Pandemic: “An epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people (WHO)”; “[of a disease] existing in almost all of an area or in almost all of a group of people, animals, or plants (Cambridge English Dictionary)”; “occurring over a wide geographic area — such as multiple countries or continents — and typically affecting a significant proportion of the population (Merriam-Webster)”.
Because of its very nature, the story of the coronavirus pandemic has been one of large numbers. Of the millions of cases globally, recoveries, the million-plus deaths. In India’s migrant crisis, lost lives and livelihoods, and the many made vulnerable in untold ways — scale is an aspect that’s difficult to miss in this crisis.
People’s lived experiences of this pandemic and consequent lockdowns, however, are perhaps less a matter of scale. While certain common threads run through all our experiences of an epoch unlike any other in recent memory, there are differences too — in circumstances, responses, available resources.
Firstpost’s Oral History Project of the COVID-19 Crisis in India is an attempt to record these individual lived experiences. The project’s aim is to piece together a narrative of how the pandemic is playing out in people’s lives in India, through their recollection of a significant day for them. It will be an ongoing compendium, offering a deeply personal and granular account of living through the coronavirus crisis.
We’re launching the project with seven oral histories: a day in the lives of seven individuals. Some of these seven stories have overlapping themes — of being unable to see a parent in pain, of worrying about running afoul of lockdown laws, of the red tape that makes navigating a crisis even more stressful. Many of these stories are about wanting to make one’s way back home.
We begin with Suraj Kendre, 25, who works as a product executive at an agricultural firm. Suraj told our contributing writer Mallik Thatipalli of how he journeyed a distance of 220 km by truck, from Hyderabad to his village of Kandhar, in Nanded, when the lockdown was imposed. Suraj was one of the last people left at his Hyderabad PG when a truck driver from his village offered him a ride home. The catch: In the absence of other transport, Suraj would have to walk 21 km to the outskirts of the city, where the truck would pick him up. His litre-bottle of water ran out, as did his biscuits, but Suraj partly ran and partly walked the distance, until he located the driver after several tense hours of trying to contact him.
“I had never walked so much in my life and realised that jab jaan pe aati hai toh aadmi kuch bhi karta hai. Even if I had to walk 10 km more, I would’ve walked. I just wanted to go home. And at that time, the only important thing was to catch the vehicle. Nothing else mattered,” Suraj said.
You can read Suraj’s story here.
Suryasarathi Bhattacharya heard the story of Kiran Deshmukh, a sex worker from Sangli's Rajwada Chowk area and a national coordinator at NNSW. During relief and outreach efforts for migrant sex workers, Kiran came across Rekha (name changed) who seemed unwell and despondent. While Kiran thought she had reassured Rekha, she found out within a day that the latter had died by suicide. Then began the anxious process of attempting to take Rekha’s mortal remains home to her family in Karnataka.
“During the lockdown, the biggest share of mental stress was among the migrant sex workers who’d come from one state/region to another,” Kiran told Suryasarathi. “When they couldn’t go home, weren’t able reach their children, parents and other family members, their mental health was highly disturbed. Usually, it is this woman who bears the entire family’s expenses — children’s education, home loans, medical bills for ailing parents etc. With no work, there was no money at hand; they couldn’t transfer funds to their families.”
Read Kiran’s account here.
Anindya Roy, Mumbai-based corporate lawyer, drove to his hometown Kolkata on hearing the news of his father’s death three days after the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown was imposed. The inter-state journey was anything but easy, but Anindya could only think of his father.
“In a way, it was an experience which made me realise that when pushed to the brink, human beings can toughen up and do a lot of things that they otherwise wouldn’t,” he told Arshia Dhar.
Read Anindya’s story here.
Arshia recorded the oral history account of Piu Mondal, a student/social worker from Canning West Bengal. Piu is a trafficking survivor whose family experienced severe financial hardships during the lockdown months. Her father, a daily wage labourer, was particularly shattered at being unable to provide for his family. Matters came to a head when Piu’s neighbourhood was sealed after two residents tested COVID positive, on a day when there were no supplies at home. As her father — Piu’s staunchest support system after she was rescued from her traffickers — broke down, Piu felt had she not been home, his burden would have been lighter.
“My father could not come to terms with the fact such a day had arrived, when he was unable to feed his children even a morsel of rice. Seeing him, my mother broke down too… Every time I faltered or broke down, my father picked me up. So the moment I saw him give up, I too gave up and broke down internally, even though I did not express my thoughts explicitly. I could sense my mind getting cloudy and venturing into dark, unfamiliar corners that day.”
Piu’s oral history can be accessed here.
Om Prakash Dubey, 54, drove from Madla in Madhya Pradesh to Mumbai, Maharashtra, and back, ferrying three stranded German travellers during the lockdown. He thought having the requisite paperwork would make the journey smooth, but was in for a rude shock. While the journey to Mumbai had been achieved with (except for one incident) a minimum of fuss, on his way home, every checkpoint seemed like an insurmountable hurdle to Dubey as policemen refuted the validity of his papers. Finally, a journalist whose contact Dubey had received, helped smooth his path, speaking to the policemen on duty at each checkpoint over the phone to ensure he could pass.
Dubey told our contributing writer Shail Desai of that harrowing drive: “The night seemed endless, but by morning, I was home. I had been on the road for 68 hours and was exhausted with the effort. I called the journalist one last time — ‘Maine aapki neend kharab ki, maafi. Par aaj ke zamane main, koi pehechanne wala kisi ki madad nahin karta hai. Aur main to aap se kabhi mila bhi nahin hu. Lekin hamari mulakat zaroor hogi. Aapka aabhar (I’ve disturbed your sleep, sorry. In today’s time, people who know each other don’t help out. And I’ve never even met you. But we will definitely meet soon. Thank you for your help)’.”
Read Dubey’s story here.
Neha Ghosh, a schoolteacher in Kolkata, had to visit the hospital for her father’s chemotherapy session in the midst of lockdown, this May. She told Arshia Dhar of the experience:
“That is definitely one day in 2020 that I shall never forget, mostly because of the anxieties attached to it, with my mind telling me that ‘Oh, I am visiting a hospital, and there is a COVID ward right next to the building. What if Baba gets infected with the coronavirus? — Because the news constantly told us that the virus was fatal for individuals with comorbidities; that they may not survive.’ These were the thoughts playing in my mind.”
Read Neha’s story here.
Aryan Pasha, a Delhi-based lawyer, helped mount an expedition to Mt Friendship in Himachal Pradesh during the pandemic, for a group comprising 25 trans individuals. Pasha, India’s first transman to become a bodybuilding champion, wanted to bring the community together after witnessing, while out on relief efforts, how hard lockdown had hit trans folk.
“It’s a general perception among the cis gendered population that trans people are not capable. With this expedition, I wanted to give trans folks a ray of hope amid the pandemic, an opportunity to achieve something…” Aryan told Suryasarathi Bhattacharya. “The ones who reached the summit came back and narrated their experiences. They were in tears of joy and had such a sense of accomplishment because so many things flashed before their eyes — their families, friends, what people had told them.”
Read Aryan's story here.
Write to us with your COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown experiences for inclusion in the Oral History Project, at firstname.lastname@example.org