In a new column, 'Category Error', Amruta Patil marries news-triggered observation with fiction, history, philosophy, against the backdrop of an Indian high rise.

Read more from the series here.

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1 | Cassandra and Jeremiah

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Buildings A-E of Atlantis Cooperative Housing Society are united by a garden consisting of a few flowering bushes and a stomach-shaped swimming pool. The residents of Atlantis find themselves at a precise moment in history when the world they had known until then ceased to exist. Had anyone seen this coming? Epidemiologists, it turns out, had been anxiously waiting for a perfect storm. But they had no clear instructions and, anyway, no one was listening.

In Apartment B603, a writer of literary fiction and her libertine beloved were reading in bed. The nature of the news cycle made them look up old prophets. Cassandra — propped up against a pillow, the writer read — daughter of King Priam, was given the gift of prophecy by her suitor Apollo. When things went south between Cassie and Apollo, he slapped on an addendum about her prophecies:

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Biblical prophet Jeremiah who lived in Jerusalem during the siege by the Babylonians, arrived with a glowing professional recommendation from God Himself. This didn’t keep Jeremiah from being physically mauled, insulted, imprisoned, put on trial for his efforts. Like Cassandra, his prophecies went completely ignored.

In the 1800s — the mythic time before germ theory was established — Ignaz Semmelweis had shouted himself hoarse begging people to scrub their hands good and proper. The Hungarian scientist is now seen as a maverick of antiseptic procedures, but his eccentric soap-led fight against ghost creatures, had been looked at askance back in the day.

What is it about good prophets that makes them so unbearable?

Maybe it is their way of puncturing bubbles of comfort. Householders need to believe, at minimum, in a tomorrow, so that they can raise small children convincingly. Prophets often rain on that parade.

Maybe prophecies of distant futures are ill suited to our species. Evolution wired our brains to respond to rapid changes and ignore slow ones. A threat that carries no immediacy is a threat mankind feels no need to apply itself to in a rush. A snake in the bush on the other hand! The myopia makes evolutionary sense when adult humans died at 40, 50. The writer giggles that there may be a parallel there with marriages —

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There is a moment’s pause — a struggle to accord things their due gravitas — and then laughter. Writer and libertine curl up like two commas with low kerning, closer than ever, in case there is no tomorrow.

2 | JBS Haldane’s Spiritual Progeny

In Apartment C301, the cellular biologist was woozy from the vaccine cocktail. The flu vaccine was to ensure any symptoms he got would only be from the new virus. The pneumococcal vaccine was to keep pneumonia at bay. Everyone at the pathological laboratory had taken the shots preemptively to get on with the hard work.

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The biologist would have got his paycheck just for running screening tests at the pathology lab, but in a week when everyone’s instinct was to lie low, he had volunteered to help develop a cost-effective testing kit for the virus. Of what idealism, foolishness and adrenaline are such decisions made? The biologist saw his gesture — and all potential risk and failure — as an ode to his scientific hero JBS Haldane. In his mad quest for data, that brilliant polymath often exposed himself to dangers in the laboratory; running experiments on himself or on his scientific-minded father (or anyone who was game).

“Between occasional shouts of 'Eureka!'," novelist Wilfrid Sheed once wrote, "even the heroes of science tend to have quiet careers.” The biologist in Apartment C301 knew he was no ‘hero of science’, just a man restless around inaction. What if the project failed? What if he got infected? What if the Residents Welfare Association of Atlantis Housing Society closed their gates, refused to let him return for fear of contamination? The biologist makes a cup of instant soup and puts these thought aside.

3 | Venice’s Dolphins

In apartment D102, the real estate agent has become the 1.7 millionth person to retweet an uplifting (fake) news post about mammals returning to their habitat in the wake of the social stillness that followed the virus:

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Another piece of news (also fake) she had tweeted about earlier featured drunken elephants passing out in a tea garden in China. The news about swans returning to Burano was partially true — Burano did have swans, but they had never left to begin with. The (true) news about Olive Ridley turtles returning to nest on a newly-tranquil Orissa beachfront did not gain much traction.

At some ancient core of our being, we really want someone — bearded public leaders with reassuring baritones, for example, or Mother Nature — to set right what is terribly wrong. The real estate agent remembered being quite taken with reportage about the abandoned Chernobyl ground zero having become an inadvertent wildlife reserve. Like a still from Life of Pi, a site where the great wild prevails over man’s ineptitude and comes through with saturated, flying colours.

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Writer-painter Amruta Patil is the author of graphic novels Kari, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, Sauptik: Blood and Flowers, and Aranyaka: Book of the Forest. On Instagram: @amruta_gauri

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