By Vidya Balanchander
Among other things, COVID-19 has compelled me to ask — and answer — a question that has long been the subject of a personal search: If you had to ride out this storm from the safety of ‘home’, what would that place be? For my husband and I, who have families spread out between Chennai and Colombo, Sri Lanka, and who have lived in three countries over the last decade, this question is a complicated one. You could say that my heart is stretched taut over the places where my relationships have roots.
There are days when I imagine that being in Chennai, sequestered with my parents and available to them should anything happen — the anything is still too dreadful to consider — would give me a degree of comfort. But if the prospect of boarding a flight was frightening a week ago, flight operations have now ceased completely. A familiar memory returns — of feeling marooned.
On December 3, 2015, over a crackly phone call, my mother told me that the torrential overnight rain in Chennai had caused widespread flooding. “Things look grave,” she said, and before I could respond, the line went cold. As it turned out, the area of Chennai where my family lives, happened to be the worst hit. When the Cooum river nearby burst its banks and engulfed the streets, the violent rush of water collapsed the compound wall of my parents’ apartment block and flooded homes until the second floor. On the third floor, my parents didn’t suffer any material loss but had to survive without electricity and water for nearly ten days.
For the longest one week of my life, I had no way of reaching my family except through kind-hearted neighbours and volunteers who checked in on them and made sure they had a supply of essentials. In those fraught days, I learned the true meaning of distance — and that even though air travel has seemingly made easy work of it, it remains real and intractable.
I also learned that distance extracts a price from your heart.
Two days ago, just before the pan-India lockdown was announced, I called my 93-year-old grandmother. When my grandfather died, now nearly two decades ago, she made the decision to continue living alone, in the home they built together in the city of Mysore. Over the years, she has steadfastly refused my parents’ entreaties to relocate and live with them. At times, this annoys me — Wouldn’t it be so much easier if she just moved? Why does she insist on spending her sunset years alone?
But that day, when she answered the phone, I steadied my voice so she could allow hers to falter. She wept momentarily, telling me that she had never seen the streets so empty or devoid of sound. Then, just as quickly, she gathered the courage that has kept her whole through the years, and steeled herself for what is to come. “I am praying to Ganesha that a cure is found,” she says, and bereft of the faith that keeps her so deeply anchored, I fervently wish that her prayers bear fruit.
Today, I will call her again — just to reassure her that I am here, even if I am not there. As always, I will feel a twinge of sadness and a stab of anxiety. Then, I will return to my kitchen, and allow the mechanics of chopping, slicing, stirring and mixing to gently bring my heart back from all the places where it has been travelling today, to the safety of warm stillness.