I join the long, snaking queue outside TESCO, standing on the blue circle, 2 metres away from the person in front of me.
Everyone in the queue is either wearing a mask or gloves, or both. I am wearing neither. I see eyes glancing at my face and hands. As I inch the trolley forward, a few inches every few minutes, I realise I am different. I am the only brown person in the queue. The brown one without a mask or gloves.
I vowed that for my next trip to the get the groceries, I would wear a mask and gloves too. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be like everyone else. I didn’t want to stand out. I was finally like everyone else because I was experiencing the same phenomenon of being in a lockdown, doing live workouts, trying out new recipes, spending hours on social media laughing at videos and memes, reading, cleaning, and embarking on a marathon of movies and serials. I finally belonged. A pandemic had to happen for me to feel part of society, or more accurately, a part of ‘distanced’ society.
I decided to wear a mask and gloves the next grocery round. I wear a bindhi or a mark on my forehead. So when I wear a mask, I feel I am drawing attention to that mark. Which I didn’t want to do, as I wanted to blend in, be one of many, be invisible. In fact, when you are trying to socially distance yourself, that ’s exactly when people take a proper look at you, because they need to pay attention to your presence, your position and movement. I wore the mask and checked myself in the rearview mirror before I got out of the car. I looked ridiculous. My maroon bindhi shouted ‘look at me ’! I kept the mask on anyway, because I didn’t want others to think that I was not taking the necessary precautions. Fifteen minutes into the shopping venture, I felt everyone I passed was focused on my bindhi. As the minutes ticked on, I felt my bhindi was bulging, swelling out of my forehead while people shrank away from me, thinking that I belong to a third-eye worshipping cult that was conceived in pandemic fervour. By the time I finished paying, I was hyperventilating, unable to breathe, and my eyes were welling up. Once I was back in my car, I wrenched the mask off, ripping it into two. I was not wearing that again.
I try again a week later. I pull into TESCO car park. I can see the queue is long and winding, almost 50 metres. I reach into my bag and take out a fresh mask and gloves. I put them on. I glance in the mirror. My black bindhi is not so noticeable as I pull a strand of curly hair over it. I get a trolley and wipe down the handles with anti-bacterial wipe. I almost break into a jog to join the queue. As I inch the trolley forward every few minutes, it strikes me that I am different. I am the only brown person in the queue. And I am the only one wearing a mask.
I usually teach English as a foreign language but now I have returned to doing what I enjoy most – writing creatively. Radhika’s debut collection of short stories, ‘Why are you here?’, is available here.