1 June, 2021 – Srinagar, Kashmir

By Nurat Maqbool

When I first heard about COVID, I feared for my life. I thought – I have not done a single good deed, what will I show to God? Never did it cross my mind that I would lose my most valuable possession to this dreadful disease: my mother.

In January 2020, when Delhi was simmering with riots, I often thought — those people have no idea what is coming.  I had seen the images of deserted streets in China’s Wuhan and the fear on the faces of people there. One wondered if it was just a matter of time until Corona would knock at our doors.

Soon enough, we were under lockdown and spent our days confined to our homes, watching the Corona-positive numbers going up.  Occasionally we heard of people getting Corona and recovering, we rarely heard about anyone dying from the disease. That was the first wave in India.

This year, my mother and I came to Srinagar after spending eighteen months in Bangalore. We had been too scared to fly back home from there. But since now the Corona cases were almost negligible and the Indian Government had declared victory, we thought to fly back home to Kashmir.

Our travel was safe and after coming to Srinagar, my mother was confined to a room. No one was allowed in that room except my sister and me. Two months passed by.

Then, one night, my mother started coughing and the next day we found she was running a high fever. Our hearts shrank in our chests: could it be COVID? But how, we wondered? No one was positive in our house or our neighbourhood and no one was allowed in her room.  The next day, since her fever didn’t come down, we went to get her tested. There was a huge queue at TRC, the Tourist Reception Centre temporarily turned into a COVID testing centre. Somehow, we got admission and she was given a rapid test.  To our horror, it came back positive within minutes.

For the next two weeks, we monitored my mother’s situation and remained in touch with a doctor. Her first week went fine. Another week and her oxygen saturation started dipping. Somehow, we still managed at home. Days went by hunting for oxygen concentrators and cylinders. Only the week before, my social media had been flooded with pleas. Everybody was looking for oxygen cylinders. Now I was one of them: calling every relative or friend, asking for help. Most NGOs had run out of oxygen. One person managed to get us a concentrator. We were relieved. Concentrators were better, cylinders ran out of oxygen in no time.

After two weeks, one evening we could no longer manage her at home and we shifted my mother to the hospital. The scene at the hospital Emergency was heart-wrenching: every  minute, someone was admitted. Every patient was gasping for air. By the time my mother was admitted, it was two in the morning. By now, I also had a high fever and fatigue. Our first night at hospital went fine and, miraculously, I recovered.

In the hospital ward, every attendant was just talking about saturation. The next evening, one of the patients passed away.  The whole day his son had been calling him to check on him every hour, ‘Papa, Papa’.

My mother was shifted to another ward with high-flow oxygen. There was a portable ventilator there. One patient had been there in a coma for three months and had now contracted COVID.  Another was on chemotherapy and had contracted COVID. Their chances of surviving were slim. One young man was brought in and put on ventilator. He had small kids. He wanted to survive for them. He survived just a night. We saw one patient recover and one die the same day.  The rest were on their beds, waiting for their fate.

We were in that ward for three days. My mother was responding well to medicines. Her tests came back alright.  We hoped to leave the hospital sooner. Then one night again she ran high fever. The doctor changed her medicine saying it might be a secondary infection. An X-Ray was proposed. When it came, my sister said “it is all white.” Not a good sign.

The next morning, the doctors said it was hospital-acquired pneumonia and she had 90 percent lung collapse. She was on 90 litres of oxygen at that time and her saturation was in the 70s, then jumping to the 80s and then dipping back.

She may have some hours left, said the visiting doctor. If we put her on ventilator, that may prolong her leaving.

Has anybody recovered on a ventilator? We asked.

None, so far. Maybe she would be the first one.

We declined. We didn’t want to prolong her suffering.

Please don’t keep her in pain, just take her soon, I prayed. By evening she was gone.

If only we had not banged thalis but actually understood the gravity of the situation. If only the government had been well prepared. If only crores were spent on building hospitals and not the Mandir. If only we had a wise head of state, fewer lives would have been lost.

Only a month earlier, I lost my aunt and many relatives far and near. This is the second wave that has left India devastated, on a ventilator, gasping for air.

20 May, 2021 – Kankroli, Rajasthan, India

By Bhumika Soni

It’s been more than a year since I last wrote here.  While I felt the first wave of COVID in India mostly as a digital experience, through news and online content, the second feels closer. It feels like the second round of an unlucky lottery in which COVID has made a point of reaching deeper into the hinterlands of the country.

From first to second wave, a lot of things have changed for me. I quit my corporate job to pursue my academic interests. I have been attending my classes online since last December. I moved from a metro city to a small town, and consequences seem much closer.  In Bangalore, I lived in an apartment and interacted with just one neighbor.  A COVID positive case in the society was just another whatsapp update. But here, back home, it is different. Everyone knows everyone; you can’t live in a silo. There are no online delivery services and, even taking precautions, you have to go out of the house to buy your essentials.

Every day I sit at my computer to try and get a slot for vaccination.  But each day, the limited slots are filled in a second. It’s a game of fastest fingers first as there is only one health centre that is vaccinating people in the 18-45 age group. My friends and I crib about it for some time and then share memes about vaccination procedure, happy to be safe and sound so far.

Near my home, lives a Dalit community. Our settlements are built on hilly ground, theirs above ours. We have a temple in our colony and some families join us for evening prayers from their windows and terraces. Over the years I have seen their small houses turn into sturdier structures, as younger generations were able to access education and better jobs.  Yet the divide remains, we are neighbours at a distance, and most members of the community still work as janitors in government departments, the municipality and public hospitals.

 This morning I heard voices crying. My mother told me that someone has died and probably it is because he or she was a cleaner in the government hospital, with no choice but to perform their duties. This is not the first death in that community. A few days back, another woman died. She too was a government servant. These are helpless cries. Every time I hear such news my heart stops for a second. I feel sad and selfishly relieved at the same time. I thank God I was not the one picked in this unlucky lottery. I become a silent witness of this apocalypse with its fangs protruding ever deeper.

I got to hear about the death of a close cousin’s husband, leaving behind his wife, 2 year old son and aged parents. What kind of deaths are these where you can’t even see the person and bid last goodbyes? The body is packed in the PPE kit and is discarded like rotten vegetables. 

 What were just numbers and headlines in the newspaper turn out to be somebody close, somebody you had known, somebody you had watched distantly in your daily routine. A link in that chain is disconnected – the milkman, the newspaper guy, the cleaners, everyone working essential services. I fear for the vendors who pass daily – if they don’t die from the virus, they’ll probably die from hunger. They are not even in the lottery. They service the game itself; the game of life and death the country has fallen into. I hope this ends soon.

19 May, 2021 – Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Sunila Galappatti

The last thing I did before going back into lockdown was to swim in the sea.  The rising sun was hot on my face; the water clear green and gentle early in the morning, a pale moon still lingered above.  My husband and children were still asleep, the baby just fed. No one need feel my absence – I could, in theory, be free.  I tried to summon the old abandon, but inside me was a knot of grief and anxiety, this time about what was happening in India and whatever was on its way here.  When the rest of the family woke up, we would have breakfast and drive back across the island, heading home to the isolation we had only recently, gingerly, unlocked.

Today, my husband and I swap notes.  We know it before we say it out loud but we agree, we are finding year two much harder.  In this part of the world, there is a thought that brings us very close to madness:  we had a whole year to prepare and we didn’t.  Last year, we watched heart-in-mouth as Europe was caught completely off guard; our own lockdowns were pre-emptive, what they offered above all was time to learn and prepare. Instead, within a few months, our leaders boasted of success in conquering ‘waves’ that had perhaps not been waves at all; we raised money for COVID preparedness but apparently did not spend it; we did a lot of policing, arresting, oppressing but never enough testing nor truth telling.  The list is long, the negligence profound, we try not to think about it all at once.  We just feel our heads and our limbs are heavier as we try to get ourselves and two small children through each day.

We ask ourselves what the hell is wrong with us – we know we’re amongst the luckiest.  We’ve had the luxury of prioritising our sanity – staying in our spacious treetop flat, working from home, getting our groceries delivered and only going out on isolated runs to the park or the beach or, a handful of times, to see friends.  We’d have to admit that despite worrying for everyone on Earth, we’ve had good lockdowns.  So why are we faltering now? But we are. 

Our nearly-four-year-old is restless.  As a nearly-three-year-old he thoughtfully processed the things we told him about the quarantine and the curfew and his greatest rebellion was occasionally threatening to “go in people’s houses”. Now he’s familiar with the ropes and bargains with us – can we not go to see so-and-so if we stand far away from them?  Unlike our leaden limbs, his seem to pulse with the need to run much further than the bounds of our home.    

Our house itself is a mess of stranded jigsaw pieces we can never seem to tidy up.  We feel we don’t get anything else done either, beyond the treadmill of cooking, washing up, feeding and bathing children, and putting them to bed.  We make up our working days in half hours here and there. As if to emphasise the point, our clothes have begun to tear, old fabric giving way after too many washes.  Two days ago, our bed-sheet ripped right down the middle.

I wonder whether this is why by turns I crave frivolities that have never mattered to me before. I would like to have a haircut.  I whisper to myself a promise that when the pandemic is over I will always be clean and well-dressed.  I used to be young and scornful about people being obsessed with repairs and home-improvements.  Now, because we have put on hold everything that is not essential, I keep noticing curtains that need to be replaced, or even the binding of an old book that it would be good to repair.  Maybe I’m distracting myself.  Or maybe minute, non-essential, tasks add up to more life than I’d realised.  Perhaps even repairs offer tiny glimpses of the future, a future that now feels permanently obscured by the storm-front on the horizon.

But amid our gloom we get news of better weather.  We read that England, on my other island, has had its first new day without any COVID death.  Friends my age are vaccinated en masse, people are meeting outside pubs.  They sound cheerful, laughter is reported.   I feel simultaneously lifted by joy and gripped by fear.  This may yet end, I think.  But they may forget us, I think. As the powerful of the world understandably wish to put the pandemic behind them, will they remember that we are still in it? I mean even our friends; it’s not like the record was that good before.  Then more anger comes that we took a curious rapprochement – the whole world explicitly affected by the same virus – and let it only deepen our divided geopolitics.  Now there will be better excuses for border-control. 

Sri Lanka has just reached the 1000 death mark; reports are the hospitals are nearly full.  We are currently 600,000 doses short of the AstraZeneca vaccine, for those who received their first dose in the early months of this year — millions short for those who have never come close. Sri Lankan authorities have again passed eggregious bills in Parliament, again stopped people from marking a devastating anniversary.  Gaza is being bombed worse than ever, if that is possible.  With today’s announcement from the Serum Institute in India, expected though it was, prospects are bleaker everywhere. This afternoon, my husband receives a wrong-number call.  The person at the other end asks repeatedly if he isn’t the husband of Sarani (name changed) from a particular garment factory in a nearby district.  He works out before they explain further, that she must have tested positive and this is a contact-tracing call.  We try to imagine the rest of the story.

And then the baby laughs – our younger son, who joined us so recently in this world.  And we – his father, mother and brother – gather round, willing him to do it again and again.

13 May, 2021 – Bangalore, India

By Pritika Rao

I wake up late again this morning. I don’t touch my phone for a few minutes. Then I reach for it, willingly walking into an ocean of emotions.

I have a multi-step check-in routine.  I check on friends who have COVID, then friends of friends, then exhale the worry that this list has expanded so rapidly, then make a list of ways I can help by sending food, making phone calls or donations.  Then I retreat and sit quietly with these overwhelming feelings. I feel like a swimmer, unfit for these rough waters, but with no escape. When I’m braver, I’ll venture into the larger circle of news – bodies washing up on river shores, black markets for medicines and oxygen, bed scams and fingers pointed in all directions.

I work with unexpected efficiency today. We finish a class for little children whose parents have been affected by COVID-19. A sweet-spirited little girl is too tired to dance and asks for permission to sit down. It breaks my heart. Everything is like holding a paper whose edges are burning. It feels like we are living at the center of that paper and that sooner or later, ‘ashes, ashes, we’ll all fall down.’

After evening coffee, I help my parents-in-law stream a funeral on the TV in the hall. They know this 75-year-old lady well. ‘Her face looks peaceful’, my mother-in-law says. ‘It does,’ I agree. Which is more than we can say for the faces that are gathered around her coffin, frowning at the sun, beads of sweat gathered on their foreheads. My parents-in-law are squinting too, trying to identify people who are masked and whose bodies are covered in blue tarpaulin. Someone’s mask has slipped down their nose a little – I feel the urge to tell them, protect them somehow. I think, given the circumstances, they may not appreciate the intervention.

I think of danger and risk – how when you love someone, these things don’t matter. And how the same is true when you are ignorant or indifferent. Your perception of risk is different in these cases but is your behavior then brave or foolhardy? My head hurts. Maybe it’s the screen time. Or the caffeine. Or just a sign of the times.

It’s raining outside so we order some hot samosas. As I eat one, I swipe through Instagram stories and an influencer tells us how many weeks later, she still cannot taste her food. As I chew my samosa, I feel selfish, as if I have stolen this from her. Like I don’t deserve the privilege of this moment.

My whole body feels a bit weary. I check my temperature. My throat does feel a bit scratchy. I couldn’t have caught it – I haven’t gone anywhere. And yet I check my oxygen levels. A healthy 98. My heart rate is 88 – a bit too high, my father in law remarks. I think of everyone on the frontlines, volunteers procuring oxygen, beds, conducting tests – do they have a few seconds to monitor their health, wonder about their own symptoms?

My phone buzzes and I scan it for messages. You have to be quick on Whatsapp groups these days. If you take too long to congratulate someone on their healing or their job or a meal they’ve made, you will miss the moment. Because soon sad news will splinter the group like a grenade.

I worry about everyone I have ever loved – old friends I haven’t heard from, schoolteachers, my ex-boyfriend, his family. I worry for those I will love one day in the future – my nephews, nieces, the babies that my friends are carrying in their wombs, the children I will carry into this world one day. What would I say to them if I could?

Later at night, I take a spoonful of Chyawanprash and go to bed. I ordered a box of chamomile tea that I’ve started taking to help me sleep. It doesn’t help at all and tastes like I imagine stale flower pot water might. Reading helps and transports me far away to Sligo, engrossed in the love of two young adults, chanelling my yearning for travel and the aching in my heart. Then I sink a little deeper under the blanket, say my prayers and feel my breathing settle to a slower pace. Quickly, before the phone beeps or I hear another ambulance wail, I catch whatever sleep I can.

10 May, 2021 – Kolkata, India

By Brinda S

She counted aloud as she joined the dots.

Can a dragon play Holi?”

The question caught me off guard, as I was calling for the Rt-PCR report for myself and my 5-year-old.

Is that a dragon in her colouring book? We have never seen dragons. Neither did we foresee the times that we are going through now.

She played Holi for the first time in February 2020 – just days before the pandemic swept us up in its first wave. She jumped in puddles of water, dipped herself in a tub of coloured water and sloppily dumped her baby-safe colours onto her baby friends.

Keen to keep alive her memory of one of India’s liveliest festivals, I said “Well, yes, they of course do! What colours did your dragon play with?”

Red, Blue and Greeeeennnnn,” she replied.

I smiled and got back to my calls. The reports were delayed and I was scared.  When they finally came, I took a deep breath before opening them. ‘Negative.’

29 March, 2021 – Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Around the time last year when lockdown was imposed, I got unbridled time off office-work, perhaps for the first time in two decades. I slipped happily into my kaftan, picked up my brush and re-commenced my ritual of converting empty, discarded bottles into works of art. The kaftan provided comfort; the bottle became a daily habit of meditation. The result is a collection of two hundred plus painted bottles. My first ever exhibition will be at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur on 8 April, 2021 — Mugdha Sinha, photograph by Shyam Sundar