18-19 March, Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Sunila Galappatti

Yesterday I tried to explain quarantine to my son Kavan, not yet three.  I knew his grandparents would arrive in the evening, catching the last flight home before the airport in Sri Lanka closed to arrivals.  They live downstairs in this house my grandmother built, and we live in the flat upstairs.  When they return home from stints living and working in Bangladesh their excited grandson usually helps them unpack their suitcases.  This time, I tried to simplify, we wouldn’t be able to hug them for a few days or do any of the usual things.  It was called ‘quarantine’ and it was a way of making sure we didn’t help to spread this illness any one of us might have without knowing it.  He’d already picked up a little; the other day Kavan asked me cheerfully as we prepared to wash our hands, ‘did we touch any coronavirus?’ But the concept of ‘quarantine’ was the thing that upset him, it became all too clear to him that something was up.

My husband Kusal went to the airport to collect my parents.  He parked on the street outside and waited for them to call and give him a cue to drive around to the arrivals terminal.   But when they called it was to say that they’d been put on a bus straight off their plane.  They didn’t know if they were being taken to a quarantine centre hours away to wait out the 14 days.  We knew this happened to arrivals from high risk countries but they had not come from one.  They said they’d try and figure it out.  My parents are good at not getting worked up in these situations –in other situations it has reminded me they are used to being less privileged than I am, now we’re all a bit more equal (though not nearly enough).   Kusal too – he said he’d just wait till the situation became clearer.

At home, the doorbell rang. Our 9 year old neighbour really wanted to visit.  I tried to explain we’d better not let her do that.  ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ she said ‘I’m really good at not touching my face’.  I said Kavan and I would watch her ride her bike from our balcony.  Her dad came out a little later and he and I tried to talk about the moment while Kavan protested, wanting to draw me away from the tone of concern in our conversation.  We went in to make garlic bread to go with our dinner – and I worried about how soon we will run out of butter.  Then I thought about how we had lived a socially distanced life for 4 days but I had evidently not really transitioned from a life in which one expects there to be butter.

Throughout this time I take phone calls from the airport: they think they will be released; they were put on the bus by mistake; they have to be taken back to the airport to go through immigration and collect their luggage. Kavan has dinner while this is happening but he is still unsettled by this ‘quarantine’ and worried that his father has gone all the way to Bangladesh to get his grandparents. 

So we make a video call to Kusal and Kavan kisses the screen and holds it to his ear.

When they finally return, Kusal heads straight into the shower, while Kavan and I light sparklers for his grandparents out of our upstairs window.  They stand in the garden below and I can tell they are too tired to stand for long, and this is a painful way of reuniting with their grandson, but they stand there for him.

 Kusal puts Kavan to bed and I carry a tray of dinner downstairs through the garage and leave it in my parents’ kitchen. Then stick some leftover lasagne to reheat in the oven for us and think again about Italy.  It isn’t very rational but I keep feeling like we’ve betrayed Italy.  I belong to that particular group of people in the world who have got a lot out of Italy. Venice is the first place I ever registered as particular, I still remember being Venice at night, aged four, and asking my parents what this place was.  For years recently I craved time in Italy, too far away to be able to go easily.  And then two summers ago we spent time there again, with our child who had just learnt to walk and wanted to climb into all the fountains.  I think about the piazza that was briefly home in Testaccio, of our perfect day on the beach in Lerici and feel we’ve left Italy to suffer alone.  It isn’t very rational as I said but it makes me sad that the nation with closed borders is the infrastructure we have, on which to hang our responses to this crisis.

This morning we drive two hours in isolation to swim in isolation at one of the most deserted beaches we know.  Before going into the water, we check the island-wide case count and then put away our phones.  It is good to be in the ocean, the best thing, but it makes us realise how heavy our heads are.  We eat the picnic lunch we’ve brought from home and Kusal takes a picture of the three of us – something we rarely do. It strikes me then that until that moment I had worried only about the world, that island, this island, our parents.  We hope to go back soon.