A Death, Indian Spring and a month in Kolkata: Life in the Times of Corona!
[This is NOT a blog post to tell you to travel or not during the worldwide breakout of Covid 19 pandemic. I am writing this from a lock-down house in Bangalore. This is just an account of how life panned out in past one month, with a series of events occurring while Corona Virus took the world on a spin at the background. This is a very personal account of lived experiences during Covid 19 outbreak in India and yet another learning phase of my blogging journey. At this time of pandemic crisis, I accept life as is and believe we will rise over the evil sooner or later! ]
It has been exactly a month since I posted anything on my blog.
It was quarter past three that night in Bangalore. I went to the reading room to put back a book on the library stack when I smelt a familiar concoction of betel leaves, red cemented floor and remnants of Gomti river of Comilla. Later in the morning, I learnt that my grandmother breathed her last in Bankura. I would not smell anything like that for the rest of my life. She was 92.
This is the first death I experienced in three decades of my existence. One that I anticipated and berated for the longest. I understand and acknowledge my privilege, that my family could earn and provide for a robust immunity and health care system that helped us sail through the majority of health hazards so far. That I would be over 30 when the first death in the family would occur.
The unusually eventful life of Mammam
Mammam’s journey started in Bangladesh and spanned over almost a century, in between which she traveled a great expanse of the subcontinent to give life another chance, to restart a family at Bankura post the fateful days of Indian partition.
She gave birth to five children, saw them grow up and reproduce 7 more children in turn, some of whom eventually migrated to different continents. Conventional education was a far-flung privilege for a woman at that time, hence Mammam mostly learnt and improvised from her life. Be it maintaining a manicured garden, or making fritters from Marigold leaf. Once, I went back to Bankura and found her with a mischief of white rats as pets and feeding them with Nokuldana after she was done with her chores at the Thakur Ghor.
She was a widow, a Brahmin at that and would not eat the Bengali staple of rice and fish, let alone meat. In fact, chicken was referred to as “ram pakhi” at home and was not cooked at the kitchen premises. A makeshift clay oven with coal would be set up near the garden for the Sunday Chicken Kosha in olden days. This and a lot of other prejudices weaned out over time, as life unfolded with its own unique requirements.
But Mammam cooked a Moong daal that I ate nowhere else. She would make sumptuous Bora, fritters, with Daal, coriander leaves, and little nothings with the skin of white gourd and poppy seeds. The Alu bhaja she would make can put McD fries to shame. That Alu Bhaja and hand made Ruti were our staple as evening Jolkhabar. So were Ruti and Milk for morning breakfast. I dreaded the latter. Mammam would add a Monda or a Chanar Jilipi when we would eat a bowl full of Muri. She would also pack up a tiffin box with boiled egg and Chattal Bakery cakes when we would start our journey back from Bankura to Kolkata.
Our house in Bankura was fully equipped with three succinct units to house the three sons and their family. The one through which you would enter, that flaunted a black and white floor, was home to Mammam, her Thakurghor and a relatively modern bathroom fitted with a commode, the newest addition to the building. We had four bathrooms in the building but they were not attached to the bedrooms. That is how Indian houses were built in days of yore.
Anyway, Bankura is nuanced while the world is big enough to play hide and seek for a prolonged period. Mammam lived alone and we all paid periodic visits to her, except for the eldest uncle and his family, who spent a lifetime in Bankura and reared children there till high school.
To stay or not to stay!
Once, I was offered a primary school teacher’s job at Parulia, a remote village in Bankura. This was the first job I landed at 19 and a government one. I was curious about the world beyond Kolkata, which I regard as my home supreme. The world beyond Kolkata where I aspired to thrive stretched to the other hemisphere of the earth and not Bankura. Yet, I accepted the job offer and paid a visit to Parulia, a small village off the Bankura town.
Back in the days, Parulia was bordering the red corridor, Jongol Mohol, where Maoist (?) insurgency loomed large. The school had a young male teacher waiting eagerly for a replacement to take a few days off to go back home. The headmaster was about to retire. There was a washroom sans rooftop. The school building did not have any ceiling fan. My urban soul shrieked and planned an escape route at the speed of a light-year.
Now I look back and recall the poignant eyes of those children, who looked at me and my fish engraved leather bag with lots of curiosity. Perhaps this Didioni will tell them stories and not exactly beat them up! The village women made an inquisitive gathering outside the school compound, not wearing any blouses, some carrying dried logs for fuel. I did not even speak with anyone lest they expect me to stay back. I pity the young me.
Why did I say yes to the school teacher’s job, to begin with? I was selfish and unaware of snatching someone else’s privilege. In fact, I did not know of my privileges and what is the best way to use them. Besides, I wrote the exam at a time when a toxic male (who proclaimed to be a lover) was stalking me with a paranoid passion. Worried, my father thought Bankura would be a safe haven.
But I digress.
This was the time I made frequent trips back in Bankura, and shared fond memories of lone-time with Mammam. This is when our private talks over Daler Bora would take place.
In the 80s, she just started to flaunt salt and pepper hair. She would say, “Biya khub kharap jinis kintu Biya korar lage.” Marriage is not the best thing to do but then it is a necessity. She would also say how she felt afraid after sundown, when Pamdada, her constant caregiver would take some time off to visit his family.
Long after, when I was working in New Delhi for a corporate bank, She once told me, “had you taken up the school teacher’s job, you would have stayed back in Bankura and could have married a bank manager.” One of her sons was a bank manager. She was very proud of the profession. However, in that statement, she longed for a coveted companionship, which I lamented for not being able to provide.
My Bankura trips were a regular during schooldays, especially for Durgapuja, but was becoming sparse with time. 7 days in Kolkata was all I had when I joined the office elsewhere. To take two days from it to visit Bankura felt heavy at certain times, I would not lie.
It was only when I decided to become a digital nomad, I visited Bankura for two weeks. But Mammam was not very well then, having been to ICU already. She came back with renewed zeal for life, rejoiced at her grandchild’s wedding celebration later that year, sang countless folklore before putting a final curtain to a living era.
The Weep of the Loss
I went back to Bankura for her Shraddha. So did the family from everywhere around the world. Looking at the brass pitcher she brought home during her wedding, I wondered how many of her stories were buried unheard?
I am not sure how to describe the procedure of Shraddha. A series of rituals are performed over 11 days, with specific diet and lifestyle choices. Take, for example, cooking and eating Hobishyi. Wearing knot-free clothing. Not shaving and clipping nails untill the day of the Shraddha. New clothes for Ghat Kaj.
It is a period of grief. With an army for a family, the grief period is also cumbersome, if not managed properly. This is where our mind plays the trick. With the endless chores and conversations and remembrances and gentle flow of dopamine, it makes grief somewhat bearable and shared. You know for every tear drop you will have a shoulder to fall back on!
All those days, I stayed in Bankura. I never felt Mammam’s absence. The house was full of people and relatives. The day before we left, her picture in a wooden frame was mounted on the wall, with a Rajnigandha garland. It felt surreal.
I am not sure how I would feel going back to Bankura now, to an empty house heavily filled with her memory. I am overwhelmed for sure, but my quota of grief is awaiting in the empty house. I being an escape artist will stall it as far as I can…
The Fear of Death
Death is sombre once she is done ravaging. However, you are shaken and unnerved when she is imminent. Take for example, the Delhi Riots of February 2020 which occurred simultaneously with the days of performing Mammam’s last rites.
The endless vulgar show of people killing people and political whataboutery and well spelt communal poison smeared our sky. We could not look through the smoke beyond which Corona-virus was flying!
I remember sitting in Bankura and engaging in political debates. You know, the usual rants on “Muslims did this during partition and meek defends to bring back sanity that Muslims during partition are now deceased” of a Hindu Bengali households that survived partition. That constantly needed reminding of the greatest Bengali of all, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman defended his land which spoke Bangla, a common language spoken in West Bengal, India and neighboring Bangladesh and connects communities beyond borders. It has been a successful agent of camaraderie.
These days, I do not know what triggers me more, queries aimed at probing about my child planning or political statements that lingers a sense of communal divide.
Corona was a benign meme entertainment even a couple of weeks back. The Bengalis survive on Bhagar meat, corona can be digested. Corona means Korona (don’t do it, often told with sexual innuendos). Corona everywhere, providing fun. Some tried to propagate the vegan or vegetarianism citing Wuhan wet market.
The Curious Case of Italy
My brother lives and studies in Italy. Milan to be specific. He left before Covid staged a destructive spell in Italy. Out of blue, he received an email stating university is closed. Bhai was petrified even when he was in Bankura, fearing of immediate backlash to the outstation students. I recall telling him to go back before they close borders, that he is an Indian with stronger immunity, and more meme material translated into colloquial. Italy was distant and corona was not a worry.
Over the next few days, we wrapped up remnants of our lives in Bankura, and returned back to Kolkata. The state bus was jam-packed. Trains were usual, running out of reserved seats on a Monday. Winter was in its receding phase with a mellow nip in the air early morning. I packed a stud of Bankura horses, planning to shoot them wherever I go next…
Living Basanto Season in Kolkata
Indian spring is a short-lived, yet a stunningly vivid season. At the Red Corridor, Palash trees hoist a bright red blooming flag over its branches. In Bengaluru, it is Jacaranda bloom. I was eager to visit Purulia, a rather understated destination from the region with my newly bought drone and shoot its scenic horizon stretching towards the dome of the world, dotted with Palash bloom
My itinerary was packed with multiple travel plans though. I was about to hop on to a train for Orchha. Thailand and Myanmar were calling me to revisit. I was also researching for a vacation in Bali. One of the trips to Nepal was cancelled beforehand, a conference promoted by India, Nepal and China, with the latter stepping back since the Wuhan wet market incident hit the international headlines. With the Nepal travel plan standing as cancelled, I was not worried though. After back to back travels of 2019 as a full-time travel blogger, I wanted to slow down to survive the inexplicable travel fatigue. The deep crow’s feet under my eyes and stress of churning out newer content on the blog were very much real.
In short, I wanted to rest and recover. Travel was becoming a chore and another opportunity for generating content. Content is all fine and dandy but the real joy in traveling has to be larger than that, no?
In my mind, I had plans to slow down for the first quarter of 2020.
Slowing down is perfect when I am in Kolkata. I walk on her streets and find new stories to tell every damn day! With Dol Utsab zeroing in, it was just perfect!
Indian spring is also a season known to ignite romance. A number of our friends decided to tie the nuptial knot, adhering to what the Shastras prescribed or not.
Weddings in Bengal are not as high pitched as that of Punjab or generally speaking north India. However, they are super fun if you are a foodie. The Rosogollas and sombre addition of potato in the Mutton Kosha will evoke sheer nostalgia. Banana leaf wrapped Paturi will house the freshest of Calcutta Bhetki, which is more of an emotion than just another fish!
The bride will adorn the choicest of antique jewelry from her grandmother’s trousseau. Once the celebrations are over, the night will be spent with Rabindranath’s music (among other modern musicians). Cherry on the cake, S also returned Kolkata and we fell in love with the city, in the city all over again, as we always do while in Kolkata!
Series of activities and events occupied my mind to an extent that Corona could not penetrate. Dopamine is more effective than an N 95 mask I suppose! I came across plenty of red signs, with Bhai’s friends frantically calling, Bhai’s scholarship money being upended, Indian students returning and subsequent indecisiveness regarding what’s next in general. Our friends flying back to the USA had some flights cancelled. Some worried if they would be allowed back entry. One of them said airport peeps were more worried if he carried back some rice and pulses instead of Corona!
Apart from Italy, things seemed to be fine. India was largely Corona free. Travel blogger friends were talking about taking domestic trips. Some opined differently though and a Whatsapp group was busy weighing pro and cons till a sudden travel advisory came in from GOI!
The advisory stated to curb all non-essential international travels. It spoke about the self-quarantine period too. A friend in advanced pregnancy was returning from KSA, with her young child and family. I saw her panicking with the limited time frame and that’s when realization dawned upon, the menace is at the threshold!
Media, as usual, was busy propagating fake news, fear-mongering and panic peddling. I stopped consuming news from newspapers since the rise of right-wing fanatics last year. It takes a lofty toll on my mental health. Usually, I earn my daily bout of world knowledge from social media which I shied away from for the past month for FOMO. After social media, I usually read NDTV and independent print media.
Social media algorithm was picking up either Corona meme or corona panicking stuff for me. Also, some racial slur directed towards people with Mongoloid facial features. Travel bloggers spoke at large with traffic halved and business loss, which had alarmingly translated to real life! From the last Mela (fair) of the season, to exploring old dingy lanes of North Kolkata, Corona was whispered and laughed at, and used as jives. We ate at a delectable Chinese eatery named Tung Nam and spoke about it on Instagram while some pointed out China Town of Kolkata has been deserted. For a Kolkata born, this is unthinkable!
Kolkata remained immune for a larger part of the Corona outbreak in India, with Delhi, Maharashtra, Jaipur, Kerala bearing the major burnt of it in the initial days. Eventually, state government announced 2 weeks closure for school and colleges, just two days before I left the city. Do note, this is also the time of board exam, a deciding factor of a large number of students’ career.
“Your eyes only sees what your mind knows.” The last pandemic we read about in literature was cholera, and that whizzed past our generation through mere mention in literary classics. It takes a while to comprehend the gravity of the situation. Nincompoops were actually planning for a quick gateway with the new found leaves. More people moved. More people took it lightly. More people were ill-informed. History will remember certain section of mediahouses for being abjectly irresponsible for propagating lies and misinformation during trying times of Corona Outbreak. Because, fear sells more than anything, even sex arguably!
S was back in Bangalore. He was also given an option to work from home. It was time for me to come back.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”
Kolkata is a beautiful melancholic city which does not let me be at rest even for a moment. I often say, had I not been a citizen of nowhere, I would have written volumes on Kolkata and only Kolkata. The invisible umbilical cord that binds me to Calcutta can bear unprecedented pressure and remains intact. I feel the pain all the more when I decide to leave the city and return to Bangalore. It is like leaving a rave party midway, switching off lights while I was halfway through a book at the wee hours, snatching my History paper before I was done writing.
I can never be as happy in Bangalore. I do not have any connection with the city. *or so I thought!*
One fine day, I woke up, packed my stuff, kept some at home fearing overweight luggae and reached Dumdum airport. Two days prior to confirmed Covid 19 case in Kolkata. Dumdum Airport had less than usual rush, with masked humans roaming around everywhere. Biswa Bangla being my favourite shop at the airport, I took shelter in it!
The half empty flight was flying to Kochi with a stop in Bangalore. Flights to Bangalore, India’s answer to Silicon valley, never leave life that. At least, I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime.
Reaching Bangalore airport, I proceeded towards the luggage belt. A handful of men and women joined me at 6 pm. The luggage belt is huge and snakes up two pillars. I noticed for the first time. Outside the airport, taxi vendors were standing and asking if I want a drop. So did the Vayu Vajra bus conductor. Bangalore airport is surrounded by beautiful open space dotted with shopping and eating houses. That day, it was just a dark blot on earth with shops closed with shutters. My heart wrenched looking at the Bangalore airport. A city that I have called home for all these years, looked still and lifeless. It eerily reminded me of the poem, “Oh rascal children of Gaza…”
I longed to get stuck in the usual Bangalore traffic. I looked out of the window to find the bustling pub culture. The cute cafes at the nook and corner of every Bangalore neighborhood. But Bangalore was in a deep slumber. No wonder they are calling Covid 19 a bio chemical weapon. It ripped apart a vibrant Indian metropolis’s soul and stole the sheen!
Hope is a thing with feathers
At this moment, I am sitting at home, practicing social distance, consuming a lot more than usual social media content and working on fixing the blog and writing new content, which I hope will be helpful for my readers, once the pandemic has surpassed. I find it disturbing to comment on when and how it will be over but my heart is firm on believing it would sooner or later! So be it.
As of today, I have no plans to travel anywhere. I am not promoting travel content either. My traffic is not badly hit since I emphasis on culture a lot. Apparently, people look up for cultural identity even when a pandemic is imminent, or so does the Google search console tell me. We will be patient. We will be working from home, be gentle, be kind and introspect what went wrong that mother nature wanted to usher such a drastic humbling lesson on mankind!
- Am I traveling anywhere during the outbreak of Corona Virus?: No
- Am I practicing social distancing?: Yes
- What do I plan on doing everyday in Bangalore during Corona Virus Outbreak?
I will stay at home and write about my previous travel experiences. I will wash hands frequently. I will sing Baby shark for 20 seconds while doing so. I will consume less of social media since it is overbearing my mind. I can cook at home hence will stop going out. I will be patient with my neighbors and try to accommodate with their needs. I will NOT empty grocery store shelves. Everyone needs that piece of hand sanitizer, not just me. I will DIY hand sanitizer if need be. I will buy from local vendors as much as I can since small businesses are going bear the maximum burnt of this crisis.
In solidarity with everyone in the country and the world, we will do this together and we shall emerge victorious!
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read the disclosure post. If you have liked the article, you may support it by buying using these links without any extra cost to you.