me. On my way back, when I crossed the tunnel and came out on the Pune side, I parked my bike and called the snake park, anxious to know how the animal was doing, if it was still alive. The person who answered the call took a minute to understand which animal I was referring to, and then he said, “Oh the langur, we can’t say much at this point, he is in quarantine.”
Quarantine? I wondered what it was. It sounded medical enough, serious, too, judging by the man’s tone, but I had no clue what it meant. I meant to look it up. A couple of days later, I called again. This time, the answer was what I knew would be the case in my heart of hearts. The langur was dead — despite their best efforts they could not save it, even though they had eased its pain as best as they could. What must it be like to die in a place away from one’s loved ones, I had wondered, with a heavy heart. I think of it again, as we spend our days in isolation.
Peeyush Sekhsaria is a Delhi-based environment, disaster management and development consultant
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