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By Dr. Dakshina Gammanpila
Memoir during pandemic
Returning to Delhi after 8 months in Europe we couldn’t have timed it better, or so I thought. Friends had written to us about how they missed us and that life was back to normal. Images of events and gatherings across the city peppered posts; a far cry from the lockdown restrictions in the UK.
I resisted the urge to pour cold water on their obvious enjoyment and ask why there was not a single mask in sight. And now I hold back from uttering a pointless school mamish ‘I told you so’, united as we are in our sadness as to what has befallen the nation. Pointless too as we had also witnessed lockdown fatigue in England last Summer. After months of restrictions, the population had emerged; there was an air of coming out to play. It too was short-lived. In the early days of our UK stay, we were stared at, a family of mask wearers? How positively (or should that read ‘negatively’?) quaint. Someone even asked if we were ‘Antifa’. A few weeks later as numbers started to rise across Britain, shops and restaurants began to insist on masking up, refusing entry to those who did not comply. We had entered a parallel universe. Having now experienced lockdown on two continents – the country of my childhood and my adopted home in India – there is much to say.
I along with my family was in Delhi during the March lockdown well into July. We were then in the UK as they were coming out of lockdown in the Summer, the restrictions in Autumn going back into lockdown, and the vaccine roll-out etc etc. The flight experience was surreal as we were given full PPE.
This time last year we had experienced 6 weeks of lockdown in Delhi. Adhering assiduously to the guidelines we did not leave the house for the following 8 weeks. When I say ‘did not leave’ I mean it; my children and I agreed to not step outside our gate for months. Not once. For me the phenomena were extraordinary, to be in isolated confinement, or so it felt, was seemingly unthinkable. However, as many of us have found, it was a small sacrifice for the safety of our family. We were fortunate to have the choice, a privilege we could not take for granted, for as we are all too aware the pandemic has forced millions to take desperate measures.
Wanting to be good community members in Delhi, we ‘stayed home, to stay safe’ as the UK slogan prompts. What would it be if ‘the foreigners’ (I loathe that term) flouted the rules? For us, strictly abiding by the guidance and the science also meant looking after our driver, a supremely kind and gentleman, and his family. We duly paid him to ‘stay home’ and keep his wife and children safe too. He has continued to be largely at home on full salary for a year and in that time he has worked a handful of days. Our motto to one another ‘You look after our family. We look after you and yours’. My husband volunteered as our resident hunter-gatherer: food, water, and sundry domestic supplies were his domain. They know the tall white guy (TWG), at our local store, bakery, and vegetable stand. Our decision, to continue to shop local, particularly during the lockdown, supporting our community who have supported us for the last 8 years. This year in enforced hibernation we are doing the same.
A month earlier, during that initial lockdown, I had written about the plight of daily wage workers and the mass exodus from the city. The scenes were heartwrenching. I knew it made for uncomfortable reading, seeing hundreds of thousands of fellow countrymen, women, and children flee urban poverty to return to the longed-for sanctuary of their villages, taking their hopes and possibly Covid with them. But reading about it is one thing, imagine having to do it.
Those scenes repeated themselves this year as workers, recalling being forgotten in our cities, preempted possible destitution, and fled. However, this appeared overshadowed by the fact that many more and different sections of society were being hit so hard by a relentless second wave. All too easy to forget the most vulnerable in these vulnerable times. We cannot.
This past weekend was Mother’s Day. I had a double dose (as with the vaccine) of the celebration this year – Mothering Sunday in England in mid-March and the more ubiquitous international Mother’s Day in May. We lived in Brazil for 6 years and adopted it as a family tradition; it being around my birthday, simply lengthened the celebrations. In an interview I conducted in March with the former regional head of UNWomen, who had lived and worked in Delhi for 5 years, we discussed how Covid-19 and lockdowns, in particular, had increasingly impacted women and mothers worldwide. Many women were doing the lion’s share of work, child care, homeschooling, and domestic chores (perhaps that should be the lioness’ share, as it is they who do the hunting and gathering in the pride).
Mother’s Day 2.0 and ‘Lockdown Birthday the Sequel’ were celebrated in our household but I spared much more than a passing thought for those women who help many mothers with their role in this, our Mother India. I have never had nannies – it is not part of my tradition- but I know many friends who do and hope in turn that they were looking after those women and their families who had helped them bring up their children. As we have seen all too starkly, to fail to so so has catastrophic consequences. If we don’t take care of each other the whole deck of cards tumbles down.
Celebration – A year unlike any other.
May is a special month in our family, a month we always look forward to and celebrate. However, to say it has been a mixed month for Delhi dwellers is an understatement. I was sent a message by one of my editor’s this week; we check in on each other daily, nothing to do with work, everything to do with friendship. It sets a rhythm and although we live near one another, at the moment it seems a million miles away. We discussed a news report by the BBC regarding miles, air miles to be exact, racked up by a couple and their guests who had allegedly chartered a private jet and held a wedding at 30,000 feet.
Where on earth (or sky) could that have been in the midst of this atrocious pandemic, I hear you ask? Why right here in India naturally. With so many millions of us inside under isolation, this audacious couple (I refrain from using another phrase, dear and delicate reader) decided to circumvent lockdown restrictions by circumnavigating the globe. Weddings per se are not prohibited as we know but the number of guests is. Not content with adhering to the prescribed 50 limit they more than tripled it, their 160 guests partying mid-air as evidenced by social media footage.
The Spicejet crew were reported to have been taken off the Boeing 737 flight.Well beyond the mile high club this couple flouted all guidelines, restrictions and sense. Who indeed was flying the plane? The couple and the assembled throng did not seem to care celebrating their nuptials as though a global pandemic was a figment of someone’s fevered imaginings. Many other weddings have been postponed or gone ahead with a fraction of the numbers. In the UK during lockdown, weddings did not take place, or if they did it was with a maximum of 15 guests in addition to the bride and groom.
However, I recall BBC reports of a wedding in London last year, again well beyond guest limits. The venue owner was heavily fined and the police called it ‘a foolish and flagrant breach’ of the Covid restrictions. Later in the year an ingenious UK based Indian origin couple pulled off the first drive-in wedding to accommodate both guests and Covid restrictions. Love in a time of Corona has made many of us more inventive.
As stark contrast to these midair and drive-by extravaganzas are the lockdown celebrations that many of us have experienced in this pandemic. In our family we have celebrated two Mothers Days, two wedding anniversaries and two birthdays all in the month of May, all in lockdown. My darling buds did all they could to make them a wonderful, memorable and intimate commemoration. For us they will be family memories to treasure. Everything has been downscaled but that did not detract from the sentiment behind it which was in abundance.
The final Friday in May my children had their last day of what has been a truncated and mutated school year. However despite the strange year their happiness was contagious (I use that term advisedly with a highly transmissible variant on the loose). We all felt a little lighter and my husband had an official day off as a nod to the Queen’s Birthday, although there was no accompanying Queen’s Birthday Party at the High Commissioner’s Residence as we have attended in years passed, cancelled, quite rightly, due to the pandemic for the second year running.
My son celebrated the end of Middle School online (again). The end of his boyhood years and firmly into adolescence. An entire year in remote school. Moving on to the next stage – my daughter’s celebration three years ago had been an evening event with orchestra performance and prizes, not this year. Trimmed, slimmed and paired down an online choir sang, speeches were given but it did not feel the same. How many transitions have been marked this way in the past year or more? Significant life events on screen: births, marriages and even deaths. Newborn grandchildren yet to meet, newly weds yet to congratulate, dearly departed yet to properly grieve for.
As if to underscore that sad fact I had a video call from a dear friend of mine, a German actor/director with whom I have worked in Delhi. She was calling from Berlin and was distraught as her beloved brother had passed away leaving his 11 year old daughter. We spoke about parenting and the importance of telling those you love that you love them. How our world and what is important has changed, perhaps forever. Deep and painful conversations for a tea time chat.
That same evening I heard that another friend had passed. I remember her calm, wise grace, her smile so welcome in Delhi, a city with a reputation throughout India for a form of confrontational aggression that at this time is far from the balm we crave. She had a quiet strength and an ability to listen and will be so terribly missed. How to mourn these losses, how to commemorate and celebrate a life fully and with meaning in these times of lockdown? I attended a memorial service via Zoom for a friend’s father and hoped that all conjoined in mourning would be able to seek solace in togetherness.
I was reminded of a design my daughter made for a commemorative medallion, a Golden Jubilee celebration of an organisation of which I had been President in its 50th year. It was of a lotus flower, an image both elegant and eloquent. She was inspired by what the lotus symbolizes. The power of how we can somehow survive the mud and the mire. The lotus blooms in spite of the filth in which it is rooted to somehow seek the sun. To thrive in toxicity is exactly what we need right here and now.
And from the sun we naturally turn to Mother Moon. It was Wesak, the biggest celebration in the Buddhist calendar, this past week to close the month that has given us the peaked second wave.. There was a lunar eclipse too and like the moon and the tides, life flows full cycle. Last year we went up onto the roof, it was my birthday and Wesak on the same day and the Super Flower Moon, a rare celestial phenomenon, shone down. Truly magnificent and no amount of planning could have harnessed the coincidence. Some celebrations in the sky regardless of lockdown defy the laws of man, others are a salient reminder of the enduring laws and beauty of Nature.
The unseasonal seasonal weather seemed to doff its hat last month as if we required a reminder of the need to stay inside. Shelter in place took on a new meaning as the rain lashed down and our hearts went out to those hardest hit in the aftermath of the cyclone. Come on! Plagues of locusts, earthquakes, and hurricanes weren’t enough in the first wave last year. Now, this? Surely someone is playing the ultimate practical joke. However, humor seems to be so very far away at present and my own innate sense of fun appears to have packed its bags and headed the hell out of dodge.
And yet we need to balance reality with a scintilla of levity to propel us through these tough times. And they are so very tough. Can we acknowledge how desperate life is currently for so many of us whilst also breathing a sigh of relief? With a plethora of negative emotions taking hold of our daily lives: fear, frustration, sadness, despair (the list goes on). There is also guilt; for not being an adequate friend, colleague, partner or parent. The guilt and co-existing gratitude for being vaccinated, or buffered or privileged to have some space to be able to ‘lockdown’. Guilt at feeling some slight positivity or having a glimmer of hope. Guilt for having the audacity and time to feel guilt as we ride this tidal wave.
To add to the insult I greeted the day following the torrential storm with water pouring down the walls. Well not too surprising in a rainstorm I hear you say, dear and patient reader. But the water was inside; in our living room to be exact, or should I say in our home-school/office; its epicentre the hallowed dining table. Not just damp but a gentle cascade from ceiling to floor, pooling on the ground and continuing throughout the day. Our very own ignominious indoor water feature.
In pre-Covid times I may have been able to see the funny side and perhaps added a rock, a couple of Koi, some foliage or a lotus bloom. I recall one year having a birthday lunch with two-storey scaffolding inside our home and a gargantuan stain caused by damp and rain. I told guests it was our Ode to Monsoon modern art exhibit. They didn’t raise an eyebrow; celebrations are celebrations after all. But this time not so much. We had neither the time nor the inclination to exchange banter; my husband engaged in back to back conference calls; the children on ZoomSchool and constant assessments; me writing, researching and acting as the deranged support system. Time (or comic timing) was not in abundance.
Calling in assistance seemed the last thing we wanted in Covid times and yet what choice did we have? I tried to remain positive about work being given to at least one person when so many have little or no income. But hadn’t we avoided going out and having anyone in the house for months? Wasn’t this the antithesis of lockdown? It did however constitute an emergency, especially with light fixtures and sockets en route. Water and electricity do not a healthy cocktail make.Someone was duly called and someone duly came.
However, although I was thankful I felt simultaneously paranoid. Truly an uncomfortable sensation, entirely counterintuitive: here was someone ready and willing to fix our problem and yet we had to take precautions as if he was the enemy. The children were dispatched to the furthest reaches of the house, doors closed, filters cranked, ventilation and sanitization imposed. I took a deep breath, exhaled and we opened the door to our masked saviour (or avenger depending on your perspective).
After much scratching of head and waving of a once clean cloth he said the leak was due to plant pots and root penetration on the terrace above, but in any event he could not do anything that day.I confess I was somewhat less than jovial. I was not convinced by his diagnosis. Having been a junior as part of the legal team on a building dispute in the High Court in London, my first apprenticeship helped me understand a little and I subsequently renovated a house in England when I was younger. I readjusted my (double) surgical mask and went outside to scan the scene in search of a second opinion.
Delhi and torrential rain, plumbing and drainage are never good bedfellows but in a cyclone induced rainstorm? Hmmm. An external pipe was the culprit I was certain. But seriously I’m a woman, what do I know? (Here dear reader I am trying to inject a modicum of humour and yes, yes I know sarcasm is the lowest form but hey, I am trying). We thanked him. He left.
Not to be thwarted and anxious for the mini waterfall to cease and desist, someone else came. Again the children were sent away, double masks donned, distancing employed. My husband and I like a tag team or mismatched double act. Who’s Laurel and who’s Hardy I pondered? This time the AC unit was the cause (seriously!) The water continued apace. I was starting to feel like Sherlock Holmes (or should that be Surelocked Homes?). He wiped the unit and prepared to leave.
My cavewoman instincts kicked in. There was no way I was running the risk of exposing my cubs to a potentially deadly virus and not getting the problem fixed. As he left I ventured a casual remark along the lines of whether he might care to look at the external pipes. He acquiesced. After some time he said that yes there was a blockage in the pipes leading to the waterwall. Ah! said I, refraining from a knowing look. It was best in the circumstances not to engage. He looked pretty pleased with himself, so I let him think it was his idea. He couldn’t see my smile anyway, lost as it was behind my mask.
Later that afternoon my other avatar as a well-being specialist took hold. In an attempt to resuscitate my fading humour I sat in on a laughter yoga session. I was not up to it but it seemed a light-hearted and ironic end to the day. We are never too old or too young to be a student or indeed to laugh. That evening, I wrote to a friend in London, one who shares a cheeky sense of humour. She had inquired whether we had weathered the cyclone. We did, I responded although we had a massive leak in the living room – to which I added the caveat that the leak in question was structurally induced, not incontinence!
To find a modicum of humor and madness in the mundane seems essential right now and we can be thankful that the numbers in Delhi are subsiding and hopefully, taking into account the inevitable tragic lag time the lives lost will decrease too. With the return of hope comes humor. Who would have thought that the visit of two maintenance guys would be a source of hindsight humor? Perhaps they were Laurel and Hardy after all….
Guardians of the Galaxy
During the first lockdown in 2020 Delhi, one of the greenest capital cities in the world (link), with a birdlife second only to Nairobi, underwent a transformation. As humans retreated the streets became cleaner, the skies less polluted, the feel altogether greener. The benefits were palpable. Our enforced hibernation meant that Nature reclaimed her stolen boundaries.
A year on and with the 49th World Environment Day last weekend has that impacted us as a species, or has the second wave knocked that feeling of oneness out of us?
The United Nations stipulated that World Environment Day was to encourage worldwide awareness and action in order to protect the planet and its environment. This was in the early 70s when we had a chance of really meaningful change in our ways of living. The theme for World Environment Day 2020 was apt, ‘Time for Nature,’ focussing on providing essential infrastructure to support life on Earth and human development, the global host was Colombia. Building on that, this year’s theme is Ecosystem Restoration. A quest now to save our environment by rewilding gardens, changing our eating habits, cleaning up rivers and coasts, and of course, replanting trees. Pakistan was the global host.
In our household, the world environment has its place largely front and center, as our entire reason for being in India is due to my husband’s work on and in climate change and green energy. Our 6 years in Brazil were the same, living and working in the country having the largest expense of Amazon rainforest, the lungs of the world. It was initially amusing and then extremely frustrating that somehow the environment is seen by many as an added extra; something that is looked at or cared about when the other so-called important ‘serious’ work is done. We are reaping the punishments of such folly and neglect. Simply speaking, our ways of living are not compatible with how every other species is programmed to survive and thrive. We have set things off balance and the pandemic has been a salient reminder of what happens when a perfect system is made fragile, then vulnerable. Such a situation spirals out of hand and out of mind.
Covid forced us all to take a long hard look in the global mirror and face facts. When we weren’t around, literally locked up to preserve or fight for survival, the wider world was somehow a better place. Wildlife appeared to rejoice at our absence. Elephants, leopards, big cats of all kinds, a whole host of animals, birds and reptiles venturing back into their territory. The juxtaposition struck home, images and footage of wild creatures in urban settings which had once been their habitat were viewed and liked on every continent.
Delhi, a megacity of 25 million interloping inhabitants, let us not forget, is a newly created city in the scheme of history. Yet somehow we were surprised to see animals recognize their ancient corridors as if to be reminded that humans are not the kings of the castle after all. We had an opportunity for stewardship of the planet and frankly, we blew it. As if we needed reminding Covid was a ticking time bomb, yet another disease that was zoonotic – beginning in animals and leaping to humans – as we encroach on their habitat or at least the beginning from SARS Cov 1 to here is questionable and still under severe international investigation. The lessons from bird flu, swine flu, and foot and mouth disease were clearly not enough to remind us to take heed. Our relationship with Nature has grown not only unhealthy but exploitative. If it was a marriage it would be an abusive one.
However, still the images which went viral of creatures in ‘our’ streets (link) were somehow pitched as entertainment, not as a reminder of how far we have overstepped our welcome. Sir David Attenborough, who had been largely non-political and uncontroversial in his correct condemnation of our ravaging behavior, and as he witnesses the vast irrevocable change on Earth, railed against the devastation we have wrought. Who better to berate us than the formidable chronicler over decades of our wonderful planet, the guru of Natural History.
At the other end of the spectrum Greta Thumberg leading the charge for young adults and teens, has stated categorically that the next generation, whom we have failed, will judge our action, and inaction, harshly (for more on the work – Link). History will record such failures. . In the second lockdown I wonder, do we still think about the planet and the connection of the disease that has brought wave upon wave of death, destitution, and disaster politically, socially and economically, to how we have chosen to live and extract what is around us?
Will we as a species be more mindful of the spaces that we inhabit? Or with the advent of the vaccine roll out and herd immunity and the re-return to ‘normal’, our own herd becomes once more immune to our plundering of the Earth’s resources and resume business as usual.
The truth is we humans have short memories, it is part of our DNA and ability to survive. We need to ask ourselves are we maintaining and increasing green spaces in our cities or not? Are we preserving wilderness or trying to tame it for our own gain and recreation? I fear the next generation has every reason to blame us for our neglect. Lockdown has provided an opportunity to rethink and reset. Let’s do better before it really is too late.
Bio – DR DAKSHINA GAMMANPILA
Dakshina is a writer, rights advocate, and well-being specialist. She trained as a criminal barrister working on cases of murder, rape, domestic violence, and child abuse. She has a Masters in Criminology and was granted a scholarship to pursue a PhD in forensic medicine, the doctor-patient relationship, and occupational cultures for which she was awarded honorary membership to the society of Police Surgeons and a lectured in Criminology and Jurisprudence at the University of Leeds Law Faculty.*All views and expression are subject to writer’s personal views and experiences, Delhi Diary is not responsible.