At exactly 6.51 pm on Wednesday, hours after the Ram temple "Bhoomi Pujan" ended in Ayodhya, my friend and NDTV guest coordinator Neha Kukreja called me in the middle of my shoot inside the Garbha-Griha or inner sanctum of the makeshift temple - a rare opportunity.
"Please send your cameraperson for live with Uma Bharti. Please can you," Neha said. It's a conversation we have had over the years with only the characters changing.
"Ok, when," I asked.
"7," she said.
I had exactly nine minutes.
That meant a mad dash to the other end of town with cameraperson Ashwani and my NDTV India colleague Saurabh Shukla, to get to Uma Bharti.
We made it not at 7, not at 7.15 or even 7.30 pm. We reached 10 minutes to our 8 PM Prime NDTV India bulletin anchored by my colleague Sanket Upadhyay.
As we walked into a room where Uma Bharti was sitting on a chair, looking tired after multiple interviews, her first reaction was this: "Please don't sit on the bed, thoda corona se dar lagta hai (am a little scared of coronavirus)".
Uma Bharti, notably, had earlier said she would camp by the river in Ayodhya and avoid going to the Bhoomi Pujan ceremony as she was worried about exposing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others at the site to any infection, given that she was travelling by train. The BJP veteran later changed her mind and attended the event.
As she called for more chairs, I told her: "Don't worry, we are scared of corona too."
What followed was hilarious.
"Waise motey logon ko corona nahin hota (fat people don't get coronavirus)," she commented, sizing me up, leading to loud laughter in the room.
"But ma'am, it is fat people who have more breathing problems," I retorted, all in good humour.
"No, no," replied the former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister. "Nothing will happen to us - you and me."
The banter livened up a very stressful day filled with hours and hours of live reporting and coordination.
This time, the hotel that is our go-to for Ayodhya reporting was also remarkably virus conscious.
The decades-old Shan-e-Awadh hotel near the bus station in Faizabad, Ayodhya's twin town, knows the drill. It frequently hosts TV, print and online media covering the temple town. It is not exactly The Ritz but it does the job.
We were intrigued to find COVID-19 protocol in place. The truth is, we had expected very little. But our luggage was sanitised (on Day 1 at least) and we were led to our rooms by hotel staff wearing masks, head covers, face shields and gloves.
The rooms were, however, musty as ever and just about functional, and much of our rare free time was spent obsessing over how to sanitise our rooms.
"I brought my own bedsheet. I have removed theirs. Now I won't let anyone into my room for the next three days," announced an enthusiastic Vineet Verma, my friend and the OB Van technician at NDTV's Lucknow bureau. "You did get your own bedsheet, right" he proceeded to rub it in.
"No I didn't. You win, Vineet. Corona loses," I shot back. We burst into laughter.
Much of Ayodhya though, seems to be blissfully unaware of the gravity of the pandemic. "Why are you not wearing a mask," I asked a gentleman who had come all the way from Madhya Pradesh's Indore for the Ram temple ceremony.
"It's fine. Lord Ram is with us," he replied with a shrug.
His "gamchha", I noticed, had the words "Jai Siya Ram" in a pattern.
I wanted to say, "God will save you only if you cover your mouth with this cloth." I kept it to myself.
The man moved on to another channel where a TV anchor wearing a saffron kurta seemed to be in a state of frenzy on the Ram temple. I sighed and edged out of the crowd while talking on my live chat.
It was a long day.
(Alok Pandey is News Editor, NDTV 24x7)
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