IT IS A few minutes before midnight on 13th April and I am immediately reminded that it has been a month since I boarded the fateful flight from Australia to India. As I sit to write my diary, I flip through the pages and look at how life has changed in the past month. Not just my life but also the life around me.
I saw the beautiful full moon outside my inner-suburban house in Australia.
I clicked a picture of the moon with my phone and posted that picture on my Facebook. Then, as usual, I started scrolling through the news on internet. A lot had happened in the past month in In-dia: The anti-CAA protests, the Delhi elections, Trump's visit and then the Delhi riots. I had also been following the international news about the coronavirus but until then, in Australia, there was more humour about the toilet paper hoarding than any real danger.
By now it was past midnight. I read that WHO had declared Covid-19 a pandemic. A little after that I read that India has announced some travel restrictions which will come into ef-fect on 13-March. As per the restrictions, we would not be able to go home for our planned trip in the end of March. I called up my mother and we both wondered what would happen.
I knew, if I wanted to reach India, I had to act soon! My moment of truth lay in this one question: If I were to get stuck inside the house for months, where would that be? Here in Australia where I had an unstable part-time job, my children were to school and I had a sibling in a neighbouring town; or in India, where I have my parents, a permanent home and a larger community of friends and relatives? It is a question I had been struggling to answer last few months.
I knew that I probably had better access to healthcare if I stayed put in Australia. But at a time like this, I wanted to be home. Over a phone call, my psychiatrist brother seemed to agree that the months to come might bring unknown challenges and it makes sense for me to be home with my parents.
The rest of the day is a blur. I had a meeting with the deputy principal in my children's school. I changed my tickets to take the morning flight the very next day from Sydney. We packed bare minimum clothes, books and documents and left for Sydney. My brother drove for 2 hours after work to see us off. When I waved ‘Bye’ to my brother, it hit me that I had no idea when I will see him again. We spent the night at a hotel close to Sydney International Airport.
When we checked-in for our flight, it seemed like a regular day at the Sydney airport.
Not many people wore masks. The lady at the check-in counter struggled to put three of us to-gether in adjacent seats as this was a full flight. She did mention that the flight had to take off on time (10.15 am) because the travel restrictions come into effect after 11.00 am local time. The 12-hour flight was relatively quiet. Everyone wore masks. There wasn't much of a chit chat. Even the air-hostess served very quickly without the regular gestures.
Upon landing at the Delhi airport, we filled a travel history form which asked if in the last 14 days, we had travelled to any of 7 countries including China, Italy, Iran (where there was a wider spread of coronavirus). We had not travelled to any of those countries. We went through thermal screening where airport staff checks your temperature with a distant ther-mometer. After that we were let go to get our immigration clearance and baggage. I won-dered how useful the thermal screening is given the virus has a 14-day incubation period. No instructions were provided to us to home quarantine. Maybe some instructions were being given to people travelling from those 7 countries as there was a separate queue based on travel history forms.
We arrived from Delhi to Mohali in a taxi and it just seemed best to stay in self-isolation for a few days just in case we caught the virus during travel. This was the first time in many years when we didn't hug my parents upon arrival. We had tea at a separate table in an adjoining area and moved to our rooms upstairs. Luckily my parents live in a two-storey house and we always sleep upstairs so we could self-isolate.
My maternal grandfather Sh S N Sethi (in pic)
expired. Nanaji was 100 years old. He was born in 1919 amidst the Spanish flu and left during the current pandemic. My parents left for Punjab for the last rites. I could not go because of our self-imposed 14-days home quarantine. I do not know how my mother felt about it. We are grateful to my mother’s house-help who cooked food for us every morning and left it in the kitchen. Each day, we would pick it up after she left and eat.
My son managed to activate internet and tv channels. The hardest part of the home qua-rantine was to isolate from each other within the house. (I have an autoimmune condition so had to be extra cautious). I spent much of my time in my room or my balcony while children stayed in their room or the living area. We divided the space within the house.
My parents were able to rush back to Mohali before the lockdown. Nanaji’s ashes were immersed in Beas river near Goindwal Sahib. Nanaji was a Hindu Arya Samaji. My father is a Sikh. Within both the families, none of this ever mattered. In 1984, I realised for the first time that my mother and father were from different castes and religions.
While our home quarantine has ended, India is already under a lockdown. So we just have to stay put. But the self-isolation within the house has now ended.
We now eat together and sit down with my parents to chit chat. We feel free and connected. On another plane, we were much more isolated when we were overseas.Waking up to the sabziwala's familiar voice or hearing the neighbour's children playing in their backyard is music to the ears. The mornings and evenings have a ritual, with the characteristic sounds from various houses in the neighbourhood. I never knew I would enjoy these.
Due to the looming uncertainty, my rental house has been vacated in Australia in my ab-sence with the help of my brother and a Nepali student. I had soaked Rajmah (Red beans) overnight to cook a month ago. I never knew I wouldn't cook those the next day. I didn't even know that I will never cook in that kitchen again.
But this is too small in comparison to the pain of the people who couldn't reach home in the midst of the sudden lockdown in India. There are thousands of migrant workers either walking hundreds of kilometers to reach home, or living in temporary shelters or even worse just living on the roadside. On a certain level, I connect with them and see myself as a migrant worker who just returned home from another country.
Today: 14th April
Unlike all other times, living in India is a very different experience this time. We can't say we live here, however we don't know if we will go back. We are not on a holiday. It's not a time like any other.
The news stories range from a middle class talk of practising social distancing to thou-sands of stranded poor families huddled together next to each other. There were news stories of people escaping quarantine facilities. There were parallel news stories of the condition of government run quarantines.
Some stories claimed NRI's are hiding, I wonder why anyone would hide if the information would be clear. If it is known who should self-isolate, who should get tested, without the fear-mongering and stigmatisation. Some of the victims were blamed for spreading the disease. A 70-year old man who died of the virus without having known he was infected was cursed widely after his death. He was blamed for ignoring the self-quarantine guide-lines while the factual information states that no such information was provided when he travelled back into India from Italy.
The first travel advisory was issued on 10th March as per the website. An aged woman who retuned from UK and later found positive was blamed for resenting treatment but upon watching the full video being circulated, one can see she is asking to be taken to a better hospital, as many local government hospitals lack facilities. The fear, stigma and the drama is in abundance. The information is staggered.
The doctors and nurses are working hard. (I am trying to avoid the military terminology like frontline workers). The non-profits and good citizens relentlessly offer food to the poor and at the same time someone attacks doctors or policemen. The virus has had its own journey from being called a Chinese virus to Muslims now being blamed for its spread. Some have formed this view based on the incidental timing of a religious gathering. The distraction politics seems to work well. The virus is less pathological and more psychological.
Most of my middle-class friends in India are working from the comfort of their home. They have food and shelter and are enjoying family time. Some are out on their duties in banks, hospitals, media-houses, NGO's. Some engage in intellectual conversations. Some of them post pictures in Sarees and play online games. Some are bored. I feel that boredom is also a privilege. A starving child doesn't know what is boredom, he or she only knows hunger.
I feel privileged to have a comfortable home and enough to eat. But living with a generation above and a generation below you, all coping with sudden change can get over-whelming sometimes. Our challenges are fairly small. As the summer arrives and mosquitos started humming around, I am struggling to get ceiling fans installed amidst the lockdown. Some friends are out there distributing rations. We try to do our tiny bit by helping those in our contact. The rest of the time, the privilege weighs heavy enough to make me feel guilty. We spend a part of the day cooking or cleaning.
My mother's house-help hasn't been around since the lockdown but she had collected money a few times and is doing fine with her family. My teenage sons have learnt to broom and mop the house. They help my parents order online groceries and get online mobile recharge.
The other day a friend asked what I missed of Australia and I think it's the way information is presented, as mere facts, not as twisted tales. She asked me if anything makes me an-xious here in India and I must admit I am a bit jittery about two things: the readiness of medical facilities and the worry for the homeless.
A doctor friend from New York shares every day the scale of the disaster from the emer-gency room. Can we rely on the government hospitals for the adequate facilities like venti-lators if the numbers of hospital admissions suddenly increase? Are the CARE funds being utilised where they should be? Will the homeless get fed if the situation continues for months? Are we asking the right questions or getting distracted by the grand spectacle?
As the country goes into second stage of the lockdown, there is conversation on planning how to come out of the lockdown, I keep pondering what prevented us from planning the lockdown itself say over a week, giving time to people to reach home, keeping dhabas open as take away only so thousands on highways could get cheap food, letting delivery trucks reach their destinations, giving farm labour some incentive to stay put for harvesting, giving time to the local bodies to organise shelters for the homeless. I wonder how much of it can still be worked out.
As I finish a month at home, I see new reports that hundreds of migrant labourers are out on the streets again in Mumbai and Surat, demanding transport to go home. Trains and buses remain suspended during extension of lockdown and the the government continues to flash ‘Stay Home’ messages through the media.
Some among us feel lighting Diyas will take care of it all and I am learning to deal with the intellectual diversity along with the economic disparity around me. I am also wary of the fact that until a month ago, I was content with a picture of the moon from my suburban Australian house. A lot has changed since then.