19 June, Sringagar, Kashmir

By Sauliha Yaseen

I am remembering the evacuation flight from Dhaka six weeks ago.

As the flight took off, I was overwhelmed by a strange fatigue already, like a premature jetlag setting in. This flight was special, an evacuation flight specially arranged to ferry students from COVID-19-hit Bangladesh to COVID-19-hit Kashmir.

We had reached the airport in the wee hours of the humid morning of 8 May, 2020. The airport was bereft of people, engulfed in a strange silence, something with which we have recently become acquainted. The only flight that was going to depart was ours. People in masks and gloves stood at a distance, wary of each other. The airline staff did not haggle over stray pounds of extra cabin baggage and the usually tepid immigration officers were remarkably quick.

I wasn’t carrying much luggage. How could I? Is it even possible to wrap up six years in just one night and fit everything into a forty five inch suitcase? I had lived in Bangladesh for six years, finished at college, earned my degree, crossed a couple of milestones in my life.  Most importantly, it was a place I had made countless memories with so many people. How was I supposed to wind up everything and say my final goodbyes to all those people? This wasn’t how I had pictured the end of my journey in the country.

One fine evening, when the lockdown was in full force and COVID-19 cases were on a steep rise, we’d received an email from the High Commission that an evacuation flight had been arranged for us and we were going to be sent home ‘very soon’. The ‘very soon’ part turned out to be two days later. It was chaotic, distressing, and left me surprised at my own ambivalence. My first reaction was to be happy that I would finally be home. My second reaction was a pit that I felt in my stomach, my heart slowly slipping into it. I was about to lose a place that had been home to me for over six years, to lose people who had been family to me through thick and thin all those years. Most importantly, I would not get to say a proper goodbye any of them.

Soon this grief was replaced by uncertainty. Was this really going to be my final journey out of Bangladesh? Would I ever get a chance to come back? I stood staring at my closet, thinking about what I should take and what I should leave behind to come back for. This entire process was gruelling. ‘Should I take this flight and go home or should I wait for things to get better?’ I kept debating with myself for hours. The possibility of things getting better was nowhere close on the horizon. Going home seemed the saner choice. But then there was a part of me, a significant one, that wanted to stay back for closure.

I started counting hours. I had some thirty six hours to make calls, to say goodbyes, to pack up and I was undecided as to which I would start with. I picked up the phone and started calling up friends.

My hands trembled as I dialled each number, one by one. A very close friend had tested positive a week back, I called up to say that I would be leaving soon. I could hear a sigh on the other side. There was going to be no formal valediction, no farewell hugs, not even a parting handshake. One must thank technology but even a fifty minute video-call wasn’t enough. There was no replacement for human touch when it came to expressing love. We were stripped of this way of expressing solidarity; making the other person believe how much you love them, feeling their energy seep into you and transform into a precious positivity that then share with the next person. This cascade of tenderness had been dismantled and we were left to concoct substitutes.

As human beings we claimed to be at the pinnacle of evolution but here we were floored by something placed towards the bottom of that same hierarchy. I was baffled by the sheer irony of what was happening. Yet, I saw people fighting back, trying doubly hard to express their love through unconventional means, in any way possible, from a distance of two metres away,  and I felt the same warm fuzzy feeling in my chest, the one probably called hope.