Dispatches from the present
Earlier this month, Outlook magazine released a cover that read, in large letters: MISSING … Government of India. For several weeks the media had been reporting terrifying numbers from India’s second wave of coronavirus, and Twitter had, at the government’s request, deleted several tweets criticizing Modi’s approach to the pandemic (which came to include obscuring or ignoring emergencies and death counts, blaming the people for the virus’s spread, engaging in weird hack cures like mass steam inhalation events, seizing state healthcare apparatus and diverting public funds to vanity projects).
In late April, I started seeing dozens of mutual aid groups all over the country providing volunteer services and sharing resource lists on Instagram: exact locations and contact details for available beds, blood, oxygen, Remdesivir, meal donations, ambulances and deliveries. PPE kits spread quickly, and volunteer teams assembled to verify every source, to curate all the services cropping up every hour onto new websites or spreadsheets, or to create a running list of all the organizations collecting donations. One group created a bot that continued to receive information about available services and answered questions with information in real time.
Partly because I was in a deep quarantine stupor and needed something important to focus on, and partly because it wasn’t opinions circulating but practical information, I became obsessed with doing my part. Unlike a lot of online activism I engage in, I was more inspired than overwhelmed by the magnitude and pace of what I was witnessing. I spent most of my time on the internet looking for the people who were driving strangers to hospitals or delivering food or refilled oxygen tanks around their city. Oxygen beds in Calcutta; ambulance after ambulance in Delhi; free medical consultants in Assam. Specific services for scheduled castes, to whom many of the volunteer services wouldn’t apply, for funeral workers who are grotesquely overworked and rarely have protection, for migrant workers who not only experience disproportionate rates of infection but are also stranded under lockdown far away from home, for “COVID orphans” who run the risk of being illegally adopted and trafficked, for newly orphaned pets.
Instead of making me feel hopeless like it often does to have any kind of conscience on social media, these activities gave me a sharp sense of focus and sanity that was otherwise missing; it was a daily reminder that I exist in the world. Often I saw requests updated with the note that the patient had got what they needed, and it was a true marvel to see this mess of a system apparently sometimes working.
Then my grandfather got sick. He would hack and cough late into the night while my mother lay awake certain he would suffocate. He has never kept water by his bedside, and he refused to change his routine now; so every time he couldn’t bear it any longer, he would find his cane and take several minutes to walk twenty paces to the dining table, where his water has always been kept. His blood test showed some infection. He was feverish and had no appetite.
It wasn’t COVID, so I couldn’t fit my feelings of panic neatly into the public experience. Still, I went back over all the emergency notices and phone numbers I’d so frantically shared. I’d wanted so badly to be useful in a moment when most things felt so pointless, all the pain and fear and the whole failure of the healthcare system. But they were no longer useful to me. With cities on strict lockdown and hospitals overflowing, COVID looms over every doctor’s visit or test or medication. I didn’t know how my family had been so lucky this far, but every setback made me think our debts would be collected any moment.
A month ago, my grandmother had a series of seizures and we spent three days in the hospital, our first visit there since the pandemic started. I was certain she would die, and when she didn’t I began writing in a gratitude journal for the first time. Grateful for Ammamma’s and Thatha’s health. I didn’t really know what I was doing—my entries were vague, sporadic and repetitive—but I was so paranoid about our good fortune that I was afraid to stop. Thankful for her recovery, for her being able to water her plants on her own. After my grandfather got sick too, I suddenly lost my stamina for investing in other people’s urgent problems, and in a system I realized I would never actually trust. I became too nervous to read anything on Twitter or Instagram, but I did return to my journal, more urgently. I still had thank yous but mostly it was just please—please get us through this nightmare, please don’t make them have to see the inside of a hospital ever again, please give them peace.
I’ve always found prayer journals silly: writing out the same thing every day always seemed to be the opposite of what writing was supposed to be for, which was seeking new thoughts and ideas and feelings. But when it feels like something terrible is looming so near at hand, the repetitiveness can be comforting; in this case, just as the social media volunteering had done before, it helps me stay focused.
Incantations are central in Hinduism; repetition is what brings peace. Give me a few more years with them, then let them go without pain and in their home. Give me the strength to make them happy. Help me be nicer to my mother. My mother calls quarantine life “waiting mode,” since it’s impossible to plan ahead, to imagine your life even six months or a year from now. When it’s easy and happy to visualize the future, “thoughts and prayers” can seem like a waste of time, since there is so much to do that is real and tangible. But in waiting mode, my thoughts become focused, hyper-conscious. Please, I’ll be good. This attentiveness lends every unpredictable day a sense of its own completeness. In a way, the meditative habits I developed in waiting mode were not so different from those that allowed me to keep track of endless incoming contact numbers and support requests—both leave no room for panic, which I suppose is the point. Panic is self-centered, and eventually it unravels you, leaving you stuck in the perpetual crisis of the present and robbing you of the completeness of each day. Waiting mode, as my mother reminds me, is now semi-permanent, indefinite—there is no point in waiting for anything we can do now.
Photo credit: Ganesh Dhamodkar (CC / BY 4.o)