Include us … that’s all people with spinal cord injuries are asking for

Because of the lack of support and access to the right tools and opportunities, majority of persons with disabilities don’t manage to find employment. Those who do, they face serious difficulties at workplaces as most offices continue to remain inaccessible or are not very inclusive when it comes to accommodating persons with disabilities.

Similarly, para-sportspersons have to struggle to find wheelchair-accessible stadiums, training institutes and coaches who are equipped to train persons with disabilities.

In some countries, including India, persons with disabilities have to make an attempt to fit in. To sensitize people, September is dedicated to spread awareness about spinal cord injuries. We spent the whole of September 2020 talking to those who are living with a spinal cord injury.

Each story is an inspiration — some found strength in sports, others in academics, while a lot of them are busy looking after their children and managing their families and at the same time being financially independent. Inclusion and acceptance … that’s all that they are asking for.

Follow this link (https://bit.ly/2Z73HwC) to read all the eight stories.

Pandemic, lockdowns, and hunger

World Food Day is observed on October 16 with an aim to eradicate hunger across the world. While, by God’s grace, we always had enough food on our plates, even during the pandemic, and most of us were in a position to help others with meals and ration during the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough since the beginning of the pandemic. Most of these families rely on daily wages or unsteady incomes and the lockdowns dealt a major blow to them. While men were out of work, it was the women who had to bear the brunt as they had to manage with less ration or the parents had to cut down on their intake, so that their children could eat enough. I spoke to five such families.   

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Family 1: Rachana Singh and her family

Four-year-old Archit hesitated and looked at his mother when I offered him an apple which was in my bag. His mother, Rachana Singh, 27, hesitated too. I kept it on the charpoy on which I was sitting. Archit took it and ran into the room while his mother went back to chopping onions and tomatoes. “It’s been months we have bought any fruits,” said Singh and apologized to me for not offering me tea or biscuits. I told her she was very kind to allow me into her house and wait for my journalist friend who was roaming around the village taking quotes for a story that he was working on. It was October 2020, and we were in Jata Barauli village, which is in the Barabanki district, about 30 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow. Singh and I got talking.

There are eight members in Singh’s family – two senior citizens, four adults and two children; out of these only two are earning members. The men worked as master craftsmen before the 2020 lockdown. They did not get a regular income, but it was steady and enough. They could buy a regular supply of milk fruits and vegetables, and sometimes indulged by buying fish, chicken, and eggs. The children would occasionally get their treats of cream biscuits and chocolates. The men could not earn between March and June 2020 when the nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country. The family had to bank on their minimal savings to keep the kitchen running and later had to borrow from a relative when the savings got exhausted. The men stepped out in July 2020 to find work but in the next four months, until October, they could collectively earn only Rs 8,000. The Singh family still had to clear the dues of the local grocery store owner who let them buy groceries on credit during the lockdown.

“These days we mostly eat a curry made of onions and tomatoes and drink tea once a day, in the morning. The adults have cut down on their tea intake so that the two children could be given milk. It’s been months since we bought fruits, eggs, chicken, or fish. We buy two-three vegetables a week. That’s all we can afford presently,” said Singh.

What about their ration cards? In Uttar Pradesh, there are 3.5 crore ration cardholders who receive a monthly quota of 3 kg wheat and 2 kg of rice at subsidized rates of Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg respectively, through 80,000 ration shops.

“Only the earning members in the family have ration cards. Our names are not mentioned in those ration cards. We have tried so many times, but because of some technical glitch, our names got omitted and the authorities have not been able to fix the error. Besides, that ration is not enough as there are eight members in the house. We still have to buy surplus wheat and rice,” said Singh.

Rachana Singh in her kitchen

Family 2: Ritu Gautam and her family

“Our diet has reduced to half. If the situation does not improve, we will have to eat less than this,” said Ritu Gautam, 25, who dropped by along with her toddler while I was talking to Singh. Gautams and Singhs are neighbours. There are twelve members in her family — eight adults and four children. Her husband is also a daily wage earner who had to sit at home during the entire lockdown. “It will take us a couple of months to recover from the lockdown. The men get angry at us and tell us to spend less. What they don’t understand is that vegetables, oil, spices, salt, pulses, wheat, rice, and milk are essential food items. When we were financially stable, it never pinched them, but now that money is an issue, they think we are splurging. Besides, if children demand extra milk, chocolates, and biscuits, we can’t say no to them every time,” said Gautam.

During the lockdown, all the state governments had pitched in to help daily wage earners and migrant labourers. In April 2020, the Uttar Pradesh government announced that it will provide an additional 5 kg of ration (rice/wheat) free along with the 5 kg of food grains to be distributed under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) – a government scheme — to each beneficiary in May and June 2020. As many as 14.5 million people in the state were expected to benefit from the scheme. However, both Singh and Gautam families slipped through the cracks did not receive this additional ration.

When I left the village that day, both the ladies were hopeful that the situation would improve soon so that they could eat two proper meals a day. Just a month later, in November, onion prices touched a record Rs 100/kg, and a few months later, in March 2021, came the second wave of coronavirus, more ferocious than the first one. In a short span of time, it claimed many lives and dealt a severe blow to the economy. Both the waves of the coronavirus led to severe job losses and those who took the maximum hit were the daily wage earners who suffered not just during the lockdown, but also after that.

Ritu Gautam with her son

Covid, job losses and hunger  

As per the latest report by Center for Monitoring India Economy (CMIE), during the first wave of Covid, India lost 6.3 million jobs. As per the same agency, when the devastating second wave halted the Indian economy, we lost an additional 13.3 million jobs. The impact of these job losses was also felt by the women who had to curtail their food budgets as a result of which most families were not eating enough.

In order to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, every year, World Food Day is celebrated across the globe on October 16. This day aims at tackling global hunger and striving to eradicate hunger across the world. In a research report published in June 2020, Oxfam had mentioned that COVID-19 was deepening the hunger crisis in the world’s hunger hotspots and creating new epicenters of hunger across the globe, and had predicted that by the end of 2020, 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself. Unfortunately, India made to its list of countries and regions where the food crisis had worsened because of the pandemic. 

While we belong to the privileged class that always had enough food on our plates, pandemic, or no pandemic, and by God’s grace, most of us were in a position to help others during both the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough food since the beginning of the pandemic.  

Family 3: Rachana Devi and her family

It’s October 2021 and people are shelling out Rs 80 to buy one kg tomatoes. “I bought basics like onions, potatoes tomatoes and a few vegetables two days back and paid Rs 350. There are four members in the family, including two children aged 11 and 14. They are not kids anymore and corresponding to their ages, their diet has also increased. While we have not curtailed our food budget, myself and my husband have cut down on our diet so that our children could eat how much ever they want to,” said Rachana Devi who lives in Lucknow’s Gwari village.

Her husband does two jobs – he works on a contract basis with a local real estate contractor and his job is to arrange for labourers, he is also a priest who visits the homes of people and performs religious ceremonies. Both the jobs took a hit during the first and the second lockdowns. In fact, the family was still coming to terms with the losses incurred during the first lockdown, when the second wave struck. “During the second wave, people were talking about the third wave in October-November. Is that true? I don’t think we are in a position to deal with more financial losses as we are rebuilding for scratch,” said Singh.

Rachana Devi outside her one-room house

Covid leads to India’s fall in hunger index

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) report 2020 released on October 14, 2021, mentions that India has slipped to the 101st position among 116 countries in the GHI ranking from its 2020 ranking (94), to be placed behind Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The report also mentions that “people have been severely hit by covid and by pandemic related restrictions in India, the country with highest child wasting rate worldwide.” The government, however, was quick to react and claimed that the methodology used to calculate India’s ranking was unscientific. Both the lockdowns undoubtedly worsened the food crisis, and the below case study is the perfect example of this.

Rakesh Singh along with his mother and children. Read their story below

Family 4: “Manoj ki mata ji” (Manoj’s mother) and her family

“Sab Manoj ki mata ji hi bulate hai,” (everyone calls me Manoj’s mother) said this woman in her sixties, when I asked her name. Brothers Manoj and Rakesh Singh, along with their families, lived in Gwari village in Lucknow until October 2020. Eight family members – the two brothers, their wives, their mother and two children – lived in a one-room house. Both brothers worked as rickshaw pullers and earned daily wages. During the first lockdown, the family had to depend on food packets that were distributed daily in the locality as in the absence of daily wages, it was difficult to buy groceries, milk, and vegetables. In the wake of a severe financial crunch, Manoj and his wife moved to their village in Sandila, a town two hours from Lucknow, where they have a small farm.  

Rakesh started earning again in August 2020, however, a few months later, the second wave struck. This time, however, there were no food packets to bank on.  

“We went hungry on some days, but thankfully, after a few weeks, we could go to our village home. We have a small farm there and we sow potatoes in it. Every month, my brother and his wife send a sack full of potatoes. In case of a third covid wave, this time we will at least have potatoes. That was our learning from the last two lockdowns. It was tough to go hungry on some days,” said Rakesh.

Putli Devi does not have money to refill her cylinder. She cooks on the chulha. Read her story below

Family 5: Putli Devi and her family   

In September 2020, just after the first lockdown, the price of one LPG cylinder was hovering around Rs 632. Presently, in October 2021, one LPG cylinder is priced at Rs 922.50. The constantly rising prices of LPG cylinders has burnt a hole in the pockets of even middle-class families, poor families don’t even have the means to refill these cylinders. A few families I met at Mehmudpur village in Barabanki district in September 2021 have gone back to cooking on chulha (wood stove). When I met Putli Devi at her house, the first thing I noticed that the ceiling of the house was covered with black soot. I wondered what cooking on the stove must be doing to her lungs. “Do we have an option? Everything is so expensive. But one must eat basic meals. We can’t cut down on the meals, we have to buy vegetables, oil, spices, wheat, rice and pulses. That can’t be done away with, so we have to cut down on other expenses. Why would I get the cylinder refilled when it costs Rs 800-900?” she asked. Her husband is a farm labourer, who was out of work during both the lockdowns, and she has two children aged 6 and 8.  

“Is there going to be a third covid wave?” asked Putli Devi, while I was leaving her house.  

Doing our bit to spread mental health awareness …

In 2020, an actor’s death and what followed thereafter gave us an immediate impetus to do a series of interviews on
mental health. We wanted to share real, lived experiences of people as well as mental health professionals.

The ongoing series is a pool of resources. Come to these interviews as and how you like — to hear voices that speak to you, to find shared, common ground, out of curiosity, to explore your own self, or to broaden your horizons. There’s no judgement here or an attempt to preach.

Follow this link to read all the stories that we have published as part of our mental health series: https://bit.ly/3BEEQ0Q

If you want to share your mental health journey, write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com

The Good Story Project turns one!

It was in October 2020, after a long and lonely lockdown, when the two of us (Prerna Shah and Swati Subhedar) decided to give a voice and a home to stories big and small.

The idea led to the formation of The Good Story Project. In the course of one year, we published 50-plus stories, including a nine-part series on mental health and eight-part series on people living with spinal cord injuries. Our other stories include writings and perspectives on parenting, adoption, kindness during covid, inclusiveness, food, environment, and many more.

Thank you, for being a part of our The Good Story Project journey! As we complete one year, this is a small gratitude post.

Connect with us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com.

Follow us:
Facebook: @thegoodstoryproject
Twitter: @TheGoodStory_

Kiranjit’s father, a farmer, died by suicide. What she has done after that is incredible

On April 23, 2016, Kiranjit Kaur’s father Gurnam Singh, 48, a farmer living in Katra Kalan village in Mansa district in Punjab hanged himself by a tree as he was unable to pay the debt of Rs 8 lakh. Kaur was just 23. After struggling emotionally and financially for two years, she formed the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee to help the families of farmers and farm labourers cope with suicide, grim reality in Punjab and the rest of the country. Today, 6,000 people are a part of the outfit. The members include families of farmers and farm labourers in Punjab who could not cope with the pressure and chose to take the extreme step. The committee members not just provide moral and emotional support to widows and mothers; they also fight for the government compensation that the victim families are supposed to get and ensure that children from such families do not drop out of schools and colleges. As September is observed as suicide prevention awareness month, reading and sharing such stories is the need of the hour  

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One telephonic conversation with Kiranjit Kaur, 25, is enough to understand how hectic her life is. During our 28-minute-long conversation, Kaur had to hang up twice as she was getting other important calls. Every time she would diligently message me to call her back and politely apologize. In between she also had a quick conversation with her mother to discuss dinner plans and instructed her brother to quickly collect clothes from the clothesline as it had started raining.  

The conversation started with small talk and exchanging pleasantries, but once she started talking about farmer suicides, the sufferings of widows and other family members, the lack of proper compensation, and the absence of suicide prevention and rehabilitation strategies, the passion in the voice of activist Kaur was unmissable. Kaur’s story is a perfect example of how sometimes adverse situations are capable of making us stronger.

“My father was my friend. He was my everything. There were no signs. So, that day (April 23, 2016) when a neighbour came and informed us that he had hung himself by a tree, it was beyond shocking. Yes, we were struggling at that point in time, but we could have never imagined that he would end his life,” said Kaur, the only time during the entire conversation when her voice choked with emotions. She added: “It was later that we came to know that he had to pay back a debt of Rs 8 lakh, including a loan taken from a government-owned bank and other lenders. Our real struggle began when we came to terms with the fact that he was no more, and we still had to pay the debt.”

Her father, Gurnam Singh, owned a three-acre family land and he had leased an eight-acre land for additional income. They would grow cotton and wheat. In 2015, a terrible pest attack damaged the entire cotton crop after which Singh’s debt kept mounting. He, like many farmers in the country, could not cope with the pressure and chose to put an end to his miseries by ending his life.

Kiranjit Kaur joins a group of widows making rotis at Singhu protest site. The 2020–2021 farmers’ protest is an ongoing protest against three farm acts which were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. Image credit: Salimah Shivji/CBC

“Our lives changed after his death. I had to drop out of college and my brother had to drop out of school (Kaur has one elder sister and a younger brother). My mother had no idea about any paperwork or bank work, so we had to figure that out. After a while, relatives stopped coming by as they feared they would have to bail us out financially. The lenders, however, never stopped knocking at our doors. I asked my brother to take up farming and I took up stitching work. I would work from morning until midnight and earned Rs 200-250 per day. I sank into depression. I would not talk to anyone. I would not step out much. It would have continued this way had I not met that elderly lady at the market that day,” said Kaur.

Kaur met an 80-year-old lady at the market who was buying sugar worth Rs 5. Kaur got curious and asked her how long it would last. “She told me that’s all she could afford. Her son, a farmer, had died by suicide after which her daughter-in-law abandoned the family and their two children, a daughter, three, and a son who was 1.5-years old. The 80-year-old grandmother was looking after the grandchildren. She took me to her house which was nearly collapsing. It made me realize that her condition was worse than mine and that’s when I decided to do something for such families,” said Kaur.

Soon Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee came into existence.

“The problem was far more serious and multifaceted”

The initial days were unstructured. Kaur would simply visit farmer families who had lost a loved one to suicide. She would listen to their problems for hours. That was crucial. Kaur noticed a typical pattern. The widows were not even aware that they could get a compensation, the children would drop out of schools and colleges, the families would not get any help from the government or relatives, and no one would listen to the victim families. The last problem was a serious one, so Kaur decided to give them a platform. All the victim families would gather at one place from time to time to share their problems and together they would find ways to deal with them.

“When I started paying door-to-door visits and listening to their issues, I realized the problem was far more serious and multi-faceted than what I had imagined it to be. We realized that the authorities were too busy and a bit indifferent to take up individual cases. So, we would go and meet the local MPs and MLAs in groups. We reversed the roles. We made sure that at such meetings widows and families got an opportunity to do the talking and the elected representative listened to their problems. We would then ask them for solutions. This boosted the confidence of victim families,” said Kaur.

Gradually, as more and more victim families started joining the outfit, they started visiting villages in districts of Punjab where farmer suicides were more rampant. They would tell farmer families that suicides were not a solution and offered to help victim families. There were two things that needed immediate attention. The first one was to ensure children from such families got adopted (their education sponsored) so that they didn’t have to drop out of schools and colleges. The committee reached out to the press, got many stories published that highlighted the plight of such families and children after which many influential families came forward to support the education of such children. Kaur herself is a beneficiary and is presently pursuing a correspondence course in journalism from Punjab University.  

The second agenda was to help widows and families get compensation from the government. In 2015, the Punjab government had raised compensation for families of debt-ridden farmers, who committed suicide, from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh. But the families didn’t know how to go about claiming that compensation. The committee members help them with the paperwork.

Just after two years of its inception, the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee was a success story. Today it is a 6,000-member strong outfit. They work in seven districts of Punjab — Mansa, Sangrur, Bhatinda, Barnala, Patiyala, Moga and Faridkot — and the cotton belt of Malwa where farmer suicides are more rampant. They are also working closely with similar outfits in other states. So far, they have taken up compensation cases of 16,606 victim families in Punjab out of which nearly 6,000 families have got full compensation. Also, thanks to their direct intervention, nearly 300 children have been adopted and their education is being funded.

To change the system, join the system  

During the 2019 Punjab assembly elections, two widows from the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee decided to take the plunge. The members felt that in order to make their voices heard, it would be better to try and be a part of the system. Hearts of hearts they knew that they did not have a chance, but it was important to make an attempt. “All sorts of things were done to discourage us. We were not given our choice of election symbol. They tried to bribe our candidates and pressurized them to withdraw from the nomination process. We persisted and the media continued to highlight our stories. That was important. We wanted to show them that ordinary men and women can put up a fight too. The most touching part was the donation that we got from the victim families. Some gave Rs 5, some Rs 100, some Rs 500. That’s how we collected Rs 84,000 and that’s how much we spent on the election campaigning. The other parties must have spent in crores. We would move around in autos while campaigning and when we got media traction because of that, the other candidates started copying us. It was quite funny,” said Kaur.     

These days many members of the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee are camping at the state border or are in Delhi as part of the farmers protests. The 2020–2021 farmers’ protest is an ongoing protest against three farm acts which were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. A stalemate between the central government and the farmers has been seen for the past few months. Farmers, farmer unions and their representatives have demanded that the laws be repealed. Kaur was at the farmers protest too. “It is a good platform where we can put our points across,” said Kaur. Yet another important call cut short our conversation … thankfully at a point where the telephonic interview was nearing an end.  

(Disclaimer: The feature image is a collage of images that accompanied new reports featuring Kiranjit Kaur published in [clockwise] The Times of India, CBC and AlJazeera)

Read Mumbai-based Psychiatrist Shyam Mithiya’s interview where he talks about suicide prevention. You can find the other stories that we did as part of our series on mental health here. If you need to get in touch with mental professionals, dial these verified helpline numbers. NIMHANS: 080-46110007, AASRA: 9820466726, Talk to me: 9372909321/9820235880, iCALL: 9152987824

“It is tragic that people make elephants run like rats by throwing fireballs at them”

Between 2015 and 2019, 62 elephants were killed by trains in India and more than 1,700 people and more than 300 elephants died in encounters with each other. The human-elephant conflict is real, and, in most cases, humans are to be blamed for it. In the name of development and wanting more coal mines, factories, railway lines and wider highways, we have entered the homes of elephants and we blame them for coming out and destroying paddy fields and harming humans. In one of the chapters of her recently published book Wild and Wilful, Neha Sinha, conservation biologist and author, has documented many heart-breaking stories of elephants and their calves falling into mine pits, getting crushed under trains or sustaining burn injuries because of fireballs thrown at them. On this World Elephant Day, The Good Story Project interviews Neha Sinha to understand how deep-rooted the human-elephant conflict is and challenges of wildlife conservation.

In her book, which came out in February 2021, Sinha has documented stories of crisis involving iconic species found in India – the Indian leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra, the tiger butterflies, the rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach – and how development has been and will continue to be a silent killer of these iconic species.  

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The elephant is our national heritage animal, yet, today only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago. We have entered the homes of elephants in the name of development. How can we undo the damage already being done?

There is a lot of conflict between people and elephants in India. Other than the elephant conflict that happens in terms of people and elephants encountering each other and getting hurt, there is another kind of conflict. A lot of planning has been done in areas where elephants live and many mines, industries, factories, railway tracks and highways have come up in these areas which is detrimental to them. The elephants must walk to find food and water. But, with their habitat shrinking, they have to walk through and around the obstructions made in the name of development. This leads to disasters. Let me give you an example. In 2015, the elephants near Kaziranga in Assam encountered something novel – a wall meant for a township and a golf course. The wall was a part of the elephants’ walkway. For days, they made attempts to cross this barrier. Many photos emerged and in one of the pictures, a calf was seen trying to break the wall with his tiny head. The calf was later found dead next to the wall having suffered a haemorrhage.

In another instance, in 2019, villagers in Naxalbari in North Bengal tried to push off a herd of elephants from their paddy fields by throwing fireballs at them. Scared, the herd moved towards a railway line. The entire herd crossed the line, but a young calf could not as there was a steep incline. The calf scrambled down the slope and got hit by a train that came rushing towards it. His mother Ganga – an extremely loving and caring mother figure to the entire herd – died saving her child.

There have been many instances where elephants have sustained injuries or have died because of people chasing them with sticks or throwing firecrackers and fireballs at them to shoo them away. It’s tragic. The elephant is our national heritage animal, and we make them run like rats. They are very emotional animals. They have long memories, and they remember tragic incidents. They are also sharp enough to pass on this information to their young ones. The elephant chapter in the book is the longest one. It was difficult for me to write stories so full of tragedies.

Ganga and her calf. Both were killed by a train in 2019. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Last year, during the nationwide lockdown, there was outrage when an elephant died after consuming a cracker-filled pineapple. People could express their anger because the incident was reported. Many elephants die a silent death, and we don’t get to grieve for them. What should be done to keep the human-elephant conflict debate alive?

There was outrage because the elephant was also pregnant. We must understand that at any given point in time, a female elephant is either pregnant or is a caregiver. They have long pregnancies and because they are big animals, the young ones stay with their mothers for a few years. So, a female elephant dying is extremely tragic. It was terrible the way that pregnant elephant died after consuming the pineapple which was a bait bomb. People reacted the way they did was because everybody likes the idea of a mother and the mother being a caregiver.

People should understand that elephants are not trying to harm them. By entering their fields, all they are doing is trying to survive. They enter the fields because it’s easy nutrition for them and because their habitat has shrunk. There is no need to kill them or be so unkind to them. However, instead of merely saying that farmers should not harm them, we need to have a system in place. For any kind of conservation, we need political will as well as support from people. We need to take some hard decisions. To begin with, we cannot have more highways and coal mines in elephant areas.

Author and conservation biologist Neha Sinha and her book

Your book – Wild and Wilful – documents stories of conflicts involving some of the iconic species found in India and how they are on the verge of extinction. Tell us more about your book which you started writing during one of the gloomiest chapters of our lives – the pandemic-induced lockdown. How difficult was it to a write about wilderness while being confined to four walls of your home?

I did a lot of fieldwork for this book and started writing it in the end of 2019. I wanted to finish it by mid-2020 but the pandemic happened, and things became difficult. I wanted to visit many more places while writing this book, but that did not happen. I am a wildlife person and I need to be outside. It was tough writing this manuscript sitting at home!

This book is about the wild and I have been to deserts, mountains, rivers, woodlands, lakes and political capitals to bring you the stories of India’s wildest citizens, along with some remarkable people who share insights on, and their lives with, these animals. In the book I have written about the Indian Leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra and the spectacled cobra, tiger butterflies, rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach or the Mugger crocodile. The book loosely follows the structure of Earth, Sky, Water and Heart. It is divided further into the places where the animals are found. Under ‘Earth’, we have political capitals, deserts, woodlands and forest, under ‘Sky’, we have birds and butterflies that spend days migrating between countries or states. Under ‘Water’, we have ponds and rivers. Under Heart, we have urban jungles, the places many of us live in.

A leopard seen in a tea garden in North Bengal. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Which chapter of your book is your favourite and why?

The elephant chapter is the closest to my heart as I felt very emotional while writing it. However, I also like the butterfly chapter. The butterflies are so whimsical and mysterious at the same time they are so beautiful and fragile. Their stories are so fascinating! For instance, the black and orange-coloured monarch butterflies, found in America, migrate not just over countries but continents! They start from Canada, avoiding the cold, and reach Mexico where they cover fir trees in millions. A single butterfly cannot complete this intercontinental journey. On the way southwards, the butterfly lays eggs, caterpillars emerge, and new butterflies are born. Hence, the butterflies that reach Mexico from Canada are third or fourth generation butterflies!

Which species mentioned in your book requires our immediate attention?

It would definitely be the great Indian bustard (GIB). There are about 100 remaining in India and that’s the entire global population. Over the years, their habitat has shrunk considerably. Earlier, they were found all over Central India, the Deccan Plateau, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Now they and found only in Rajasthan and Gujarat. However, the solar and wind energy plants that have come up in the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat are the latest threat to them. The plants are not a problem, the real problem are the wires that carry the power to energy grids. The GIBs never evolved to dodge these wires. They are the heaviest flying birds on earth, so they lack the speed and manoeuvrability that other birds have. The Supreme Court has directed the governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan to lay high voltage power lines underground in the habitats of the bird to aid in its conservation efforts. We should have implemented this yesterday. We cannot afford to lose more GIBs. In 2019, a centre was set up in Rajasthan. Here, birds are hatched from eggs, chicks are raised, and ultimately, they all are released back into the wild. This is a good first step.

The Great Indian Bustard. Image credit: Dhritiman Mukherjee

India had 1.2 million snakebite deaths from 2000 to 2019. Hence, there is a tendency to attack and kill snakes. However, there is also a section that worships snakes. We have a similar love-hate relationship with elephants and monkeys. Does this make their conservation difficult? 

Yes, we do have a bipolar perspective on many animals. We kill cobras, but we also kill the rat snakes, that are not even poisonous. We worship elephants and keep them in temples, which is incorrect. They are wild animals, and it takes years of beating before they become the way they are seen in temples. All this is done in the name of culture. However, culture should be progressive and not stuck in a time capsule. Having said that, there are genuine problems and conservation cannot happen if we ignore these problems. There is a reason why people kill snakes. So instead of blaming them, there is a need to create awareness. Just like the covid vaccine is not an option, having an antidote (drug, chelating substance, or a chemical that neutralizes the effects of another drug or a poison) available in places which have snake bite is not an option. However, at many primary health centres, these antidotes are either expired or not available. These problems need to be solved and not pushed under the carpet.

A King cobra. Imamge credit: Jignasu Dolia

We love discussing politics, current affairs, cricket or our Olympic wins over chai, coffee and drinks. However, grave issues like climate change, environment-related issues, human-animal conflicts and wildlife conservation are topics that don’t come up for discussion frequently. What should be done to change this?

A report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently mentions that India may see more heatwaves, landslides, droughts, rainfall, cyclones and agricultural and ecological droughts. There has been an increase in extreme events like excessive rainfall in the Himalayas and frequent cyclones. We are going to suffer financial loss and loss of livelihood because of these extreme events. Climate change is going to affect all of us, and we must take it seriously. Henceforth, our development plans should not disregard climate change. We shouldn’t be blasting the mountains in the Himalayas to make roads. We are aware. Acceptance is not a problem, but lack of action is. We want to continue to function like we have been functioning. We are already experiencing climate change, but the government is pretending as if it does not know. We are still planning dams in the Himalayas even though every year people are dying because of floods and landslides. We need a greater citizen movement. Societal pressure will lead to the government acting. But for that to happen, people need to start talking and discussing.   

A mugger crocodile. Image credit: Neha Sinha

How should we train our children so that they start taking issues like wildlife conservation and climate change seriously right from a young age?

This is a good time. There are a lot more eco clubs than there ever were before. People are using Apps to identify birds, plants and insects. People are reading a lot more and taking up conservation and wildlife as serious hobbies. As for the kids, they need to be taken outside. I can not stress this enough. It does not matter where — in the wilderness, deserts, forests, grasslands. Seeing is learning and nature is very interesting. Something is constantly happening. Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves. If we get them to do this, half the battle is won.  

“Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves”. Image credit: Swati Subhedar

A million-dollar question. Can development and wildlife conservation go hand in hand?

Development is important. However, there has to be social and environmental conscience as well. If you are opening an industry that pollutes the water table, then find options for people living there and the wildlife. Don’t make things worse than they already are. There is lot of scope of sustainable development in India so we must start walking the talk now. We wanted to clean the Ganga and the Yamuna, but we have not managed to achieve that. The Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans are in place for years. We must act now. We must keep the eco-system intact. The more we disturb it, the more difficult life on earth is going to be.

Neha Sinha is an award-winning wildlife conservationist. She has studied biodiversity conservation at Oxford University, after winning an INLAKS scholarship, and works with the Bombay Natural History Society at present. She is also a noted columnist and has taught environmental politics at Delhi University. Wild animals are her favourite, followed closely by books.

“We must find ways to show Adivasi ‘superfoods’ a way into our kitchens!”

As per the United Nations, there are over 476 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the world, accounting for 6.2% of the global population. They are the holders of a vast diversity of unique cultures, traditions, languages, and knowledge systems. On this International Day of Indigenous Peoples, Dr Deepak Acharya, an Ethnobotanist, a PhD in Plant Sciences and a herbal enthusiast, who has been working with Adivasis for many years, takes us to the jungles of Dang in Gujarat, Patalkot in Madhya Pradesh, and Bastar in Chhattisgarh to introduce us to some of the ‘superfoods’ that the Adivasis living in these regions consume; some of which can and should make a way into our kitchens! A first-person account …     

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I have been visiting the Patalkot Valley in Madhya Pradesh for the past 20-25 years. The breathtaking and mystical valley, situated 78 kms from the Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh, has been my second home for years now. The valley, spread over an area of nearly 80 square kilometers, is known for retaining its original culture and customs and is home to the Gonds and Bharia tribes, who, experts claim, have been living there for the past 500 years. 

The Patalkot Valley is the home of some of the rare medicinal plants and herbs and the Adivasis living in Patalkot make pulps and extracts of these herbs and plants to treat many illnesses and diseases, including measles, cholera, hypertension, diabetes, cough, snake bites, and many aches and pains.

Over the years, the Adivasis living in the 12-13 hamlets in Patalkot have not only become my family and friends, but they have also imparted their wealth of traditional knowledge onto me. These are their secret formulae that you will not find in any academic books. One gets to learn so much just by observing them and interacting with them.  

For instance, in the initial years, when I used to visit Patalkot, it was astonishing for me to see how even the elderly, the women and the children would walk for 15-20 kms daily without getting exhausted. I would feel ashamed as even a kilometer-long hike would make me breathless, and they all would stare at me as if I had committed some crime! Then, gradually, valuable tips shared by them helped me work on my stamina and strengthen my lung capacity. I started documenting the stories narrated by them and that’s how I discovered a superfood — their secret recipe to physical fitness!

Immunity-booster agithas. Image credit: Deepak Acharya

These Adivasis consume a root vegetable called agitha (known as Air Yam or Air Potato in English). Full of potassium and manganese, proteins, minerals and macro and micro- nutrients, these agithas give them the requisite strength to survive in difficult terrains by making their heart stronger. It also improves their digestive system.

Now, this is what is incredible. Adivasi women recommend agitha to treat vaginal dryness and hot flashes. It is also eaten extensively by women who have hit menopause. Initially, when I learned about agitha, I wanted to crosscheck the claims made by the Adivasis with the facts existing in scientific journals. It is well documented that agitha contains an element called Diosgenin which has diverse medicinal properties, including antioxidation and anti-inflammation. In fact, a review article mentioned that Adivasis living in Africa make pulp of agithas and use it to treat vaginal infections, irregular periods, and other inflammations. However, there is no study that elaborates on the connection between African Adivasis and Patalkot Adivasis! I have no idea whether, back in the day, the Adivasis from Africa visited Patalkot or the Adivasis from Patalkot went on an African safari! But it’s incredible how this knowledge gets passed on from one generation to the other and transcends geographical boundaries!

Agithas, that taste like boiled potatoes, are often eaten with salt and rotis. Image credit: Deepak Acharya

If you visit Patalkot or other such Adivasi-dominated regions, you will find these Air Yams carelessly hanging on to the fences of their homes. One crop fetches 10-12 kgs agithas in one season. This goes on year after year. Interestingly, one big root that produces these small agithas keeps growing beneath the surface of the ground. It’s taken out once in 2-3 years and weighs between 6 and 12 kgs. This is also boiled and consumed, however, once this root is uprooted, a new crop of agitha has to be planted.

Once, when I visited the Dang district in Gujarat, also an Adivasi-dominated region, I was ecstatic when I was served agitha with a roti made of rice flour! The agitha-roti combination was the best meal I had had in days!

Agithas taste like boiled potatoes. If these agithas find their ways into our kitchens and are given to women and children, imagine how fit and healthy the next generation is going to be! Unfortunately, we have been bitten by the consumerism bug, and most of us often end up picking up such ‘traditional superfoods’ from supermarkets and end up paying a bomb for these products in the name of healthy living. Instead of popping health capsules and multivitamins, we must create awareness among people so that they start consuming these traditional healthy superfoods; treasures that Adivasis and those living in remote corners of the country have preserved for years.   

I am glad my work has taken me to places and I was able to document some of these incredible stories.

The Madia crabs. Image credit: Ravish Raj Parmar

Crabs and mushrooms to beat monsoon illnesses

As soon as the monsoons arrive, the Adivasis living in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh flock to the nearby rivers, ponds and lakes to catch crabs. Seen in the picture above are the Madia crabs, which are said to be packed with healthy minerals. The Adivasis living in Bastar either make crab soup or eat a roasted delicacy. They believe the Madia variety of crabs boosts their immunity, keeps them warm during the brutal monsoon, and makes their bodies stronger. If you visit the markets in Bastar during the monsoons, you will find many Adivasis selling these crabs as they are also a source of their income. These crabs are also eaten in Dang, Gujarat and Patalkot, Madhya Pradesh.

Another common monsoon delicacy for the Adivasis are the mushrooms. Seen in the picture below are the Boda mushrooms that are predominantly found in the Bastar region. A fun fact. The Boda mushrooms are one of the most expensive vegetables sold in India! A kilo of Boda mushrooms easily fetch Rs 1,000-1,500 or more! And the reason for this is that they are packed with medicinal properties and essential nutrients and minerals. The Boda mushrooms are full of carbohydrates, fibers, zinc and, iron and are used to treat heart and blood pressure-related diseases. There are two varieties of Boda mushroom found in Bastar — Jaat Boda and Lakhri Boda, but it’s the Jaat Boda Mushroom that’s more famous and lucrative.

The Futu and Boda mushrooms. Image credit: Ravish Raj Parmar

Interestingly, these Boda mushrooms are also very elusive. The Adivasis have to do a lot of hard work to find these Mushrooms in the dense forests of Bastar. However, they also have an eye for these mushrooms and they spot them easily.   

Another variety of mushrooms that’s commonly consumed by Adivasis to keep monsoon illnesses at bay are the Futu mushrooms that are packed with antioxidants and proteins. Many varieties of Futu mushrooms grow in the jungles of Bastar. Not all are meant to be consumed, but the Adivasis can identify the varieties, like the Jaam Futu, that can be bought home and consumed.  

Mahua rotis and raspberries leaves to reduce labour pain

A couple of years back, I visited Shimla to attend a conference organized by the National Biodiversity Board. After the meeting sessions, I would go hiking into the jungles. I would walk for 25-30 kms daily and meet and interact with local people. One day I saw an old lady plucking raspberry leaves. I came to know while interacting with her that these leaves are packed with medicinal properties. Expectant mothers are given these leaves. Consumption of these leaves helps in reducing labour pain. These leaves are also used to treat other stomach aches and stomach-related illnesses. Those living in the interior villages in the Himalayas have been using these remedies. One cup full of raspberries contains 56% vitamin C and 45% manganese and micro-nutrients. Do consume raspberries when you can!

Raspberry leaves are crushed and given to expecting mothers. Image credit: Sangita Thakur

Another delicacy that’s not just a hit with the Adivasis living in the Central belt of the country but is also a lucrative source of income for them is mahua. They make and sell liquor made of mahua, but they also consume chapatis made of dried mahua flowers. Also, the mahua seeds are crushed to make an oil which in local parlance is called ‘gulli ka tel’ (gulli oil). It is used to treat many skin-related infections.  

There are many such food stories that Adivasis all over India are ready to share. We must start documenting them for our own good. Some of these superfoods stare at us from the shelves of supermarkets, and many of us end up buying these super-expensive products in the name of health, but in reality, some of these products are present around us. All we have to do is look around and try to make these Adivasi traditions a part of our lives.  

Do you know Adivasis use the pulp of raw papaya to remove unwanted hair? Those living down South use coffee powder to exfoliate their scalp? Many Adivasis use dried pomegranate to deal with dental plaque? Deepak Acharya documents such stories regularly on Facebook. To read such interesting stories, follow Deepak Acharya on Facebook.

Will you hire them?

Social inclusion and equality are two powerful words, but when it comes to employing persons with disabilities (PwDs), people with special needs, and members from the LGBTQ+ community, the numbers are not very impressive. In many parts of the world, June is dedicated to celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and their struggles against discrimination and social ostracization. June 18 is also celebrated as Autistic Pride Day. On this day, The Good Story Project takes you to a cafe in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. Here’s what is interesting. Presently, staff members at one of the branches include 15 people with hearing impairment, four transgenders, one person with Down Syndrome, one person who has a condition called dwarfism, and two trafficking survivors. Priyank Patel, founder, and managing partner of Nukkad Tea Café, talks about the challenges and the need to make these very talented people a part of the mainstream 

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June is celebrated as Pride Month. Please share the journey of people from the LGBTQ+ community working at your café.

Since its inception on June 18 in 2013, Nukkad has been working to promote social inclusion and equality. We started working with the members from the LGBTQ+ community in 2015. It was a one of its kind social experiment to recruit transgender people at various positions at the café. We went through our share of anxiety and skepticism and were not sure if the society would be as inclusive as we were trying to be. We met many people who were working with transgenders in Raipur. Through counselling sessions, we had to convince them about Nukkad working as an alternative medium of social security and financial independence and that our endeavour was to help them live with dignity and get social acceptance. We recruited a few members from the transgender community, trained them and taught them the basics of working in the hospitality sector. The experience and outcome were amazing. We were pleasantly surprised to see the overwhelming response from society as well.

Presently, we have two members from the transgender community working at one of our branches — Sagar (Asmita) is 29, a BBA graduate, who hails from the Charama block in Chhattisgarh, and Yugal (Illiana) who has cleared her 10 standard and hails from Mahasamund district in the state.

Sagar (Asmita) at the café

June 18 is celebrated as Autism Pride Day. Do you have any people with special needs working at the café? 

We do not have any employees with Autism, but we do have Sunil Vacchani working with us who has Down Syndrome. After working with the differently-abled community members for the past five years, we always wanted to explore the possibility of hiring a person with Down Syndrome. We met Sunil bhaiyya through a local NGO. As it was a first for us, we had to put in some effort. The team had to be sensitized and trained to understand the strengths of Sunil bhaiyya. We have given him a comfortable working shift of six hours and have assigned him as the ‘Happiness Ambassador’.  He is a devoted team member, is charming, and always smiling. He is 46 and supports his mother financially.  

Sunil bhaiyya at the Nukkad Café

How did Nukkad come into being? Why did you decide to hire people with special needs?

Nukkad is not just a tea café; we have been promoting social inclusion over a cup of chai since 2013. We are a social movement aiming to engage, employ and empower marginalized community members. I graduated in Electronics and Telecommunication in 2007 from Shankracharya College of Engineering in Chhattisgarh and got placed in an IT firm in Delhi. For the next four years, I worked with various other firms. In 2011, I was chosen for a fellowship and worked extensively with various organizations in Gujarat, Odisha, and Maharashtra for two years. I worked on rural livelihood, stayed within the community, and experienced how the village-based economy functions, the social structure of Indian villages, and the yawning gaps in our system.

I realized there is an immediate need for an interactive community space and came with the idea of a Chai Cafe that will employ and empower the marginalized segment of the society comprising the people with hearing impairment, people with learning disabilities, dwarfs, trafficking survivors and transgenders. We started in 2013, and today we have four outlets in two cities (Raipur and Bhilai). So far, we have employed and empowered over 40 talented people and we are India’s very first café employing 15 transgender community members over a period of time.

Priyank Patel, founder of the Nukkad café

What are the challenges of hiring persons with disabilities/those with special needs? 

Reaching out is a challenge as with every new community, our area of exposure and training patterns change. We need to keep connecting with various NGOs, local bodies, individuals, and families to identify people. We have to constantly evolve. For instance, we have to learn sign language while dealing with the hearing impaired community members, we need to learn body language and change our tone of communication while dealing with people with Down Syndrome and trafficking survivors. The cross-community synchronization is a challenge as we have to ensure that the multiple communities working in the same organization respect each other and adapt to each other’s needs.

Training them is a challenge as many of our team members who are from marginalized communities generally have low or no school education. They also have low self-esteem and were never generally exposed to the world of hospitality. Our efforts lie in developing an inclusive working environment that helps each of our team members to acquire and aspire for more and offer equal growth opportunities for all.

Sunil Vacchani (left) and Manish Khunte

How do your customers react? Are they as inclusive? 

Social inclusion is a broad term, and our consistent efforts are towards developing an inclusive work environment by sensitizing society as well. Nukkad has been widely acclaimed and appreciated for its initiatives and people have always shown efforts in learnings and supporting the inclusive vibes of the café. Very rarely do we receive any inconvenience complaints because of the specially-abled employees working at our café.

Those coming to the café and being courteous to the staff, may not end up hiring persons with disabilities or people with special needs as their staff members at home or in the office? What should be done to bridge this gap?

Sensitizing the sociality about social inclusion is as important as active participation and we try to do both. We have not just sensitized thousands of people about the challenges and potentials of hiring persons with disabilities, but we also have broken many prejudices and myths about the employability of PwDs. In a society where there are hundreds of unemployed youth, one is always competing to hire “normal” people. Secondly, it requires efforts and amending of processes to create an inclusive work environment. Unless there are incentives, I don’t think people would be very thrilled to hire PwDs.

I would recommend keeping the hiring process fair and open for all. One should hire a person who fits the job description. In order to make it a practice, the government must, among other things, incentivize employers who hire persons with disabilities/special needs and support young PwDs entrepreneurs so that they can create opportunities for persons with disabilities/special needs.

Do you think being employed and financially independent makes it easier for PwDs/those with special needs to find a place in the society/family and it boosts their self-esteem? 

A BIG yes. We have seen a transformation in personalities and acceptance in society for the PwDs/those with special needs. A financially independent and confident PwD works as a motivation and inspiration for the entire community and inspires a complete generation of PwDs to come forward and give their best to create a good life for their own self.

Would you like to narrate an incident that touched your heart and left you emotional? 

A transgender person working with us was into begging earlier. Working with us was her first “dignified” job. She put in all her efforts to adapt to the hospitality segment. She was skeptical and afraid and was not sure if customers would accept her, but she has managed so well. We have visitors who come from far just to listen to her stories and celebrate their birthdays with her. It touched my heart when a family said that they had always perceived a transgender person in a bad light and that they never knew that they can be so loving and caring.

Pic credit: Priyank Patel

I tested Covid positive recently, but this is not my story …

“Positive”. I was not surprised. I had started showing symptoms. So, one evening, while returning from work, I bought basics like an oximeter, a few specific medicines and isolated myself. The initial few days were tough, but the recovery phase was tougher. I experienced “collective grief”. The images and heart-breaking stories flashing on my TV screen and mobile feed were having a devastating effect on me. However, the comforting presence of Covid warriors who took to social media to help people desperately looking for hospitals, beds, oxygen, plasma, ventilators, medicines, or Remdisivir injections was extremely reassuring. Though I was in isolation in a city I had moved into just two years back, and did not have a solid support system in place, I was confident that if I needed help, it would arrive through social media

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The date was April 13. It was 2 pm. The humidity was unbearable, and I was too tired to stand any longer. I looked around. Nearly 150 people waiting in the “Covid area” of a government facility in Mahanagar area of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, were getting restless. There were young children and many senior citizens, but there were no chairs or benches. All were wearing masks, but I could see fear, anxiety, and helplessness in their eyes. There was not much scope for social distancing, but somebody could have switched on the fans at least.

At 2:20 pm, a man wearing a PPE kit emerged. Another one behind him was carrying Covid test paraphernalia. Yet another man was carrying a very sarkari-looking microphone and a speaker. They disappeared into a small room. The man wearing the PPE kit opened a small window through which he would take the RT-PCR test samples. The man carrying test kits sat with a register. The man holding the microphone started calling out names.

One by one, people went to the window, got their test done, and went away. No questions were entertained. A few senior citizens requested the team to take their samples first, but they were sternly told to wait for their turn and that the names would be called out in the order in which Aadhaar numbers were registered. A notice informed us that we could log on to a Covid-specific government website the next day to know our test results.

Under normal circumstances, I would have gone to a private clinic, but as Corona cases had started spiralling in Lucknow in April, private labs succumbed under pressure. After making at least 10 calls to different private labs, I tried contacting a few paramedics who usually come home and take the samples. All the numbers were switched off. I then contacted Nikhil Sahu, a journalist, who works as a health reporter with a reputed newspaper in Lucknow. He suggested I go to this government facility as it was the closest to me. I did not know the procedure. He asked me to send him my Aadhaar details and he managed the rest. All I had to do was to go there for the test. The others did not have it this easy. One is supposed to physically go to the facility in the morning, register his/her name and Aadhaar number and return at 2 PM for the test.   

I could not have taken an Ola or an Uber, so I took my two-wheeler, followed directions on Google Map, and managed to reach the facility. The deserted roads augmented my anxiety. My mind was constantly buzzing with many “what ifs”. I shall be eternally grateful to Sahu for helping me out though we have met just once. After recovering, when I called to thank him, we talked about how April wreaked havoc on Lucknow, as it did in other cities.

“There was a sudden rise in the number of Covid cases in April first week. By the second week, nearly 5,000 people were testing positive daily. All the labs were functioning for 18 hours, yet thousands were not able to get the tests done,” said Sahu over the phone. He added: “Many healthcare workers had also tested positive, so private labs were closed. As per the government directives, nearly 50,000 tests had to be done, but only 25,000 were happening on the ground.”

Indians would like to erase April 2021 from their memories. People showing severe symptoms could not get themselves tested; more serious patients were not getting beds, ventilators, or oxygen. As per media reports, many were dying at home and the number of deaths revealed by the government was not in sync with the scenes at crematoriums across the country.

I was, like many others, so numb with grief that I consumed news like a maniac. After all, when you are isolating alone, your mobile and television are your only sources of contact with the outside world. In addition, there was a lot of Covid anxiety to deal with. In the initial days, I would wake up in the middle of the night to check my oxygen level and there were times when I felt completely helpless when the thermometer displayed “102”. One night, I dreamt that some strangers were taking me to a hospital in a blue body bag.  

Close friends living in India and abroad called and messaged regularly. “What’s the oxygen level” replaced “good morning” messages. Ex-colleagues and building-mates would send me numbers of oxygen suppliers and tiffin services and bought me groceries and medicines. Panicked family members did all they could sitting thousands of kms away. A special thanks to my landlord Subhash Pandey, 55, a Supreme Court advocate, who bought milk for me every day, and my landlady, Indu Pandey, who would call me twice a day to “entertain” me.

While I can write a book on all these kind souls, this story is not about them. This story is about those known and unknown people on social media who kept me reassured. The situation was so bad that I would often wonder whom I would approach if my oxygen level started dipping or if I needed hospitalization, or how will I help my parents who were in another city if they needed help.

I would read all the “SOS” and “Urgent Help Needed” messages on Twitter and Facebook just to understand how others were reaching out to those who needed help. When the system started crumbling, it was these ordinary men and women who put social media to good used and went out of their way to help others. As Sahu puts it very aptly: “Social media acted like one big pharmacy and a hospital. Oxygen, injections, medicines, beds, plasma, ambulances … everything was available here. People were turning to social media for help as they were getting help on these platforms.”

A Linkedin post by Kavita Pathak, Director, Jaipuria Institute of Management, posted in April is the perfect example of how strangers turned into angels. Here is the edited version of what she wrote:

“In the middle of the night, my 85-year-old father’s oxygen level started fluctuating. One oxygen cylinder reached my doorstep at 3 AM, dropped by someone whom I did not know. He was just a phone number. I got in touch with one Puja ji. One Abhishek ji who lives in Indira Nagar in Lucknow started from his place at 2:15 AM, went to Gomti Nagar where Puja ji lived, collected the oxygen cylinder and reached my place in Mahanagar area at 3 AM. Not a penny exchanged. He even called the next day to ask about my father.”

It was stories like these that kept Covid patients, and their families, hopeful amid so much gloom. People were not only tagging others who were in a position to help, they were going out of their way by personally calling oxygen suppliers and hospitals and sharing only verified numbers.

“It was a critical time and people were doing what they could do to help those who were scrambling to get beds and oxygen. We could not have miraculously built more hospitals or produced surplus oxygen, but people realized that they could help others by at least telling them where hospitals and oxygen were available,” said Mithilesh Dhar Dubey, a journalist based in Lucknow. He has been very active on social media right from the time when the second covid wave hit Uttar Pradesh and has managed to help nearly 50 people with beds, oxygen and Remdisivir injections.  

He shared a touching story with us.

“On April 21, at 10 pm, I got a call from a lady from Prayagraj. I am not sure where did she get my number from. She was crying and said her husband was Covid positive and unwell. She had managed to get him to the city 25 kms from where she was in an auto but was not getting any bed. She was seven months pregnant. I asked her to wait. Then through my sources and online resources, I found out that one hospital in Prayagraj had seven beds with oxygen cylinders. I called the hospital and confirmed. I then asked the lady to go there. There she was asked for a letter from the Chief Medical Officer, which she did not have. So, I called the District Magistrate of Prayagraj. Her husband finally got a bed. His oxygen level improved from 70 to 95. She called me the next day, thanked me and said if she has a boy, she will name him Mithilesh.”

As the number of Covid cases started spiralling across India, so did the number of posts on social media. People did not waste crucial time blaming the system or cribbing about the failed healthcare facilities. They started tagging random people who they thought were in a position to help Covid patients and their families. And these tags were not city or state-specific. Such was the power of social media that a person sitting in Mumbai could, indirectly, or through other people, help someone in need in Delhi, Jaipur or Ahmedabad.

“This is how it worked. When help was sought by someone on social media, people would randomly tag other people. Sensing the urgency, these people would do all in their capacity to help the person on their own or they would rope in more people. The entire chain would work tirelessly until the person in need got help. What was most touching was that not everyone knew everyone in this chain,” said Gaurav Girija Shukla, who lives in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, and owns a PR and brand management firm. Shukla, and others like him have, so far, through a WhatsApp group, helped more than 250 covid patients recuperating at home by providing them timely help in the form of consultation, medication or hospitalization with the help of a panel of doctors, few volunteers and 2-3 helpline executives.

Talking about how the power of social media transcended state boundaries, Shukla narrated an incident.

“One day, at around 8 pm, I got a call from a friend of mine living in Raipur. His friend had landed in Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh) earlier that day from Bangalore where his brother had just moved in only to realize that his brother and his entire family were Covid positive. The brother needed hospitalization as his oxygen level was constantly dipping, but the friend did not know Jabalpur. Without wasting any moment, a bunch of us in Raipur jumped in to help. We contacted a few journalists, influencers, politicians and NGOs in Jabalpur. By 11 pm, his brother got a bed in a good hospital.”   

However, the journey was emotionally and logistically draining for these social media worriers. Twitter accounts of those who were incessantly helping people by tagging others were suspended temporarily. Some Facebook users who were trying to help received a warning. In addition, some state governments came down heavily on people who were seeking help for medical assistance of oxygen supplies for their families or friends for spreading misinformation. On April 28, a man was charged in Uttar Pradesh over oxygen SOS on Twitter for his dying grandfather.

However, on April 30, the Supreme Court warned state governments against doing so. In a strongly-worded statement, the Apex court said: “Let a strong message go across to all states that we will consider it a contempt of this court if any citizen is harassed for making a plea on social media/media for making an appeal for oxygen/beds etc. Clampdown on information contrary to basic precepts. No state can clampdown on information.”

These restrictions have not stopped people from helping each other. However, fatigue has set in. People feel anxious and frustrated when they are not able to help anyone.

Last year, Daya Sagar, a journalist based in Lucknow, helped migrant labourers who were walking back home by providing them with cooked food, milk and water, and daily wagers with dry ration. “As a journalist, I couldn’t have just covered these stories. I had to help those people. By doing so I got in touch with a lot of people, communities, and groups on social media. So, this year, when people needed medical help, these networks enabled me to immediately start helping people. It is hugely satisfying when I manage to help people, but some days are frustrating,” he said.

In May first week, he wrote a Facebook post saying: “Now I don’t feel like giving false promises to people. I have exhausted most of my ground resources, but people are still not getting beds or ventilators. At times, even after dialling 10 numbers, we do not get a positive response from doctors. Even plasma donors are difficult to find. In cities like Delhi or Mumbai people are aware, so they help. But in smaller towns, people are still not thinking beyond themselves. It has become exhausting. Now, if I am not able to help someone, by evening I start feeling guilty.”

Sahu’s quote sums up this feeling. “I tried to help as many people as I could. But there were times when people died because I could not help them. I feel especially terrible when I am not able to help young patients. On such days, I sit in my room and cry,” he said.

For daily wage earners and migrant labourers, it’s a sense of Déjà vu

For more than a year, our lives have revolved around Covid. A pandemic fatigue had set in. But just when people were hoping to move on, the situation exploded in our faces. The second Covid wave has hit India hard. The country is reporting on average three lakh fresh Covid infections daily and rumours of lockdown are making people anxious and restless. Yet again, migrant workers and daily wage earners are crowding local train and bus stations to return home because bitter memories of the 2020 lockdown are still fresh in their minds. We bring to you five heart-breaking stories of those who had faced harrowing experiences during the lockdown last year. They shudder to think what is in store for them and others this year

…..

“Please take some. It’s from a good shop,” said Anil Shastri, 38, as he offered me some sweets. This was just before Diwali in October 2020. Shastri and his family, comprising wife Rekha Devi (32) and two children Priya (13) and Mayank (7), lived in a one-room home in a lane not far from where I live in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It is tucked between rows of bungalows on either side and most of the occupants are daily wage earners. As Shastri and I spoke, his wife sat on the floor to make tea and his children settled in another corner of the house to do their homework.

“It’s a sad Diwali. I have not had a regular income since the lockdown was announced in March (2020). I am not touching my savings because it’s meant for school fees and medical emergencies, but I withdrew some cash to buy new clothes for my children and this box of sweets,” he said. Shastri worked as a priest and before the lockdown, people would call him home for religious functions. He would get paid in cash and sometimes in kind. The earning was decent but cyclic. He earned well during the festivals, but otherwise, it was a daily struggle.

However, on March 24, 2020, the day the first three-week-long nationwide lockdown was announced, Shastri knew it was bad news. “The government should have given people like us some time, at least a few hours, to make alternate arrangements. This is a one-room set. We would have died because of heat and suffocation. It would have been impossible for me to pay the monthly rent of Rs 2,500 per month and the electricity bill of Rs 1,500 without any income. Managing ration would have been another headache. So, the moment I heard the news at 8 pm, I fled from Lucknow.”

Shastri and his family left for Hardoi – a district 100 km away from Lucknow – on their motorcycle, with minimum belongings. “My parents and brother’s family live in a village near Hardoi. They have a small farming land. I knew I was not going to get any work so I decided to move back home for a few months so that I could at least feed my family. I drove non-stop for hours and reached at 2 am. There were police on the highway, and I even had to pay a small bribe to cross a toll naka.” 

Shastri and his family in their one-room set in Gomti Nagar, Lucknow

Shastri’s landlord was kind enough to allow him to pay the rent in trenches during the lockdown. The family returned in October 2020, just before Diwali. When I met Shastri then, he was looking at options, because in the absence of a regular income, it was becoming difficult for him to live in a city like Lucknow.

When the second wave hit India in April 2021, and rumours of a lockdown began surfacing, I went to meet Shastri to ask if I could help him in any way. The family was gone, lock, stock, and barrel. The neighbours told me they have moved back to their village as Shastri was not getting any work. In fact, most of the homes in the lane were locked. While some have made the big shift back to their villages, some have left temporarily fearing lockdown.

Singh’s family, comprising his parents, wife, and a year-old son, lives in Samastipur. His wife was expecting last year and gave birth to a baby boy in March 2020. Because of the lockdown, Singh could not leave Lucknow and got to see his new-born only in June.

A few blocks away, Ram Prasad Singh, 33, a vegetable vendor from Samastipur in Bihar, who has made Lucknow a home for the past few years, sat dejected next to his cart. He asked me if a lockdown was going to be announced and whether he should go back home. When asked where he was last year, Singh said: “I was stuck in a room with five others for months. There was just one fan, no income, and no fixed ration. This time, I don’t want to make the same mistake. I will never forget that long journey back home — nearly 50 of us were stuffed in a bus that had a capacity of 35. I will also always remember the pangs of hunger that we would experience during the lockdown.

“We are poor but eating two square meals a day was never a problem. It was humiliating to ask for food packets. It was even more humiliating to eat that sub-standard food. I am not willing to go through similar humiliation this year,” Singh said.

Migrant labourers and daily wage earners crowding at Anand Vihar bus station in Delhi after chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a lockdown to tackle with the rising Corona cases. Image source: Twitter

Not willing to take a chance …

As India is reporting record-breaking fresh Covid cases daily during the second wave that has hit the country in April 2021, there is panic all around. Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address to the nation on April 21, said that a lockdown should be seen as a last resort, daily wage earners and migrant labourers are not willing to take a chance … not this time. The bus and train stations across major cities in India are witnessing similar scenes like last year – panic-stricken people, carrying minimal belongings, wanting to catch the first bus or train to go back home.

In 2020, a few days after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, National Highways across the country witnessed a mass movement of people. Migrants who were stranded in different cities set off for home, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres away desperate to be with their families in the prolonged lockdown that left them with no money, no jobs, and no roof over their heads. Many set off on the long walk wearing basic shoes with paper-thin soles or ordinary flip flops, their belongings packed into backpacks or bundles. While some reached home, some could not make it. Fatigue killed them. And then there were people like Shankar Yadav who were stuck in an alien state.

Shankat Yadav and 50 others were stuck at Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh last year for over a month

“We had to eat insect-laden, substandard food for a month”

“It was terrible. Even the most basic facilities like water and electricity were missing. There were many women and children with us. As it was close to a forest area, there were mosquitoes. We feared dying of Malaria or Jaundice and not Corona. The worst was the food. We were not even getting three meals a day. There were days when we had to wait until late afternoon to eat the first morsel of the day. At times they would send food cooked in the morning, which would go bad by the time it reached us in the noon because of the heat. On many occasions, there were insects in daal (pulses) and rice that was served to us,” said Yadav while talking about the month-long ordeal at Rajnandgaon.

Yadav, 24, who is originally from the Giridih district in Jharkhand, moved to Hyderabad in 2018. He runs a juice shop in Gachibowli corporate park in the city. Last year, when the rumours of a complete lockdown surfaced, Yadav and 50 others from various districts in Jharkhand, who lived together in an urban slum in Hyderabad, decided to return to Jharkhand. Unfortunately, the lockdown was announced when they reached Rajnandgaon district in Chhattisgarh in a bus, and they all got stuck. They were taken to a government school, which was their home for the next 1.5 months.

He adds: “We are not rich, but we still manage to give decent food to our women and children. Yes, we were unwanted guests in Chhattisgarh then, but the least that the administration could have done was to treat us like human beings.”

Yadav and others reached their homes in Jharkhand after 1.5 months when the state government started plying buses for stuck migrant labourers. “We returned to Hyderabad in October. We had to. There was no income, but the owner was still asking for the stall rent. We had to dig into our savings to pay the rent. By the time, I went back to Hyderabad, I was penniless. I had to start afresh.”

Yadav is now panicking as the Corona cases are going up and there are again rumours of a complete lockdown. “This time I am confused. I am not sure if I should stay back here because if there is going to be a lockdown, I will have no income, but I will still have to pay the stall and home rent.

“I don’t want to start for home as I fear getting stuck like last time. You are more informed. I request you to tell me honestly if there is going to be a lockdown,” says Yadav.

Migrant labourers outside a bus station in Chhattisgarh. Image: Twitter

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now”

Like Yadav, Champa Marandi, 19, from Adivasi-dominated Surguja district in Chhattisgarh too has some terrible memories of the lockdown. Around 25 young boys and girls from different villages in Surguja had moved to Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh in October 2019 to work in a construction company as labourers. After the lockdown was announced, the work came to a standstill. Their contractor told them that the company was not in a position to pay them for long. Marandi and others didn’t have an option but to walk back home.

The distance between Srikakulam district and Sarguja is around 770 km. “Our parents were getting worried. So, we decided to start walking. We had one last conversation with our parents before we set off as we could not charge our mobiles after that. All we had were our backpacks and water bottles. While drinking water was not a problem as the villagers living in small hamlets along the highway were helpful, food was a major problem. “I think we got to eat one proper meal after two-three days. Some volunteers were distributing food packets along the highway, so sometimes we got to eat proper meals, but otherwise we survived on water and biscuit packets that were distributed by the CRPF jawans.

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now. We would keep walking all day long and exhausted, we would sleep on the National Highway,” Marandi said over the phone in her extremely frail voice.

Her village falls in a forest area, so connectivity is a problem. But Marandi was curious to know about the rising corona cases in the country and the lockdown rumours. When asked why she did not go back to Srikakulum after the lockdown, Marandi says: “The contractor never cleared our dues. We kept calling him. Ultimately, he switched his phone off. Our parents are upset. Also, they are worried. They will never send us back now. That was our only chance to go out and earn. The lockdown ruined it.”

Dev Yadav and Kedar Yadav (in black shirt)

“This was our last selfie together”

“I was close to my brother. But when we were getting his body back in an ambulance, the stench was so unbearable that, for the first time, I was not comfortable sharing space with him. We requested the authorities so many times to give us some ice, or at least a coffin box, but they just refused,” says Dev Yadav, 19, a resident of Gaya in Bihar, while talking about his brother, late Kedar Yadav, 32.

Yadav was among those unfortunate migrant labourers who passed away during the lockdown. They left for home but could not make it. On September 13, 2020, Union Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar informed the Parliament that his ministry does not how many migrant workers may have died during the 68-day lockdown. Incidentally, over 1.04 crore migrants returned to their respective home states.

During the lockdown, thejeshgn.com, a website run by a group of techies and scholars, started documenting deaths that occurred during the lockdown, but not due to Coronavirus. The data was published in July 2020. The deaths were categorized as exhaustion (walking, standing in lines), starvation and financial distress, police brutality or state violence, lack of medical care or attention, death by crimes associated with lockdown, accidents due to walking or during migration, suicides, suicides due to fear of infection, loneliness, and lack of freedom of movement, deaths in Shramik trains and deaths in quarantine centers. As per the data, during the lockdown, 216 people died due to starvation and financial distress, 209 people died in road and train accidents, 133 died due to suicide, and 96 people died while travelling in Shramik trains. As per the website, a total of 971 people died due to non-Covid reasons.

Yadav died in an unfortunate road accident. A newly married Yadav had moved to Rajasthan to work as a construction labourer so that he could support his wife, parents, and younger siblings.

On May 15, 2020, in a desperate attempt to get back home, Yadav, along with other migrant labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, who were also returning home, hitched a ride on a truck that was transporting sacks of cement. At 3 am on May 16, the truck collided with another stationary truck that was stationed outside a dhaba at a place called Mihauli in Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally, the stationed truck had around 20 migrant labourers from Delhi. The collision was so powerful that both the vehicles overturned. At least 24 migrant workers died and 37 were seriously injured in the accident. Yadav was one of them.

“My brother had called us when he left from Rajasthan. He said he was coming in a bus and would be home by morning. At 4 am on May 16, I tried calling him, but could not reach him. I kept trying for two hours. At 6 am, we received a call from a policeman informing us about the accident and that my brother was seriously injured. We immediately hired a cab and left for Auraiya. But by 10 am, his name had started showing among those who had died,” says Yadav’s younger brother Dev.    

He adds: “We reached there at 3 pm. All the bodies were covered with cement, so it took us a while to identify him. We were provided with an ambulance to take his body back home, but the body was uncovered. We requested them to give us some ice or a coffin box as it was peak summer, but the authorities refused. I kept requesting the driver to switch the AC on, but he did not pay any heed. The stench was making us sick. Once we reached Gaya, we were asked to go to a police station to report a case of accidental death. Upon reaching there, we were told that our residence falls in some other police jurisdiction, so we were sent there. Then we were asked to go to a hospital to get his covid test done. Finally, at 10 pm, we reached the crematorium.”

Yadav’s wife has moved back to her parents’ place and the family is still coming to terms with the tragic loss. “We had clicked a selfie before he left. Little did we know that it was our last selfie together. I am still so numb with grief.” I know the situation is bad. People are again talking about a lockdown. I just hope no one has to go through what we went through last year,” said Dev.   

“In December 2020, my whole world came crashing down around me when I lost my ma to Covid”

In November 2020, Pooja Ganju Adlakha started writing this story which was meant to be about coping with the grief of losing her father, Major Virendra Ganju, in 2016 to Motor Neuron Disease. However, by the time the story could come out, she unexpectedly lost her mother to Covid. In this first-person account, she writes about how, with both her parents gone, she is experiencing a different kind of an empty nest syndrome

…..

I wrote this piece for my father in November 2020. The story was meant to be about how I was able to cope with the grief of losing him in October 2016, and how my mother was my biggest source of strength. But soon after I submitted the story for publishing, my whole world came crashing down around me.

I lost my mother, my precious, precious ma, to Covid-19 on December 26, 2020. It seemed unfair. I always thought my ma would be by my side forever. I don’t think I have the strength to deal with her sudden loss, that too in a pandemic year. A dagger is stuck in my heart forever.

They say an empty nest is when kids move out of parents’ home, but, with both my parents gone, I am experiencing a different kind of an empty nest. They will never be there to hold my hand and help me sail through. No one would shower me with unconditional love. I will miss the aroma of food cooked by my ma, and my pa’s infectious energy whenever I will enter my maternal home, that empty nest, from now on.

With both her parents gone, Pooja is experiencing a different kind of an empty nest syndrome

However difficult it may be for me to talk about this, I must still try for the sake of my ma who filled our lives with love and affection after pa left us. Now, looking back, I feel how difficult it must have been for her to live without him and not showing the slightest of pain to us, her three daughters. THAT for me is displaying pure strength for the sake of family.

This loss also made me realise we are never alone in grief. As painful as it is for me, it is equally heartbreaking for my sisters and much more for our children who doted on their nani. For now, we are numb. We are still coming to terms with the fact that we will not be able to hear her voice and see her every day. We are angry at God for taking her away from us. But we have to be sane for the sake of our children, like my ma was for our sake. I love you ma and you will always be alive inside me. Here goes my original story, the one I wrote for pa, before ma left me to be with him in heaven … 

I was expecting my second child when my father Major Virendra Ganju, a veteran in the Armed Forces, passed away. He had been battling Motor Neuron Disease and was completely bed-ridden in his last days. I particularly remember this moment when he asked me with hand gestures what I wanted … a girl or a boy. I said a girl. He called me closer and touched my belly and blessed me. And there I was, the very next month, on his tervi, giving birth to my daughter. There will always be this sadness that he was not able to see or hold my little girl, but I am glad that he had blessed her. To me, she is a piece of my papa.

Major Virendra Ganju battled Motor Neuron Disease for 23 long years

Papa … it’s a small little word but it signifies a valley of emotions, love, memories, and pride. My father has been, to this date, my hero, and I, being the youngest of his three daughters, was his most pampered one.

I have been finding ways to deal with the loss of my father for the past four years. As per the definition of grief, it is a response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone who has died. Well, in reality, grief is much more than a mere collection of words defining the immensely strong feeling of loss one feels when a beloved is gone forever.

People are often asked how they feel about the loss, how do they manage it, deal with it, or make themselves accustomed to the great void that gets created. Well, I am not sure if they actually ever get used to the void. They try to keep the memories alive to occasionally relive the moments that were once spent together, irrespective of the pain they bring along.

I can tell from my personal experience that things do get better with time, but, at times, you feel like rewinding the years all over again. The acceptance part was easier for me, as he had been defying Motor Neuron Disease (MND), a very complicated disease, for 23 long years. It was a miracle considering the doctors had given him just three years to live after he was diagnosed with MND. So, the additional years were a blessing, and it was in these years that we saw the real hero, the real soldier who had this immense will to live a happy life and none could fathom what he must have been going through.

Pooja with her parents

Though he was not active in the last few years, it was his real absence that hit us the most … all the talks that did not happen, the war stories I did not hear from him, the time that we could’ve spent together … they are just flashes, in retrospect. At times, I feel guilty, that I lived so close by, yet I could not spend every weekend with him. A valuable lesson learnt. We will always be busy, but let’s not forget to spend quality time with our loved ones. Do not wait for the right moment. It may never come.

I was in awe of my mother for being his pillar of strength. We did all that we could for him and have no regret that we could not find the right treatment for him. I personally did extensive research on MND, spoke on forums to realise how little progress has been made and, in India, how patients suffering from MND and their families had limited access to resources and support systems.

The last year that I had with him was the year when he was the most vulnerable. He was bedridden, could not speak, he was being fed through pipes, there were catheters and oximeters, and yet, whenever we would ask him about his health, he would always show a thumbs up. THAT was my papa.

So, to not see him running around fixing everything for us or throwing parties or to not hear him sing was a big blow and a realisation that a glorious chapter was about to end. He always called me his mighty son, and when it was time to lit the pyre, I was not allowed to see him as I was expecting my daughter. I did feel a bit of a rage, but my sisters lit it for the three of us, and I could not have been prouder.

Pooja’s mother with her kids

I feel it is these memories that make us strong and keep us going, and yet, there are moments. Tears are rolling down my cheeks as I am writing this. I want to be as strong as he was. I am getting there. My mother and sisters were my pillars of strength. The year after he passed away, my mother stayed with me. I felt relieved that I could not spend time with my parents while my father was alive, but I got to spend time with my mother.

Handling the loss, being strong for the sake of your other parent, is also a way of dealing with grief. There are some other coping mechanisms that come in handy. I try to keep him alive by doing things he loved the most … like singing, watching movies, throwing parties for kids, donating and distributing things to people randomly, impulsively. He was indeed a happy-go-lucky man, who would not worry about the future, something I still need to learn.

I make sure to celebrate his birthday, my parents’ marriage anniversary, and his death anniversary. We play music, order their favourite dishes, donate food to the needy and that, in a way, has really helped me have happy memories of him. I know I am a bit like him so, sometimes, I justify it by doing these things. And, at times, I randomly talk to him. That keeps us connected.

Pooja Ganju Adlakha’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Sunil Kumar’s story here. He lost his wife just four days before the 2020 lockdown and eight months after they got married.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the author, in this case, it being Pooja Ganju Adlakha and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“I had to deal with the grief of losing my wife during the 2020 lockdown. I felt very lonely”

Sunil Kumar, a social worker and an artist based in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, lost his wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, just a day before the March 22, 2020 Junta Curfew – a day-long lockdown that was announced ahead of the complete lockdown last year to stop the spread of coronavirus. While the whole country was anxious, Kumar was fighting a different battle at a hospital in Muzaffarpur caring for his wife, a social worker and a puppeteer, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions. This inspirational story is about how he dealt with the grief of losing her

…..

The date was March 21. The country was gearing up for the Junta Curfew — a day-long nationwide lockdown that was scheduled for the next day to stop the spread of coronavirus in the country. Not much was known about the pandemic then and people were very anxious. However, I was more anxious than the rest of the country because I was at the Sri Krishna Medical College in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, looking after my wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, who was admitted there. She was suffering from Meningitis and Kidney stones and had been battling for her life at the hospital for 50 days. For a week after she was admitted on January 31, 2020 after she complained of high fever and headache, her condition was improving, but after that she was gradually slipping away with every passing day.

The doctors were never optimistic, but I was hopeful. I had waited for Sarla for years before she had agreed to marry me on July 10, 2019. Now, nearly eight months later, I was at the hospital holding her hand and full of hope as she was swinging between the states of semi-conscious and unconsciousness. I was mentally prepared that day. The pain was unbearable for her. Finally, at 9 pm, my wife left me forever. 

Sarla used puppeteering as a medium to spread awareness. Ironically, March 21, the day she passed away, is celebrated as World Puppetry Day

The next day was her funeral and also the Junta Curfew. The situation was tricky. Apart from the immediate family members, very few people who knew my wife well and had worked with her managed to come down to Sikandarpur (in Bihar) for the funeral. My heart sank when I touched Sarla for the last time. Sarla was a social worker, a puppeteer and an artist, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions in the country and working for the betterment of underprivileged Adivasi women and children. Many friends and acquaintances spread across the country who knew Sarla well wanted to attend her funeral, but couldn’t because of the situation. But over the next few days, I was inundated with messages on social media and WhatsApp, which helped me come to terms with the fact that she was no more.

It didn’t help that the country went into a complete lockdown on March 25, just four days after her death. There was a void inside me, my house … and there was a strange stillness outside. However, the initial few days gave me the time to think about how to deal with the grief of losing her. And I thought the best way to do that would be to celebrate her life and work.

Sarla was a social worker and a puppeteer, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions in the country

While she was alive, Sarla had worked non-stop every single day of her life for years and one of the reasons behind her untimely demise was the fact that she dedicated her life to make the lives of others better but never bothered about her own health. For instance, she would cook meals for hundreds of volunteers at social events but would forget to eat her meal.

Born on August 14, 1986 into a family of modest means in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh, Sarla had to face many adversities while she was young … like the passing away of her elder sister when she was a child and not getting to spend time with her mother as she was mostly bedridden and away. Her father would repair flat tyres to make a living, but he was also a folk artiste. Sarla inherited many of the creative aspects from him. Participating in cultural events in school like singing, dancing and drama helped her escape from the harsh realities of her life. She also learnt the art of puppeteering, a talent that came in handy later in life when she travelled across some of the most remote and backward Adivasi regions to spread awareness using art as a medium.

Sarla moved to Muzaffarpur and continued her social work activities along with her husband

From 2013 until she passed away, she was associated with various organizations in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Jharkhand. She used the mediums of song, dance, skits and puppets to spread awareness among people living in backward Adivasi villages. She was also a part of many peace marches and cycle yatras that were organized to appeal for peace in regions that were affected due to Naxal violence. While her journey had been incredible and she did some commendable work, but she kept neglecting her health. In fact, she was so immersed in her work that though I had known her for long, I had to wait for many years before she could find time to marry me. 

Sarla moved to Muzaffarpur and though she was new to the city, she started working soon after we got married. In a brief period of time, she befriended many people and touched many lives. I am also a social worker and an artist, and I was thrilled that I was getting to spend a lot of time with my wife as we would often travel together for work.

All those who had met her still feel the void of her passing away. For me, personally, it would be impossible to feel that void … ever. I still feel the pain of losing my life partner just eight months after getting married … a partner whom I had very patiently waited for, for years.

She was admitted in the hospital for 50 days. Her husband did all that he could to make her feel better

I thought the best way to try to get over the grief would be to continue the work she had dedicated her life to. We took small steps. For instance, during the lockdown, we collected funds from those who were willing to contribute and helped the underprivileged with food and ration. With the help of journalists and NGOs, we worked on a project that helped those who had lost their jobs during the lockdown to find some form of employment. We distributed food packets and used art as a medium to stop people from falling into the trap of depression and anxiety.  

On Sarla’s 34th birthday in August 2020, her first after her demise, I invited all those from across India who had worked with Sarla over the years and together we pledged to keep her work alive. In the last year, I took over the projects she was involved in and I am trying to complete them. While the pain of losing her will never subside and the void will never get filled, the least I can do to keep her alive in my memories is to continue her work.

Ironically, March 21, the day she passed away, is celebrated as World Puppetry Day.

(Image credit: Sarla Siriwas’ Facebook page)

Sunil Kumar’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Eshwari Shukla’s story here. She lost her father when she was only 13.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case, it being Sunil Kumar and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“Suddenly, while talking to someone over the phone, my grandfather started referring to my father as ‘body’”

In this first-person account, Eshwari Shukla, a journalist, talks about the day her father passed away in an accident when she was only 13. She mentions how, initially, it was strange for her to see her mother in a white saree. Her empty forehead would remind her of the sudden vacuum in their lives, but, gradually, the mother-daughter duo became each other’s silent strength while coping with their common grief 

…..

It’s been 12 years. At times, it feels as if it happened yesterday and, at times, it feels as if one lifetime has passed. The date was February 29. The year was 2008. The landline rang in the morning and my grandfather got up to receive the call. I was around 13. I was sitting there, aimlessly flipping through the pages of a newspaper that was in front of me. I don’t remember very clearly what happened next. Those moments are still somewhat blurred. Sepia-tinted. My grandfather would lovingly call my father ‘babu’. Suddenly, while talking to someone over the phone, he started referring to my father as ‘body’ and not ‘babu’. He kept the receiver down. We were told that my father had passed away in an accident. The car he was travelling in had collided with a truck. My father was no more. It didn’t really sink in at that moment.

Eshwari Shukla

Soon, the house was full of people. Arrangements were being made. I could see stunned, teary-eyed faces around me. I could hear the hushed condolences. I was quite numb, but I could hear the conversations.    

It was very strange for me to accept his sad and sudden end. Just two years before my father passed away, we had lost our grandmother. That was the first time I had dealt with the sadness of someone leaving this world. But my father’s death was quite unreal. People who had gathered in the house were saying things like my grandmother loved my father so much that she called him to be with her within two years of her passing away. Those conversations scared me. I was 13. I was not a child, but I was not grown up enough to understand the complexities of death or such conversations. It felt as if someone else was about to die that day.

The news came in the morning, the body arrived at night. Those hours were full of anxiety. When I heard a vehicle approach our house, my heart beats started racing. The ‘body’ was home. As it was an accidental death, a post-mortem was conducted. His eyes were partially open. There were bloodstains on the plastic sheet in which he was wrapped in. His body was covered with a white cloth. He was kept on a mat beneath the mango tree that was in our courtyard. My elder sister sat near his feet. She was occasionally touching him, probably to ensure it was indeed him. I sat next to her. I have never mentioned this to anyone ever, but I did not touch my father’s body. I just could not. There was a moment when a helicopter (a flying insect) sat on his foot. I touched his foot to shoo it away. That was the last time I had touched my father.

Writing helps Eshwari deal with painful emotions and memories

His death was so sudden that we didn’t even know how we were supposed to deal with the loss. We were just not prepared. I remember my mother would play Ludo with us all day long. She would read the entire newspaper … from the first printed word to the last. She was well-versed with everything that was happening in the country then. This was how she spent her days. To be in a zone, far away from the reality … that was probably her coping mechanism. It was strange for me to see her in a white saree. I thought I would have to see her draped in a white saree all my life. She stopped putting her bindi. Her empty forehead would remind me of the sudden vacuum in our lives. Her hands would look strange without the colourful bangles. She gave away her toe ring, a tradition which married women in India follow, to our house help.  

There are things we take for granted. Until my father was alive, I never bothered to think about what kind of father he was. I don’t think about it even today. He would fulfil all my wishes. He bought me a Barbie watch and high-heeled sandals. He bought a payal for me and some makeup when I took part in a school function. What more can a 13-year-old girl ask for from her father? He was working elsewhere and would come home on the weekends. He was a little strict. But I remember he would tell me stories at night and take me on rides on his scooter. But, for me, he was just that … my father. It was nice to have him around, but I wouldn’t miss him much when he wasn’t. My eyes would always search for my mother. Her comforting presence was an important essence of my life. It still is.

For Eshwari, her mother is her emotional strength

After my father passed away, my mother moved to Lucknow. She had to explore ways to be financially secure. There was a time when I could not imagine living away from my mother. And now she was in another city and I had to get used to that. Life, as they say, is an amazing teacher.

I dealt with the grief of my father’s passing away in a strange, but mature way. I stopped taking part in school functions to cut down on expenses. I stopped wearing Barbie watches. I became a quiet person. I wanted to be with my mother all the time, so much so that I even hated going to school. As a child, it was probably the fear of losing her as well. To be with her, to spend time with her, to touch her, to hug her … these were probably my coping mechanisms. Now, I am grown up enough to understand the complexities of life … and death. She continues to remain at the core of my universe. I do miss my father. I sometimes wonder how things would have been if he were alive today. One thing though has remained consistent in all these years. My father would fulfil all my wishes. After he passed away, I have not asked for anything from anyone.

Eshwari Shukla’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Gurudas Pai’s story here. Pai lost his mother to cancer in 1989. Four years later, he lost his father on the day of his wedding.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case, it being Eshwari Shukla and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“Losing my mother to cancer and my father on the day of my wedding were the biggest setbacks of my life”

Gurudas Pai’s life suddenly changed in the span of four years. He had no option but to face these adverse situations, but, according to him, those intense episodes of darkness were also the best teachers. What keeps him going? It’s a poem by Walter Wintle. Read his first-person account  

…..

The darkest moments in life are the ones wherein you see the person who you love the most go through an unending agony and gradually slip into the claws of death. What’s worse? There is nothing that you can do but to see them sink every single day.

In 1989, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was in the last stage. Though she was operated upon, cancer managed to spread to her lungs. To see her smile through the agony for our sake was heartbreaking. She battled the disease for 10 months, but breathed her last at the age of 52. I was 25 then and my sisters were 22 and 17, respectively. All of us pitched in to take care of the household. Keeping ourselves occupied helped us deal with the painful emotions. My father and the youngest sister would slip into depression if they saw the two of us struggling, so we would not bring up any such topic that would make any of us upset. We were each other’s strength. There was a great deal of sorrow but we would laugh once in a while to overcome the intense episodes of darkness. That gave us the strength to deal with the loss of our mother. Amma, I love you.

This, however, was not it. Life had some more tricks up its sleeves. I have no words to express the sorrow of suddenly losing my father, that too on one of the happiest occasions of my life … my wedding day. He died a lonely death just four hours after I got married. He went to take a nap in the hotel room, suffered a heart attack, was taken to a hospital, but could never return home.

My mother’s death had probably created a vacuum in his life which we could not fill. The weight of many responsibilities and a lack of companionship bogged him down. He was a diabetic. He was not an alcoholic, but he enjoyed his drinks, and occasionally smoked too. My younger sister got married in 1989, eight months after my mother’s death. I got married on August 26, 1992. The same day I lit my father’s pyre. My father, 64, was gone forever. Anna, I love you.

After his demise, we felt as if a storm blew away the roof over our heads. The situation was bizarre and delicate. The suddenness of the situation led to some conflicts in the house — I was newly married and could not give enough time to deal with the situation, my wife had walked into something very unusual for a new bride, and my youngest sister, who was still unmarried, was dealing with a lot of insecurity. My father had started looking for a prospective groom for her while he was still alive. So, it wasn’t difficult for me to take over the responsibility. My sister got married when she was 20 and moved to the US.  

He lost his father on the day of his wedding

Adversities are the best teachers. I have learnt this the hard way. Losing my parents and dealing with that grief in a way prepared me to deal with the ups and downs of life in a better way. Hence, in 2018, when my wife and I parted ways after 26 years of our marriage, I was better equipped to deal with those painful emotions. It was heart-wrenching to see our children put up a brave front and smile through our separation process. Today, we are cordial with each other and my daughter’s wedding was a perfect example of this. At times, one has to live with the guilt of not having given a ‘normal’ life to one’s children.

Pain, separation, heartbreaks and setbacks are various chapters of life. Every person is wounded in some way or the other. What I have learnt from my experiences is to face your demons and make peace with the fact that things happen because they are destined to happen in a particular way. Acceptance is the key. Never run away from the setbacks. It’s probably the reason I found love again and remarried. 

Pai with his sisters

While coping with my grief, these are the important lessons that I learnt. 

Always remember to get up and get going. There are people around you for whom you are precious. Identify them. Share your joys, sorrows and experiences with them. Be kind to others as everyone is nursing a wound. Never hesitate to ask for help. If you like someone, walk up to him/her and tell him. Lastly, be passionate about something in life. For me, my political activities keep me going. I am determined to make a difference, and I will.

This poem by Walter Wintle has always helped me deal with my emotions in a better way:

If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost
For out of the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins
Is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN!”

Gurudas Pai’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Darshana Shukul’s story here. In 1986, Darshana lost her mother soon after her baby brother was born. She was just five. 

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case it being Gurudas Pai, and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“Hope keeps the ship sailing … a faint hope that I will meet my mother someday”

Darshana Shukul, a corporate communication professional, lost her mother soon after her baby brother was born. She was just five. She still remembers seeing her mother lying on the hospital bed, pale and lifeless, and the strange deafening silence between the two. In this first-person account, she talks about how, while growing up, she wrote stories, sought solace in God’s grace, and befriended books, weapons that helped her battle the painful emotions of losing her mother

…..

Life sometimes brings joy and sorrow wrapped in one gift parcel. Such experiences leave you speechless, numb, and empty. And, when such surprises are thrown at you in your childhood, you are left with no option but to accept the gift with a heavy heart and teary eyes.

I was all but five … naughty, demanding, and a brat … but everything changed soon after I was blessed with a baby brother. While my younger sibling arrived as a bundle of joy, the arms that wrapped him were that of my father. My mother chose to head to heaven instead of coming back home along with my brother.

The year was 1986. Memories of that day are still fresh in my mind even today. I remember jumping into one of the cars that was heading towards the hospital. When all the relatives got off from the car, I pretended to be a part of the crowd. And then I saw my mother lying on the hospital bed … pale and making every effort in the universe to hold on to life. Our eyes met. We looked at each other as if we were strangers and time stood still between us. I was too young to have a proper conversation and she was so exhausted that she could not say anything. But, in those silent moments, we communicated with each other without actually saying a word. In those silent moments, I promised her to be her Atta Girl! I promised her that her daughter will be a force to reckon with. In her faint smile, she knew her girl will hold on to life, a luxury she no longer had.

A young Darshana with her mother

Life changed overnight for this little girl. For a few months after my mother passed away, nobody in the house held me or calmed me down. I spent months crying but, in my brother, I saw a ray of hope. He was my gift, the reason why I wanted to live. So, at five, I became a mother. My world had ceased to exist the way it was, but his world became the center of my universe.

My father, in the interim, got married. Being a child, I could not understand the concept of calling another woman a ‘mother’. One day, I was introduced to my stepmom. We did not connect. She was my father’s new wife, and I was his biological daughter. Even at that tender age, my instinct instructed me to distance myself from my papa. His world had changed for the better and he had embraced it with an open mind and a smile. For me, I was left to deal with life all by myself. I lived in a joint family set up. I think I just grew up on my own. There was no support system. Unlike other children in the house, I had no one to throw tantrums at. There were no wish lists, no fancy birthday parties, or a room to call my own. When I cried, no one hugged or comforted me. Even in those lonely hours, the divine force within me held the strings of my heart.

Then there was this promise that I had held on to … the promise I had made to my mother that I would be her Atta Girl. I started to write stories, build an imaginative world and sought solace in God’s grace. And then, absentmindedly, I befriended books. It was from here that my dreams began to germinate. Every book, every author was akin to my mother. The world of words held the reins of my life, my mind, and my dreams. My world started to reverberate with rhythm, verve, and vitality. The dimpled smile was back and, like a possessed soul, I took the world head-on … like a warrior.

Darshana shares a special bond with her brother

I began to dream. I began to fall in love with the idea of love (thanks to Shahrukh Khan and his romantic movies). I made friends who found my innocence endearing. My teachers, both in school, and college were great mentors. They believed in ‘Darshana’ and encouraged me to appreciate my work. There were times when my answer sheets were discussed and applauded in front of the class toppers. It was in moments like these that my heart would swell with pride and life gave me reasons to smile.

These little spurts of encouragement helped me pave my way in the otherwise competitive world. From clandestinely working for a local agency in the initial years to getting an opportunity to work with one of the biggest newspapers in Asia, life was finally beginning to be kind. I felt normal; as if I belonged, and the financial independence that came along with these jobs gave me wings to fly and live my dream.

There was a time when my brother and I had just started working. We would go to small eateries near our office, scan the menu and order the least priced item. But we were still happy that we were in a position to treat ourselves. We soon graduated from this phase to a phase where we could enter a fancy eatery, say a Pizza Hut, not look at the price and order whatever we wanted. That gave us the confidence that soon we would start living life our way.

Darshana with her daughter

I am now married and so is my brother. I am reliving my childhood through my daughter. Her little arms are my entire world. Her smile, her hugs, and her unconditional love have erased all the pain. There are no bad days anymore. In my daughter, I see my mother. It’s as if she has come back to heal me. My husband’s passion for life and music is infectious and he has given me the stability that I had always dreamt of.

Life continues to challenge me. The rides get fiercer, but my spirit stays buoyant. Even the murky waters and rough terrains could not take away my innocence. However, somewhere deep inside my heart, a faint hope is still alive … a hope that I would meet my mother someday. I feel as if she is hiding somewhere and I will get to hear her, touch her and hug her. Perhaps it’s this hope that keeps the ship sailing. The real treasure of life is not buried under the deep sea, but it is right there in the boat that you are sailing in … it is the little thing called ‘life’ that beats in your heart.

Darshana Shukul’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Lakshmi Kaul’s story here. Kaul lost her only daughter, aged nine, to a freak allergic incident in 2017.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case it being Darshana Shukul, and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“I wrote a series on Facebook titled ‘From Diagnosis to Death’. Penning my thoughts helped me a great deal to process my grief”

Nitin Naik, a Mumbai-based sports journalist, lost his wife to pancreatic cancer in September 2015. In this first-person account, he talks about how his wife’s illness and death triggered episodes of intense darkness and depression and his coping mechanisms that include spending most weekends rearranging her wardrobe, which helps him reconnect with her

…..

I lost my beautiful wife, Dr Raksha Naik, to pancreatic cancer on September 14, 2015. She was 38.

My life just changed completely. The diagnosis itself, which happened on January 3, 2015, blew me away as I, despite not being a doctor, knew how bad the prognosis was for pancreatic cancer. Being a doctor, I am convinced, she knew too. She just was too brave and too great to show it to me. 

Seeing a loved one go through the pain of chemotherapy and seeing the physical deterioration (hair loss, weight loss, handling irregular periods) and the mental scarring they go through is morale-sapping. You can hear the clock tick all the time. She often reminded me to not look so worried all the time. “Don’t look at me that way, I feel death is closer than it actually is.”

The end was extremely painful with the disease progressing to the liver, causing ascites that needed frequent tapping. Being a part of the decision-making team to opt for a risky surgery, makes me feel very guilty at times. 

In her case, the treatment (surgery) proved to be worse than the disease as it increased her morbidity. She would have died even without the surgery, but maybe the end would not have been so painful. 

(Left) Nitin Naik with his wife Dr Raksha Naik. (Right) Raksha with her twin daughters. Pic credit: Nitin Naik

I have always prided myself for being someone with a great deal of patience and someone who does not lose his temper. My wife’s illness and death triggered sudden bouts of needless rage and episodes where I used to talk to myself and frequent incidences of emotional binge-eating. 

I used to stock bars of Cadbury chocolates in the fridge and after coming home from work, I used to see her pictures and her CT scan CD and biopsy reports, have a crying session, curse myself for agreeing to the operation and then start gorging on the sweets. It was only after my weight crossed 100 kg and after my twin girls told me that they have seen me cry and talk to myself that I started to get a hold of myself. 

I spoke to close friends and relatives and they were very generous with their time and their words. I then decided to write about my experiences. I wrote a series on Facebook titled ‘From Diagnosis to Death’ and penning my thoughts helped me a great deal to process my grief. 

It has been more than five years, but I still have episodes of intense darkness and depression, but I now know it is normal and I don’t fight it. I know that it will pass. 

My coping mechanisms vary from taking out a favourite dress of hers or her jewellery and then touching them for a while and keeping them back. I spend most weekends rearranging her wardrobe. It gives me a lot of happiness in doing that and helps me reconnect with her. On festivals and special days like anniversaries and birthdays, her loss gets magnified. 

Over the past five years, my parents and my mother-in-law have been a source of immense support and have helped me perform my duties as a sports journalist for The Times of India, Mumbai, and also perform my role as a father to two beautiful girls. I struggled to explain death and the fact that they would never see their mom again to my girls initially, but eventually, they understood. I feel they have coped better than me. 

This note won’t be complete without acknowledging Jaideep Bose and Derick D’Sa, my bosses at The Times of India, who allowed me to take leave whenever I wanted when my wife was ill and undergoing treatment. My colleagues on the sports desk too have been very supportive as have been all my friends who kept my spirits up with WhatsApp chats at godforsaken hours and useful emails and messages. 

Dr Raksha Naik. Pic credit: Nitin Naik

On May 28, 2016, nearly eight months after his wife passed away, Naik started writing a series of posts on Facebook titled ‘From Diagnosis to Death’. These 25 posts are an attempt on Naik’s part to chronicle how the family’s perfectly happy lives turned upside down after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. The following post, posted on July 2, 2016, is the last one in the series. We have shared the post with due permission from Naik here.

From Diagnosis To Death: Chapter 25

September 12, 2015: Dr. Raksha Naik is very very drowsy and is about to go into a coma. She can barely speak because of the ryles tube. However, she signals to me to come near her and whispers: "Please take me home." She also waves at me indicating that it is time for her to say goodbye. I just hold her hand. 

September 13, 2015: At around 5.12 am, Dr. Raksha slips into coma. Her BP and heart and pulse rate are still normal. But even deep pinches and extreme light focused on her pupils don't show any movement. She also starts bleeding from the ryles tube. Raksha's best friend Dr. Pinky Sarkar arrives in the evening and I am glad that she could see her best friend at least once even if she was in deep coma. My other relatives too arrive to see her one last time and some even choose to stay back to offer support despite having commitments of their own. God bless them for that.

September 14, 2015: Raksha had now developed cheyn stokes breathing. The end was very near. The doctors asked me whether we want to put her on life support. I ask my mother-in-law what should be done. She tells me to do it only if it benefits her. I ask the doctors whether it will be of any use and is her condition reversible.They answer in the negative. I say no.

At around noon, her pulse rate starts to drop and her heart too begins to beat irregularly. The intervals between inhalation and exhalation increase with every passing minute. I call up home and tell my parents to bring the kids from school as Raksha would be leaving us soon and I wanted them to be near her and touch her one last time. 

The kids come but get a bit disturbed on seeing the glum faces and moist eyes in the room and ask to be taken back home.  By 3.30, her heart rate and pulse rate both drop to the 20s. Then by 4 pm, it gets down to the 10s and at 4.35 pm on September 14, 2015, the vital parameter monitor showing her heartbeat records a straight line. Dr Raksha had left us.

She had fought valiantly for almost 8 months and of those 8 months, the last two months were spent in extreme pain and misery and her passing away meant that she was finally pain-free.  We bring her home for one last time for the final rites before cremating her at Oshiwara electric cemetery. I send the kids to their friend's place till the time the funeral is over. I must thank Madhur Gera and Amit Gera publicly for taking care of my kids at an important time. I will always pray for them. My colleagues brave the maddening traffic and come to share my grief as do members of my society and friends. I am thankful to all of them as well as to others who visited me the next day. 

Funnily enough, the effects of the grief and bereavement start to hit me only later. Three weeks after she had passed away, I wake up in the middle of the night and start looking for her scan and path reports and begin arranging them thinking that we have a doctors' appointment to make the next day. It was only after 20 minutes that I realise that she had already passed away and go back to sleep. I was on autopilot for nearly 7 months and my life revolved around doctors and hospitals, probably that is why I did whatever I did. 

I still remember every doctors' appointment and every word that each of them said as if it was yesterday. I have still kept all her reports and scans and sometimes I read them again just to confirm whether everything that happened actually happened or was it just a bad dream. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Dr Raksha Naik is no more with us. What remains of her are memories. And those are timeless and priceless.  

This story is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the author, in this case it being Nitin Naik, and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

Spotting tiger pug marks, gazing at Himalayan peaks and savouring ‘Neembu Saan’, a Kumauni delicacy … Winter diaries from Almora

Eating only home-grown organic vegetables, looking after cows and consuming fresh milk, breathing in the fresh air, connecting with your roots, spotting tiger pug marks in your courtyard, and spending most of your day playing with dogs and pups and shooing monkeys away while working from home and fulfilling your professional commitments … if this sounds like an exciting life, writer, director, and filmmaker Kanchan Pant is actually living it

…..

In July 2020, as the world was coming out of a long and painful lockdown, Kanchan Pant, a writer, director, and filmmaker, took a brave decision. She, along with her husband and two-year-old daughter, moved from Bangalore to her 100-year-old ancestral home in Almora, a town in Uttarakhand … lock, stock, and barrel … to live a peaceful and stress-free life. Along with setting up a professional base in Uttarakhand, her routine now includes feeding the cow, gardening, and shooing the monkeys away. She is completely enjoying connecting with her roots; for instance, learning to make ‘Neembu Saan’ – a winter delicacy savoured in the Kumaun region during winters and letting her daughter play in the dirt. While her life may have changed, her dreams haven’t. She wants to give talented youngsters in Uttarakhand a platform so that they don’t have to flock to Mumbai, as creative people usually do, to showcase their talent. The idea is to help them create a niche for themselves so that they can dream big while living in small towns. In this interview, she talks about the big shift and life after.       

These days, the biggest pull for the family to come back home is that it gets to pick fresh vegetables from the garden

What motivated you to move back to your roots? Was the decision triggered due to the lockdown and the choices made available by the Covid-19 work-from-home options? How difficult was the shift?  

We moved to Uttarakhand in early July. Our ancestral home in Almora is about a 100-year-old beautiful building. My husband and I were always aware that at least one of us would have to eventually come back. We kind of knew that it would be me. I almost shifted to Almora a couple of years back. But then I became a mother and it felt wise to go back to Mumbai for some time. So, I wouldn’t say that we came back because of the pandemic, but it was certainly a catalyst. There are many things one needs to consider while shifting with a two-year-old … the climate, health facilities, schools etc. But once we finally decided to move, there was no looking back. It was as easy (or difficult) as it is to shift from one society to the other. The locals were extremely warm and welcoming although most of them still don’t get the point of us moving here. Many still think that we will go back as soon as the pandemic is under control.  

The family woke up to this view one winter morning. They could see the fresh snow on the Himalayan peaks

Having lived/worked in big cities, was it difficult to start living in a small town? Talk about the initial days.

I moved to Delhi right after my graduation. I was only 19. It has been almost 15 years since. I have lived in metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and even Tokyo. When you live in such big cities, you get used to a certain kind of lifestyle and comfort. You have machines and devices to help you with the daily chores. Good hospitals and schools are within your reach. These things change after you move to a small town. Soon after we moved, the family who used to take care of the house had to leave because of some personal reasons and we were left with a cow and a calf. We had absolutely no idea about what to feed them, in what quantity. We found a lady to milk the cow, but we had to learn everything else. On top of that, we were in quarantine, so we couldn’t go and buy basics like vegetables. But we were getting plenty of milk every day. So, we learnt to use milk in different forms in every meal … paneer, curd, cheese, sweets. We also utilized this time to clear the land, remove the weeds, and to make a part of the land fertile again. Those days were very exciting!

Spotting tiger pug marks in the courtyard in the morning

What are the advantages of living in a small town? How challenging it is to live in a secluded house like yours?

For me, the biggest advantage has been that I was able to get rid of the unnecessary stress and noise from my life. While living in a city, the noise becomes a part of your life and one gets used to the chaos. We breathe in fresh air now, we eat non-toxic, organic vegetables, and drink pure milk. The cost of living has come down substantially. These are some of the visible changes, but subconsciously, many things have changed. When you live in big cities, you are just a face in the crowd. You don’t get to meet your friends often. You are practically non-existent if you don’t have a job and a distinguished identity and you don’t fit in if you don’t have a fancy home or a big car. In small towns, these things matter a lot less. That gives a deep sense of security.

My house is my most favourite place in the world. I enjoy the greenery and the open space around it. But, living in a secluded house has its own set of problems. On the third day after we moved, we were baffled by a strong stench. It was as if someone was burning something. We later realized that there was a tiger around. It’s pretty normal here. It has become our morning ritual to look for tiger pug marks. We now know that a tiger crosses our front yard at about midnight and then early in the morning it returns. Then there are leopards. We have to let our dogs in the house after sunset as that’s when leopards usually attack. Spotting snakes is also normal. The first time I saw a baby snake inside my house in the middle of the night, I froze. I spent all night researching how to keep snakes away, how to identify poisonous snakes, and the immediate steps to be taken if somebody is bitten by a snake. During the monsoon, we spotted snakes in our courtyard almost every other day. It’s not that we don’t get affected by their presence anymore, but we have now started accepting their existence. To realize that the earth does not belong to just the humans and all the other creatures have an equal right to live was a humbling experience. If their presence is an inconvenience to you, it’s your problem, not theirs.   

Neembu Saan is a Kumauni delicacy that is savoured during winters in the hills. Rich in fiber, antioxidants, and Vitamin-C, it’s made using lemons (or any other citrus fruits like Malta or oranges) and bhaang (hemp seeds). Watch this video to know how Neembu Saan is prepared

Do you miss going to malls and multiplexes, dining out or the convenience of ordering food via apps, meeting friends over a cup of coffee, or other luxuries and conveniences of city life?

I lived in metros for nearly 15 years but didn’t really become a city girl ever. I always enjoyed having my evening tea sitting in my balcony, alone, rather than going to a coffee shop. Parties, multiplexes, shopping … these are the things I can live without. To be honest, small towns are not so small anymore. The options are limited, but many online shopping websites operate in Almora as well. I was surprised to see that a few restaurants do home delivery of food too. 

How does your normal day look like?  

It’s been almost six months since I moved here and believe me, I have not had a single mundane day. There is so much to do on a daily basis that even 24 hours seem limited. Our work keeps us busy, but we spend a lot of time gardening. I feel so proud that we turned around an entire area in just 5-6 months. Also, our family members now include two dogs, a recently adopted four puppies, two cats, a cow, and a calf. There are interesting problems. Like, one dog hates sharing the house with the cats, so we have to be attentive all the time so they don’t get into a fight! The other dog loves to tease the calf. A family of special guests – monkeys — keep visiting multiple times in a day! They keep us on our toes!

How has your lifestyle changed?

We have transitioned into consuming non-contaminated, non-toxic food. Junk food and beverages are completely out of our lives. We eat what is available to us in our surroundings and not the ‘branded’ food. These days, the biggest pull to come back home is that we get to pick fresh vegetables from our garden. Apart from potatoes, onions and some other occasional ‘change-of-taste’ vegetables, we haven’t really bought any vegetables from the market in the past three-four months. We have planted many medicinal plants and now I want to plant fruit-bearing trees as well. I was always into gardening but it mostly meant buying plants from a nursery. Now I preserve seeds for the next harvest, make new plants from the old plant cuttings … it’s really satisfying. We have started mushroom farming and the first crop is due anytime now. Water is a scarce commodity here so we restored an old water tank for rain water harvesting.

Pant is loving connecting with her roots. On Diwali, we per the tradition, she made a mud temple and placed a deeya inside it

Do you miss having a friend circle? Do you sometimes yearn to have meaningful conversations?

Yes, I miss my friends, the care-free conversations, and informal gatherings, but I am not completely disconnected from them. Most of our friends are fascinated by the hills, so, I am planning to create a getaway for them so that can spend some quiet moments. Creative people can work from anywhere and they connect irrespective of where they live.

Your daughter is still very young. What does this shift mean for her? Won’t she miss the city exposure?

Probably this dilemma stopped us from moving earlier. Talking from my personal experience, growing up in a small town laid the foundation of who I am today. I have interesting stories to tell, I am not dependent on material luxuries to get entertained, I connect with nature and find strength in it. But it’s also true that I grew as an individual while living in cities. So, I have no intentions of cutting all my ties from city life. Our work is rooted there, most of our family members live there. So, we are not going to be depriving our daughter. We want her to have the best of both worlds.

You are now trying to set up a professional base in Uttarakhand. Usually, creative people flock to Mumbai, but you came back. Talk about this reverse journey. 

Mumbai is an amazing place to work, but I had realized long back that I would not be able to keep up with the pace. I don’t want to be a part of the ruthless competition. For me, life is more than work and money. As far as creating good content is concerned, it can be created from anywhere. The only challenge that I am facing in Uttarakhand is to start everything from scratch. It is exhausting, but I am thoroughly enjoying it.

There isn’t a functioning entertainment industry in Uttarakhand. Pant’s dream is to set one up

The young people of the region must be immensely talented, but do you think not having the right connections and exposure can deter their prospects.

Exposure and connections are important. I faced these problems 15 years back when I had started out, but things haven’t changed much even today. That’s the precise reason why I came back. I know that most of the talented youngsters here will never get access to the film industry. Even if they do, it will take them years to rip off the self-doubting image of themselves and to accept themselves as equal to the people they are going to be competing with. I am trying to help them create a niche of their own so that going to Mumbai is an option and not a necessity. I have met many writers, artists, singers, musicians, and cinematographers in the past couple of years who didn’t or couldn’t go to Mumbai. They lack professional exposure, but they are raw and fresh. Since they don’t know the set pattern, they don’t follow it, which makes them unique. I am trying to create a platform for them. We don’t have a functioning entertainment industry in Uttarakhand. My dream is to set one up.

Pant’s two-year-old daughter has adapted very well to her new life

How has your daughter adapted?

Not long ago, I used to show pictures of animals to her. Mosquitoes were the only insect she knew and occasionally she would spot street dogs. Fast forward a few months, she now recognizes the sun, the moon, the stars … she even points at Mars and Jupiter. How many city kids have the advantage of learning things by looking at them, touching them, and not from the books? She plays in the dirt, scares off (at least she thinks she does) the monkeys and pigs, she knows the difference between a pebble, a stone, or a rock. She tries to climb trees and feeds the cow … and she is not even two! Every time I see her do all this, I know I have made the right decision.

(Image and video credit: Kanchan Pant)

The coronavirus-induced lockdown and work-from-options have encouraged many people to try connecting with their roots. But Bangalore-based Harini Srinivasan, who describes herself as a natural farmer and children’s writer, made the shift to a rural, farm-based life much before the lockdown happened. Read her story here.

Overflowing crematoriums, unsaid goodbyes … the pandemic death story

The year 2020, which was both forgettable and unforgettable for the entire human race, is finally drawing to an end. There wasn’t a single person who wasn’t affected by the tiny virus that brought the world down to its knees. While the economic, financial, and emotional suffering was immense, death, unfortunately, topped all the sufferings, as world over, the numbers kept mounting by the day. Overflowing crematoriums, mass burials, heart-wrenching scenes from hospitals, and stories about unsaid goodbyes broke everyone’s heart. As this year comes to an end, we revisit some of these stories as never before have we, collectively, stared at death so closely

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In a few hours, the world will ring in the new year in a hope that the coming year would ease some of the pain and emotional bruises that 2020 … the pandemic year … inflicted upon us. As this story is being published, a staggering 1.79 million people have succumbed to coronavirus across the world (India 148k) and a new strain, 56% more contagious than the previous one, is rearing its ugly head constantly reminding us that it’s still not curtains down to the pandemic drama even though the year is ending.

As countries continue to count their dead, we spoke to some families who lost a loved one in a pandemic year to get a sense of how they were able to process the loss and if a closure is even possible. While the virus was the primary reason why many of the deaths occurred, many people lost their lives because of manmade tragedies surrounding the pandemic and the lockdown.

As this story is being published, a staggering 1.79 million people have succumbed to coronavirus across the world. Image credit: Sunil Sachan

Deaths due to starvation, illnesses, accidents, and exhaustion   

On May 27, a video went viral on social media. A woman’s body was seen lying on one of the platforms of Muzaffarpur railway station in Bihar. Her scantily-clad child was seen playfully tugging at a sheet that was partially covering his dead mother. Another child holding a milk bottle was also seen in the video. Her belongings, stuffed in two bags, were kept away from her. The woman was later identified as Arvina Khatoon, 24. Originally from Katihar district in Bihar, Khatoon and her two small children had boarded a Shramik special train on May 25 from Ahmedabad. They reached Muzaffarpur on May 27, but Khatoon passed away on the train due to extreme heat, hunger, and dehydration as passengers were not served food or water on the train. Some people kept her body on the platform and the train moved on. Khatoon, who was stuck in Ahmedabad since the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24 and worked as a daily wager, managed to reach Bihar, but never reached home.  

Watch Arvina Khatoon’s video here. Source: Swati Subhedar/Twitter

For a few weeks after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, National Highways across the country witnessed a mass movement of people. Migrants who were stranded in different cities set off for home, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometers away desperate to be with their families in the prolonged lockdown that left them with no money, no jobs, and no roof over their heads. While some borrowed or bought bikes or bicycles exhausting the limited savings that they had, most just set off on the long walk wearing basic shoes with paper-thin soles or ordinary flip flops, their belongings packed into backpacks or bundles … but they never reached home. Fatigue killed them. On September 13, Union Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar said the ministry does not how many migrant workers may have died during the 68-day lockdown, but it informed the Parliament that over 1.04 crore migrants returned to their respective home states during the lockdown. While stories of some migrants walking back home-made news because they were heart-wrenching, other migrants silently kept walking. While some made it, some, like Khatoon, didn’t. 

“I was with Arvina in the Shramik special train. Everything happened in front of my eyes,” said her brother-in-law Wazir Wajid. “With great difficulty, we could board that Shramik special train. It was extremely hot and the train was crowded. We didn’t eat anything during the entire journey and shared one bottle of water. After she collapsed, people didn’t come to help fearing corona. I got her down. Her body was lying on the platform for hours. Nobody told me what was to be done. I had to spend money from my pocket to get her body home. We are daily wage earners, but the way the government treated us was very bad,” he added.  

During the lockdown, thejeshgn.com, a website run by a group of techies and scholars, started documenting deaths that occurred during the lockdown, but not due to coronavirus. The data was published in July. The deaths were categorized as exhaustion (walking, standing in lines), starvation and financial distress, police brutality or state violence, lack of medical care or attention, death by crimes associated with lockdown, accidents due to walking or during migration, suicides, suicides due to fear of infection, loneliness and lack of freedom of movement, deaths in Shramik trains and deaths in quarantine centers. As per the data, during the lockdown, 216 people died due to starvation and financial distress, 209 people died in road and train accidents, 133 died due to suicide, and 96 people died while travelling in Shramik trains. As per the website, a total of 971 people died due to non-covid reasons. 

Migrant workers outside a bus station in Ghaziabad on March 28. Source: Swati Subhedar/Twitter

Take the case of Hari Prasad, 26, who was doing odd jobs in Bengaluru and also learning driving in an Industrial Training Institute (ITI). A resident of Meetapally village in Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh, he had moved to Bengaluru so that he could earn more and send some cash to his parents who were struggling to meet ends. During the lockdown, he couldn’t earn a penny and was not getting enough food. His family suggested that Prasad should return home. As no transport facilities were available, he started walking to his village on April 27. The distance between Bengaluru and his village is 121 kms. Prasad kept on walking for three days, taking short breaks in between. On the morning of April 29, he reached his village, but collapsed due to exhaustion on the outskirts. The family called for an ambulance, but Prasad died on the way to the hospital. When the family returned with his body, the villagers refused to let them in as they suspected Prasad had died because of coronavirus. The family had to wait for Prasad’s corona report and his body was kept in a field in the outskirts of the village. The family could cremate the body only after they got his report which confirmed that he didn’t die due to corona. The anti-climax of the story was that after walking for 121 kms, Prasad died just a few meters away from his home.      

Rajamma Prasad, Prasad’s mother, said her son went to Bengaluru to earn money, but never came back. She is upset that the family did not get any help from the government.  

On April 16, a video of Parvez Ansari, 23, who used to work as a labourer in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, went viral. An extremely weak Ansari, his voice barely audible, was seen pleading in the video that he wanted to go back to his home in Ranchi, Jharkhand as he was extremely unwell. After the video went viral, people requested the Jharkhand and Ahmedabad police to step in. On April 19, the Ahmedabad police admitted Ansari to a hospital in Ahmedabad. His medical reports revealed that both his kidneys had malfunctioned and he also has TB. Ansari had started taking treatment for TB just before the lockdown, but could not buy medicines because of the lockdown. He wasn’t even getting food to eat. Ansari died on April 27 … alone …away from home. Because of the lockdown, his family could not attend his funeral that was arranged by the Ahmedabad police.    

Watch Parvez Ansari’s video here. Source: Swati Subhedar/Twitter

It’s been eight months since Ansari died, but his brother Tauhid Ansari, 25, is still angry. “Had the government made some arrangements for those who were stuck in other cities during the lockdown, my brother could have survived. He was very unwell, but could not come back. The situation was such that we could not reach him. I still can’t believe that he is no more. His death was very unfortunate,” he said.   

Administrative failures and unsaid goodbyes  

Vinita Yadav, 26, who worked as a police constable, gave birth to her son at the Lady Loyal Hospital in Agra on May 2. Her Covid sample was taken during her delivery. Yadav and her husband Ravi Yadav returned home on May 4 along with the newborn. On May 6, her condition started deteriorating and she couldn’t breathe. “I took her to various hospitals but all of them refused to admit her. Finally, I reached SN Medical College in Agra. My wife died even before I could complete the formalities. After 20 minutes, I received a call from the Chief Medical Officer’s Office (CMO) who informed me that my wife was corona-positive. It’s sad that all the hospitals I took her to refused to admit her and she didn’t get a bed in time. She would have been alive today,” said Yadav. Her body was lying in the hospital for hours because the staff failed to guide the family about what was to be done next. Yadav could not even touch her one last time and bid her goodbye.    

Vinita Yadav with her family. Image credit: Ranvijay Singh

In the initial days, when the cases suddenly spiked, healthcare facilities crumbled. Patients and their families were seen hospital-hopping just to get their loved ones admitted. While overworked and fatigued healthcare workers struggled in the absence of enough PPE kits and guidance, patients suffered because there were not enough Covid facilities, beds or ventilators. Many deaths occurred because of such administrative failures and there were many, like Tarun Singh, who could not even bid adieu to their loved ones.     

In July, Ankit Singh, 26, a resident of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, tested positive for coronavirus. The family called for an ambulance at 7 PM, but it arrived only at 11 PM. Many hospitals refused to admit him. Finally, at 4 AM, he was admitted to Lucknow’s TCM hospital. “My brother called me at 5:30 AM saying there was no one to look after him and he was feeling breathless. That was the last time I spoke to my brother,” said Singh’s younger brother Tarun Singh. Without the family’s consent, Singh was discharged from TCM and taken to King George’s Medical University (KGMU) in Lucknow which had a dedicated Covid facility. But he passed away before he could reach KGMU. Singh’s body kept lying in the ambulance for hours as the family could not get in touch with authorities who could guide them as to what was to be done about the funeral. They couldn’t even touch him one last time.  

Thirty-two-year-old Rajkumar Sharma’s father Deshraj Sharma (61) suddenly took ill on June 24. The family took him to the Metro Hospital in Noida where they tested him for corona. On June 26, the family was informed that he was corona-positive. Many hospitals refused to admit him. Finally, Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida agreed to admit him only after the family pleaded with the authorities. At midnight, Sharma received a call from his father who informed him that he was thirsty and no one was looking after him. The call got disconnected. That was the last conversation they had. For the next two days, the son kept trying the hospital, but no one was forthcoming with any information. On July 2, a hospital staff called him and asked him to collect his father’s body. “I wonder sometimes if somebody gave my father water before he died. We don’t even know the exact date, time, and reason of his death,” said Sharma.   

“We were exhausted and the patients were just pouring in” — Dr Rupendra Kumar, 40. Image: credit: Ranvijay Singh

Overflowing crematoriums and overworked staff

“Don’t even remind me of those days. It was so hot that it was torture to wear those PPE kits. I would sweat profusely and that would leave me dehydrated. Plus, the working hours were extended. We were exhausted and the patients were just pouring in,” said Dr Rupendra Kumar, 40, who was in-charge of the corona ward at the Lokbandhu hospital in Lucknow. Talking about fatigue, Girish Vishwakarma, 48, a lab technician working at Lucknow’s civil hospital, said: “During the lockdown months, I was working for 14 hours a day, taking samples of 150-200 patients every day.” The pandemic has left our health workers completely drained. They are not the only ones. The entire chain, including nurses, ward boys, doctors, lab technicians, ambulance drivers, and those who help in cremations and burying the dead were not just physically drained, they were emotionally exhausted too.

“We used to work round the clock,” said Sunil Sachan, the Lucknow region head of 108 ambulance service. “In April and May, there were many patients in Lucknow. We had 44 108 ambulances. But they were insufficient, so the 102 ambulances were roped in too. There was a time period when we had to call for ambulances from outside Lucknow. Those were difficult days. The heat was brutal and many of us would keep fainting because those PPE kits were too stuffy. The authorities kept telling us to maintain social distancing, but things were so bad that we were actually lifting patients who had died because of corona and shifting them into ambulances. We couldn’t go home regularly. We didn’t get paid for three months, but we continued working,” he added. 

In the initial days, when the numbers of causalities started going up, crematoriums across the country were not prepared to handle so many dead bodies. Image credit: Sumit Kumar

Sharing the cremation burden

On March 22, Abdul Rehman Malbari, 51, got a call from the health officer of Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) for disposing of the body of a 67-year-old man, the first Covid fatality in Gujarat. Malbari reached the hospital and did the needful. Malbari, is the president of Ekta Trust, an NGO, which has been providing funeral service for abandoned and unclaimed bodies for the past three decades. The pandemic, however, presented novel challenges, yet, Malbari and his team, continued working throughout the lockdown without giving a second thought of getting infected with the deadly virus.

In the initial days, when the numbers of causalities started going up, crematoriums were not prepared to handle so many dead bodies. The staff at crematoriums feared contracting the virus and were hesitating to perform their duties. Emotional scenes were witnessed as family members were not allowed to go near their loved ones. As the bodies started piling up, the overworked staff at crematoriums needed a helping hand. Many Good Samaritans came forward to help them and shared the cremation burden without bothering about the faith or religion of the deceased or fearing the virus.    

Malbari has disposed of more than 70,000 unclaimed bodies in the last three decades, but the pandemic was an unusual and unprecedented situation for him and his team. In May, Surat was an epicenter of coronavirus in Gujarat. “The situation is under control now, but in April-May, we were ferrying 150 patients daily. Our job was to transport the deceased from the hospitals and homes and take them to crematoriums. There were non-covid patients too.  The government had given us PPE kits and made arrangements so that we could take bath. But still, we couldn’t go home for weeks. It was an emotionally draining phase. We were exhausted, but we were duty-bound, so we had to carry on,” said Malbari.

The last sentence spoken by Sachan is an apt climax to this pandemic death story. “Throughout the year, the government kept reminding us ‘corona ko bhagana hai, desh ko bachana hai’. None of the authorities bothered to tell us hame apne aap ko kaise bachana hai. Yet, we continued working for the sake of people. We had no choice,” he said.  

Ajjibaichi Shala … schooling grandmothers and fulfilling their long-cherished dreams

These grandmothers – all in the age group of 60 to 90 years – living in Fangane village in Maharashtra – had just one dream … to be able to write their names before they reached the end of their lives. Their dream came true in 2016 when Yogendra Bangar, a local schoolteacher, opened a school for them. Now, they proudly shun the thumb impression ink pad and put their signatures on ration cards and bank documents. These days, they are praying very hard for coronavirus to go away so they can go back to their school

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Sheetal More, 34, a school teacher, sounded a bit concerned when I spoke to her over the phone. The school where she teaches is shut since March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and, given the situation, she is not sure when it will open next. She is a tad worried that her students – grannies in the age group of 60-90 – are going to forget what she had taught them before the nationwide lockdown was announced in March.

“They say they have been practicing at home. But that’s not going to be enough. I am the only teacher at the school and it has been challenging for me to teach them. Some can’t hear and some can’t see. So, I have to teach them individually. Plus, they tend to forget in two-three days, so I have to keep repeating. I am especially worried about slow learners! The other students would mockingly tease them for being slow when we used to have regular classes!” said More.

The school is shut now but the mornings have never been this busy for More. When the call went through at 10 AM, she was sitting along with her two children, both studying in the primary section of the government school in the village, and her mother-in-law. The children were practicing their Math assignment forwarded by their teacher on WhatsApp. Her mother-in-law, Kantabai Laxman More, 70, was writing English alphabets on her black slate. She had been listening to the entire conversation. So, when More handed over the phone to her mother-in-law, she said in a mock teasing tone: “I won’t lag behind! The only teacher in the school lives in my house! I can clear my doubts whenever I want! My friends don’t have this advantage!”

Teacher Sheetal More with her mother-in-law

There was a brief interruption in the interaction as the pressure cooker whistle went off and senior More instructed her daughter-in-law to switch the flame off.

All this was happening in a small village named Fangane, located in Murbad Tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra, around 120 kms from state capital Mumbai. The village comprising 70 homes – majority farmers, only a few are employed in state government jobs — is home to Ajjibaichi Shala — a school for grandmothers, which was inaugurated on March 8, 2016, on the occasion of Women’s Day. Thirty “100% illiterate” grannies – all between 60 and 90 years of age – enrolled in the school. It was first decided to give them green sarees as uniforms. But as most of them were widows and, as per the Maharashtrian tradition, they were not allowed to wear green, they were given pink sarees. The colour matched with their red school bags. Before the pandemic hit, they would wear their saree-uniforms – most would drape it in Navvari style, a saree draping style in Maharashtra — neatly comb their hair, cover their head with the saree pallu, pack their bags and go off to school. Big bindis on their foreheads, anklets, and flowers in their hair … those were the only accessories they had.  

Gradually, the nondescript village started making news for being a progressive village that was trying to educate ajjis (grandmothers). These women never got an opportunity to attend school when they were young, most got married even before they turned 18, and have spent the better part of their lives managing their households, raising children, helping the men in the fields, and looking after their grandchildren. They had resigned to their fate but secretly yearned to read and to write … at least their name … before they reached the end of their lives.

So, when they got an opportunity, they grabbed it. The school was the brainchild of Yogendra Bangar, 44, a Zilla Parishad school teacher, who, in 2012, got transferred to the only government school in Fangane village. He wasn’t very excited about it as it was an Adivasi region surrounded by mountains, and the village was considered to be very backward. He had two options – either to go with the flow and wait for the next transfer or be the changemaker. He chose the latter.

Keep swiping right to see some heartwarming images of Ajjibaichi Shala

“There were many problems like poor sanitation, no healthcare facilities, and lack of public transportation. After living in the village for nearly two years, I realized the major problem was the severe water scarcity. People had to walk for 2.5 kms to fetch water and their entire day revolved around this activity. I wanted to change this,” said Bangar.

In 2014, Bangar met Dilip Dalal, the founder of the Motilal Dalal Charitable Trust — an organization based in Ambarnath, Mumbai, which, along with many businesses, is also involved in charitable activities. “I told him about the water problem in the village and requested him to allocate some funds. He jokingly challenged me that if he gave me Rs 1 lakh, I would have to resolve the water problem in the village within a week. I accepted the challenge. The entire village dedicated itself to this task. Together, we dug the pits, laid the pipelines, fixed the corks, and within four days, each and every house in the village got piped water connection. Dilip jee was impressed!” said Bangar.

So, two years later, in 2016, when the Ajjibaichi Shala was to be set up, Motilal Dalal Charitable trust instantly came on board and helped with the uniforms, bags, school stationery, and basic books.

Yogendra Bangar with his students

“The village is like a close-knit family. After the water problem got resolved, we grew many fruit-bearing trees. We celebrate each and every festival with great enthusiasm,” said Bangar, adding: “On February 19, 2016, on the occasion of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Jayanti, we had organized a grand function. The children had prepared skits and musical events. The adults were reading religious verses. The ajjis werethere too, sitting in the last row, wearing brand new navvari sarees. After the event, a few of them came to me and said they regretted being illiterate and wished that they could at least read religious books and write their names.”

It affected Bangar. He instantly decided to open a school for the ajjis in the village. “I got so excited that I mentioned it to one of the local journalists who was there to cover the function. I told him that I would open the school after a month, on Women’s Day, but, at that point in time, it was just an idea. The journalist published this news and from the next day onwards I started getting calls from other journalists!” said Bangar.

However, answering these phone calls helped Bangar conceptualize the idea of a school for ajjis. When asked why grandfathers were not included, Bangar said: “This generation was born in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. There was a lack of awareness and financial problems in most homes. But, even then, men were sent to schools, and women were excluded.  Most of the grandfathers in the village could read and write, but the grandmothers were 100% illiterate. Besides, these women have struggled a lot. Their lives have revolved around managing homes, looking after their children, and working in the fields. And now, when the next generation has taken over, they often feel unwanted and unloved. Educating them was the primary task, but I also wanted them to laugh, socialize, make friends and enjoy life,” said Bangar.

It was first decided to give them green sarees as uniforms. But as most of them were widows and, as per the Maharashtrian tradition, they were not allowed to wear green, they were given pink sarees

The tagline for the school is “shikshanala vayache bandhan nahi” (age is no bar when it comes to education). The school was first set up in the living room of a farmer. But when they got a good response and many journalists started coming to the village to write about the ajjis, the school got a permanent address. Sheetal More, who had studied until class 10, was the most educated lady in the village back then and was unanimously chosen to be their teacher.

“Earlier, the students had to attend the school daily, for two hours in the afternoon, but after two years, we started calling them over the weekend as they also had to help with household chores. Our primary objective was to teach them how to write their names. They went beyond that. Today, all of them put their signatures on official documents and no longer have to go through the humiliation of giving their thumb impressions. They can read short stories, do basic calculations and most can read religious books. There are very few who can’t but that’s because they are too old and can’t see,” said Bangar.

The schooling isn’t restricted to studying. These grannies also play games, like kho-kho. As per More madam, they are quite a handful. They giggle and pull each other’s legs while the class is on. They have been allotted a space to sit depending on their hearing ability and vision capacity, but they don’t follow these rules and go and sit with their friends. There are the quintessential backbenchers too, who, despite warnings, wipe their slates with their sarees. The grannies are particular about two things … no homework, and no exams. “The good part is that they never bunk. There is this ajji who came to attend the classes even though her son was getting married the next day and there were guests at home!” said More. 

However, whenever they behave and, more importantly, perform well, they are rewarded by the management. In 2018, they were taken on a two-day picnic to Wai in Maharashtra, also known as “Dakshin Kashi” as there are more than 100 temples in the city. “It was a lot of fun. It was after a long time I was going on a casual trip and, for the very first time, I was going with my friends,” said Parvati Kedar, one of the ajjis who attended the trip.

The ajjis were taken on a school picnic to Kashi

A lot has changed over the years. Bangar has got transferred to Murbad district, 15 kms from Fangane. He, however, visits the grannies regularly to know their progress and resolve their issues. More continues to teach at the school without charging a penny. Earlier, it was a batch of 30. Now they are 28. Two students, both in their 90s, passed away owing to age-related ailments. The other ajjis miss them but are glad that they learnt to write their names before they passed away.

To be able to write their names gave them the identity they were looking for all their lives. It was almost as if they were living, but never existed on paper and their thumb impressions always stuck out like a sore thumb. To get a sense of what putting their signature on bank documents or ration cards meant for them, I spoke to four ajjis over the phone.

Kantabai More, the mother-in-law of teacher More, got married when she was 17. She never went to school as her parents never had enough money. Her brother, however, was sent to school. “The primary reason I joined Ajjibaichi Shala was because I wanted to learn how to write my name; at least that. So, when I signed for the first time in my life, I felt very happy. It’s my wish to sign on the paper in the bank while withdrawing cash, but they are not letting me do that. They are saying it’s a lot of paperwork to change the thumb impression and letting me sign. But that’s fine. I am not complaining,” she said.

The story of her friend Parvati Maruti Kedar is no different. She does not know her age or at which age she got married. She was never sent to any school. Ajjibaichi Shala was her first formal education and she is happy with what she has managed to learn. “When I signed for the first time when I went to get the ration, my hands started shivering. But I felt really good. I feel proud of myself.”

Nirmala Kedar, an octogenarian student, said: “I couldn’t go to school as a child and remained illiterate all my life. But I didn’t want to die illiterate. I am happy that now I would be able to carry a few words with me when I die.” 

Sunanda Kedar, 70, her voice barely audible, said: “I can write my name. I have no regrets now. It was my only desire in life … to be able to write my name. I am happy that I have managed to achieve this.”

To be able to write their names has given them the identity they were looking for all their lives

The school is going to be shut until further notice. “The students keep asking me when will the school open as they are missing their friends and the atmosphere. But they are also aware that it can’t open till this disease goes away. They know they can’t sit next to each other,” said More. While teaching these grannies, she got motivated and cleared her high school exams and is presently pursuing her BA as an external student. Inspired by her, two other girls in the village are also pursuing their graduation.

The situation of the village hasn’t changed much though. The only school in the village is only until class five. Her kids are in primary now but later on they will have to travel 20 kms one way to attend secondary school, which is in another village. She has no idea how would that work out, but, for now, she is happy that she is sitting next to her children and her mother-in-law, and all of them are studying.

(Picture credit: Yogendra Bangar)

The taangawalas of Lucknow, a slice of Nawabi history, are on the brink of oblivion post lockdown

The tradition of pulling horse carriages has been in existence since the time the Nawabs used to live in Lucknow. These taangawalas make their living by ferrying tourists who come to visit the many historical monuments in the city. However, during the lockdown, they were forced to feed substandard fodder and grass to their horses as they were not earning. They exhausted all their savings to buy essentials like ration. In the absence of any tourists because of the pandemic, the taangawals these days are killing their time by chitchatting. They are worried that if the situation persists for long, their horses will have to eat substandard fodder permanently

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As I was waiting for Juggan Khan, 70, who has been riding a taanga in old Lucknow for the past 50 years, I couldn’t stop marveling at the grandeur of the Bara Imambada, which was right in front of me. Commissioned by Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula, the construction of the Imambara started in 1786, when a devastating famine had hit the Awadh region. The Nawab’s objective behind commissioning the structure was to provide employment to people in the region so that they could tide over the crisis. Going by the grandeur of the Imambara, which also houses Bhool-Bhulaiyan, a series of labyrinth, and Shahi Baoli — a stepwell, one can only guess the number of people who must have toiled for years to build the Imambara.

As I waited for Khan at one in the afternoon next to a nariyal paani wala, as he had instructed, I also occasionally looked at the imposing, sixty-feet tall Rumi Darwaza, also built under the patronage of Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula in 1784, and the 200-feet tall Husainabad Clock Tower, built in 1881 to mark the arrival of Sir George Couper, the first lieutenant governor of the United Province of Awadh.

Keep swiping right to see images of some of the historical monuments in Lucknow.

In short, walking along this stretch in old Lucknow is like flipping through the pages of a history book. The taangawalas of Lucknow are also a part of it. The tradition of pulling horse carriages has been in existence since the time the Nawabs used to live in Lucknow. The 30-odd taangas that are still in existence had been struggling to survive, but the pandemic and the lockdown have added a few more worry lines on the foreheads of the taangawalas, most of who are over 50 years of age.     

“This is Lucknow’s shahi safari and look at our plight. If it continues like this then you will not find a single taanga in old Lucknow and that will be the end,” said an extremely soft-spoken Khan. These taangas are a tourist attraction. The visiting tourists start their tour from the Bara Imambara. They make pit stops at the Rumi Darwaza, the clock tower and the museum, and end their tour at the Chota Imambara — built by Nawab of Awadh, Muhammad Ali Shah, in 1838. Though the distance between the two is around 1.5 kms, most of the tourists either opt for the e-rickshaws that have eaten into the business of these taangawalas, or the taangas.

Juggan Khan, 70, with his horse

As per the Indian tourist statistics, Uttar Pradesh attracted the highest number of domestic tourists in the country in 2019 (53.5 crore) and the state bagged the third spot in terms of arrival of foreign tourists. As many as 47.4 lakh foreign tourists visited Uttar Pradesh in the same year. As per the Uttar Pradesh tourism website, a total of 79,6521 Indian and foreign tourists visited the Bara Imambara in 2019. In contrast, 2020 was a dampener. And, as per these taangawalas, there is not going to be an uptick any time soon, something that is going to affect them badly as they are daily wage earners and their earnings depend only on the visiting tourists.   

“On an average, our daily income is between Rs 300 and Rs 500. On good days, we manage to give a ride to foreign tourists and they give us anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 per ride. But this happens rarely. And I am talking about the pre-lockdown time. Now, we spend most of our day chitchatting as there are no tourists,” said Khan.

While I was talking to him, three more taangawaals arrived. It was lunchtime for their horses. They had tied a bag full of fodder around the crest of their horses so that they could stretch their legs for a while. When asked how did they manage during the lockdown, Mohammad Shakeel, a 56-year-old taangawala said: “We managed to get ration from a few sources. Someone or the other helped. But mostly we got dry ration like flour and rice. One needs oil, spices and gas to cook that. Since we were not earning anything, we had to spend from our savings to buy these additional things. We were eating less, which was still fine, but the horses suffered. They needed their set quota of daily fodder. On an average, we have to spend Rs 300 per day to buy good quality fodder for the horses. During the lockdown, we were giving them substandard fodder. I also know a few taangawalas who were feeding grass to their horses. Some were also thinking of abandoning them.”

Mohammad Shakeel with his horse

The biggest problem, according to taangalwala Abdul Razzak, is that they are not registered or don’t have any official license to operate. “These taangas are a part of history. The government should take us under its fold if it wants us to continue. Ideally, the tourism department should give us a fixed salary, no matter how small, because we are a part of the tourism industry. What we do has a historical significance. Because we are not registered like most of the guides or tour operators are, we could not avail the financial help that was released by the government during the lockdown.”

The government had announced a Rs 20-lakh crore stimulus package in May and a Rs 2.6 lakh crore stimulus package in November. Besides, Uttar Pradesh was the first state to implement a policy for lakhs of people in the unorganized sector. In April, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath had announced a Rs 1,000 monthly allowance each for those working in the unorganized workforce (like hawkers, vendors and cart-pullers) through direct bank transfers. However, these taangawalas slipped through the cracks.

“I am 70. I don’t understand the banking system too well. I have a small phone which I use only to make calls,” said Khan while narrating an interesting incident. Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Gulabo Sitabo released in April 2020. Set in Lucknow, the movie was shot in the city in 2019. In one of the shots, Khan got an opportunity to share the screen space with Bachchan. “He was sitting in a taanga. I had to sit in a taanga next to him and pretend as if I was riding it. Just that. It was a small shot which lasted a couple of seconds. In May, during the lockdown, a media organization did a story on the plight of taangawalas in Lucknow and mentioned that how I had shared screen space with Bachchan but had no money to buy fodder for my horse. When the director (Shoojit Sircar) read the story, he and a few others offered to help me financially. Someone from his office asked me to share my account details and my mobile number. The person kept asking me if I had some buttons in my phone (khan was referring to apps like Paytm and Google Pay). I was clueless. The person who had done the story helped me out and I suddenly had Rs 10,000 in my account!” said Khan.  

A still from the movie Gulabo Sitabo featuring Khan.

For Khan, it was a lottery. The others have not been as lucky.

“I love Raja (the horse). But I am not sure what will happen to him after I am gone. My children have already taken up other jobs. They work as craftsmen. They have seen my struggle. They don’t want to take this profession up. They have loved all the horses that I have had. They have looked after them. But I don’t think there are going to be more taangawalas in the family. They are keen to keep the horse only if the government offers some fixed incentive,” said Mohammad Ariz, another taangawaala, who was gearing up for his first ride of the day.

When asked if he remembers the names of all his horses he has had, Khan starts counting them. “Laxmi gave me a tough time. She was very chanchal. Raju was extremely lucky for me. He died accidentally due to electrocution right there. The one I have now is Bijli. We are still getting used to each other. She is probably unhappy with me as I couldn’t feed her properly during the lockdown,” said Khan, while patting Bijli’s back. 

Abdul Razzak with his horse

Khan being a veteran feels the taangawalas are a slice of history and an attempt should be made to preserve this tradition. “I have been coming here for the past 50 years. I have seen the city change. I taangas have also evolved from the time of the Nawabs, to the time when I starting riding, to the ones that you see plying now. We could have done something else to earn more money. But you don’t abandon your kids for money, do you? My family is keen on keeping the tradition alive,” said Khan.

Razzak pitches in and said: “My children and grandchildren are keen to keep the horse too. Let them. Allah has given us space in this world. He will ensure that my children and my horses don’t sleep on empty stomachs … ever.”  

The hauntingly beautiful Spiti Valley stood completely deserted this whole year

Spiti — a cold desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas in the Northeastern part of Himachal Pradesh – was barren this summer. It was peak season, but there were no tourists because of the coronavirus-induced lockdown. It’s going to be a cold, dark, and long winter for the locals as tourists have been advised to give Spiti a miss until further notice. For homestay and hotel owners, tour operators, drivers, trek-organizers, horsemen, porters, and locals, who are dependent on tourists for survival, the pandemic has meant zero earnings. This story is like a postcard from Spiti … words and pictures telling you individual stories

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Scenic Himalayan lakes, 1,000-year-old monasteries, pretty villages, unexplored treks, surreal landscapes, harsh highlands, winding roads, dramatic skies, extremely warm people and apple-cheeked children … Spiti, a cold desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas in the Northeastern part of Himachal Pradesh, is all this and a lot more.

Despite the inaccessibility and harsh weather conditions, Spiti Valley is on the bucket list of many travel and adventure enthusiasts, and usually, between March and June, the valley is packed with Indian and international tourists, bikers, trekkers, and adventure-seekers. This year, something unusual happened. The summer of 2020 was a black summer for the locals of Spiti Valley … a summer they are not going to forget for a long, long time.

“For the first time in the past 18-19 years, there were no tourists in Spiti during the peak season because of the lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic,” said Lara Tsering, owner of Spiti Valley Tours and Lara’s Homestay in Kaza — a town situated along the Spiti River at an elevation of about 12,500 feet above sea level, home to the world’s highest petrol pump. “I spent the whole summer cancelling bookings and refunding money. I don’t think people will travel anytime soon. The harsh Spiti winter will set in from October. I am expecting the situation to improve only next year,” he said.  

For homestay owners, hotel owners, tour operators, drivers, trek-organizers, horsemen, porters, and locals in Spiti Valley, the pandemic has meant zero earnings.

The valley — situated 415 kms from the summer capital of Himachal, Shimla, and 390 kms from the winter capital, Dharmshala, which is home to Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile – is a research and cultural center for the Buddhists. The name Spiti means ‘The middle land’ (the land between Tibet and India), and the popular tourist destinations in Spiti are the Tabo monastery; one of the oldest in the world, Dhankar monastery, Ki monastery, Kibber Monastery, Pin Valley, Chandra Taal and Giu, famous for the 500-year-old mummy of a Buddhist monk, among others.

Largely untouched, tourism set foot into the Spiti Valley after 1992 when the valley opened up to the outside world. The valley, and the surrounding region, is one of the least populated regions in the country — the Lahaul-Spiti district has a population of 31, 564, and Kaza is the sub-divisional headquarters. The northern part of the valley is usually cut-off for eight months due to heavy snowfall and the southern part, which has access via Shimla and is a more popular tourist route, is shut periodically throughout the year because of snowfall.

The best time to visit Spiti is from March to June when the temperature ranges from 0-15-degree Celsius. Tourists avoid visiting Spiti during the monsoon months (July to September) as there are possibilities of massive landslides. Winters in Spiti are for the daring as the temperature dips to as low as -20 degrees Celsius because of the heavy snowfall. The locals, and those associated with the tourism industry, thus have a very small window to earn money through tourists.

Keep swiping right to see some stunning visuals from Spiti.

When Spiti Valley said no to tourists

Himachal is a much sort-after tourist destination. There are 3,350 hotels, 1,656 homestays, 2,912 travel agencies and 1,314 guides, 899 photographers and 222 adventurers registered with the state tourism department. The total bed capacity of hotels and homestay units is 91,223 and 9,144, respectively. While 1.72 crore tourists (Indian and international) visited Himachal in 2019, 1.64 crore visited in 2018.

In January this year, when the locals living in Spiti Valley – most dependent on the incoming tourists for livelihood — were gearing up for the upcoming tourist season, coronavirus had just started spreading its tentacles in the country. After a long and cold winter (October-January), when the business is bleak, the locals were looking forward to the peak season to pick up. They were optimistic as they were getting many booking enquires.

However, as the number of coronavirus cases started going up in February, people started cancelling their bookings. From March 23 onwards – the day the first three-week-long nationwide lockdown was announced by the government – everything came to a standstill. The lockdown was extended twice after that and eventually ended in May end.

In July, the Himachal Pradesh government announced opening up the state for tourism with guidelines that tourists were required to follow. It was mandatory for the incoming tourists to show their COVID-19 negative report, furnished from any of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)-recognized labs. They also had to pre-book hotels and stay at least for two days. However, by September, the state eased some of the guidelines and lifted the mandatory condition of carrying an e-pass or registration for tourists and also allowed inter-state travel.

However, the Spiti Tourism Society decided it would stay shut to tourists for the year 2020 and said no tourism activities, including jeep safaris, package tours, trekking and camping, would be allowed.

In a letter submitted to Additional Deputy Commission of Spiti, Gian Sagar Negi from Spiti Tourism Society said: “This decision is made considering the consequences of the pandemic on the high altitude region of Spiti Valley which has limited medical facilities, underdeveloped infrastructure and extreme geographical condition with our harsh winters and pre-existing medical condition of Acute Mountain Sickness.” The letter further states that social distancing would be tough in winters and patients would have to be taken out of the valley in case one such case emerges, further complicating the situation. The letter also urges travellers to cancel all travel plans to Spiti Valley this year to make it a safe destination for next year. A sanguine decision, but it’s going to hit the locals hard.

Lara Tsering, owner of Spiti Valley Tours and Lara’s Homestay, spent the whole summer cancelling bookings

“No help from the government”

“My cars are parked since March and the drivers are sitting at home doing nothing,” said Kamal Kishore, a tour operator who is based in Shimla, and organizes tours to Spiti. “There is no chance of Spiti opening for tourists this season. While some drivers went back to their native villages and are doing farming, most haven’t earned a penny this season and won’t until the next. Some tour operators gave them their salaries, but since we haven’t got any financial help from the government in the stimulus package that it had announced, we are also in a fix,” he added.  

Mahendra Singh, a driver, who is associated with one such tour operators, lives in Chandigarh. He usually ferries tourists to popular destinations like Shimla and Manali, but he looks forward to going to Spiti three-four times during the peak season. A couple of trips to Spiti help him earn more than the regular destinations. This year, he had to let go of Spiti, and he has no hopes of even Shimla and Manali opening fully for the tourists. “I have exhausted all my savings. Now I will have to look for a job. I don’t think the overall travel scene will improve anytime soon,” he said.

Jitendra Bharadwaj, who works with the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) in Mumbai, is usually very busy throughout the year organizing tour packages. A chunk of tourists visiting Himachal come from Mumbai and Delhi. However, he has spent this whole summer cancelling bookings and refunding money. “Not just us, the entire tourism chain in Spiti, which includes hotels, tents and homestay owners, guides, photographers, porters and drivers, has taken a hit. Some of the local people own apple orchards or grow cash crops, so they have something to fall back on. But those who depend on tourism have been rendered jobless.”

Spiti Holiday Adventure is a travel platform that organizes treks, jeep safaris and adventure tours and treks in Spiti. When contacted, Nikhil Bhambure, business and communication head of the company, said: “Our revenues are zero since March and we had to dig into our savings to pay our staff.” He added: “The tourism scene in Spiti has picked up only recently. So, the locals still have the option to fall back on their traditional occupations like farming or transporting goods. It’s people like us, who are dependent on tourists, suffering. Being remote, don’t think Spiti will open up this year, not even for the winter tourists.”

Trekking and camping in Spiti is something that the adventure-seeking tourists from India and abroad look forward to. A small business-model runs around organizing these treks and camps. Often, guides, porters, horsemen, cooks and tent-owners accompany tourists on these treks. For Jagat Singh, who hails from Uttarakhand, and is a porter, such treks mean good business. “I live in Manali, but come to Spiti during the trekking season. Usually, I make good money, but, this year, I have earned nothing,” he said.    

Most of the locals in Spiti are dependent on the incoming tourists. Image: Lara Tsering

Those who run proper hotels in Spiti are facing bigger problems. It’s not easy for them to run and maintain their hotels in a remote location like Spiti. These hotels are not operational throughout the year. So, every time they open, the hotel operators have to spend additional money on maintaining their properties. As the business is cyclic, it’s inconvenient for them to hire permanent support staff. Most hotels have dedicated staff members who diligently return every season. But, in case they don’t, the hotel owners have to make alternative arrangements for the year.

“My cooks, cleaners, drivers and hotel boys come from neighbouring states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and even Nepal. This year none of them could make it because of the lockdown,” said Chhobyang Singhe, owner of the relatively high-end hotel Spiti Heritage Himalayan Brother, which is in Kaza. He had no option but to shut the hotel. He managed to come down to Dharamshala in the nick of the time, just before the lockdown was announced. He has two properties here, which he opened in July as the country started unlocking. He is banking on these two properties as the Kaza property “is going to be shut for a long, long time.”

As per Tsering Tsang, who co-manages the Sakya Abode hotel in Kaza, along with her husband, the coronavirus situation was never so grave in Lahaul-Spiti, but it was the locals who were wary of not letting outsiders in Spiti. “Most homestays might open, but they won’t get any traffic,” she said.  

Well, not all are complaining. Take Lara Tsering from Lara Homestay, for instance, who said: “The lockdown was a blessing for me. We are busy organizing tours throughout the year. The summer months are very hectic. The lockdown gave me an opportunity to explore Spiti, something that I had never done before. I went on solo trips and discovered new trails and walks.”

‘Unbound’ … a spinal cord injury awareness series

Mrunmaiy Abroal celebrated the 2017 Christmas with her friends. She returned home and showed some of the pictures to her parents. Her mother beamed when she saw one picture and said: “You have blended so well with the others. It does not look like you are in a wheelchair. This picture makes your disability invisible.” For Mala Abroal, her mother, the picture is still very special as it blends her daughter with her friends. Inclusion … that’s all that people with spinal cord injuries ask for. The injury may have hampered their ability to walk, but they are still the same from within. It may have put restrictions on them, but it does not change their ability to love their better-halves, parents, and children. A spinal cord injury does not mean they should put their lives, dreams, ambitions, and aspirations on hold. No, they are not “different”.

I have known Abroal since college days. Some friendships are meant to last. It was that. Though we were not always living/working in the same city after we graduated, we stayed connected. In 2011, one Saturday, she invited me to her place to stay over. While gazing at the sparkling lights of Mumbai from her 10th-floor apartment, we chatted until the wee hours of the morning and even planned a trip to Turkey.

Two weeks later, a phone call at 10 pm informed me that her car had met with an accident while she was returning from Nagpur back to Mumbai with her parents. A few days later, I was informed that she had an ‘SCI’. I had no idea what that meant. I googled and read about spinal cord injuries (SCI). However, it was only after I visited her in Nagpur a couple of months after the accident that I came to know the exact nature of her “permanent” injury – quadriplegia … paralysis of all the four limbs and torso.

What’s incredible is the way she has handled the life-altering crisis. Today, when I see her chasing her goals at her workplace, travelling like she used to before, and finding time to pursue her hobbies like scuba diving and parasailing, my heart swells with happiness.

I have met her multiple times in different cities in all these years, mostly at high-end cafes that are wheelchair-friendly. And yet, we have had people stare at us when I would sometimes feed her, while she would manoeuvre her wheelchair around, or when her helpers would physically lift her and shift her in her car.

Unlike some of the countries in the Western part of the world, in India, because of attitudinal barriers, persons with disabilities continue to grapple with the challenges of access, acceptance, and inclusion. To sensitize people, September is dedicated to spread awareness about spinal cord injuries. We spent the whole month talking to those who are living with a spinal cord injury. 

Our series, ‘Unbound’, is an attempt to bring to you their incredible journeys. Each story is an inspiration — some found strength in sports, others in academics, while a lot of them are busy looking after their children and managing their families and at the same time being financially independent. Inclusion and acceptance … that’s all that they are asking for.

Read Mrunmaiy’s story, Ishrat’s story, Rafat’s story, Garima’s story, Preethi’s story, Suresh’s story, Kartiki’s story, Ekta’s story


“If you are hiring a person with a disability, you don’t have to lower your expectations”

Mrunmaiy Abroal is a communications professional, who is presently working with Amazon in Bangalore. In 2011, she suffered an injury in her spinal cord, which left her in a wheelchair. In this story, she shares her journey of recovering from the accident, getting back to work, and the challenges of working in an office

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Picture this. Persons with disabilities (PwDs) form less than 0.5% of staff in India’s top firms. This, when as per the 2011 census (updated in 2016), there are 2.68 crore persons with disabilities in India, which is 2.21% of the whole population. 

Because of the lack of support and access to the right tools and opportunities, majority of persons with disabilities don’t manage to find employment. Those who do, face serious difficulties at workplaces as most offices continue to remain inaccessible or are not very inclusive when it comes to accommodating persons with disabilities.

The problems are manifold, but the most important one, according to Mrunmaiy Abroal, 39, a communications professional, who is presently working with Amazon in Bangalore, is sugarcoating the definition of ‘persons with disabilities’.

“We live with our realities. I live with my disability day in and day out. I am aware of what my body can or cannot do. Glorifying the situation and addressing us as ‘people with special abilities’ or ‘divyang’ is incorrect. People think that it will make us feel good, but it does not. Words like disabled, visually challenged, hearing-impaired and the one closest to me, wheelchair-bound, have negative connotations. Just call us ‘people with disabilities’, which is the most appropriate, politically correct, and globally-accepted term,” she said, and added: “I am a daughter, a sister, a team leader, a travel buff, a Bollywood fan, and also a wheelchair user. I’m so many things. My disability is not the only thing that defines me.”

In June 2011, Abroal’s life changed forever. She suffered an injury in her spinal cord after a road accident, which left her in a wheelchair. In this story, she shares her journey of recovering from the accident, getting back to work, and the challenges of working in an office. Most importantly, she sheds some light on how persons with disabilities should be treated at a workplace and things that companies should keep in mind while hiring a person with a disability.

Although Mrunmaiy started working three months after the accident, it took her two years to accept her new life.
Image: Facebook
Injury and recovery

“We were on our way from Nagpur to Mumbai. I have no memory of the exact moment when the accident happened in the wee hours of the morning, but I remember opening my eyes in a hospital and not being able to move any body part except for my eyes and eyebrows. I was told I have an injury in my spinal cord that had resulted in quadriplegia — paralysis of all the four limbs,” she said.  

It was only after she moved to the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi for her rehabilitation that she came to know the exact nature of her injury and that it was permanent. “It was shocking and depressing. But I had to accept and move on. The experience at the rehabilitation center was both, helpful, and frustrating. The transition from ‘I can’t do this anymore’ to ‘Okay, I can at least do this’ wasn’t easy. However, I met many positive therapists and befriended others with spinal cord injuries. They all guided and motivated me, and I never felt alone or lonely,” said Abroal.

After the accident, her life changed completely, but she never stopped trying and exploring. Image: Facebook
Moving on

Quadriplegia meant she was dependent on others for basic things like brushing her teeth, getting up from the bed, and drinking water. “It was frustrating. I would often go into a shell. People around me told me not to cry or overthink. But I couldn’t help that. It was an emotionally draining phase. There were people who went away without saying good-bye. I would often let sadness take over,” said Abroal while talking about the initial days.  

Gradually, acceptance happened. She started celebrating small victories and achievements like moving her hand, to be able to sit to the count of 100, and relishing chicken after months of liquid diet to keep herself motivated.

“Living life at a slow pace allowed me to spend time with myself, to think, to ponder. I loved the quiet moments. I had enough time to watch squirrels make their way from one tree to the other, bask in the sun, experience the complete cycle of trees shedding their leaves, and coming back to life again,” she said.     

Travelling isn’t the same anymore, but Mrunmaiy makes sure to explore new places. She writes about the places she visits so that people know which places are wheelchair-friendly and which aren’t. Image: Facebook
Getting back to work

Although Abroal started working three months after the accident, it took her around two years to accept the new way of living and gain her confidence back. “When I joined work after the accident, I wasn’t the same anymore. I couldn’t work like I used to before. I would compare myself with the old me. Anxiety took over. Being a communications professional, my work involved meeting a lot of people. Initially, I wasn’t very comfortable meeting my clients in a wheelchair. There were times when I had to give demos about our new apps, but I couldn’t use my fingers. At times, my cousin would help me while I did the talking. At times, the journalists would take over the demo part, while I explained things to them,” she said.

Taking one day at a time, Abroal took charge of her life and career. In the initial years, she had the opportunity to work from her home in Nagpur, however, she started travelling for work after a year of the accident. Work kept her motivated. “My work gives me immense satisfaction. It’s the only thing I can do on my own, so I give my 100% to my career. I don’t make long-term plans, but I definitely set up higher, short-term goals at my workplace,” she said. In 2017, when a very good opportunity presented itself, she shifted her base from Nagpur to Bangalore. It was a big shift for her, and for her mother, who moved along with her.

Recently, she participated in the 30th Karnataka Para Games 2020 and won a gold medal. Image: Facebook
“You need not lower your bar. Be inclusive”

It often happens in a workplace that employees are not sure about how to deal with a colleague with a disability. When asked to comment on this, Abroal said: “Let me tell you a little secret. People with disabilities are also humans. Just approach them like you would approach a colleague or a new employee in the office. You could use the same conversation starters that you would use with the others. Just be kind, patient, and understanding.”

As per Abroal, there are little things that employees must keep in mind if they have persons with disabilities working in the office. Firstly, empathize, but don’t go overboard. “For instance, if you see a person with a disability struggling to get into a lift, approach him/her, and ask if he/she needs help. In all likelihood, he/she may not. But don’t just jump to help the person. Let me give you an example. In the office, I use a motorized wheelchair. At times, I am not able to maneuver it smoothly when the passages are too narrow. It often happens that suddenly someone will come from behind and start pushing the wheelchair in order to help me. The wheelchair weighs around 100 kgs. Even if you try pushing it manually, it will not move, and this act of people causes me a lot of inconvenience. Just ask first,” she said.  

She, however, says there is a thin line. At times, persons with disabilities hesitate to ask for help. “I’ve been with my team for quite a few years so I’m extremely comfortable asking them to take out my medicine from my bag and give it to me every day at 1 PM and 5 PM. When we go out for lunch or dinner, it is assumed that the person on my left or right will help me. When I am around strangers, I look for a friendly face; someone who makes eye contact and ask that person for help. But there are many who hesitate”

Check out her parasailing video.
Video credit: Mrunmaiy.com

According to her, small acts go a long way in building trust and creating a work environment wherein each person is comfortable because they are accepted as they are. “Do everything in your power to be inclusive. If you are going out for lunch or for coffee, don’t assume that we would not like to join you. If you are taking a coffee break, don’t avoid taking us along thinking it would be inconvenient for you,” she said.  

At times, at workplaces, disability per se does not limit persons with disabilities, but the infrastructure around them makes things difficult for them. “I cannot walk, so use a motorized wheelchair. I cannot type with my fingers, so I use the dictation software. But infrastructure is beyond my control. For instance, one of the floors where my team shifted had only turnstile entrances. It was difficult for me, but my facilities team was inclusive enough to replace them with the regular doors. It would really help if workplaces ask persons with disabilities about their specific requirements and be accommodating. For instance, even before I joined, I informed my team that I would prefer a desk whose height could be adjusted as I work sitting in my wheelchair. They were kind enough to oblige,” she said.

When asked if there is any advice that she would like to give to workplaces that are open to hiring persons with disabilities, she said: “If you are hiring a manager, you must look for a person who best fits the role. However, if one of the candidates happens to be a person with a disability, you don’t have to lower your bar. Don’t judge him/her based on the disability. Also, while calling someone with a disability for an interview, be sensitive towards the kind of disability he/she has and make appropriate arrangements.”

Watch her scuba diving video.
Video credit: Mrunmaiy.com
“Don’t put your life on hold”

Abroal has always been an outdoor, adventure-seeking person. She loves trekking and has participated in car rallies. Her weekends were reserved for travelling, exploring, meeting friends and making new ones. This was before the accident. With the spinal cord injury, she felt as if someone had clipped her wings. “However, meeting others with spinal cord injuries helped. They all are incredible and doing some amazing work, personally and professionally. Some are into sports and adventure. They helped me realize that I need not put my life on hold. I can still pursue my passions. Thanks to them, I could go scuba diving, parasailing and even participated in the 30th Karnataka State Para Games 2020. Winning a gold medal was truly special.”

Travelling is another thing that she is passionate about. “A lot of things are not the same anymore. For instance, now I have to hire a car that has enough space for my wheelchair, depending on where I am travelling to, I have to decide whether to carry my manual wheelchair or the motorized one, the hotels have to be carefully chosen and flying isn’t as easy anymore. But thanks to my family, my extended family, and my support staff, I have managed very well so far. I don’t restrict my outings to work-related travel. I make sure to explore new places wherever I go. I write about the places I visit so that people know which places are wheelchair-friendly and which aren’t,” she said. To know more about her journey and read her travel blogs (Wheelchair Wanderer) visit her website mrunmaiy.com.  

This is Part 1 of our series ‘Unbound’ – a spinal cord injury awareness series. Read Ishrat’s story, Rafat’s story Garima’s story, Preethi’s story, Suresh’s story, Kartiki’s story, Ekta’s story

“There is no dearth of talented sportspersons in Kashmir. Give us facilities”

In 2019, Kashmir was virtually cut-off from the rest of the country after Article 370 was revoked and the state was put under lockdown. Why the Indian Army and the Jammu and Kashmir police were tracking down Ishrat Akhtar, a wheelchair basketball player, is a fascinating story, but also a grim reminder about how difficult it has been for sportspersons, especially para-sports players, from Kashmir

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On August 25, 2019, Ishrat Akhtar, a wheelchair basketball player from Bangdara village in Baramulla district, about 54 kms from Srinagar, was holed up in her house. The state was virtually cut-off from the rest of the country after Article 370, which gave Jammu and Kashmir special status, was revoked on August 5 and the state was put under lockdown.

There was a knock at the door. Akhtar’s father Abdul Rashid Mir, who works in the water department in the Public Health Engineering Department in Baramulla, froze when he opened the door and saw Army and police personnel standing outside. A policeman was holding his daughter’s photograph. He asked Rashid if Akhtar was his daughter. Rashid nodded. What happened next was the most thrilling experience of twenty-four-year-old Akhtar’s life.

Why the security personnel were tracking Akhtar is a fascinating story, but also a grim reminder about how difficult it has been for sportspersons from Kashmir, who have to deal with situations that are beyond their control. For Akhtar, who represents India on the world stage in wheelchair basketball, life has been full of challenges from the moment she met with a life-altering accident in 2016 and decided to give wheelchair basketball a try a year later.

Twenty-four-year-old Ishrat Akhtar represents India on the world stage in wheelchair basketball.
The accident, recovery, and taking up basketball

Akhtar’s life changed forever in 2016, an uneasy year for the Kashmir valley. In a freak accident, she fell from the ledge of the second floor of her house. The fall was so bad that she injured her spine and had to be taken to the district hospital in Baramulla, and later, had to be shifted to the Bone and Joint Hospital in Jammu. Shifting her from one hospital to the other was a task for her family as the Kashmir valley was in a state of turmoil at that time and it was affecting her treatment. She was operated upon six days after her fall, but even after the surgery, she could not feel her legs. Her world came crashing down when she overheard the doctor telling her father that she was paralyzed because of the spinal cord injury and she would have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. After returning home, she was bedridden for eight months.

“I had never seen a wheelchair before and the fact that I had to get used to it was making me depressed,” she said. A few months after the fall, she visited the Voluntary Medicare Society in Bemina, Srinagar. The center helps in the rehabilitation of physically and mentally challenged individuals. “I was here for about a year. Initially, I would exercise, and thanks to the physiotherapy sessions, I could at least sit. The boys over there would practice wheelchair basketball. One day, I decided to join them,” said Akhtar. That moment changed her life.

“I didn’t even know I could play basketball, but I was good at it. I attended my first camp at the Srinagar Indoor Stadium in 2018. My performance was good and I was selected for the nationals that were organized in Tamil Nadu. I was the only girl from Jammu and Kashmir. In 2019, I visited Mohali for the second nationals. I made it to the Indian team as my performance was good,” she said.

Ishrat’s life changed the moment she decided to give wheelchair basketball a try
When the Army and police came knocking

“In August 2019, the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India was trying to get in touch with me, but the phone and Internet connections in the valley were badly hit, and so it couldn’t,” said Akhtar. The Federation wanted to inform Akhtar that she had got selected for the Asia-Oceania Wheelchair Basketball Championship, scheduled to be held in Thailand in November-December that year, and had to go to Chennai to attend a national camp. It was an important championship as it was also the qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

How Akhtar was eventually tracked and how she made it to the camp in Chennai is the most thrilling experience of her life. “Former Navy officer Louis George is the coach of the India women’s wheelchair basketball team. He was casually talking to his friend Colonel (retired) Isenhower. George sir mentioned that he was not able to get in touch with me. Isenhower sir asked for my photo and my address. George sir didn’t know my exact address, but he knew that I lived in Bangdara village,” she said over the phone, her voice beaming with excitement.

She added: “Isenhower sir first got in touch with the Army. The Army contacted the Jammu and Kashmir police in Baramulla. The Army men posted there, along with some police personnel, reached Bangdara village. They didn’t know my exact address, so they knocked on each and every door and that was how they found me! I am grateful to the police and the Army for tracking me down,” said Akhtar.

It was for the first time that Akhtar was stepping out of her house when the situation in the valley was so tensed. Plus, she was escorted by the police and Army personnel, who had made arrangements for her to fly to Chennai for the national camp, which made her nervous. But when the entire village came to cheer for her while she was leaving, that motivated her. “When I reached the camp in Chennai, everyone was so happy and also very surprised that I had made it,” said Akhtar.

Ishrat with Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, Kiren Rijiju, who gifted a sports wheelchair to her
“There is no dearth of talent”

After attending the camp in Chennai, Ishrat also got an opportunity to meet Kiren Rijiju, the Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports. “He was very kind and promised all the help. He also said that he will provide me with a sports wheelchair,” said Akhtar. The wheelchair did arrive almost a year later, at a time when Ishrat was dealing with another lockdown. This time it was the nationwide coronavirus-induced lockdown.

When asked how has she been practicing during this lockdown, Ishrat said: “I had to attend a camp in Surat. My tickets were booked. But I had to cancel that because of coronavirus. It was disappointing. But I am happy that I got the wheelchair, which was promised to me. It will help my game considerably. It’s difficult to practice in a regular wheelchair. But because I could not go to my academy because of the lockdown, I would practice at home. There are many talented players in Kashmir, but they don’t get opportunities as there are no facilities. It’s even more difficult for para players like me. The government should look into this,” she said.

When asked if the two subsequent and prolonged lockdowns in Kashmir and the intermittent episodes of disturbances have affected her game, she said: “Yes, but these things are beyond anyone’s control. I have to get used to the problems. For instance, the academy where I train is 75 kms from my place. It takes me 1.5 hours to reach the academy. Now, they send a vehicle, but earlier, my father would take me and bring me back. I owe my success to him and I want to win medals for him.”

This is Part 2 of our series ‘Unbound’ – a spinal cord injury awareness series. Read Mrunmaiy’s story Rafat’s story Garima’s story Preethi’s story, Suresh’s story, Kartiki’s story, Ekta’s story.

“My comics have done wonders to my mental health and given me sort of an unshakeable self-esteem”

Tanika Godbole is a journalist and a comic artist, who started making doodles in 2017 to get out of a bad phase and randomly shared them on social media platforms. She was surprised that people found her work relatable and funny, and her Instagram followers kept on increasing. In this interview with Swati Subhedar, she talks about how ‘missfitcomics’ has helped her deal with her emotional issues and how art can be a saviour during the pandemic

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“No matter how bad things get, there will always be art” … reads the caption of one of your latest doodles. The image is that of a street in Germany that you had visited, a trip, which, in your own words, seems fictional in the current times. Take us through the thought behind that doodle.

I was going through old images of a work trip to Germany that happened in February, just before the lockdown. That made me think about how different things were back then, and how no one could have ever imagined that we would be living in such a different world in less than a month. While looking at the pictures, I also thought about things that have stayed stable and continued to provide joy to me, such as drawing. I wanted to express the need to know what makes you happy and keep doing that regardless of what is happening in the world presently.

Tanika’s recent doodle. The caption read: “A drawing of a random street I had taken in Germany, from a trip that seems increasingly fictional. No matter how bad things get, there will always be art”. Credit: missfitcomics

We have been living with the virus for nearly nine months now and there is no expiry date. In such uncertain times, do you think art and creativity help in coping with extreme emotions?

I always try to express my true emotions through comics, and that has changed a lot through these nine months. From feeling numb and uncreative, I have now reached a stage where I feel the need to make positive comics. There is already so much negativity. I used to want to make comics that would make people think about issues. But, nowadays, I only feel like making comics that will make people smile a little.

As an artist, how do you perceive the pandemic? Does it affect your thought process?

I had a hard time in the beginning because I found no inspiration to make comics. I also felt out of touch with my thoughts and feelings. But I am slowly starting to get back to feeling like myself again, and finding inspiration in normal, everyday things.

Do unprecedented situations like a lockdown have an adverse impact on artists and their creativity? Did you suffer a creative block when you were locked up inside your home during the lockdown and there was stillness all around?

Yes, I did. I also used to think that I’m someone who can survive pretty well without real human interaction. But the pandemic has humbled me. I realized the importance and value of human interaction and human touch. I also think just drawing without a message or comic idea has helped me calm myself. It could help others who are dealing with anxiety and loneliness.

A lot of your posts are about social anxiety and you being a “misfit”. Do you think expressing yourself through art has helped you overcome your fears and inhibitions? Would you advise others to do the same?

My comics have definitely helped me become a better person. I sometimes get to understand myself better through my comics. I know I always had this personality, but my drawings have made me so much more confident. I was always afraid of being my authentic self in front of people because of fears about how I would be perceived. My drawings have done wonders to my mental health and given me sort of unshakeable self-esteem.

Keep swiping right to see this slideshow of Tanika’s artwork.

Take us through the journey of ‘missfitcomics’. 

I started making comics during the beginning of 2017, to get out of a bad phase. I was suffering from very low self-esteem and needed a space to be more assertive and express myself without fear of how it would be perceived. I had decided right from the beginning that this would be something I would purely do for myself. I didn’t want to care or think about anyone else’s opinions. I was surprised that people found my work relatable and funny. I still have no plan or agenda, other than expressing myself.

Humour and sarcasm are the hidden layers in all your doodles. While the art is really simple, it’s the punchline that has the desired impact. Take us through the process. Do you draw first or think of a punchline first? 

There’s usually a joke which starts the process and gives me the idea. I sometimes ponder over it for days before I make it, because humour is the most important aspect for me. The drawing then materializes around the joke.

You touch upon a range of topics, including politics and religion. How do people react to contentious posts?

Some appreciate them, some are angered by them. I try not to let comments get to my head, positive and negative ones. I want it to be something I do for myself, and not let others’ opinions influence it much.

Any particular feedback or comment you remember that touched your heart and made the journey worthwhile? 

I had reposted some of my comics on Game of Thrones and Harry Potter from last year. And someone messaged me saying: “Thanks for making my night, from way back in 2019.” It made me so happy! I also get a lot of warm feedback for my comics on mental health. Many people tell me that the comics help them understand their social anxiety better and that they feel a little less alone after seeing the comic and comments of other people going through the same thing. 

Any message for artists who are extremely talented but hesitate or don’t bother to make their work public. What are the advantages of making your work public on social media? 

I think they should just put their work out either way. The worst thing that could happen is that you don’t get followers, which is fine. It makes no difference to your life. At least you know you put yourself out there. It requires a lot of vulnerability to be open and real on social media. We always need more artists. I’d rather see more art on my timeline than influencer content.

Do you know writing poems can help you get out of an emotionally draining phase? Read Anjana’s Deshpande’s interview to know more about journal and poetry therapy.

This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness, as we talk to people whose voices have brought to life, with empathy and without judgement, what is it to live with a mental illness or to care for someone who does.

Related interviews: Jerry PintoAmandeep SandhuKarishma Upadhyay Shyam Mithiya and Shampa Sengupta