Between one residence and one other, the pandemic lays it naked

Natasha Badhwar

MY tears began to flow early as we set off on our first trip together as a family since the Covid-19 pandemic was declared in 2020. A family of five, we live in a suburb of Delhi and regularly visit my father-in-law, who lives in a village in east Uttar Pradesh. Papa is in his nineties, and often stays with us in the city. This year, our children and I had not met him even once.

As we cruised on the highway towards Varanasi, our children played the soulful songs of the film, Masaan. The music, the long drive and recent memories of this highway being a witness to mass migration of dispossessed workers walking home despite hunger and police threats — all of it mixed up to release unexpressed grief, fears and anxieties. My eyes began to well up, and I didn’t discourage myself from having a good cry.

As I type this column, I am sitting in an open area called a hatha in our village home. The morning light is dappled, birds are chirping, a cat and a monkey are perched on opposite walls and there is a steady drizzle of harsingar flowers from an over-grown creeper above me. There are jamun, guava, custard apple, lemon and mango trees. Children from the extended family are using a long bamboo stick with a woven basket on its top edge to catch fruit from the upper branches of the lemon tree. Invariably, the fruit falls to the ground and the children tease each other as the stick passes from hand to hand. In this moment, this could be a slice of heaven.

Islam Bo, an elderly woman from the village, updates me on how the community has coped with lockdown and pandemic for the past seven months.

“You go from home to home, Islam Bo, do you wear a mask?” I ask her. In response, she makes a gesture of brushing off my question.

“There is no corona here,” she says. “I keep a gamchha and wrap it around my face when I see policemen. They are the only people I fear when I go out to graze my goats.”

I show her a wad of surgical masks we have brought for everyone here. She takes a few for her son, who is trying to earn an income as a masseuse till his barber shop by the railway station begins to get customers again.

The private school in the village remains closed. Teachers’ salaries have been stopped as parents are unable to pay fees or afford mobile phones for online classes. Some teachers in the village school come from Kerala.

We are a country of internal migrants. The husbands of most women I meet here work in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and the Gulf countries.

“In Mumbai, I live in a small kholi and sell handkerchiefs on the footpath in town area. It’s a decent life,” shares Azeemul one afternoon when he has come to chat with my husband and me. “Sometimes, I go to the sea beach and feel free of all pain and worries. I don’t know if I will go back. I fear the police and the state. The pandemic has disrupted everything.”

Azeemul’s young sons have just returned after a futile visit to Gujarat, where they had gone to find work. These boys have grown up in the years that I have been visiting this home as my own. They are bright and strong, they are graduates, yet they are unable to clear entrance tests for the railway or police jobs they hope to get. They are defeated by the poor quality of education and training they have access to.

My husband is routinely frustrated by the multiple social, cultural and systemic barriers that come in the way when he tries to plan solutions in the community.

“Meet people where they are,” I remind him. “The onus is on us to understand the context of people before we try to influence the course of their lives. They know their possibilities better than us.”

We meet Shagufta, our neighbour, in her home. Shagufta’s husband, Wasim, has been an Uber driver in Delhi before he was left stranded by the lockdown. Unable to sustain his survival in the city, pay EMIs due on his car or send money home, Wasim has lived through a nightmare that refuses to end. The finance company’s representatives came to this home in the village to intimidate his wife for recovery of the loan. Shagufta has begun to spin thread for blankets to earn a basic sustenance.

As we reassure her that we will look at the loan papers and negotiate with recovery agents on her behalf, our daughters and Wasim’s two children check each other out. They are growing up in the same time and same place, yet their realities are a world apart from each other. Our children’s experiences are buffered by privilege, Shagufta’s children are vulnerable due to the lack of it.

Oppressive systems ultimately destroy all players, regardless of their roles within them. We live in a time when individuals across economic and political divides need to find the agency within ourselves to challenge the structure that subjugates us.

— The writer is an author and filmmaker

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