A Pandemic Year for Women: For a community library and its members, what is lost and found in a lockdown

This essay is from our International Women’s Day 2021 series, about women who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, professionals, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time — over this pandemic year.

Purnima Rao March 11, 2021 12:02:46 IST
A Pandemic Year for Women: For a community library and its members, what is lost and found in a lockdown

Illustration © Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost

EDITOR’S NOTE: A UN report from September 2020 on the economic toll of COVID-19 on women, notes that “the impacts of crises are never gender-neutral”. The report delves into the many ways women have been disproportionately affected, financially, by the ongoing pandemic: For instance, industries that predominantly employ women have been worst-affected; women’s paid labour and women-run businesses are hardest hit, and the gender poverty gap is projected to widen.

The impacts of the crisis, however, go far beyond the economic. News stories and surveys have looked at how women are bearing the brunt of childcare and household chores while they work full-time remotely. Isolation and confinement have meant that cases of violence against women are on the rise.

While the coronavirus pandemic and resultant lockdowns have been especially hard on women, there are also many stories of resilience, courage and hope that have emerged in these times.

On International Women's Day 2021, we launched a series called A Pandemic Year for Women. These essays have been written by women with varying experiences of the past year, who rose to the challenges of being mothers, artists, healthcare workers, community outreach professionals and entrepreneurs, students, and above all — individuals trying to make their way through an unprecedented time.

These first-hand accounts do not look away from the costs of the crisis, but they look beyond too: to the future, to what is possible, to what still remains to be (and must be) done.

Read the essays here on Firstpost, in ‘A Pandemic Year for Women’.

***

Sanju is 12-going-on-30. He walks into the library with a swagger that’s picked up from the older
boys. I find it hugely irritating, “Just be 12 na!” I mumble to myself. Sanju’s fulltime job is being
impressed with Sanju. He is consumed with his own brilliance: I’m so smart, I’m the best. I came
first in class, I’m the best. I can read in English, I’m the best.

He demands too much attention and is regularly surprised to discover that the rules also apply
to him. His high-pitched complaints about other library members are not endearing.

This kid requires energy. The kind that a decidedly single and childless-by-choice woman resents giving. But he loves the library and spends all his time there. He reads well, he teaches his younger siblings to submit perfect book reports and is always buzzing like a bee around this space.

At The Community Library Project (TCLP) in Delhi, all are welcome. No fee, no kagaz. Read, think, take books home, surf the internet, attend workshops, make art, make friends. I sometimes wonder if the library matters as much to me, as it does to him. I wonder if he thinks about it when he goes back home, as much as I do. Despite our differences, we have one thing in common — the library is our anchor.

On 25 March 2020 at 8 pm, everything is unmoored. A deadly plague has travelled around the world to reach us. Deadlier still is the lockdown imposed suddenly by the Indian state. We have barely four hours to prepare for a new reality. Alone in my south Delhi apartment, dread fills me from head to toe. I am afraid for myself and my elderly parents. My fridge is stocked. I call my domestic help and tell her not to come. And then I reconcile to waiting.

For thousands of families connected to our library, the next few days, weeks and months are a trainwreck and the losses pile up. Daily wage and job loss, evictions, and then the food runs out. Sanju’s school is shut. I don’t know it then but his family decides to leave the city like millions of other working class people. Not everyone at the library has the luxury to wait.

In the early days of the lockdown, my reality is virtual. If it weren’t for Twitter I wouldn’t know what’s happening outside the gated colony where I live. Op-eds, breaking news and the endless march. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. In what feels like forever, I have no real responsibilities. For now I have money in the bank and my landlord has said I could go six months without paying rent. I post this on Twitter, it goes viral — my landlord is a hero.

As the days get hotter, I turn on my AC and refresh.

Social media is flooded with photos and videos of working class families making the unbelievably long journey. How much panic does one need to feel to set out on foot, for thousands of kilometres? Imagine knowing that no one in this city, not even the people whose homes you built, waste you collected or deliveries you made, would look after you in a crisis.

May 2020. Many families from our library community are in deep distress. Children I’ve known for years are witnessing the unravelling of their lives. Everyone who works at TCLP receives an Excel sheet of phone numbers. We each call at least 100 members to check how they are. We try and answer their concerns as best as we can. Our librarians become hubs of information, we make videos about how to get tested for COVID-19 in order to get on a ‘shramik ’ train or bus. Others connect with food relief organisations to distribute food packets in our areas and visit ration offices to find answers. We find every public service collapsing.

When one has never known material adversity before, a crisis like this is paralysing.

But as a library worker who is part of a collective, there is immense power as well. Library leaders search for ways to continue reaching readers. TCLP has never wanted to go digital but for the first time, it begins exploring online library resources that work in poor internet areas and don’t hog expensive data packs. Public school kids are ‘back to learning’ with Zoom classes. Ours will probably lose the year. They can’t lose their library too. We try to get as many members onto WhatsApp channels to send them read-alouds thrice a week. It is called Duniya Sabki .

We are in October now. I have no idea where Sanju is or if he’s receiving any read-alouds. And I’m ashamed to say it’s because I haven’t thought about him in months. I’ve been swept up in the pandemic too. Family members have fallen sick with the virus, some seriously. Income streams have dried up. Every day, we hear more stories of despair from the library. I’m too scared to hit refresh on social media. My library colleagues discuss what to do with all this frustration. We decide to build a ‘Justice Doctrine’ — a chronicle of our community’s distress, made of snippets of conversations we’ve had with each and every member-family. It is not just a place to park our rage, it is a scathing testament of how our systems failed us.

I have taken up yoga but not baking sourdough. There is still food in my fridge and I have even confessed, with zero self-awareness, that “jhadoo-poncha is fun yaar, so great for the glutes”.

There’s another trip to the ration office. After November the free-ration scheme, meant for food-relief in the lockdown, will end. What will happen after that? The officials can’t answer. We are hurtling into the worst of the pandemic. November in Delhi is deadly. We hit an all-time high with new infections and deaths.

On 16 December 2020, I receive a Facebook message:

Hello
Mam
Give me reply
Just

I squint at the profile picture. No! It can’t be. Sanju! But not 12-going-on-30 Sanju. He looks like a proper teenager now. A bit more serious, with a more serious haircut and just the last dregs of boyishness on his face. He must be posing, pretending to be an older man, I think.

Hello
Mam
Give me reply just mam
Call
Karo
Mam

And just like that, as if the months of deadly lockdown never happened, I feel that old familiar annoyance rise up again.

Hello
Mama
Oh sorry
Mam
Purnima mam
Give me reply

I reply to him and apologise for not responding earlier. He asks if he can call me and another ‘mam’ sometime soon. I say, yes of course. I want to know how he is, where he is. But then he vanishes again and the call never comes.

Ten months after the lockdown began, TCLP’s libraries begin reopening. First at Khirki, then South Extension-Kotla and soon after, Gurgaon. As old members and new admissions begin streaming in, we exercise as much COVID-control as we can. Our programmes are running at half mast, we sanitise a lot and at any given time you can hear some adult saying, “Beta, mask theek se pehno... Naak par”.

Sanju messages once more. I figure he’s seen all the photos of the new libraries on social media.

How are you mam?

This time I ask him: Aap kahan ho? Aapka message dekh kar mai bahut khush hoon
Library kab khulegi maam?
Khul gayi hai. Aap kab aaoge?
Mai nahi aa sakta mam, gao me hoo.
Oh! Wapas kab aaoge?
Pataa nahi mam.

I don’t know what to say to that. The 10-second delay is characteristically too much for impatient Sanju.

Mam?
Aap theek ho mam?
Haan, mai theek hoon. Aapko miss karti hoon. Saare ma’am aur sirs aapko miss karte hain.
Ok mam.
Ab mjhe jana hai mam.
….

The cursor blinks as if someone is typing furiously on the other end. But the message, when it finally comes, from this boy whom I haven’t thought about in weeks, is short.

Take care mam.

Updated Date:

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