I am a PhD Student in India. I have been staying in a hostel in Mumbai for quite some time now. So long, that I call it my home. I am used to a group of young adults who are usually under-dressed; a little zoned out with exams, thesis or assignments and follows a particular routine. The routine comprises of timely breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner at the mess, online video games, statistical software and some catching up in between. They give me an illusion of a family. I have been used to them for so long that I was extremely disappointed when we were asked to evacuate hostel at a short notice amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Some of us decided not to leave. I decided to go to Thane, to my (would-be) sister-in-law’s family. Little did I know how enriching the experience would be to me!
I got a call from my brother and boudi (Bengali term for sister-in-law) on Saturday afternoon. I packed my bags in a hurry and left. The shops had already started closing in Mumbai. On my way to Thane, the UBER driver and I were having a conversation about the daily-wage workers and the kind of hit they were facing on a daily basis. There was fear, panic if you may, and for the daily wage workers there was an added sinking feeling of helplessness. An hour later, I reached Thane, washed my hands for 20 seconds and settled down. It was going to be a long stay – none of us knew for how long.
I am not sure if I have conveyed to them how grateful I am to them for having me over.
Just to give you some background. My parents are based in Kolkata. The apartment has four flats and six adults now – with an average age of over 70 years. My uncle does not keep well on a regular day. I was half scared that in case I carried any infection back home, it could be extremely dangerous for the people there.
Moreover, my brother is supposed to get married in 15 days. While we had to cancel every festivities and dinners, the registry was the least that they could do. It did not make sense for me to leave Mumbai and again come back. There could be state lockdowns (and it has been announced for Rajasthan, West Bengal, Delhi as I write this article) which would require me to stay put. Considering all these together, I decided to stay back in Mumbai.
When I was evacuating my room, I was thinking of the chances that these would be kept as quarantine facilities. Was my room comfortable enough for a person or two? Yes, it was spacious and I had kept all essentials in the room. It could be a stupid thing to worry about while evacuating – but I thought of myself as a quarantined person. I would want someplace clean and hygienic. Long story short, I ensured that things were in order, grabbed my backpack and left.
A few hours after I had reached Thane, I came across a government circular. The students who were in hostels could remain in hostels. I was feeling a mix of anger and disappointment. I knew how some of the students had rushed back home. They had to buy costly tickets, expose themselves to the crowd and people and now this!
My anger died down in a bit as I looked around me. There are seven adults and a six month old baby (our favourite) in the house. I was having regular interaction with a mixed group of people. There was good homemade food, regular chats, smiles and greetings. Something inside me broke. It felt like I was healing and at that point I did not know from what. I thought of my life in the hostel. Although it looked perfect when I was a part of the system, I could suddenly see the things that were missing. I missed the feeling of a family, a real family. Yes, I cook alone at times, do the dishes, clean the room and wash my clothes. Nothing comes remotely close to the emotions I was experiencing here. In the hostel, I have been in isolation for over two years now. Suddenly I had a family. It was the closest to home that I could come to. I have never met a family as perfect as the Prasad family. They decided to overlook my flaws, like a family does, and made me one of their own.
The adults, all of us, keep checking our phones. We are hooked on to worldometers.info. We keep checking the latest numbers, discussing how some countries are outperforming the others in terms of controlling the number of cases, the trends across countries and the future of India. The only point of solace comes from the innocence of the baby. Her name is Vaanya.
She is beautiful. (I know what you might be thinking, babies in general are beautiful). But she has gone a step ahead. When the golden ray of sun enters from the balcony, crawls inside the room and caresses her cheeks, her half-lit face and her innocent smile takes my mind to a land where everything is perfect. She makes me forget everything mundane – the work that remains to be done, the papers that need to be read, the mails that need to be answered – all gone in a moment. It’s just her and me. As I look into her beautiful and magical eyes, everything feels lighter. In a moment I am transported to a parallel universe, where there is no fear. In that world we are all safe, protected, happy and healthy. There is no food shortage, trauma, class division and social tension. We are all happy, content.
I have started helping around the house in limited capacity. I felt a little useful when I could help boudi in making dinner. I felt good when Vaanya decided to enjoy music with me. It felt amazing when my brother helped me install a software and showed me how to use it. After we grew up, we haven’t spent much time together. I keep forgetting how wonderful he is. In the evening we sang together. My brother and boudi are a power couple – he was playing his guitar, she was singing along. It was perfect. The Prasads (and Bhattacharya) have made me feel at home. Leaving my hostel was a good idea. We have been asked to stay indoors. It has opened new doors. Families have come closer.
To my friends who are far from their families: I love you. Keep in touch and don’t hesitate to call me up. I have been lucky here and I would love to spread some smile. Stay inside and keep washing your hands. We will fight this together. I hope the fear of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 ends soon. I hope we get back to our normal lives soon. You are not alone.