Stories & Series

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

Indian men, cooking and kitchen chores – Covid-19 and beyond

In May this year, I put forth a question in a food group on Facebook. The group, which has over 155,900 members worldwide, a majority of them Indians, is a space for people to connect over ‘food talk’ but it is not just about food or recipes. As the pinned post about the group’s guidelines informs, this is a place to connect, mingle and share. Very often, you would find that the discussions on the group range from a number of things – from seeking suggestions and ideas on baby names, to sharing decor and festive tips, and sometimes, women would post in a lighter vein – how their spouses had failed to follow the simplest of instructions when it came to buying groceries or cooking rice in the rice cooker.

In my post, I asked if the men did any cooking – participating, and playing an active part in the kitchen. I wanted to hear from men and women both. I asked, because I was curious. On one hand, the pandemic had led to a surge in baking and making all kinds of tasty treats in the home kitchen, and there had been a lot of focus on cooking, trying out new recipes and rediscovering heirloom ones. On the other, I had also heard a lot of women complain that they were caught in a draining routine – cooking meals three times a day, juggling working from home and many other duties, with often little to no help from family members. I wanted to know if there had been a shift in attitudes when it came to Indian men and cooking duties, not just because of the pandemic but also beyond that.

You can see a man's hands holding an Indian device to make string hoppers and in the back are various things - slightly blurred images of a bottle of oil and egg holder

Several comments started appearing on my post in quick succession, and most of them were from women. It appeared to me that I had touched a raw nerve.

Before the post was deleted (since it was deemed off-topic according to the rules of the group), I tried getting back to all the comments on my posts. I asked further questions and sought approval for quoting their answers for this article.

A woman quickly wrote back to me saying that I could quote her and I was so glad that she did so. Sheela Sharon’s comment on my post stood out because of its honesty, and it found resonance with many women, quickly gathering many Facebook likes and loves.

Sharon, who is based in the US, wrote: “My partner never helped me in the kitchen nor household chores for the last 10 years. He was pampered, spoilt and completely unaware. Covid-19 quarantine has been a blessing. [With] work from home, he realized how much I do at home which was unnoticed. Now he is the one who does dishwashing, kitchen cleaning, laundry which has made it so easy for me to cook and manage the house better. He only makes coffee and fried egg. You need passion to cook, and I don’t think he has it or will try to cook. My husband is not proud of himself for not helping me all these years. Better late than never.”

Sharon credited the pandemic for the shift in her husband’s perspective towards household chores and duties, including the ones in the kitchen. Many other women chimed in, some saying that their husbands didn’t even know how to cook rice and were not even interesting in learning how to do so. One comment simply read, “I have given up. He is just not interested.”

This reminded me of two incidents. During my post graduate studies in journalism and mass communication, I had gone for an overnight stay at my friend’s place. In the evening, a neighborhood aunty had come visiting. Suddenly as the clock struck six, she jumped up with a start and exclaimed, “Akshay (name changed) will be home any minute now and I need to make a glass of warm milk with Bournvita for him.”

“Aunty,” I asked, “Would Akshay be back home from cricket or tuition at this time?”

“Why no!,” she said, her eyes widening in surprise. “He is an officer with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited. He will be back from work, and he always likes to relax with a warm glass of milk when home.” And with that, she bade a hasty goodbye.

I remember being genuinely befuddled. Why would an adult man need his mother to warm up a glass of milk?

However, I knew fairly too well that it was a reality of many Indian households. Men depending on their mothers, sisters, and wives to do even the simplest of cooking tasks for them – be it boiling an egg or making tea.

Indeed, some mothers even took pride in the fact that their sons did not enter the kitchen at all. As one of my mother’s friends had once said, “My son doesn’t even know how to make a cup of tea. Or Maggi. And why should he? I am here, and when he has a wife, she will take over.”

While it is not fair or even accurate to make sweeping generalizations, many women did comment on the post saying that their men never learnt how to help their mothers with cooking and carried on with that attitude after they had families of their own.

However, a lot of women also chimed in with how the men in their families had set an example, and what they were doing as mothers to make sure that their children, irrespective of their gender, learnt cooking as an essential life skill.

Preeti Babji’s comment on the post was in a way, a tribute to her dad. She wrote, “I proudly say I learned cooking from my dad. I remember dad used to help mum in the kitchen 40 years back and [is] still trying new dishes. He is 70 now and during Covid he called me and asked for banana bread recipe, which he had when he visited us.” Another member, Nagashree Manwatkar wrote, “My husband and I share cooking [duties] almost equally. He comes from a traditional business family where men never cook. He is our breakfast guy, can roll parathas and make French toast and pancakes. I love to cook more elaborate food wherein he helps with prep and clean up. He also does our grocery for the week. He has also recently taken to looking up recipes and making brand new recipes. We have a good partnership going.”

Rasana Atreya has ensured that both her children learnt how to cook. She shared in the comments section: “I have a 19-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. My son will be moving into an apartment in August (at school). I’ve made sure both can cook. My husband can cook, but we all think that his dishwashing skills are more useful for us.”

Many women also pointed out that when their husbands took an equal and earnest role in the kitchen, it had a positive effect on their children. As Divya Mani wrote: “My husband cooks everyday. In fact he cooks more than me. It’s by choice and sometimes circumstantial. And looking at this, my son has also starting showing an interest in cooking and he is only four years old!

It was also important to hear from the men themselves. That is, if they hadn’t ventured into their kitchens so far, what would motivate them to do so and if they were indeed a regular at cooking, what or who was their inspiration?

Dhrumit Sheth, an IT professional currently based in Canada shares, “I have always been a foodie since childhood, and very particular about what I want to eat and how it should taste. While growing up, both my parents went out to work and I have seen my dad cook and help my mother in the kitchen. Also, even as a kid, whenever my sister and I felt hungry in our parents’ absence, we used to make snacks and other food rather than wait for them to return and then eat. So that made me interested in cooking as well, and I strongly believe it’s a life skill everyone should have.”

Sheth, who grew up in India before shifting base to Canada in the recent years, says that there have been some rare occasions when friends or relatives have asked him why he is so active in the kitchen. “If someone asks me why my wife doesn’t cook [as much], I just say that she is not that fond of cooking (which is true) and takes care of other things, while I am interested and fussy about food, so I take care of that part of our life.”

What are Sheth’s favourite things to cook? “I love to make, eat and offer lasagna, veg kurma (a Kerala curry) and shahi paneer,” replies Sheth.

Sometimes, it is also a change in circumstances that leads men to alter their childhood habits .

Shailin Nath (name changed) confides, “I wasn’t very good in the kitchen and to be honest, if I did do something after marriage, my mother wasn’t very pleased with it. She would say – you work full time, leave the kitchen to your wife. My mother always attended to, and still does to this day – every little thing in the kitchen. She doesn’t think it is a man’s job to contribute or even take part in any of these chores. I grew up that way, and amongst that kind of attitudes.”

So, what changed? Nath says, “This was way before the pandemic. When we were expecting our first child, neither my parents nor my wife’s parents could come and stay with us in the United Kingdom. My wife’s aunt came after delivery, but how long could she stay and help? The doctor had suggested that my wife eat a lot of green leafy vegetables and a nutritive diet to get her strength back. After my wife’s aunt left, I started looking up recipes. I realised that it was just the two of us and if I did not help, my wife would not get any respite at all. If the baby was sleeping, I would ask her to get some sleep too, and I would quickly make something for us – mixed lentils khichdi, palak paneer, or even an egg curry. I learnt so much in those months and if I hadn’t, I would have carried a lot of guilt. Because I helped her in the cooking, she was able to look after herself and in turn, our baby’s health and wellbeing.”

Another quote from a father of two, again with a request to let it remain anonymous, was on similar lines. “When we had our daughter, we had decided that we would feed her good, homemade food. The sort of food we had access to when we were growing up. And since we both worked, it was important that I learnt to cook as well. How could I say to my daughter that in order to be fed hot and nutritive food, she had to wait till her mother came home? And that even if I was home earlier, I couldn’t give her a hot roti with ghee (her favourite) because I did not know how to roll one?”

“Even if my initial rotis were misshapen, they were still homemade, made from fresh dough and layered with ghee and a sprinkling of sugar. Just the way she liked it. I learnt how to cook because feeding my daughter was not just my wife’s duty. A hungry child needs food – and hunger can’t wait till mummy comes home.”

Perhaps there is hope. The great Indian kitchen as depicted in the movie of the same name, is changing. One little recipe and baby step at a time. From a father who makes a hot roti for his daughter, a husband who learns how to wash dishes and cut onions after a decade of being spoilt and pampered by his mother, a brother who brushes up his batata poha skills during the pandemic. To a mother who insists that the kitchen and its many duties belongs to, and should be claimed by everyone, and not just by the women in the household. A mother who vows to raise her children differently, ensuring that cooking is not a skill dictated by one’s gender.

And then, there’s always humour. What we cannot conquer by change, we do so with humour.

Like a friend who responded to this potential match who had written to her ‘I want to marry a good cooker.” By which, he meant, a woman who was a good cook.

“Maybe you should try Hawkins or Prestige,” she had emailed back.

Perhaps ten years to that email-exchange, I am hoping the man got a cooker and also acquired some cooking skills. It’s about time. Really.

“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.

“A Jain temple sent us lunch and dinner for a month, free of cost. No questions asked”

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.

“Handwritten notes expressing concern, personal follow-ups asking for individual food preferences were some of the other kindnesses shown”

Says Ayanti 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.

One person handing out a netted bag to another, it contains aubergine, apple, celery and what appears like a pear.
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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.

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 

…..

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

…..

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.

We are focusing on ‘Covid Kindness’

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.

Write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com

“Kindness is a panacea for the pandemic”

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

A smooth brown pebble is placed on a larger rock formation in the midst of green bushes and shrubs. On the round pebble are the following words (painted in white) - Stay Safe Be Kind. There is a star painted on the top of these words
Photo by Lisa on Pexels.com

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.

Lakshmi received these lunch packets every day, and they came with a handwritten note

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. 

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

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“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.   

“Before I became an adoptive parent myself, I theoretically knew that each child deserves a family who passionately loves and protects them”

Says Smriti Gupta, who is a child rights campaigner, and a partnerships and marketing professional. She is working to drive awareness and find lasting solutions for India’s most vulnerable children. In this interview with PRERNA SHAH, she talks about creating a Facebook group that supports Prospective Adoptive Parents (PAPs), how a family can prepare themselves prior to bringing home a child, as well as her campaign on Safe Surrender. Gupta also addresses several pertinent issues regarding adoption in India, including the lack of maternity leave for parents who bring home an older child.

You run a Facebook group that helps PAPs who are interested in adopting older children, siblings and children with special needs. How did that group come about and what sort of help are PAPs looking for when they sign up?

When I started engaging with Facebook groups related to adoption within India, I realised that the conversations is these groups were mostly geared towards adoption of younger children in the normal category. I wanted to create a space for PAPs to be able to discuss adoption of children with special needs (any age), normal category children above six years of age, and sibling groups. That’s how the Facebook group (India Adoption – Children with special needs, older children and siblings) came about.

PAPs in this group are looking for similar things that I have seen in other groups; only the children’s profiles are different. For example, PAPs are looking to understand how to care for a child with a certain special need, or how to prepare themselves for an older child adoption, or how to help siblings adjust, etc. Having an exclusive group really helps because you are getting answers from adoptive parents who have had similar experiences.

Are Indian PAPs opening up to adopting older children? Do you see a significant increase in parents opting for or considering adopting older children and children with special needs?

Yes, Indian PAPs are opening up to adopting older children, sibling groups, and children with special needs. I can’t say how significant the increase is since I don’t have the statistics around it but it’s very heartening to see PAPs opening up to a wide profile of children. International adoptions do play a significant role in the adoption of these children, and I am very thankful for that because every child deserves a family.

How does one define older children and what are the particular challenges that parents face when they bring home an older child? Or when they bring home siblings?

I think the definition varies on who you ask. There was a time when Indian government didn’t allow adoption of children over six years of age, so many people consider that as the cut off for defining older children. (By the way, now children can be adopted up to 18 years of age – a positive change in how India views adoption). I would personally define pre-teens and teens as an older child adoption, so over 10 years of age.

I don’t like the word ‘challenges’ when it comes to adoption. I would rather say what type of ‘preparation’ do PAPs need when they bring home an older child and an older group of siblings. I think the biggest preparation is accepting that it will take time to adjust and bond for the child as well as the parent. Also the child may require catch up time to match with his/her peer group both educationally and emotionally. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t rush things. Every child and every relationship has its own path.

If an adoptive parent and the (adopted) child face a challenge in bonding with each other, who can the parents seek help from? Are there enough resources for adoptive parents in India?

In such a scenario, I would encourage parents to talk to other adoptive parents to get some tips and also a reality check around expectations. I remember telling a PAP that it took one of my daughters two years to really start hugging me on a consistent basis. She had bonded with me in other ways; it’s just that hugging wasn’t her thing in the initial years. I think the PAP was quite surprised but I also hope it gave them some perspective on how every child is different.

For more formal counselling, the adoptive parents can reach out to therapists, though I am not sure how many therapists in India today are well versed with adoption. So try both formal and informal help.

Disruptive adoptions are also on the rise. What happens when an adoptive parent and a child decide that they do not or no longer function as a family?

I want to step back and bring a bit of a perspective to this since it’s an important topic. My understanding is that until few years ago, people only adopted babies or very young children. Now people are becoming open to adopting kids of all ages, a positive development which needs to be supported with more preparation and more counselling. I wonder whether disruptive adoptions happen due to lack of such counselling.

One of the adoptive families in India recently adopted a 12-year old child. I had long conversations with them perhaps four to six times before the adoption, and about four to five times post adoption. The family is obviously very open-minded and warm. Still I could see how talking through the process was useful for them. I believe this type of a support network should be in place for all adoptions.

There is a process for adoption dissolution when the adoption does not work out. But let’s try and make sure we never get there. Let’s prepare the families upfront.

If an older adoptive child displays behavioural issues that may include violent behaviour, what can an adoptive parent do to help the child and also themselves?

First and foremost, let’s remember we are talking about a child, irrespective of whether the child came into the family via reproduction or adoption. Seek out relevant resources and support. Find good therapists and child counsellors. It’s not easy but it’s doable. Make sure the child knows that his/her acceptance in the family is not dependent on his/her behaviour.

You also run a campaign regarding safe surrender. Can you tell us something about it?

Indian law allows parents or guardians to legally surrender a child at an adoption agency, if they are unable or unwilling to raise a child. This is a hugely important law to protect children but public awareness about it is non-existent. Almost weekly we see news stories about children being unsafely abandoned or killed. Which is why we are running the safe surrender campaign, which you can read more about here:

https://waic.in/safesurrender/. We also have an ongoing petition to the Indian media about it: http://change.org/SafeSurrender and we are currently training Anganwadi workers in one of Telangana’s district about this law.

I believe building Safe Surrender awareness requires much more attention and resources. So I am hoping that at some point the government would highlight Safe Surrender just like they are running campaigns such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao.

You can see the backs of women in pretty blouses and saris, and a woman in green sari in the front. She is explaining things, there is a laptop and on the wall, at TV, on which the contents of the slides from the laptop are shared
A workshop on Safe Surrender being conducted in Telangana

Can you share a couple of stories or case studies from the Facebook group that you run, in which the adoptive parent was helped with advice, resources or support that helped them go ahead with a successful adoption or helped provide a solution to an issue or a problem.

There are many small stories, one of which I mentioned above – the family who adopted the 12-year old child reached out to me through this Facebook group. Another anecdote I can share is about another family in India who adopted siblings and used the group to talk about getting prepared for the adoption, and some everyday things post-adoption such as helping the kids learn English etc.

What made you choose to work in the adoption ecosystem?

Before I became an adoptive parent myself, I theoretically knew that each child deserves a family who passionately loves and protects them, how important it is for children to feel secure in a safe family, and how vulnerable children are in many shelters and other less than ideal scenarios. After my daughters’ adoptions, the reality of it hit home. They had been impacted terribly by previous lack of care, but as soon as they came home, they started thriving very quickly and beautifully. It was magical to see their personalities transform and them becoming their own person. The idea that any child anywhere is in a vulnerable position is not acceptable. So I work in this ecosystem to hopefully make a tiny contribution towards ensuring a safe family for every child.

Recently, an adoptive mother shared her experience on a professional network. She said that the company she worked for, refused to give her maternity leave since the child she had adopted was not an infant. Do you think there can be a greater sense of awareness and possible solution seeking exercises on an issue like the one above?


I had faced the same issue a few years ago. I had even started a petition about it. I think this is one of those issues which is so solvable that it’s ridiculous that it exists in the first place. All the government has to do is say we don’t differentiate between maternity leave for reproduction and adoption. Both get the same leave. Done. There are less than 4000 adoptions versus millions of births annually in India. So parity in maternity leave is a very minor thing from a human resource perspective, but an extremely important thing for the mental welfare of every child who has just been adopted into a family and needs time to bond and adjust.

Interested in reading more stories about adoption? You can read Sangitha Krishnamurthi piece on how certain issues in adoption are often pushed under the carpet here. You may also like to read a piece by Anjali Fahnline,14, who talks about her journey as an adoptee here.

“When a five-year-old boy called my three-year-old son his enemy”

recalls Eisha Sarkar, a communications professional, and in this piece, she reflects on her journey as a parent and describes incidents, books and literature that helped her chart her own journey through motherhood.

This photograph, used for representative purposes is by William Fortunato from Pexels.com

“You said Ronnie is your enemy,” eight-year-old Rahul shouted to five-year-old Siddharth in Gujarati who was plucking mulberries for my three-year-old son, Ronnie. Siddharth handed over a ripe, black mulberry fruit to my toddler and then sat next to Rahul outside a bungalow’s gate. “Ronnie is my enemy, but his mother is standing here so I decided to help her get mulberries from the tree,” Siddharth told him. I opened my mouth to say something but then my little boy came running towards me giggling and we walked away from the two boys.

Three days before this particular exchange between Siddharth and Rahul, I watched in disbelief as Rahul pinned Ronnie to himself by grabbing his hands and Siddharth scared him by making monster faces. My son was getting very disturbed. I asked the boys to stop and let him go. They obeyed immediately. Why did kids as little as eight and five think curious toddlers were their enemies who needed to be punished or scared away just because they ran amok and touched or smiled at everyone? Did I attempt to explain to them that it was Ronnie’s way of getting to know people? No.

Usually, I don’t intervene when the children play. We don’t live in a gated colony in Vadodara but in a loosely formed society where there are more senior citizens than young children. With Covid 19 restrictions in place, schools, nurseries and playcentres shut, this is the only form of socialization I can offer to a curious toddler who wants to know the world around him. I want him to interact with children of all ages and different backgrounds. For most part of the half-hour of play, I am a bystander, watching him make his way through the pecking order. The older girls are very welcoming. The boys not so much. Some occasions require me to get in the middle of their play. When my toddler disrupts a game of cricket or badminton by running onto the ‘pitch’, I have to carry him off with him wailing and writhing in my arms or I have to step in when the kids play rough.

When I narrated these incidents to my mother, who has over a decade of experience as a schoolteacher in Mumbai, she warned me. “Don’t let the older children bully Ronnie. You must come to his rescue. Don’t stand there and wait until they push him or something. The moment you see them behave in a way that is disturbing him, act. Be involved. That’s what parenting is about.”

Parenting hasn’t been easy. During my child’s first eight months, I suffered from post-natal depression. Instead of counselling what I ended up with was streams of visitors, relatives and friends who would drop in to see my baby at any time of the day or night, often without asking me if I was okay with it. It drained my energy, along with long breastfeeding sessions and sleepless nights, to such an extent that I didn’t want to spend an hour a week talking to a therapist. Many people gifted and suggested books, right from Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You Are Expecting during my pregnancy to Time Life’s Your Baby’s First Year to Skinny Bitch Bun in The Oven by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin to old copies of Reader’s Digest which had articles about babies and Tarla Dalal’s cookbooks. A zillion links to blogs and articles about parenting and babies were WhatsApped to me.

I read some of them and they did help me deal with issues of diapering, feeding, cleaning, nutrition, sickness, and exercise but I also needed a book that would guide me through the day-to-day conflicts of raising a multicultural child in a multicultural household. I am agnostic and Bengali by birth. I have no direct connection with Bengal, having lived my life in New Delhi, Pune, Mumbai, Brisbane, and Vadodara. I studied in Christian schools and colleges and have friends from diverse communities. My husband and his family are traditional, religious Nagar Brahmin Gujarati with roots that run deep in Saurashtra and Vadodara. Often, the conflicts at home revolved around food, language or how a sick child should be treated.

Thankfully, now a book like that is available. In Raising a Humanist, authors Manisha Pathak-Shelat and Kiran Vinod Bhatia write, “Accepting something that is ‘different’ is not always easy. We often look with suspicion at people who seem different, who (have) a different lifestyle or culture or who have a different way of seeing the world. Realizing that we – parents, teachers, family members, and other adults – are responsible for sowing seeds of bias and prejudice in the minds of young people can be unsettling, especially when we love them and care for them. As a result, most of us refuse to evaluate our stake in the process of raising children who are biased, intolerant, and scared of interacting with others who are different from themselves. Also, many of us are unaware of our own personal bias towards other individuals, belief systems, practices and processes.” While I believed that I was more secular and liberal than the Gujarati part of my family, after reading the book, I realised how haughty and prejudiced that assumption is. In order to bring up a child who accepts both cultures, I need to be less biased towards the other culture in my own household.

While leafing through the pages of the book, I revisited the play scenes in my head and discovered that, as the authoritative figure, I had left the field without telling two young children what they had done wrong, that they should have been gentler when they played with my toddler. The next day when Ronnie saw the boys coming towards him, he first got scared and then aggressive. I calmed him down by laughing and telling him that they were making monkey faces. Humour cuts where anger doesn’t. The word, ‘monkey’ did the trick. The boys stopped at once. Then Rahul tried to grab both Ronnie’s hands and pin him down. Gently, I asked him, “How would you feel if someone were to do that to you?” He immediately let Ronnie go. “Good!” He smiled at me and took Ronnie’s hand. For the next forty-five minutes, the three boys played with each other as if nothing had happened. That’s the beauty of childhood.

This incident also says something about the power and potential of books; of finding voices and approaches that help you in your journey as a parent. Sometimes, it could be just a line, other times, an entire book.  

If I were to leave you with some of my personal favourites – books that resonated with me, and continue to do so as I grow as a mother, I would suggest looking up:

·     Time Life’s Your Baby’s First Year, which is the most no-nonsense practical book you can find

·     Becoming by Michelle Obama, if you want to learn how to strike work-life balance as a mother

·      Tongue in Cheek – The Funny Side of Life by Khyrunnisa A., if humour is the antidote you need to alleviate your anxiety

Everyone approaches parenting differently and there is so much to learn and unlearn, and if you have curated a reading list on this topic, please feel free to write back to us with your thoughts.

(Names of all the children have been changed to protect their identity.)

Eisha Sarkar is a writer, educator, designer and peacebuilder based in Vadodara, Gujarat and has worked extensively in the fields of journalism, education, peacebuilding, design, documentation and international relations. She became a mother in 2018 and currently has the toughest job on her hands – trying to get her toddler to obey her instructions.

While the piece has been edited to suit our format, the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account are Sarkar’s own.

Why write about grief? Why an ode to loss?

Why should one do a series on loss and grief? For one, these experiences are central to our lives. There’s not a single person who hasn’t experienced loss (via death of a loved one) or wouldn’t do so in his/her lifetime.

Who we lose and how … the situations differ and yet, it is rare to come across someone who has never grieved. Sometimes the loss is unexpected, or traumatic or takes place in circumstances that change us forever. It takes time for us to acknowledge and process the impact of that loss, and how it has shaped us.

There are no tailor-made solutions or one singular way to cope with loss. Sometimes writing it down helps, sometimes sharing helps, and at other times, all that we need is for someone to listen without judgement and with empathy.

Swati and I wanted to do this series for years now, but how do you ask people to share some of their most intimate, vulnerable experiences? We have both been moved to tears while reading some of the experiences that people have shared with us, and one in particular.

As it so happens, much before The Good Story Project came to be, one of us had reached out to this person two years ago and asked if she was willing to be interviewed or write a piece on her loss. That piece finally came to us this year, and once it was in, we realized it had been such a big ask from her. Writing about such a life-altering loss is always difficult and more so when you are going to share it with someone else and open it up for so many other people to read.

I should know this. It took me several years to write about losing my father and how it affected me, and even though I could write about many things under the sun, every time I tried to put in words my father’s last moments and the last hour leading to his death, I would end up staring endlessly at a blank screen. Though my father was calm and dignified when it was his time to go, his death and the aftermath affected me deeply and writing about it has also been one way to honour his memory as well as acknowledge my grief.

So we would like to thank each and every one of you who has shared or is in the process of sharing your deeply personal experiences with us.

And we cannot take without giving. Therefore, I am sharing links for a piece that I had written in 2019 and also for one that I wrote in 2020. These pieces are deeply personal and deal with my own sense of grief; having written them for my personal blog.

You can find the 2019 one here and the one I wrote more recently here.

In the first part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’, read Mumbai-based sports journalist Nitin Naik’s story here. Naik lost his wife to cancer in 2015.

In the second part, read Lakshmi Kaul’s story here. Kaul lost her only daughter to a freak allergy incident in 2017.

In the third part, read Darshana Shukul’s story here. Shukul lost her mother when she was a child.

Continue reading the fourth part and fifth part of the series. These stories deal with the grief of losing a parent.

The sixth and seventh stories are about losing a loved one to Covid-19 and mourning a loss during the 2020 pandemic.

The last story in our series is on loss and what it feels like – 19 years from when it first happened and what one can do help someone who is grieving.

“When I think of our daughter and how both of them missed getting to know each other, I feel a lump in my throat”

Says artist and sculptor Zaida Jacob whose daughter was only a year and half when she lost her husband.

Moving beyond labels

The labels I see on myself keep changing. In early days I used to feel people pasted a ‘fragile’ label on me. Then I felt ‘bold.’ I mean they think I am bold. But I am not. I just cope because one has to.

I find myself feeling tentative. Like the ground under my feet is still moving. It has been 19 years since we lost Mihir. That assured feeling of ‘belonging’ has never come back.

Having said that, the flip side is the world has opened up. The feeling that everybody has a universal spread. A kind of package of life – like a buffet or pantry of sorts – sometimes with a cold storage section too.

What is in your plate or dish at any given moment may vary. But life’s kitchen has similar ingredients for all. It completely depends on how creatively you cook your dish. I may laugh at what I have just said a few moments later but for now will let it go.

What grief feels like

There is a canopy of trees. A man with spectacles and a beard and a mustache holds a little baby girl who wears a cap on her head. She has jet black hair popping out of the cap and is cherubic looking.
Photo courtesy: Zaida Jacob. In this photograph, Mihir holds Aruvi.

Well, the way I see it, ‘grief’ is when you are in the midst of it, it does not feel. You just do what needs to be done. 

When you have had an accident or a limb has been cut… you are so busy coping with the hurt or the absence of it, that there is no time to think of feeling. (You need to adjust to the new life without a limb…. or with a big wound.)

In my case I was fortunate. He was popular (liked by lots of people) and so the absence was shared. I found myself comforting other people sometimes when they came to condole. Plus, I have a huge support mattress in my friends. It’s like falling on the bed wherever you fall. I was looked after… all along. And so was our daughter. I am not sure whether I can take credit for this but in losing my husband I allowed lots of other friends to share the role of parent for my daughter. And so, our daughter became like a child brought up in a huge joint family. To live by their ways and terms while she was with them was followed. She had six families where she had a sense of ‘home.’

Talking of grief and pain getting smoother with time, I can say that when you look back and see the marks of the dried-up wounds suddenly it hurts sometimes. I can feel pain physically somewhere in the middle of my stomach or someplace within. When I think of our daughter and how both of them missed getting to know each other, I feel a lump in my throat and a horrible feeling of loss and of how unfair it is. 

However, it does get bearable with time if you allow it. Plus, you have to keep being real and asking real questions to yourself. 

“Am I really so unfortunate?” “What did I come here to do?” “Is there something larger than the things I do that I am meant to do?”

Look for the things that engage your love. In my case I had my daughter so the demands of being in the ‘now’ doesn’t leave much space for grieving.

How people helped, how I helped myself

I lost my mother-in-law in 2000, just after that earthquake in Kutch took place. And when I missed her and thought of how the centre of our family had suddenly just gone away, I was reminded of those many, many children who lost their parents, their homes. Some lost spouses, some lost their children and yet others their everything. How big was my loss? 

Somehow, we humans have a strange way of comforting ourselves in finding other people who are worse off. And so, I lost my husband in 2002 and in a few months, I kept seeing images of innocent people who lost loved ones because of the riots in Gujarat. So much loss, so much grief and so universal was this feeling of loss. What was I being asked to learn? What was I being told to do?  I had a child of one and a half and she had me. The immediate task in hand was to give her security, to hold her close. To do all that I needed to keep the feeling of family intact. So, I took up a job in Mumbai since I needed to be close to my parents but resolved to come back and give our daughter the rest of the ground beneath her feet.

My neighbours for example adopted her out of love as their granddaughter, our close friends became immediate family. She had a nani in my friend whom we called bhabhi so she called her ‘bhabhi nani‘ and her children were like elder cousins to her. Till she was seven or eight she didn’t know the difference between blood relatives and friends. She believed all these were hers and she belonged to them. 

She even wrote essays in school enlisting a huge family of members and dogs as her own family – who actually didn’t exist in her blood relations or in her home. 

I let her do it. Sometimes I informed the teacher to be kind and not question her. She had an amazing principal and teachers at her school. They too gave her love and created a feeling a co-parenting for me. 

To date these angels, stand close to me in my heart. I wish I can always be there for them as they have been for us.

Therapy is good too

I did see a therapist, because I was unable to get back to my artwork or to get back my confidence in my life. They were helpful and I do believe one should see one even if it feels like they tell you what you think you already know. Sometimes they are smarter, and it helps to surrender to them. 

Helping a person who is grieving

Give the person the assurance that life is unfair, but he/she can cope and will eventually come to terms with it. Tell them they can do it. 

Life is unfair but quitting is not a choice. Not to be a victim and lamenting is not a choice. But the thrill of staying afloat, of keeping your head above water till the rescue team arrives is wonderful. If a rescue boat doesn’t arrive you will have learnt to swim by then. Just hold on and let it pass.

Take each day as it comes. Break the day’s tasks into smaller pieces and focus on the priority of tasks to be done. Keep yourself busy in doing something for yourself and others at all times. Engage yourself open-mindedly into occupying yourself till you can tide through. 

The person you lost had just that much in his share of life and it is utterly painful that you got to know him/her just at the time he was leaving but be glad you got that time. How horrible it would have been if you would never have met?

You too have a set of days with you to live through. Make the most of those. Turn back and feel proud for having coped.

On a poster, I once read, ‘It all turns out ok in the end. If it doesn’t it’s not the end.’

Remembering Mihir and his memories

I remember him so fondly. The memories flash in front of my eyes like movie slides sometimes. Sometimes they are blurred. I feel sorry for him having lost out on his life. I feel sorry for him missing to be the father of a daughter and a lovely one at that. And I miss him for the many lives he touched. He could be there for so many people. I feel inadequate to reach out. I didn’t have him all to myself ever. He was always somebody’s Mihir.

He came and left in intense moments even in his living life. And that is how I was with him. So most often I feel it’s those moments when he has gone for something larger than me and is needed more than I need him and someday he will come home to me. But now over time, I know he isn’t ever coming back and the most real parts of him are in my memory if I refresh and preserve them. Some of them evaporate. Some return.

How do I describe Mihir to someone who has never met him?

He was a personified version of life. Intense moments, phases, one different from the other, courageous, could take risks, impulsive apparently, but real and practical, full of zest till he had fuel in his body…rested only when he slept. Reached out to anyone who looked for him – always. Could never say no. Selfless. No attachments. Yet full of passion. Sensitive. Compassionate. Very hard working and perseverant. A year was more than 365 days, and a day and night were more than 24 hours. He went miles before he slept but yet had promises he may have wanted to keep.

Loss shapes us in many ways

I think I saw life differently after he left. He was a people’s person and he made me see the universality of humankind. How similar we all are and yet how different. How small in the bigger picture. And how if the compassionate being in us remains at the front it cannot only be my pain, it’s pain that everybody feels or has felt or will feel someday. So, I am not unique.

I really don’t know how I would have been had he been around. But most of the time I am glad for the world has become a larger place for us.

Irrevocable is part of the passage of time too. I’ve grown and also lost myself in time. The girl I was. So, I don’t know how time can bring back anything? 

I’d like to meet a new me instead. As long as she knows how to laugh at stupid jokes and gets up and does things that need to get done, I’d like her to not change. She’s built with a lot of minute details – like a fabric.

Zaida Jacob’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing.’ Read Pooja Ganju Adlakha’s story here, in which she talks about losing her mother to Covid-19.

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

“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  

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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

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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 pay tribute to pain, as life is born out of pain”

Says Lakshmi Kaul, who lost her only daughter, aged nine, to a freak allergic incident in 2017.

My name is Lakshmi Kaul, and I am Nainika’s mum.

In fact, a lot of you already know me as Nainika’s mum and have come to know of my late daughter through my Facebook posts, blogs, and letters to her.

And yet it took a long time for me to write this. Prerna Shah had written to me first in November 2019, a couple of years after I had lost my daughter to a freak allergy incident. In an email, she had sent me a set of questions and had quoted an excerpt from my blog as well.

Even though I have written and spoken about Nainika and my pain so openly, in a piecemeal, I struggled to put in words, my full story on Prerna’s request for the blog. I guess I was scared, not ready and unsure. I read and re-read her email many times, since she first wrote to me. Recently, in 2020, when she reached out to me again, having read them before, the words somehow came alive:

“Our idea behind this series was that everyone, at some point in life undergoes loss, and accompanying grief. And while there are no tailormade solutions or responses to how one approaches loss – be it of a friend, colleague, parent, grandparent, child, spouse, or a family member – the experiences have a commonality, an almost universal element to them. And in telling of these stories, we share with each other, a deep understanding, empathy, as well as our strengths and vulnerabilities.”

Loss and bereavement is something common to all of us, yet it surprises and consumes us.

Passively, we watch the world go by, get on with our day-to-day mundane, though seemingly perfect lives as we slip into darkness where nothing seems to make sense. We put on a brave façade, even smile but really, inside you want to scream, shut out the world and just sleep, never having to wake up, ever again. Everyone calls you ‘brave’ and ‘strong,’ yet you know you are just ‘broken’, ‘helpless’ and ‘weak.’

I suppose I could pause here and share some nuggets of positivity on survival, on life and its possibilities, memories, on life and about moving on. But instead, I will pay tribute to pain. Life is borne out of pain. A mother hurts a long time, before giving birth. The earth breaks before a seed sprouts and the skies crack for the light to pass through at dawn.

“Nainika is here!”

These were my words when I first held her in my arms. I was ecstatic as I had silent faith it was always going to be Nainika. I watched her as she navigated her way to my breasts and suckled at them; the natural, first instinct of a new-born is a joy to experience! To fix the third degree tear I had had, while delivering her, I was taken to the operation theatre and I remember blabbering all the way to the operation theatre, how happy I was today and that I was a mother to a gorgeous little baby girl called Nainika. I told them proudly, Nainika means apple of our eyes.

When the coffin arrived home before the funeral service, someone came and said to me, “Nainika is here!”

I had created space for her to sit in her favourite spot, clearing the couch but placing her coffin exactly there, where she always fought with her father to claim that particular spot to watch the telly. There was forever a competition between them on who bags the remote control to the television. She won, even today! I had bought a beautiful Indian traditional outfit for her to wear at the Kheerbhawani Puja this year, that I was holding. They opened the coffin lid and I saw her again. I put her ‘Indian dress’ on her and kissed her goodbye.

How do I describe my child?

I am often asked by strangers what she was like? The closest I come to explaining is that as a person she was a miniature version of me though with much better brains and God-like patience. She set high standards for herself and nothing ever limited her, not even her age. If she wanted to learn something, she wouldn’t wait to enrol in a class but would start teaching herself; she always knew how to. She spent a lot of time in her room, exercising, listening to music, writing, doing craft, re-arranging her room, creating research projects and books, setting up a kids’ club or even writing a blog.

Nainika Tikoo arrived a week before her due date on 18 February 2008 in the City Hospital, Nottingham. She left four days after she was medically declared dead on 22 May 2017. I had to turn off her ventilator on 26 May 2017 after having sat through the excruciating stem cell death tests to ascertain if she was alive on 22 May.

Photograph courtesy : Lakshmi Kaul

At what point does grief begin? Where does it end?

So, in sharing my journey of pain, grief, I wonder at what point did it begin? Was it on 20th May when I received a distress call from her father, begging me to save her from this allergic reaction and to come home urgently? For the sake of simplicity, I will use this as a starting point.

I walked into a scene of shock and a row of ambulances outside our newly bought home in Harrow. She lay there on the floor of our living room, stripped naked, with just one sock on – pink and blue in her left foot (I still have this sock with me). At the point, I had no idea what had happened, and all I could guess was that it was an allergic reaction from the panic call I received earlier.

From that moment when I walked into our home, I was numb. Only responding to what was needed of me. The paramedics asked me to pack to go to the hospital and bring her stuff. I ran up, grabbed her hospital bag (we were used to going to the hospital owing to her asthma and allergies), put the car keys in my satchel lest her Dad decided to drive in that state and requested the paramedics to take him in the ambulance as he couldn’t be left alone. I would follow in a taxi I said but they insisted I travel with them instead so they could speak to me. I couldn’t have left him behind in that state with nobody to take care of him, so they agreed to take us both.

The journey to the hospital was only 15 minutes but it felt like 15 hours.

They asked me what had happened, and I couldn’t tell them. They asked me various questions about her allergies etc that I responded to. As soon as we got to the hospital, I messaged a couple of close friends to come to the hospital and take care of my husband as I was busy focussing on Nainika in the emergency ward. This was enough to summon them all to the hospital and within an hour they were all there – nine of them, most of them doctors! 

“There is irreversible damage to the brain”, the consultant said to me. They would need to shift her to the Intensive Care ward in another hospital and they said this could be anywhere in the country. I said, “Do what you must do to get her better.”

At best, paralysis for a few days and then recovery is what I thought to myself. She is a strong girl, and she will bounce back. It was already over an hour and a half since leaving home and finally she started breathing again. If you understand human physiology, you’d know that if your heart stops breathing it disconnects the oxygen supply to the brain and even moments of this is dangerous. Nainika’s brain was bereft of oxygen supply for over an hour and this meant her survival chances were next to none. The doctors were trying to tell me this all the way through, but they kept trying, hoping for a miracle.

Photograph courtesy: Lakshmi Kaul

A living nightmare.

Nainika’s father could barely get up and he clung to me, crying like a baby, apologising to me continuously. I calmed him down and said it’s not his fault. It was just an accident. I handed him to the nurse for I had to attend to Nainika and prepare for her to be moved to the paediatric intensive care ward at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington. There was hope I thought. Her heart was beating, and she was breathing. She will of course get better, just in time for her first residential camp with her new school friends. And she had a gymnastics competition too that she had been preparing for. Oh, and then her dance stagecoach performance, dance show and her first time performing with the school choir in the new school!

We got to St Mary’s hospital and though the consultant there told me, “there was irreversible damage to the brain,” I requested her to at least give Nainika 24 hours. On 22nd May they declared her medically dead and asked us to let them know when we wanted to switch off her ventilator. The hospital staff were kind and very considerate. They let her stay till Thursday. On Wednesday, her family from India arrived to say goodbye one last time, hundreds of visitors, friends, acquaintances, strangers came to see her, pray for her and then on Thursday, I switched off her ventilator, alone. I never wanted to do it, but I had to.

The days at the hospital and afterwards felt unreal.

All those visitors – I met each one, calmed them down and told them that Nainika’s journey here was over and that she must now travel. I saw shocked faces, their eyes stealing glances at me, wondering how I could be this calm? They thought I had lost my senses and hence wasn’t crying.

The days until her funeral and beyond, we had visitors who expected us to cry as they hugged and offered condolences. But I stayed away. I was hardly home and each morning I got ready, left for work, and stayed there till late evening. At night, I would sob into my pillow silently, my eyes burning in the morning when I caught a wink of sleep.

Since Nainika died because of an allergic reaction, I ran a dedicated campaign to create awareness around allergies, and journalists, documentary film makers and a camera crew started filming and interviewing us. Nainika’s father refused to do it so this responsibility fell upon me, even without me volunteering to do it. I made this a mission in honour of her memory and a sense of urgency to do something before another child meets this tragic fate pushed me to carry on.

What is normal?

Weeks after her funeral, people began leading a somewhat normal life. For me, a part of me died. Everyone thought I was incredibly strong in how I dealt with loss but inside, I was wilting away. Often it is who we think are our own, who hurt us the most and I heard remarks such as “you were careless during your pregnancy and carried on working so Nainika was born with allergies.”

“You should have never given birth abroad and instead stayed in India – we told you to deliver the baby in India where she would be born as a normal child,” “had you been a caring mother, Nainika would never have had the accident.” The comments felt like daggers and I began avoiding dinner table altogether.

Then came the pressure to ‘have another baby’ so ‘you may bring Nainika back.’ Since they couldn’t have this conversation with me directly, they propped up her father to bring this up with me. I remember how angry I got at this proposal and snapped back: “I would choose to never have a baby if it were to replace her. Nothing, nobody would ever replace her. And I would anyways never do this to her younger sibling – for them to grow up in the shadow of her memory.” This was unacceptable a response and I was established as a heartless, uncaring woman who didn’t like children.

In December 2017, I walked out of our home and marriage, never to return.

The divorce was filed by her father and the marriage was dissolved in 2019 a few days after her birthday. A few months later, I realised that a part of her ashes had remained at the crematorium, forgotten by her father and without my knowledge. I brought her home in that box. Put her in her favourite T-shirt and hugged her all night, as I would when she was alive. Every day, for three months I slept with her ashes and for days I had no energy to get out of bed. There were clear signs of depression and people at work noticed though according to myself, I was putting up a brave face, working harder than before.

In November 2017, I started a new job as the Head of Confederation of Indian Industry in UK; a completely different role from my previous political positions. It wasn’t just a new job but a different life as well, and this was soon after Nainika’s passing away. It was almost a reset of my life itself and I couldn’t make sense of it. I accepted it all as fait accompli and carried on.

Today as I write this down, the memory is already patchy of the years gone by.

There is hesitation as to how much I open up – what wounds do I share with you? These aren’t just scars from her passing, but from before too. When my husband left me and his daughter as he got distracted for a few years, then returned to be a good father but forgot he was also a husband. Perhaps my own shortcomings as a wife too in response? A couple of years later, the fateful day that a loving breakfast father and daughter cooked together, ended up taking her life! As soon as she left, I realised how lonely I was all these years and the only companion I had was my child. A few months later, I was all alone, scared and broken, but nobody saw my tears or wiped them. Each night I died, and then gathered myself up to face the world, making an impression in my new role at work.

Then I read about Kaya, a little girl looking for stem cell donors as she battled a life-threatening condition. I signed up and tested to see if I could be a match alongside thousands of potential donors. The resilience of that child and her family encouraged me.

Someone wise said once, that if you think you are suffering, all you need to do is look around you and see others in more pain and misery than yourself. Kaya did that to me and I sent Nainika’s remaining ashes off whilst on a quiet visit to Kashmir, her motherland that she always longed to visit. I felt peace.

These months since her departure, I struggled to sleep alone or eat alone.

I always had Nainika to cuddle up to and to say “Mummy I love you” over and over again, even in her sleep. She would kiss me and hug me real tight. I missed this and a lot of other things. I missed arguing with her. I missed a lot of things and felt extremely uncomfortable eating alone. Slowly, I made peace with it all and learnt to enjoy my own company. A dear friend often reminds me, “those who can’t enjoy their own company, imagine how boring a company they might be for others?” It’s not always that you need to do something to keep busy. The day we learn to also do nothing and just relax in that sweet nothingness, we have learnt to truly be content. Happiness is really within us and it comes from very simple, little things in our daily life. 

You never get closure really and sometimes these things don’t even make sense, ever.

Life and its end is a continuous process. What is born will die. I do often wonder what she would look like as a teenager, and later as a university student and an adult? I sought comfort in watching her friends growing up healthy, doing extremely well in school and enjoying their progress. In these children I see a glimpse of my own Nainika, and feeling proud, I send them my silent blessings. There are friends and family who feel I must find a life partner, a companion and move on, settle down. Her father did that and has a loving life partner now. Each of our journeys are different and we eventually find our respective paths. The operative word being, ‘journey’.

About the author: Lakshmi Kaul is an Indian British resident of London. She is the Head & Representative of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) UK. Kaul is also a columnist with iGlobal News of the India Inc group and often writes on international policy, India UK relations, human rights, diversity & inclusion in The Daily Guardian, Sunday Guardian, Kreately, Asian Voice, New World Order and a number of others. Lakshmi continues to campaign on allergy safety since the passing of her late daughter, Nainika and writes an occasional blog #ForeverNainika on social media.

Lakshmi Kaul’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’, read Mumbai-based sports journalist Nitin Naik’s story here. Naik lost his wife to cancer in 2015.

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