says Lakshmi Ajay, who writes about experiencing it in its purest form in the past few weeks. Ajay, a former journalist and a communications professional based in Bangalore, and her husband fell sick with Covid-19 as the second wave encompassed India in its deadly grip. As they battled its manifold symptoms and sought help – the one thing that really made a difference came from strangers.
“…To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
― Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living
From the time I was a child, the one thing that never ceased to amaze me was the kindness of strangers. As children we are constantly taught not to trust strangers, but I have always felt the need to subvert this theory all my life!
My earliest memory of encountering this phenomenon was – as a fifth grader during the floods that took place in my hometown Gandhidham located in Kutch, Gujarat – in the 90s. I still vividly recall that school day when my mother (a teacher) and I were slowly wading through the rising floodwaters and trying to get home from our bus stop. As we gingerly trudged up the 1.5 kms home, people in the locality, especially women watched as we held onto walls and gates and tried to cross the flood waters that were now nearly three to four feet high. At various points, I remember being so afraid to go on that I would tell my mother that I just didn’t want to take another step even as the rains beat down on us constantly. I remember the last 300 meters were particularly tough for me as a child and I was frozen with fright at the sight of gushing waters.
As my mother tried to cajole me to move forward, suddenly I remember being lifted high onto the shoulders of a relative stranger. He lived in our locality and had been watching us until he stopped and promptly came to my mother’s aid and carried me home. For a few years after that I recall my mother always remembering this kindness and sending me to tie him a Rakhi (an Indian custom symbolic of a brother’s unwavering promise to help a sister whenever she was in crisis) on his hand and exchange some sweets on the eve of Rakshabandan – an Indian festival that celebrates the bond between a brother and a sister.
Countless other memories flash before my eyes now as I recollect how various people showed me extraordinary kindness at different points of time. Whilst travelling as a single woman in India, I found kindness in the unlikeliest of places. From a near deserted hotel at a tiger sanctuary in Assam where a local reporter and his sister kept me company to the kindness of a Kashmiri student who helped me find a hotel in the dead of the night in Jammu and connect me to a local cop so I would feel safe in his state – I found truckloads of kindness in serendipitous ways that feel almost impossible or improbable if I think of it now.
As a journalist traipsing through rural Gujarat for stories, many strangers evaded me but many more helped me. But these past few years, it feels as if this India that I had known and experienced had rapidly changed. As the great Indian middle class grew in aspiration and heft, kindness was increasingly missing from our collective discourse. More distance and antipathy was created by a hateful ideology that seemed to pervade our reason, so much so that lynchings, atrocities on Dalits and young women, minorities, couples, and students became so mainstream that somewhere we stopped caring.
Today, I write from Bengaluru, India, a city where the pandemic is unleashing all its fury, and the administration and citizens are barely able to keep up. A government mobile application has just informed me that 473 people around me in the 1 km vicinity are Covid positive at the moment.
Just as we were getting a grip on the second wave and staying home in April, my husband and I tested positive for Covid-19. As shock gave way to practical considerations like food and medicines – a relative stranger we were supposed to work with for a project volunteered and fed us home cooked meals for the first two weeks of our illness. As we both battled fever, tiredness, aches, and pains – her food became the only uplifting thing that we looked forward to in our days.
Another stranger who responded to my enquiry for meals on Facebook would go on to send us meal boxes with short handwritten notes stuck on them reminding us to eat healthy and get better while we recovered from the Covid-19 virus. She did this even after providing meals to 25 odd people who worked as security and support staff in and around her locality every day.
The simplicity of these gestures, the generosity, and the notes she sent put more wind in my sails than the eight tablets (mostly multivitamins) I was putting into my body every day to fight the virus. I was lucky enough to recover at home without hospitalization even as hundreds of people (2.7 lakh) in India have succumbed to the pandemic as of May 17.
As a nation, all our fault lines now lay completely exposed. Entire families are testing positive and struggling with managing their recovery from Covid-19, mental health concerns are rising for many with pre-existing conditions, young kids are managing by themselves at home as parents recoup in hospitals, multiple lives have been lost in a single family – and the worst of human suffering is still unfolding in front of us.
And yet, each day we read and hear of countless kindnesses that are also part of the “India story” as we brave this pandemic. Everyday scores of home chefs, homemakers, NGO’s, youth, and volunteers are busy providing meals and other services to thousands of Covid-19 affected patients and their families. Countless calls and tweets are being made by strangers as they help out patients in need of oxygen cylinders or ventilators and many are volunteering to cremate the dead. We read of police officers driving for hours to find a hospital bed for a patient or arrange a ventilator. Even as the economy teeters, corporate India is backing its people with paid leaves, jobs, loans, and financial support for bereaved families. What this tells me is that somewhere our collective conscience as a nation and the syncretic culture of India is not yet lost.
So where do we begin the work of healing? We begin first with ourselves and then with others who need our support to heal themselves. Ask simple questions and offer help as these are the only elements that we control in present times. This second wave of Coronavirus reminded me of simpler times and simple gestures like sending over food to an unwell neighbor or doing seva (service) by feeding the sick or vulnerable which was such a core middle class Indian value. I wonder when we became a society that began thinking in terms of us versus them.
To put things in perspective, we have all lost something and someone during this pandemic. As a nation we are lost, in grief, in denial and need direction. Unfortunately, many more of us will be lost before we recoup from this pandemic. My only take away from my own illness and recovery is to keep looking across the aisle and care. Simple things like checking up on people who may not be as privileged as we are or building communities or families wherever we are.
As news headlines rain blows on us day after day, telling us of numerous tragedies unfolding all around us and an unresponsive government which refuses to step up to the task of providing direction- we can only count on each other. And like I was telling a friend – India is literally currently running on kindness these days – the kindness of strangers.
About the author: Lakshmi Ajay is a minstrel at large, looking at life and that zany moment in between. She describes herself as a lifeist, dance-demon, newshound, Bollywood fanatic/ au fait, outwitter, contrarian, dusk gatherer, who is always hunting for the best Chaat on the streets of Bangalore with a filter Kaapi in hand.