The Long Way Home

Until I had boarded the chartered aircraft to go home, all I had thought of was how to secure a place in one of those planes. I had no idea what awaited, except the already popular ways in which my state had stayed ahead of the curve and avoided an implosion of viral infections. Getting on board was the goal. I imagined everything would be better once I got home.

And that’s how I found myself getting off the plane late on one June night: relieved and radiant with optimism. As I walked into the airport terminal, I squeezed a blob of sanitizer into my palm from the handy bottle attached to the shoulder strap of my day bag and rubbed my hands until the dampness disappeared. I tried as much as possible to avoid contact with the passengers who were in a hurry to jump ahead. In the arrival hall, about twenty or so health workers sat in a row, all of them in full PPE gear, and passengers from all six planes that had landed in the hour before had formed long queues.

One by one, the health workers interviewed the travelers. I knew what to expect. I already had the answers. They would ask some variations of the questions I had filled in the self reporting form issued to every passenger on the plane. I had gotten used to the questions from the time I registered myself on the embassy’s website.

Where else have you traveled in the last one month?

Travel in last one month? I hadn’t traveled anywhere in the last two years.

Do you have fever? Cough? Any kind of respiratory distress? Do you have any other difficulty?

No. No. None at all.

And some more.

Will you be meeting anyone on the way? Where will you be staying? Do you have a room with attached bathroom? 

One of the health workers asked me something I wasn’t expecting to be asked. Why is your voice hoarse? Do you have sore throat?

I looked for a face inside the PPE she was enrobed in. I saw none. I had not realized how croaky and hoarse my voice had begun to sound. I cleared my throat. No food, no water in hours. Would my voice be a reason to hold me back? I wondered and I felt a lump rise to my throat.

I haven’t slept and I haven’t removed my mask in about six hours. That could be a reason..? I let it hang there, not confident at all if it was the right answer. At another desk nearby, my colleague who had traveled with me collected back his form with a green ribbon stapled on it. From his eyes, I sensed a smile behind the mask. Before we left Dubai, social workers had already informed us what to expect. Green ribbon for self quarantine at home. Blue ribbon for government-provided quarantine. And the dreaded red ribbon for those showing signs of infection. She didn’t ask any more questions., took a green ribbon and stapled it on my form. Praise be to Allah, I sighed out of relief.

New normal. I had to cooperate with the system. It was the price to pay for going home. I was relieved regardless of the hurdles in arranging a passage home. After four months of uncertainty, at least one thing was certain now. Six months of unemployment. I may have a job after that, or maybe not. I could help my brother in his grocery store in the meantime. Or help my sister tend to her organic farm. I had options. Food on the table. A roof over my family. What more could I ask for?

And yes, I’d definitely have more time with Eesha and my beloved. Eesha had been excited ever since word reached home that I’d be there soon. Maybe it was in His plan to give me some time with my family, before they grew older and before Eesha passed her cuddlesome years.

You have to sit in the back. Wear the mask at all times. Use the sanitizer before entering the car. Don’t touch your face. Use the sanitizer again when you get out of the car. A volunteer from the group that organized the chartered flight instructed us from time to time as we waited in a queue for taxi, more than two hours after the plane had landed.

We won’t be stopping anywhere in between. You’re not allowed to. The driver mentioned when I finally sat down in the car another few hours later.

Yes, I understand. I nodded.

I cannot recall if I touched my face at all. I fell asleep as soon as the taxi started the somewhat bumpy, mostly topsy-turvy ride home. Every now and then, I would open my eyes and see another town or village that brought me closer to my village. Mattannur. Keezhallur. Chalode. Koodali. Kanhirode. And so on.

I was tired. I had lost track of the number of hours it had been since I left my quarters in Dubai. 

Eesha called sometime during the ride home. When will you reach home?

I am close to home, molu. Just a few days in Renu aunty’s house and I’ll come to you. I need to quarantine myself.

What’s quarantine?

It’s a way to keep you all safe from the virus, in case I have it. But you don’t need to worry. I don’t have the virus on me.

Will you stay here with me more time, this time?

Yes, yes. I am going to be here for a long time. We are going to do plenty of stuff together.

Are you taking good care? Fatema snatched the phone and asked.

Yes, mask and gloves and the not touching face bit. It’s just about half an hour more to home. And then, everything will be alright.

Don’t think these measures are silly. Our government here has done a good job, not like your government there.

I hadn’t meant to look at them as silly measures. I was too tired to talk about it though. I had watched the interviews of health minister on YouTube every day and I was awfully proud of my state.

Once you reach the house, take good rest. There will be some food for you in the fridge. Warm it up, okay? I’ll bring you something special to eat later. She added before hanging up the call.

Saar, saar. I think this is the place, isn’t it? I had dozed off again and sure enough, we had reached. Renu aunty, a family friend, was away in Riyadh. Until two weeks ago, another cousin had stayed in the same house on quarantine. She had a modest house, by Malayalee standards. About 8000 square feet of land, a 3000 sq. ft. house. Sloped concrete roof with Mangalore tiles, ground plus one floor above.

When you reach the house, you have to call this number. The embassy had provided a number for the local panchayat office before I left Dubai. I called them immediately to announce my arrival.

That was Day Zero. Fourteen days. Just fourteen days, to freedom.


 I marked Day 5 on the calendar. The first couple of days were easy, but it turned out to be more difficult with each passing day. How much more could a person sleep? The room with the best internet reception had the worst view of all. All I could see was the backyard of a neighbor’s house. How long could I be on the internet alone? TikTok TikTok TikTok… like the time that passed by the second. I slept again.

The gent from the panchayat office visited and asked the same questions. Did anyone visit today? How is the food delivered? Is there anything that you need? We can arrange for you. Don’t leave the house. Do not step out for anything. He repeated before he left.

There were hundreds like me, who had returned from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Kuwait, Riyadh, Jeddah and so on. The panchayat officer had to visit every house. The police visited too on some days.

Fatema visited. I stood at the window, while she stayed about two meters away. Eesha didn’t know. It would have been wrenching, if she came and I couldn’t hug her. Or would she understand? She was seven after all and wanted to learn everything. What is quarantine? She had asked. She would still call every day, and ask the same question: when would I go home?

Is there anything special you feel like eating? Fatema asked. She had already brought a whole lot of special stuff and kept them near the door. She was returning after a brunch celebrating the end of her uncle’s fourteen days in quarantine. Uncle had retired from his job and come back from Riyadh, following the Covid-19 curfew in Saudi Arabia.

The thought of food doesn’t amuse me. I just want to get out of here on time. Some of my friends in Kasaragod got a fourteen day extension. I hope they don’t do that here.

Just follow the rules and you have nothing to worry. By the way, there’s kaayada, cutlet, samosa, biriyani, alsa, mutta maala… Store everything properly. Be careful with the mutta maala. Eat it as soon as possible. If you can’t have everything now, keep them in the fridge and microwave before having.

God, Fatema.. that’s a lot of stuff. Take back some of it at least. Who can have it all now? And I’m not even stepping out for a walk. Just eating, sleeping, watching movies.

I thought your Netflix subscription expired. She knew because she shared the same subscription, and she had complained about it a few days before I left Dubai.

What do I do here without entertainment? I have started downloading torrents.

Hmmm. I can’t wait for you to get home and be in your arms. Eesha too.

Fatema, please don’t do any celebratory party stuff when I come. I just need some time with you and Eesha. That’s all. 

Ya, ya, it was a big bore event today. We’ll just have our private celebration; you, me and Eesha. But, don’t run off with Rahim soon after coming home.


Da… Daaa…. Majeed-eee.. Come out. I looked out the window. It was Rahim.

Rahim-eee…. What’s up, bro?

What’s your number? I heard from your Ikkakka that you were staying here. Didn’t have the number. Do you want to go out? I can come at night and take you out.

I had just marked Day 11. I remembered the story from Kasargod in all its vivid detail shared all over social media. I didn’t want to be the talk of the town, the super spreader from Erupattanam. No, daa. Few more days.

You are not positive or anything, no?

No, this is just a precaution.

We should hang out sometime. Don’t go back to Dubai. We can do something here together. That’s better in the long run.

Yes, let me get out first.

The police visited in the evening. The same questions repeated for the nth time. Were they trick questions? Was he trying to catch me over the slip of a tongue? He seemed to make some notes as he left though. I realized they probably had a questionnaire to follow after each visit. I remembered how proud Fatema was about the government’s initiatives to curb the spread of the virus.

That was Day 11. A day closer to freedom.

At night, it rained. It was my good fortune, I thought, that I landed just when the monsoons had begun. I opened the window and sucked in the smell of the wet earth and wished to be outside. I remembered my childhood, each monsoon. We played in the mud, making pots, mud cakes out of the wet clayey mud. And when the sun came out, the mud pots and cakes would have dried and hardened. We would throw them at each other and marvel at the dust crumbs that floated in the air each time the mud cakes hit one of us. When we got a little older, we went racing with our bicycles, Rahim and I. Rahim used to joke that I counted all the potholes in the road by dropping the cycle in every one of them.

I wished to be outside. It would have been fun to feel the rain on my skin, my feet in a puddle, drops of water dripping from my nose. I wondered why mother used to insist on driving us inside when it rained. I wished we had played for a longer while.

And suddenly, I realised with panic that none of it would come back. I wouldn’t have the childhood again. I didn’t have a job anymore. None of the freedoms that came with it either. Not the benefit of a good exchange rate against rupee. Not the calm and comfortable life I led in Dubai albeit without family. I was no longer the NRI who would sit around a desert campfire with friends and narrate tales of nostalgia. I had to think of ways to be useful, to be productive, to be the bread winner in this land, that is now as strange to me as Dubai was when I first landed there.

I didn’t sleep that night.


On Day 12, I was miserable. I felt restless. I tried inhaling, recalling the respiratory distress question. I couldn’t breathe. I stood at the window and counted. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. And slowly sucked in some air, filling my lungs. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.  And let it out. Would I be able to breathe normally again? Tried again. Let it out again.

I thought of how long I had come. Just two more days. I had to hold on for two more days. Two more days to home. Breathe in. Breathe out.

I couldn’t help but think of the manner in which I might have been infected. The plane? The airport? The taxi? The food that my family delivered each day. There could have been a number of ways. Who were we trying to fool with all these antics? A tiny virus that the human eye couldn’t see?

I called Fatema.

We can’t really rule that out, right? That’s why they have asked you to be in isolation.

But, Fatema… what about you and Eesha? What will you do if something bad happens to me?

Oh, come on. Now you are being unrealistic. It only gets critical for people who are diabetic or heart patients and so on.

What if I have an underlying condition that we haven’t discovered yet?

She paused when I said that. You have a number for the health centre right? Why don’t you call them?

I called. They weren’t helpful in allaying my fears. They asked a few more questions and I answered all of them in negative. Loss of smell? I remembered I had smelled the rain-touched earth just the night before. Cough? Sore throat? No. No. Respiratory distress? What I felt didn’t count to be a respiratory distress. Are you taking the arsenic tablets? Yes. Good, call us if you feel anything more severe than what you’re feeling right now.

At some point during the day, I fell asleep, weary from all the distress, and the sleep debt from the night before. When I woke up, I felt a lot better.


I rolled up my sleeves expecting the nurse to collect my blood.

What are you doing? She asked.

I’m here for blood sample collection?

No, no. Just tilt your head up and rest against the head support.

I did as asked. She stripped the packet off a long cotton swab and poked it into my nose. I closed my eyes, not wanting to know why it needed to be this long. I could feel the swab go up my nasal tract. When it finally touched a point I didn’t know I had inside my nose, the nurse did a twist and swirl. Ouch.

Done. She said.

The health officer had suggested it when he visited that morning. If you are worried, you can give your sample for testing.

How long will it take to get the results?

A day, or two at the most. But you need to call an ambulance or drive yourself down to the hospital to do the tests.

I didn’t tell Fatema. She would have come if she knew. I didn’t want to risk it. I called her on the ride back, alone in the back of an ambulance.

When she didn’t answer, I called home. Her mother answered the call and informed me that Fatema was out for groceries. I asked for Eesha.

When will you come home, Uppa?

One more day, if Allah wills. No class today, molu?

I have fever. Umma said I can skip today.

Let me get out of here, and I’ll come and take good care of you. Okay… you take rest, baby. Give the phone to Grandma.

It’s nothing, she’s just got a slight temperature. She’s been wanting to skip the e-learning classes for the past few days. She’s alright. Watching TV all the time. We will go to the doctor when Fatema is back. Fatema’s mother explained before I could express any concern. Was Eesha’s voice a little different? Was she sick? I must have been losing my mind by then, after living in isolation.

Fatema called later. Is there anything special you feel like having on the day you come home? She asked.

Anything would feel special when I left this prison, I thought.

Porotta and beef fry. I replied.

Day 13. Just one more day remained.


I had thought I would go home on Day 14, but the panchayat asked me to remain isolated for one more day. And so it was on the Day 15 that my isolation officially ended. I packed the bags and prepared to leave Renu aunty’s house.

Praise be to Allah. The test results had come negative the day before. I marked for the fifteenth time on my pocket calendar and stuffed it along with my laptop, power bank, notebook into the day bag. My brother would come to pick me.

Majeed-eee. Ikkakka called from outside. Majeeed-eeee.

Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go.

No, no. We can’t go now. Fatima and Eesha have been admitted to the hospital. They have both tested positive. He said without pausing for breath.

In a moment, my celebration had come to an end, before it ever started. Before I even stepped out. I struggled to make sense of the news he delivered. How could that be? Could I have given it to Fatema at some point? But I had tested negative… The image of Eesha in a hospital bed, with an oxygen mask on her face occupied my mind. I couldn’t shake it off. I knew they wouldn’t be in a critical stage. Eesha had fever. Fatema had some minor symptoms, bad throat, loss of smell… My brother continued to fill me in on the details. And it wasn’t just them… There were others in her family… Fatema’s mother… at least five others in the same family… How?

My thoughts went back to the kaayada, cutlet, samosa, biriyani, alsa, mutta maala, Fatema’s specials… An explanation started to form in my mind, and with it a fear… When will we truly be safe again? I could still hear Ikkakka’s voice but with only half a mind.

Can we… can we go see Eesha? I asked.

Ikkakka shook his head. I stepped back inside the house and considered the situation I found myself in. We tried to shut one door and the virus had come through another. We were constantly running away from the virus, but we were also running towards it. The virus was invisible, humans weren’t. In this tangle of fear and uncertainty, I continued to wait.


Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Suhail Rasheed is a founding editor of The Bangalore Review. He lives with his family in Dubai, where he currently runs a small business.