What did The Good Story Project stories teach us?

“I always thought no one can ever understand me because my situation and my life experiences have been extraordinarily different. Not all in a good, extraordinarily different way though. But after reading Jerry Pinto’s interview here, I think he will definitely understand me. His words moved me to a place of quiet acceptance of all that I felt and experienced in life. Thank you for sharing this. I feel a wonderful sense of kinship with the author. Kindred souls of the same world. His words are so gentle and kind.”

Our first story was published in October 2020. We were concentrating on two series – one that presented voices and experiences of those living with spinal cord injuries, and another on those living with or caring for a person who had a diagnosis of a mental illness. (The mental health series also included interviews with a psychiatrist and a therapist as well as with journalist and author Karishma Upadhyay who has written a biopic on Bollywood actor Parveen Babi.)

While we were certain that we wanted to do these stories, what we did not realize was the impact that these stories would have on us, and the responses we would receive from readers.

In that sense, what did we learn from doing the stories that we did?

Honesty and candour are powerful

One of our most important lessons was that when people talk about their deeply personal and vulnerable issues with honesty and candour, it has a powerful impact on the readers. We were humbled when people trusted us, and were willing to share some of their very difficult moments and insights. Once we published these interviews and first-person accounts and subsequently shared them on social media, we got reactions like the quote this story starts with. The quote came from a woman who responded to the interview with author and novelist Jerry Pinto, in which he talked about among other things, growing up with a mother who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This was just one of the many reactions that we received on some of our stories, especially those that focused on mental health and spinal cord injuries. The genuinely candid and straightforward first-person accounts and interviews helped other people in similar situations find a sense of community and gave them the comfort of being understood.

The beauty of bringing together diverse perspectives

The series on mental health also taught us a thing or two about the value of having different perspectives on board. Take for instance the interview with author Amandeep Sandhu in which he also presented a caregiver’s perspective and that touched a chord with a lot of our readers. As a reader wrote back after coming across Sandhu’s interview on social media: ‘Amazing work. My compliments to include the carer in the circle of care. It is true for any sufferer I think – no attention is paid to the mind or intent or situation or long term effects of suffering silently – and the patient is the only one that is allowed to voice any discomfort. Have watched a friend tend to his wife sick with cancer and her subsequent death – without a word… So many stories are here among us. Thanks for bringing this one out.

It also made us think about the unique challenges a caregiver faces, and how they could do with some acknowledgement and support. We wondered if employers in India would make provisions for some form of support for caregivers, something on the lines of caregivers leave perhaps?

Everyone has a story to tell

We also realised that we were right in our belief that ordinary people have some extraordinary stories to tell. And while successful, accomplished and famous people certainly have amazing stories to share with their audience, it is also important to give a voice and platform to people who are doing things in their own right and aren’t necessarily well-known or in the limelight. These are people who are doing something that makes an impact or are overcoming a challenge. It could be about how they manage a life-altering illness or diagnosis, find an alternative lifestyle, advocate for better education or awareness of an issue and are able to find whatever measure of success that they can in these endeavours. Challenges, successes and endeavours of ordinary people need to be celebrated because their stories are inspiring and make an impact like no other.

By telling you my story, I am trusting you to present it with balance and empathy

A series that we are working on, but is yet to be published is about loss and grief. That series has taught us a lot about trust — how people opened up about some of their most deepest and vulnerable moments and they trusted us and the platform as a safe space to be able to share their stories. Only after the entries came in, and some of our emails were answered, we realized the enormity of what people had shared with us, and how difficult it may have been to do so. It also brought home to us, the power of writing as one of the elements in processing our feelings, and the therapeutic value of putting it all down in words. And the fact that all stories must be presented with the respect, empathy and sensitivity that they so deserve.

Resilience and the need for inclusivity

The series on spinal cord injuries was also a lesson in resilience. Each of the individuals that we interviewed had undergone a great personal setback and had worked really hard to live life with a sense of purpose, integrity and positivity despite the many challenges they faced. Most of the interviewees talked about the lack of infrastructure and facilities, and some of them recounted how their mentors and workplaces had made changes in order to make the spaces comfortable and accessible for them. That brought home the importance and power of small steps that employers and organizations can take in order to make workplaces more inclusive.

Of course, these are just five of the many lessons we learnt while doing the stories that we did. Every story/interview/feature is an opportunity to learn something new. And we are interested in both – your stories as well as what it teaches us.

Thank you for the many opportunities — to our contributors for letting us tell your stories, to our readers for reading them and for getting back to us with feedback, comments, and ideas.

— The Good Story Project Team

Keep swiping right to read some of the feedback we have received so far

What kindness meant in 2020

The Good Story Project with the help of artist Vidya Vivek brings together a piece that talks about the role of compassion and kindness during Covid-19

The Good Story Project started in the midst of the pandemic. Many of the stories that it featured reflected in part, what was happening around us because of Covid-19. Now, as a new year has begun, we thought we could use this opportunity to reflect on the issues and things that really mattered, those that left an impact on us and will guide us in the years to come.

And that is why, we decided to focus on kindness. The reason is, that without acts of kindness this year would have been even more terrible than what it was. And whether pandemic or not, kindness needs to be in abundant supply.

This piece is on how kindness impacts us as people, and a few examples of how it mattered when nothing else seemed to work or make sense.

Cooking and feeding — an act of love and kindness like no other

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

A colleague’s mother recently received a voice message on WhatsApp. She had sent daily dabbas of home-cooked meals to her neighbour, who had caught Covid-19 and was too sick to get up and cook for herself. Every day, till her neighbour recovered, the colleague’s mother would place containers of simple, hot, nutritious meals outside her door. Once the neighbour was declared Covid negative, she sent a message. You can hear her voice, choking with emotions when she says she would never forget this kindness and that she would never be able to repay it back, but it meant so much to her. And that, out of all the neighbours and residents in the residential society where they lived, only the colleague’s mother had the foresight and the willingness to reach out and help.

Hearing the voice-note set us thinking. Imagine the power all of us have, the power to make a real difference by simply cooking in our kitchens and handing out meals to those who need it the most. It could be an elderly neighbour, a person living on his or her own, someone who is sick and exhausted or a family who has faced bereavement.

The pandemic has brought into clear focus the role food plays in our life, and also the disparity that exists in the world around us — so many people have full pantries and so many struggle to place three square meals on the table. And perhaps that is why, feeding people — those who were sick and unable to cook, those who needed help with their meals because they were elderly or homeless, or simply just unable to fend for themselves — was so important and impactful during the pandemic.

We could all do more of it in 2021.

If we know someone who could do with a home-cooked meal once in a while, all we have to do is to cook a little bit extra from what we are cooking for ourselves. Like Anthony O’Shaughnessy who cooked for his elderly neighbour during the lockdown in England or the way Rohit Suri, cooked meals for his tenant Kaushik Barua, a 30-year-old critical care doctor at a private hospital in Delhi.

Can we get you something?

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

Sometimes, we wonder how we can help someone else, bound as we are with our own unique personal challenges and limitations.

Here’s an example that might inspire you. My mother is blind, and she lives on her own with the help of two helpers. During the lockdown, her electrician called her up and said, to her, “Baa (grandmother), do not venture out of your house. My nephew lives in a society near to you, and so give me a call and he will deliver anything that you need and leave it outside your door.” And true to his word, his nephew helped my mother at a time when she and her caretakers were fearful of stepping outside the home. (The mother in reference here is the mother of one of the founders of The Good Story Project — Prerna Shah).

In a similar way, kindness was also brought home during the pandemic when countless people across the world thought about other people — people who may need help, and came up with innovative ideas and solutions. For instance, there were community groups, like My Block, My Hood, My City, (in Chicago, United States), which helped arrange for and deliver groceries and care packages for elderly neighbours.

It is empowering to realize that even with our personal limitations, we can help someone by doing something as simple as fetching their groceries while we fetch ours.

Every little counts, give what you can

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

So many people fundraised. People who had fundraised before, people who were novices. Fundraised for PPE gear, food packages for the poor, ventilators and other life-saving equipment for hospitals — and all of that made a difference. We found it incredibly inspiring and comforting to come across news reports and stories of people who campaigned and fundraised and then made these funds available to those who needed it the most — in the form of services, food, resources, medicines and a variety of other essential items.

On a personal level, we knew and were able to interview (for other publications) some very lovely individuals who stepped up to the many challenges of the pandemic and decided to fundraise so that funds could quickly reach people and organisations. One of the very moving accounts we heard was from a lady in Bangalore who had ventured out of her house to feed the stray dogs in her area during one of the lockdowns. When she was feeding the strays, several children came up to her, and asked her for the food she was placing on the pavement. She explained, that this was food for the dogs, and but they replied that they were so hungry that it did not matter. She rushed home and cooked a huge pot of khichdi and went back to the kids. From that day onwards, she started fundraising and working with like-minded individuals to run a kitchen that would feed hungry children living off the streets.

I am here to help, in any way that I can

Illustration by Ireland based artist Vidya Vivek

We cannot even begin to count the ways people were able to be there for others — even despite the many restrictions that the pandemic imposed.

Sometimes, it was by taking up work and duties that most of us would be very hesitant to do. Like the duties that Abdul Rehman Malbari performed. Malbari, is the president of Ekta Trust, a Surat-based NGO, which has been providing funeral services for abandoned and unclaimed bodies for the past three decades. However, during the pandemic, he and his team went above and beyond the call of duty. During the months of April and May, they were ferrying 150 patients daily. Their job was to transport the deceased from the hospitals and homes and take them to crematoriums. Malbari and his team did not go home for weeks, and albeit they had PPE kits and safety precautions in place, it does warrant a question — how many of us would be willing to do what he and his team of volunteers did?

There were also goodwill gestures and simple acts of thoughtfulness. Remember the teary-eyed face of Karan Puri from Panchkula, Haryana? He turned 71 amid the lockdown. Puri was on his own as his children live abroad. One of his relatives contacted the Panchkula police via Twitter requesting to celebrate his birthday as he was alone at home. When the Panchkula police reached his home with a cake, Puri got very emotional and broke down in tears.

Some of these acts of kindness have been captured in words, or in videos or photographs and some are between the doer and the receiver. But what matters in the end is that these acts made a difference.

We need to continue with kindness, we need to do more

If there’s anything that we need more of, not just for 2021 but for the years to follow as well, it is kindness and compassion. In any way, or shape or form that we can.

The World Bank has said that Covid-19 was responsible for 71 million to 100 million additional people falling into extreme poverty in 2020. And the figures are getting updated.

People are hungry. People are unemployed. Lonely, grieving, anxious.

Let us just do what we can. Keep in touch with a friend who we know is feeling isolated or low; give what we can to a fundraiser, help someone with a referral or assignment if they are facing unemployment or a loss of income, listen with empathy when someone shares their troubles and simply remember the power that each of us carry within ourselves.

All of us can do something. And it matters.

On that note, we would be delighted if you are able to share any acts of kindness that you have encountered during the pandemic and if you are in turn inspired to pass it on in 2021. As they say, goodness must travel.

Do write in.

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

…..

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.