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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shared a touching story with us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.   

“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

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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.)

Overflowing crematoriums, unsaid goodbyes … the pandemic death story

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

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

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

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

Deaths due to starvation, illnesses, accidents, and exhaustion   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Administrative failures and unsaid goodbyes  

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

Vinita Yadav with her family. Image credit: Ranvijay Singh

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

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

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

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

Overflowing crematoriums and overworked staff

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

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

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

Sharing the cremation burden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher Sheetal More with her mother-in-law

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

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

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

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

Keep swiping right to see some heartwarming images of Ajjibaichi Shala

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

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

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

Yogendra Bangar with his students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ajjis were taken on a school picnic to Kashi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Picture credit: Yogendra Bangar)

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

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

….

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

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

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

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

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

Juggan Khan, 70, with his horse

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

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

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

Mohammad Shakeel with his horse

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

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

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

A still from the movie Gulabo Sitabo featuring Khan.

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

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

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

Abdul Razzak with his horse

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

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

The hauntingly beautiful Spiti Valley stood completely deserted this whole year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep swiping right to see some stunning visuals from Spiti.

When Spiti Valley said no to tourists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No help from the government”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take us through the journey of ‘missfitcomics’. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As a journal and poetry therapist, I highly recommend therapeutic writing as a way to manage emotions”

Anjana Deshpande, a licensed clinical social worker based in the US, tells Swati Subhedar in an interview how we can use our rich tradition of art, storytelling, and poetry to heal from the collective trauma that we are experiencing presently because of the coronavirus pandemic and elaborates on how, as per a study, people who wrote for at least 15 minutes a day about a painful moment are better equipped to deal with painful circumstances

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The pandemic has affected each one of us in some way or the other. Most importantly, it has drained us emotionally. What long-term impact will this have on our society per se given the fact that many countries may not even have enough counselors and therapists to deal with this unprecedented situation?

The world is currently in chaos. Masks have become the new normal, and we are “touching elbows” instead of shaking hands. While the virus snakes unrelentingly through our lives, we are constantly devising ways to manage it. Even though this struggle is emotionally draining, it is also forcing us to grow, adapt, and change. The theory of Post Traumatic Growth, propounded by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the early 1990s, posits that humans demonstrate the capacity to evolve after distressing events.

“It is the realization that old meanings no longer apply, and the subsequent search for new ones that result in the psychological shift known as post-traumatic growth. The struggle to find new meaning in the aftermath of trauma is crucial to positive psychological growth, as well as the acceptance that personal distress and growth can co-exist and often do while these new meanings are crafted —“Tedeshi, 2004.

This theory also identifies the concept of “expert companion”. This companion is able to provide support to those who are suffering, without getting overwhelmed themselves. While a counselor/therapist would be an ideal expert companion, at this time, we can cast our net wider. We are facing “collective trauma”, collective helplessness, collective grief, and I believe that healing can also be collective.

We can make meaning out of this experience by asking ourselves what have we learned, how will we change, how did we cope? To do this, we will need a safe space, and creating that safe space becomes our next task. We have a rich tradition of art, storytelling, poetry and other modalities to hold the space for this. I already see the Durga puja pandals telling the story of the pandemic. Our healing lies in this retelling of the story, in making meaning of this experience.  

Post Traumatic Growth is said to occur in five domains:

  • Appreciation of life
  • Relationships with others
  • New possibilities in life
  • Personal strength
  • Spiritual change

If you look around today, you might notice changes already happening in these domains. We are not taking anything for granted, have survived almost nine months of this pandemic, have adapted by working from home, and are using technology in innovative ways.

A Durga idol wearing a mask. Image credit: Director, producer and author Ram Kamal’s Twitter account

The brouhaha around the pandemic may have subsided, but the virus is still lurking around. People are feeling more anxious than ever. Thoughts like “what if it’s me”, “What if it affects my parents/children/partner?” must have crossed everyone’s mind. How should people deal with such extreme emotions?

I have tested myself for COVID multiple times during the past year for the usual reasons … “What if it’s me? What if it affects my family?”. At this time, we can do two things — engage in what is known as “reality testing” and identifying what is in our control.

I have not done enough research on this, but the Spanish Flu of 1918 was considered to be the deadliest epidemic faced by humans. A strain of that virus survives till today and is known as the “common flu”. We get vaccinated for it every year, but the vaccination varies according to the predominant strain that year. Today we are more medically advanced than we were in 1918, and pharmaceutical companies around the world are working round the clock to identify treatments for COVID. Thoughts like these, which are reality-based, and challenge the narrative of fear, are called “reality testing”.

Other reassuring and believable thoughts could be “I have done well till now. I take proper precautions” etc. If we start thinking about things that we cannot control or predict, we slide deeper into helplessness and terror. Establishing routines that protect us and using safety to create structure is also a way that we can manage our emotional reactivity and increase distress tolerance.

When COVID claims someone, their family is not even allowed to go near them, for fear of contamination. There is no time for proper goodbyes. This in itself is traumatic. Photo by CDC on Pexels.com

There have been too many casualties around the world.  All of us have seen images of mass graves and overflowing burial grounds. At least one person known to us may have succumbed to the virus. This is affecting the mental health of people. How should one deal with the fear of death?  

This is not the first time that humankind has come face to face with death in such a catastrophic way. In the past, we have coped with it by finding our strength and our compassion in the face of extreme events. What events like these churn up are values that we choose to uphold, and a decision of “how am I going to uphold that value in these times?” For some people, the value may be family, for some it may be spirituality or service to the community. For some, it may be survival. So, in this chaos, there is also an opportunity for growth.

We cannot minimize the pain of grief and loss that people have experienced. When COVID claims someone, their family is not even allowed to go near them, for fear of contamination. There is no time for proper goodbyes. This in itself is traumatic. What helps is again, expressing our feelings through various platforms and making meaning out of this loss. Coming together as a community and having pain acknowledged and shared by others will have a huge impact on the mental health of people.

The global media coverage is a double-edged sword. While pictures of death have been distributed swiftly, there have also been messages of hope. Again, we have control over what we see, and what meaning we choose to make out of it. Our brain has an inherent “negativity bias”, which means that we “velcro” onto negative facts, while the positive facts slip away. It takes effort to cling to the positive, and that is the effort we have to put in.

Children, the elderly, and those who live alone — irrespective of the circumstances and age group — are the most vulnerable right now. How to help children and the elderly sail through this phase? How much should we tell our children? How to be there for the elderly, emotionally, especially those who live away from their families. 

Yes, this is a real issue now, as these two populations are vulnerable and feel helpless. While there is no right answer here, open lines of communication and increased connectivity is key.

Children are constantly learning from adults. How we speak about this crisis and how we respond to it will impact how the children will deal with it. If a child is fearful, it is important to address these fears honestly, and in an age-appropriate way. While it is important to tell them the truth, how we word it is equally important. Sharing information gives children a sense of control and respect, and that seeps into their day to day lives, making them more resilient and confident.

The elderly are indeed suffering, and are in need of connection. For instance, the UK has lifted the ban on the elderly staying indoors, identifying that for this population, loneliness is perhaps worse than the pandemic. The connectivity is especially important for this group. There are many ways of contactless connections through deliveries of food, comfort packets, letters etc, which allow the elderly to feel as if they are cared for. The difference between being alone and being lonely is that of neglect. When we are lonely, we feel the absence of care, and eventually, stop caring for ourselves. This loneliness can be eased by providing care through the ways mentioned above.

Journaling/expressive writing is a proven way to manage our emotions. This is different from “normal” writing and is done with the intention of moving towards recovery. Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

It may not be feasible for all to visit counselors/therapists as there might be other pressing issues to deal with; like a job loss or loss of business or loss of a loved one. What should people do to keep their emotions in check if therapy or medication is not the immediate option?

As a journal and poetry therapist, I highly recommend therapeutic writing as a way to manage emotions. Dr James Pennebaker, a pioneer of expressive writing, conducted a study about 30 years ago. The study proved that people who wrote for at least 15 minutes a day about a painful moment, reported improvement in the mental state and coped better with painful circumstances. The expressive writing model that he created has the following steps:

  • Write 15-20 minutes/day for four consecutive days
  • Write about something that is difficult to talk about
  • Write both about what happened and how it felt
  • Participants showed physiological improvement at the end of four days

In another experiment conducted among 63 recently unemployed professionals, those assigned to write about the thoughts and emotions surrounding their job loss were reemployed more quickly than those who wrote about non-traumatic topics or who did not write at all. Expressive writing appeared to influence individuals’ attitudes about their old jobs and about finding new employment, rather than their motivation to seek employment.

Therefore journaling/expressive writing is a proven way to manage our emotions. This is different from “normal” writing and is done with the intention of moving towards recovery. Reading Just One Thing by Rick Hanson, which is about mindfulness, could help you. 

Writing in a journal provides a safe release of emotions and aids in self-regulation. Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

What is poetry therapy? How does this medium help in managing bottled up emotions?

The use of poems to promote well-being, healing and recovery is known as poetry therapy. To find out more, you can visit https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/poetry-therapy and ifbpt.org.

Poems are uniquely positioned to become containers to examine and express emotions that may be confusing, overwhelming, or shameful. By its very nature, poetry is open to interpretation, and as such is good at hiding the secrets of the writer. Poetry is precise, layered, and delivers several experiences in a condensed form. The role of poetry therapy is not to “stir” emotions, but to “integrate” them and hold space for conflicting emotions. Poet Gray Snyder says … “poetry has an interesting function. It helps people be where they are”. Poetry also allows you to slip back and forth in time and space, and helps create a coherent narrative. 

I had written the poem below when I was new to the US and missing India terribly. In India, I was able to point out trees and would know their names. In the US, I was lost. Everything that I had known about myself had come crumbling down, and I was doing unfamiliar things such as waving to my Pakistani neighbour! The poem moves between India, Pakistan and the US (across timelines, continents and seasons) and helps me place conflicting experiences on the same page. Each word that has been chosen reflects my reality at that time. 

If I had chosen to write in prose about my experience, I would have spent a lot of time trying to capture what I felt, and would have probably felt more agitated. The poem allowed me to move in and out of my experience very quickly and helped me make meaning out of my experience. Here’s the poem:

Pakistani neighbour

The tree is heavy with dew,
drips and drips
What tree is this?
I don't know.
A foreign tree,
a foreign sky.
I sit at my window,
stare at my neighbour.
At home, it is spring,
our countries
are at war
Here, we wave across
an empty parking lot.

Doodling/sketching/drawing comics can also help in keeping your emotions in check. How? Read Tanika story.  

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

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

“A person never commits suicide. He/she dies by suicide”

Shyam Mithiya is a Mumbai-based psychiatrist and sexologist. In this interview, he talks about how the recent death of a Bollywood actor and what followed after that was an opportunity lost, in terms of starting an honest and open conversation on mental health

Was the recent death of a Bollywood actor and what followed after that an opportunity lost, in terms of starting an honest and open conversation on mental health?

Yes. We could have done so much in terms of spreading awareness and educating people. Many people got interested in his case because he was a well-known Bollywood actor. If you try to educate people about mental health issues without any context, it might not interest them. But if a mental health issue is associated with a celebrity, they would be interested in knowing more. In an ideal situation, therapists, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals should have been invited to various forums, they should have had a nuanced and detailed discussion about mental health issues and busted various myths associated with these illnesses. But what followed after his death in the name of TRP (television rating point) was shocking and shameful. People were already going through a lot because of the pandemic and the lockdown. The media should have been a little empathetic and sensitive. There was no need to cash in on someone’s tragedy during such an emotionally draining phase.

His photos were circulated soon after his demise, which was such an unethical thing to do. Imagine the kind of impact it must have had on emotionally fragile minds. The headlines read “he committed suicide”, which is a wrong way of putting it. A person never commits suicide. He/she dies by suicide. By saying a person committed suicide, it, in a way, glorifies suicide. It may give people the impression that if such a successful, famous and financially stable person could commit suicide then, maybe, that’s the way to end your miseries. By focusing on this case in an unreasonable manner, and without balance and empathy, we are worsening the situation.

Image credit: Ministry of Health Twitter account

When a celebrity opens up about battling depression, people say “how can he/she be depressed?” People often associate depression with extreme sadness. What should be done to bust various myths related to depression?

We tend to use the word depression very casually. Say, if India loses a match, people say, “Oh, we are so depressed that India lost”. People tend to get confused between sadness and depression. Depression is a clinical disorder wherein a person feels extremely sad, with or without a trigger, for 14 days or more. That’s the starting point. Then there are different types of depressions like unipolar, bipolar, mild, moderate, or severe depression.

A person who has everything going for him personally, professionally, financially, and socially, and his/her life is 100% perfect, even this person could be depressed. It is a biological condition wherein there is an imbalance in the neurotransmitters, and it can be treated with medication and by making changes in the lifestyle. However, we must also understand that by making lifestyle changes or by only doing yoga and exercising, or by developing a hobby one can’t beat depression. Yes, these are additional factors that help significantly, but you need to see a counsellor or a therapist and take medication if need be. People around a person who is dealing with depression should not give him/her lame advice like “watch a motivational video” or “listen to music” or “think positively”. These things will suffocate a person with depression even more. Instead, encourage him/her to see a therapist.

Please understand, a depressed person goes through a lot. People going through depression can’t help feeling sad and or crying non-stop. They know the ill-effects of eating junk food, yet they binge. They can’t sleep. They feel like going out, meeting friends, and living a regular life, but they are just not able to pull themselves out of their beds. Also, a depressed person need not necessarily be suicidal and those with mild or moderate depression can still function as normal human beings.

Mental health helpline numbers. (Right) Dr Shyam Mithiya

Often, people categorize those suffering from complicated mental health issues like mental disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia as “paagal” (mad). How should we address this issue? 

Unfortunately, all mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, dyslexia, learning disability, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity disorder, mental disorder, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder are categorized as “pagalpan”. People say things like “arey ye to paglo ke doctor ke paas jata hai”. People having schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are often termed as “possessed”, are ill-treated, chained, burnt with match sticks, or taken to faith healers. When nothing works, their families bring them to us. When the families see a considerable improvement in the patients after we prescribe medicines to them, they feel guilty, especially so when they realize that these illnesses are treatable. There are many such misconceptions. We need to spread awareness at the ground level or at the school level. Only then the next generations will be more aware, more accepting, and ready to seek medical help.  

A large section of society has access to the internet. People often google their symptoms and arrive at a conclusion, rather than visiting a therapist. They read about the side effects of medicines and either stop taking the prescribed pills or don’t start the treatment at all. What should be done to change this?

It is dangerous. Let me tell you why. If you Google “headache”, the third option is tumour! Now, imagine a person having anxiety googling his/her symptoms, reading about the medicines and the side effects. That person will get petrified and not even come to a therapist. This worsens the situation. Visit a therapist, talk to him/her, understand your situation, take medication, if need be. That’s the proper way. Don’t try to be a doctor. You are not an expert.

Video credit: Ministry of Health Twitter account

Mental health is still a taboo in Indian society. Even educated families are not willing to accept that their children could be having mental health issues. Very few are open enough to take their children to a therapist. Casual reactions like “oh, it’s nothing” or “it’s all in your head” can do a lot of damage.

Yes. If someone is having a heart problem then we don’t tell that person “heart se nikal do”. So, why tell someone having anxiety or depression that “dimaag se nikal do”. I feel people who recover from mental illnesses should share their success stories on social media so that more and more people read about their experiences. This will help others. This way, those dealing with mental health issues will not feel awkward about their situation. This will give them the courage to open up and discuss their options with their families or friends. But, it’s a vicious cycle. People don’t share their stories because they fear that others will brand them as “pagal”.

The pandemic is having an adverse impact on the mental health of people. What should be done to be mentally and emotionally fit during such difficult times?

As per the statistics, one in seven people in India is dealing with some mental health issue or the other. That comes to 15-20 crore Indians and this means almost every family has one person who is dealing with a mental health issue. We never had enough psychiatrists, psychologists, or mental health professionals. Now, the pandemic has added to this burden. There is too much anxiety. Today, a family visited me for therapy. I asked their nine-year-old son to wait outside while I spoke to the parents. Fearing coronavirus, he kept standing for 15 minutes and didn’t sit on the sofa. That is a reflection of how anxious people are. Yes, there is too much coronavirus-related grim news floating around, but if you are a parent, remember, your kids are watching you and they are going to replicate your actions, so react to a situation in an appropriate manner.

These are the seven things you must do to keep your mental health in check during the pandemic.

(1) Sleep for at least eight hours a day
(2) Eat healthy and balanced meals
(3) Exercise … meditate for sure, yoga rebalances the nervous system
(4) Don’t live in a bubble … communicate (5) Don’t suppress any kind of emotions
(6) Develop a hobby
(7) Do something for someone or society. There’s nothing more satisfying than that

As told to Swati Subhedar

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

Related interviews: Jerry Pinto, Amandeep Sandhu, Karishma Upadhyay, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole and Shampa Sengupta

“International players come with an entourage. Many of our players don’t even have proper wheelchairs”

Naik Suresh Kumar Karki’s life is akin to a battlefield. Born in Nepal, he joined the Indian Army in 1995, his battalion was posted in Naugaon when the Kargil war was being fought, and in 2004, during an insurgency in Assam, he met with an accident that left him in a wheelchair. However, his second innings as a para-sportsperson is an indication that he is still a soldier at heart – brave, focused and determined

…..

The coronavirus-induced lockdown forced many people to reschedule their plans or put them on hold. The unprecedented situation was especially upsetting for para-badminton champion Naik Suresh Kumar Karki, 44, who was a national para-badminton champion for six consecutive years between 2013 and 2017 and is presently ranked second in the country. He was excited to participate in the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan, scheduled to take place in August-September. It was for the first time that badminton was introduced as a competitive sport at any Paralympics. But the pandemic played a spoilsport, and he could not participate.

Now, to maintain his world ranking — his career-best was 11 in 2017 in singles — he will have to keep playing open tournaments and win international accolades. For Karki, lack of motivation isn’t a problem. Parasports often struggle due to a lack of sponsors and finances.

“Lack of sponsorship and finances are the two main reasons why many talented para sportspersons fail to make a mark,” said Karki. “I got all the help I needed, however, not all are as lucky. If one has to participate in international tournaments, he/she will need a good coach and also a good doctor or a physio to deal with the injuries that come along. That’s basic. When we go out to play, most of the international players come with an entourage. Many of our players don’t even have proper sports wheelchairs,” he added.  

Karki has been into sports all his life. When he was in school, he was an avid footballer. An accident in 2004, while he was serving in the Indian Army, left him in a wheelchair. But this did not break his spirit. From 2006 until now he has been a para-sports player and has won various awards and accolades in different sports like badminton, discus throw, javelin throw, shot put, table tennis, lawn tennis, basketball and swimming. He has also won seven medals in various international marathons, which include two gold medals.

Karki has won these trophies in basketball
Joining the Indian Army and the accident

Karki was born in Jhapa, Nepal, to a family of limited means. He has two siblings — a brother and a sister. The family moved to their uncle’s home in Chowdangigadi after their father left the house after an altercation and never returned. Karki’s mother raised the children. “My mother worked very hard. It was tough. When I was in the seventh standard, I started taking tuitions to help her financially. I was passionate about football and it kept me distracted from the tensions at home,” said Karki.

When he was in the first year of graduation, his friends informed him about an army selection camp. “I decided to give it a try. My village was in the interiors and I had to walk for three days to reach there. I cleared the initial round. We were given a gate pass (to enter India) and after a few days, I was called to Darjeeling for the final selection. I got selected. That’s how I joined the Indian Army in 1995.”   

After one year of service, he went home only to discover that his mother was battling cancer. He took her to Patna, Bihar for treatment, but the doctors said it was too late. His leave was getting over and there was no one to look after his mother. Karki decided to get married to his girlfriend, and she promised to look after his mother. However, his mother passed away two years later.

Karki, who was serving in the 2/9 Gorkha Rifles, moved along with his battalion to Gurdaspur, and then, in 1999, in the middle of the Kargil war, the battalion landed in Nougaon in Kashmir. Karki was a part of many patrolling schedules and ambushes. He even fired a missile that destroyed a Pakistani post.

The battalion then moved to Assam. In 2004, the Bodo conflict was at its peak.  “In July 2004, during an insurgency, a friend got injured. I was told to rush him to the Guwahati Army Hospital. We were in an Army ambulance, just an hour away from the hospital. Suddenly, a public transport bus rammed into us. It was a bad accident. The front of our ambulance was completely damaged. I don’t remember, but I think I jumped off,” said Karki.

Karki was taken to a hospital in Guwahati. He was then moved to Command Hospital in Kolkata. “They put grafting rods in my body. I was then moved to a rehabilitation center in Lucknow. I was in a bad condition. I couldn’t even turn in my bed on my own. Four people had to help me. I couldn’t eat and had no bowel or bladder control. I was slipping into depression. One day, I asked the visiting doctor if I would be able to walk again. His reply shattered me completely,” said Karki.

He was given an option to take sick leave and go back home or move to the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre in Kirkee, near Pune. It’s a well-known rehabilitation center for defence personnel who suffer spinal cord injuries while serving the nation. His two boys were too young then and going back was not an option. So, he moved to Pune, a decision he does not regret.

Despite so many accolades, lack of sponsors and finances has always bothered Karki
Getting back to sports

Even after moving to Pune, Karki was battling severe depression. He completed a computer course at the center to distract himself. There were many sports facilities at the center. He would see his seniors practice. That motivated him, and in 2006, he decided to take the plunge.  

He dabbled into many sports like swimming, athletics, cricket, lawn tennis, and table tennis. Within a year, he won medals at the national level for swimming and table tennis. He started playing basketball a year later. It was difficult for him as he didn’t have a proper wheelchair or the strength in his arms. “I would practice like crazy. Others at the academy would comment that I may never get to play international tournaments because my injury was more severe compared to them. These comments would push me to do better,” said Karki. 

Basketball proved lucky as the team, under his leadership, was National Wheelchair Basketball Champion for six times between 2014 and 2019. Later, he led the team on several occasions and won medals in international tournaments like the Bali Cup in 2017. Apart from basketball, Karki has also won medals in discuss throw, Javelin throw, shot put, table tennis, lawn tennis, swimming and has won seven medals in international marathons.

In 2013, Karki took up badminton and has so far won 21 medals at the National Para-Badminton championship and a total of five medals at Spanish Open (2015), Indonesian Open (2015), and Uganda Open in (2017). He has participated in many international tournaments. He was ranked Number 1 in India for six years (2013-2018). Internationally, his career-best ranking was Number 11 in 2017.

Karki feels the government should help other para-sports players with finances and sponsors. “I am very lucky that I got support. Others don’t even get an opportunity. It’s very difficult to get sponsors who will support you long-term. A lot of energy gets wasted in finding sponsors. You are on your own until you participate in the World Championship or the Olympics. Yes, the government is now doing a lot for para-sports, but it definitely needs to do more.”

This is Part 6 of our series ‘Unbound’– a spinal cord injury awareness series. Read Mrunmaiy’s storyIshrat’s storyRafat’s storyGarima’s story Preethi’s story Kartiki’s story, Ekta’s story.