When everyone is asked to stay home, what happens to people who call the rough streets, and spaces under the flyovers their ‘home’? How will they survive ? What will they eat?
At this moment, none of us know what is the full price we will pay for the Coronavirus pandemic. Will we lose someone we love to this virus? When would we emerge from this? Months, a year?
Today many of us are in an unprecedented, uncertain situation. We find ourselves unable to travel to and care for, for our senior citizen parents, siblings or even spouses in some cases, as interstate transport shuts down, domestic flights are grounded, and all international flights already in suspension since Sunday past.
With the announcement of a nation-wide lockdown for a 21-day period, life seems all the more surreal. Is life imitating a sci-fi movie, one that is set in a dystopian landscape with a deadly strain of virus out to get us all?
Some of us are more privileged than others. And yet, there isn’t a single one of us that is not touched in some way or the other, in a greater or lesser magnitude, by what is happening around us.
Every day, I think whether my 80-plus, legally-blind mother is going to survive this. I think about jobs — will my husband still hold on to his? We came to India in January and there’s no knowing when we would be able to go back to Dublin, Ireland where my husband works for an IT multinational. He tells me that everything will be fine, but my mind wanders to dark places.
I worry for my job prospects too. Moving to the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom a year-and-a-half-ago meant that I moved on a stamp (a sort of a visa) that made it incredibly difficult for me to seek and find employment. The restrictions on the stamp changed last year, however, if the economy is plunged into a recession, I worry there will be an employment freeze on new recruitments and it will make job hunting a particularly challenging process.
I think of the rickshaw-wallahs whose rides I used to book every day via the OLA app. Until the lockdown in Vadodara happened. How much business would they lose? How would they run their households? Would there be something for them? A package from the government that helps them tide over these difficult times?
On my way back home after buying some groceries, I see an old couple, both dressed in white, out in the open, cooking something over a fire. I have never seen them before. I hand them a few things from our groceries, and go home with a very restless mind. If you live or have lived in India at some point, you make an uneasy peace with the fact that you will always see people living on the streets, on railway stations, under flyovers, on footpaths. But when everyone is asked to stay home and isolate themselves, what happens to people who call the rough streets, and spaces under the flyovers their ‘home’?
I try reading. I go back to my favourite Rebecca. I have read and reread this 1938 classic by Daphne du Maurier almost twenty times. It brings me a strange sense of escape and pleasure. Perhaps a vicarious one. Every time I read it, I feel I am transported to Manderley — the beautiful, fictitious English estate set in southern England, that has found an iconic place in English literature.
And yet this time, I can barely read. I feel anxious and unsettled.
I check the many updates and news about the developing situation in India, the growing number of positive cases confirmed, the videos put up by doctors, police officers and healthcare staff on Facebook.
There’s nothing that prepares you for this. You have to make your peace. You have to, in these incredibly long afternoons and evenings, delve into what you really want to do when life gets back to normal. You have to remember how vulnerable you felt, what you lost, what other people lost, the privilege you hold, the privilege of others, the fate of the underprivileged in our country and consider what your experiences have taught you. If you have experienced first hand the inefficiency or efficiency of the Indian state or system in these trying times, you also have to decide what you want to do about that in your lifetime.
Can you make a difference, even if it is in a small way? Right now, and later as well?
I wish I could have written about how beautiful the birdsong sounds, breaking the eerie silence of these worrisome afternoons and evenings. But if you have an ageing parent, and if you cannot unsee what you have seen – people still out on the streets, sleeping and living rough, with children in tow, the panic buying, the absence of an assured minimum wage for a large part of our population in times like these, the state of our public hospitals and healthcare, the glaring disparity between the haves and have-nots and how this pandemic is going to affect those who earn a daily wage, even the sweetest sounds of the koels and the parakeets may seem like a brief interlude in an enduring nightmare.
And when we wake from this sleepless sleep, who will we be? Will we still be ourselves?
Prerna Shah has worked as a journalist, content and communications professional and she blogs here.