World Kindness Day is celebrated on November 13 every year to promote the importance of being kind to each other, to oneself, and the world. In the last two years, as the pandemic drama unfolded, we witnessed death, starvation, mass migrant movements, job losses, and a spike in mental health illnesses. However, there was something that kept our flickering hopes and spirits alive. It was acts of kindness that touched our hearts. The pandemic scarred us at multiple levels, and the tentacles spread by a tiny virus affected every single person in some way or the other, yet the many stories of kindness encouraged us to sail through and motivated many to help those in need. The Good Story Project has documented some of these stories.
Lakshmi Ajay, a former journalist and a communications professional based in Bangalore, and her husband fell sick with Covid-19 as the second wave encompassed India in its deadly grip in April 2021. As they battled its manifold symptoms and sought help – the one thing that really made a difference came from strangers.
A relative stranger they were supposed to work with for a project volunteered and fed them home-cooked meals for the first two weeks of their illness. As they both battled fever, tiredness, aches, and pains – her food became the only uplifting thing that they looked forward to in their days.
Another stranger who responded to their enquiry for meals on Facebook sent them meal boxes with short handwritten notes stuck on them reminding them to eat healthy and get better while they recovered from the Covid-19 virus.
As Ajay rightly says: “Kindness is a panacea for the pandemic.” Click here to read Ajay’s story.
Ayanti Guha, who lives in a gated community in Hyderabad, shared her story and recounted how the gated community rose to the challenges of Covid-19.
A group of ladies (about 60 and counting) got together and formed a group that would cater to the dietary needs of the Covid+ individuals and their families who would be under quarantine. The plan was simple – instead of running a communal kitchen, each one would make a bit extra of the meals that day in their own home and put that information on a WhatsApp group created expressly for that purpose. Each day this information would be shared with the families who were under quarantine or in need of this dabba service. They in turn would indicate what they would want for their meals, and it would be shared with them at the time specified. The only requirements would be that the food be fresh, in tune with the taste buds and food habits a particular family is used to and voila, a dynamic, healthy and fresh food service cropped up in no time at all.
Rishabh Lalani shared his story and revisited the numerous acts of generosity and kindness he received when his entire family, including his younger brother, mother, and father tested positive for Covid-19. For Lalani (second from right in the photograph accompanying the story), who works as an independent consultant to the not-for-profit sector, the pandemic was an opportunity to reflect on why people are inspired to offer unconditional support and help in a time of great distress.
In his own words:
“Throughout the 30-odd days of this ordeal, nutritious food could have been a challenge. I can’t cook much and my parents, who manage the kitchen jointly, were down with fever. My elderly grandmother needed to be fed as well. Through sheer coincidence, we figured out that one of the Jain temples nearby was sending food for families affected by Covid-19, free of cost. They sent lunch and dinner for our entire family for one whole month. No questions asked. In fact, when they were winding down their kitchen, they called us, checked-in on our situation and continued sending food for three more days so that we had enough time to figure out an alternative. Given the fragile nature of everyone’s health during Covid-19, we also needed breakfast. My mother’s best friend kept sending breakfast for a full two weeks so that all of us had enough energy to power through the day. Every morning at 8.30 am, I would get a call asking me to send someone to pick up the food packet. No questions asked, no thank-yous and no frills. Just pure love.”
““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.”
Click here to read a first-person account by Swati Subhedar, co-founder, The Good Story Project.
says Rishabh Lalani, who revisits the numerous acts of generosity and kindness he received when his entire family, including his younger brother, mother, and father tested positive for Covid-19. For Lalani (second from right in the photograph accompanying the story), who works as an independent consultant to the not-for-profit sector, the pandemic was an opportunity to reflect on why people are inspired to offer unconditional support and help in a time of great distress. This story, is a part of our series on Covid-19 and compassion. This particular series invited people to share any experiences of goodness and kindness that they had come across as the pandemic raged in India, especially those that they had encountered first-hand.
As I start writing this piece, I remember going to back to a question one of my friends asked on social media – Is there a Hindi word for kindness? As we chew on this question, I am transported to the months of May, June and July 2021. I live and work in Bangalore, but during these months, I was in Kolkata where the rest of my family resides. On 21st May, my younger brother tested positive for Covid-19. Subsequently, on 27th May, my father tested positive and on 29th May, my mother also tested positive. Suddenly, my whole world had unraveled. My entire support system was at stake; my mind was struggling to make sense of what had happened, and life had come to a standstill.
A few calls to some of the doctors, who had treated us over the years resulted in no responses. My brother called up the mother of one of his students. She was a general physician and she agreed to do regular consultations for him. While she was treating him, my father was next in line, and she took up his case as well. She would enquire with us every day and check up on both my brother and father periodically. Sometimes she would scold me for my absent mindedness but was always alert to our needs. When my mother’s infection took a turn for the worse, she stepped up to the occasion, helped us access a critical care specialist and kept checking in on her as well. Her reassurances kept me going. At the end of it all, when we offered her fees for all her trouble, she refused. She said it meant the world to her that she could help. I don’t know yet how to thank her.
Throughout the 30-odd days of this ordeal, nutritious food could have been a challenge. I can’t cook much and my parents, who manage the kitchen jointly, were down with fever. My elderly grandmother needed to be fed as well. Through sheer coincidence, we figured out that one of the Jain temples nearby was sending food for families affected by Covid-19, free of cost. They sent lunch and dinner for our entire family for one whole month. No questions asked. In fact, when they were winding down their kitchen, they called us, checked-in on our situation and continued sending food for three more days so that we had enough time to figure out an alternative. Given the fragile nature of everyone’s health during Covid-19, we also needed breakfast. My mother’s best friend kept sending breakfast for a full two weeks so that all of us had enough energy to power through the day. Every morning at 8.30 am, I would get a call asking me to send someone to pick up the food packet. No questions asked, no thank-yous and no frills. Just pure love.
With the events unfolding as they were, my friends kept me steady. It’s hard to write without taking names, but let’s say that one beautiful soul was there with me throughout the whole episode – making calls to hospitals, checking in on ambulances, helping me decide on backup plans and connecting me to her doctor friend for seeking second opinions and advice. All my friends were available to me – some helped me cry, others gave me alternative suggestions, discussed pros and cons of decisions, connected me to doctors… All of them were present to me in any way or form that I needed them. Without them, I would have sunk without a trace.
And finally, I want to talk about family. My brother-in-law, my sisters, my maami (the Indian term commonly used for your maternal uncle’s wife) – all of them were constantly giving me strength. My sisters arranged for fruits, and daily consumables that I needed, while my brother-in-law helped me decipher medical advice and kept constant vigil on everyone through WhatsApp. My sister in the UK spoke to us every day even though she was down with fever herself.
Which brings me back to the original question – is there a Hindi word for kindness? Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t. It doesn’t matter. From the doctor who treated my family for free to the folks in the Jain mandir who gave us nutritious meals – it is our common humanity, our innate kindness that held us together. There was no reason for people to open their hearts at a time when all of us were stretched, but everyone still did. Why? One final story may have the answer.
Every night, I would go to the dumpster near our home to dispose off of our daily household garbage, that is, to empty our bins. For the first couple of nights that I did so, I noticed a few homeless people in the vicinity. One day, I resolved to be more mindful in how I was serving my family their food. I knew exactly how much they needed for a meal at a time and would carefully put in the required portions in their plates. The rest of the food, I saved and packed in clean containers, taking utmost care to follow the Covid-19 protocols.
From that day onwards, every night, I would go down and distribute the food that I had saved and hygienically packed and preserved to the people who seemed to be hungry and homeless. I realised that we had plenty of food, the portions sent out to us were generous, and we were in a position to offer food to others as well. One of them happened to be a diabetic and he sought my help to buy some medicines. I agreed and bought him a month’s worth of supplies. Every night with my heart heavy with thoughts about what the next day would bring, this was the one thing that gave me peace. I asked myself why? My heart’s answer was “Acha lagta hai (It feels good).”
Maybe that is the answer to why kindness exists. Maybe it’s about acha lagta hai.
About the author: Rishabh Lalani loves connecting with people, is a great believer in the power of connection and is learning to live in the moment. He tells stories and contributes to people’s well-being through fundraising.
You can read the previous stories in this series here: Hyderabad-based Ayanti Guha’s experience of finding a sense of community during Covid and Bangalore-based Lakshmi Ajay’s experience of receiving kindness from complete strangers during the pandemic.
If you have a story to share, please get in touch with us and we will be happy to publish your account in your own words.
SaysAyanti Guha as she recounts how her gated community in Hyderabad rose to the challenges of Covid-19, with a group of over 60 women coming together to provide home-made, healthy and delicious meals to those affected by the virus. This story, is a part of our series on Covid-19 and compassion. This particular series invited people to share any experiences of goodness and kindness that they had come across as the pandemic raged in India, especially those that they had encountered first-hand.
A year and a half ago our lives changed. It’s definitely not been for the better in toto, but I cannot honestly say it’s been entirely downhill either.
I live in a gated community of 400+ units. That’s rather small in a place like Hyderabad where massive gated communities with apartment units in four digits have been popping up like mushrooms.
But when one thinks about it, there are about 2000 people living and using the same amenities 24/7, 365 days of the year and this has led to our butting heads over issues – big and small and I have contemplated whether being in a villa would be a better option for us as a family because we would get the benefit of a community and yet have more privacy for ourselves and maintain a greater sense of space between our neighbors.
At the start of the pandemic, I exited a few WhatsApp groups that were community-based. It seemed to me that rumor mongering, blind faith and paranoia was gradually taking over and clear and concise thought, empathy was getting relegated to the back burner by most.
All that started to change when Covid visited our doorsteps. Till then we were quite happy to sit back and be armchair critics about the state of the world, what the politicians ought to do better, and it was an unending list.
Once the afflictions came into our homes, it was in a no-holds barred manner. We were ill-prepared for the fear, the anxiety and the sheer helplessness that spread- whether we were affected or not. We were all impacted.
When my son tested positive for Covid last year (something he skated through with the abandon only a child is capable of) we saw the generosity of spirit of the community shine through. There was not only concern for his welfare but for ours as well. People would call, message and just reach out in case any of us wanted to vent or express our angst. And that often meant more than medical help did at times.
Over time the helping mechanism became a well-oiled machine! A group of ladies (about 60 and counting) got together and formed a group that would cater to the dietary needs of the Covid+ individuals and their families who would be under quarantine. The plan was simple – instead of running a communal kitchen, each one would make a bit extra of the meals that day in their own home and put that information on a WhatsApp group created expressly for that purpose. Each day this information would be shared with the families who were under quarantine or in need of this dabba service. They in turn would indicate what they would want for their meals, and it would be shared with them at the time specified. The only requirements would be that the food be fresh, in tune with the taste buds and food habits a particular family is used to and voila, a dynamic, healthy and fresh food service cropped up in no time at all.
Bringing together a plethora of pan-Indian cuisine and often going the extra mile in making food in special shape for kids or giving them something that appealed to their taste buds as well as sense of fun; this group became a mainstay for those who were wondering how they would navigate these tough times till the all-clear was sounded.
Soon there seemed to be a seamless way of functioning. There were no differences between the different parts of the country we came from. A South Indian breakfast one day combined with a North Indian lunch and a dinner with Eastern Indian elements was just one of the things we experienced. Handwritten notes expressing concern, personal follow-ups asking for individual food preferences were some of the other kindnesses shown. And shown freely.
This endeavor not only served to bring comfort and solace to over 80 families but it also brought these women closer together as they partook in the act of reaching out and taking care of their neighbours; many of them they had nary shared a passing glance with earlier.
As the Covid cases decreased in the community, many of the women in the food group felt a void because cooking up something for a person in need had often been the high point in their day. In fact, a sense of confidence and positivity has also crept in – that this is possibly the best place we could hope to be in during a time of crisis.
Covid will eventually become one of the crosses we will need to bear as a community.Over time, we might even become habituated to it and these harrowing days will be a thing of the past (knock wood) but the way a group of people banded together to bring some solace, peace and healing is something that will stay with us forever.
About the author: Ayanti Guha, describes herself as “a total bookworm. Semi-sloth. Part-time author, full-time mom. An occasional insomniac and dabbler in amateur clicks. Also podcasts when she runs out of people who will listen to her.
You can read also Lakshmi Ajay’s story here. In Ajay’s experience of kindness during the pandemic, food has played a central part as well.
If you have a story to share, please get in touch with us and we will be happy to publish your account in your own words.
“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
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.
As India battles the deadly second wave of Covid-19, almost everyone who tests positive is struggling to find lifesaving medicines, oxygen cylinders and hospital beds – and this holds especially true for those who require immediate medical intervention. Families are trying to hold on to their health and wellbeing.
But some of us have also encountered help and kindness in the midst of all the mayhem. From individuals and organisations. It is this kindness which has helped many of us stay afloat.
We want to hear these stories.
However, these stories are not about whitewashing the breakdown of governance or about toxic positivity. It is also not about attempting to put a positive spin on a distressing situation. There is little doubt that most government bodies and leaders have failed India and its citizens. It is also true that there are black markets and dishonest profiteering – of essential medicines, oxygen cylinders and scams of various kinds. These include trafficking rackets involving vulnerable children orphaned by Covid-19 to people charging exorbitant amounts for simple services. And if you have faced a complete breakdown of the system or have lost a loved one because medical help wasn’t available on time – it is criminal to ask you to focus on the ‘positive news.’
So, this isn’t about trying to generate a forced sense of positivity in the midst of a pandemic.
This is about recording acts of kindness that you have encountered and the impact it has had on you.
This is about remembering to be a kinder person and to help those around us – not just as the pandemic rages, but even afterwards because the journey ahead is long and arduous.
An entire nation will need help and infrastructure of multiple kinds to cope with grief, loss, mental health and finances.
We hope that by reading these stories, we will be able to reinforce the impact that one person’s goodness or a single act of kindness and empathy can create and how we all have the capacity to do more for those around us.
says Lakshmi Ajay, who writes about experiencing it in its purest form in the past few weeks. Ajay, a former journalist and a communications professional based in Bangalore, and her husband fell sick with Covid-19 as the second wave encompassed India in its deadly grip. As they battled its manifold symptoms and sought help – the one thing that really made a difference came from strangers.
“…To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” ― Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living
From the time I was a child, the one thing that never ceased to amaze me was the kindness of strangers. As children we are constantly taught not to trust strangers, but I have always felt the need to subvert this theory all my life!
My earliest memory of encountering this phenomenon was – as a fifth grader during the floods that took place in my hometown Gandhidham located in Kutch, Gujarat – in the 90s. I still vividly recall that school day when my mother (a teacher) and I were slowly wading through the rising floodwaters and trying to get home from our bus stop. As we gingerly trudged up the 1.5 kms home, people in the locality, especially women watched as we held onto walls and gates and tried to cross the flood waters that were now nearly three to four feet high. At various points, I remember being so afraid to go on that I would tell my mother that I just didn’t want to take another step even as the rains beat down on us constantly. I remember the last 300 meters were particularly tough for me as a child and I was frozen with fright at the sight of gushing waters.
As my mother tried to cajole me to move forward, suddenly I remember being lifted high onto the shoulders of a relative stranger. He lived in our locality and had been watching us until he stopped and promptly came to my mother’s aid and carried me home. For a few years after that I recall my mother always remembering this kindness and sending me to tie him a Rakhi (an Indian custom symbolic of a brother’s unwavering promise to help a sister whenever she was in crisis) on his hand and exchange some sweets on the eve of Rakshabandan – an Indian festival that celebrates the bond between a brother and a sister.
Countless other memories flash before my eyes now as I recollect how various people showed me extraordinary kindness at different points of time. Whilst travelling as a single woman in India, I found kindness in the unlikeliest of places. From a near deserted hotel at a tiger sanctuary in Assam where a local reporter and his sister kept me company to the kindness of a Kashmiri student who helped me find a hotel in the dead of the night in Jammu and connect me to a local cop so I would feel safe in his state – I found truckloads of kindness in serendipitous ways that feel almost impossible or improbable if I think of it now.
As a journalist traipsing through rural Gujarat for stories, many strangers evaded me but many more helped me. But these past few years, it feels as if this India that I had known and experienced had rapidly changed. As the great Indian middle class grew in aspiration and heft, kindness was increasingly missing from our collective discourse. More distance and antipathy was created by a hateful ideology that seemed to pervade our reason, so much so that lynchings, atrocities on Dalits and young women, minorities, couples, and students became so mainstream that somewhere we stopped caring.
Today, I write from Bengaluru, India, a city where the pandemic is unleashing all its fury, and the administration and citizens are barely able to keep up. A government mobile application has just informed me that 473 people around me in the 1 km vicinity are Covid positive at the moment.
Just as we were getting a grip on the second wave and staying home in April, my husband and I tested positive for Covid-19. As shock gave way to practical considerations like food and medicines – a relative stranger we were supposed to work with for a project volunteered and fed us home cooked meals for the first two weeks of our illness. As we both battled fever, tiredness, aches, and pains – her food became the only uplifting thing that we looked forward to in our days.
Another stranger who responded to my enquiry for meals on Facebook would go on to send us meal boxes with short handwritten notes stuck on them reminding us to eat healthy and get better while we recovered from the Covid-19 virus. She did this even after providing meals to 25 odd people who worked as security and support staff in and around her locality every day.
The simplicity of these gestures, the generosity, and the notes she sent put more wind in my sails than the eight tablets (mostly multivitamins) I was putting into my body every day to fight the virus. I was lucky enough to recover at home without hospitalization even as hundreds of people (2.7 lakh) in India have succumbed to the pandemic as of May 17.
As a nation, all our fault lines now lay completely exposed. Entire families are testing positive and struggling with managing their recovery from Covid-19, mental health concerns are rising for many with pre-existing conditions, young kids are managing by themselves at home as parents recoup in hospitals, multiple lives have been lost in a single family – and the worst of human suffering is still unfolding in front of us.
And yet, each day we read and hear of countless kindnesses that are also part of the “India story” as we brave this pandemic. Everyday scores of home chefs, homemakers, NGO’s, youth, and volunteers are busy providing meals and other services to thousands of Covid-19 affected patients and their families. Countless calls and tweets are being made by strangers as they help out patients in need of oxygen cylinders or ventilators and many are volunteering to cremate the dead. We read of police officers driving for hours to find a hospital bed for a patient or arrange a ventilator. Even as the economy teeters, corporate India is backing its people with paid leaves, jobs, loans, and financial support for bereaved families. What this tells me is that somewhere our collective conscience as a nation and the syncretic culture of India is not yet lost.
So where do we begin the work of healing? We begin first with ourselves and then with others who need our support to heal themselves. Ask simple questions and offer help as these are the only elements that we control in present times. This second wave of Coronavirus reminded me of simpler times and simple gestures like sending over food to an unwell neighbor or doing seva (service) by feeding the sick or vulnerable which was such a core middle class Indian value. I wonder when we became a society that began thinking in terms of us versus them.
To put things in perspective, we have all lost something and someone during this pandemic. As a nation we are lost, in grief, in denial and need direction. Unfortunately, many more of us will be lost before we recoup from this pandemic. My only take away from my own illness and recovery is to keep looking across the aisle and care. Simple things like checking up on people who may not be as privileged as we are or building communities or families wherever we are.
As news headlines rain blows on us day after day, telling us of numerous tragedies unfolding all around us and an unresponsive government which refuses to step up to the task of providing direction- we can only count on each other. And like I was telling a friend – India is literally currently running on kindness these days – the kindness of strangers.
About the author: Lakshmi Ajay is a minstrel at large, looking at life and that zany moment in between. She describes herself as a lifeist, dance-demon, newshound, Bollywood fanatic/ au fait, outwitter, contrarian, dusk gatherer, who is always hunting for the best Chaat on the streets of Bangalore with a filter Kaapi in hand.