Kolkata Under Covid: Reflections on a Visit Home
Most days I get to speak with my mother, who is now 86 years old, twice a day. We talk briefly on the phone, me in my home in the US and she in Kolkata, India, where she lives with two caregivers. Normally, I go home twice a year to visit her. But since the beginning of 2020, every night I have gone to bed thinking of her and other loved ones in India, holding them close to my heart, not sure what tomorrow might bring. While transnational caregiving is hard during normal times, as many of us know, it gained a totally new dimension when India declared a sudden lockdown on March 25, 2020, and everything came to a standstill in this complex country without any preparation. This meant all the support services—physical therapy, massage, health monitoring services—as well as the daily visits my mother had received from relatives and friends, were abruptly halted. This generated significant and unprecedented disruptions in everyday life activities, habits, and certainties for my mother and everyone in India. The housing colony where she lives became a fortress, with strict monitoring of essential service providers to the residents. My mother’s life became confined to her bed and bedroom, with access to a spacious balcony to watch the world pass by, a world which too had gone eerily silent. But nature took no heed of this lockdown imposed on humans and decided to display her beauty with added vigor in gorgeous, vibrant colors. The magnificent jacaranda tree close to my mother’s balcony bloomed with lovely purple-blue flowers in summer and autumn against the azure blue skies, and Ma (“mother” in Bangla) reported watching many more shalik (sparrow), parrots, and pigeons fly past or visit her verandah in search of food. Even the crows got bolder and swooped closer to her, and they even entered her bedroom on occasion.
Roses and dianthus at the entrance of our apartment in Kolkata, India. Photo by Manashi Ray.
This brief essay is a personal narrative of my visit to Kolkata from mid-November 2020 to February 2021. I recount the personal lives of folks unfolding within our home in response to the macro environment of the pandemic in the period before the ferocious second tidal wave of coronavirus hit India, and New Delhi in particular, on April 18, 2021 when the world witnessed breathless Indians dying, unable to find a hospital bed or oxygen. Although the adverse turn of events left me and my family disoriented about our present and the future, overwhelmed and scared, the unusual circumstances also provided opportunities to find new sense and meaning in constructing personal experiences, some of which I share here.
After negotiating with the administration at my university, I obtained special permission to leave for India at the start of Thanksgiving break and to return in mid-February 2021. I recall vividly my joy the day the courteous customer service representative confirmed the purchase of Emirates air tickets for the flight that was going to take me home. After seven or eight months working in isolation within the confines of my apartment and office, overseas travel seemed like a fleeting glimpse of normalcy. I longed to put myself out there, to see what was happening in the world. What’s more, winter is the best time in Kolkata, and the 2020-21 winter was even lovelier because of the sudden improvement in the air quality there.
An empty Terminal 3 in Dubai International Airport, November 2020. Photo by Manashi Ray.
The Emirates flight was unlike any I had taken in my life. All together we might have been five or six passengers in business class on this long journey of 27 hours, with a seven-hour stopover in Dubai. To qualify for this travel from one “hotspot” country to another, leaping across three time zones, it was mandatory to have two negative COVID-19 PCR tests within a 96-hour window of travel time. The preflight preparation was onerous: purchasing the right kind of facemask, plastic glasses, or face shields, bottles of hand sanitizer and wipes, clothing that covered up. In my lifetime, both Delta and Emirates planes have never seemed so squeaky clean, and to my surprise on the Emirates flight I heard the flight crew announce to the passengers when the aircraft was last cleaned and the details of how the aircraft had been sanitized according to safety rules for our safe travel, which I thought was super nice. The airline’s preparedness, thought, and care was evident every step of the way, from flight attendants coming only once or twice to deliver our prepackaged meals in plastic covers, blocking middle seats and placing plexiglass where necessary, to spotless cleanliness in the bathrooms with the freshest smelling lavender foaming soap and continuous fresh airflow within the cabin. Truly, it was comforting to be part of this collective informed safety culture practiced by all—the flight crew, guests, baggage handlers, cleaning crew, TSA personnel, etc.—and to know that everyone was helping to keep everyone else safe on this long international flight.
But nothing had prepared me for the emptiness and silence of Terminal 3 in Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest airport in terms of international passenger traffic. I love this airport at many levels and pass through it twice a year. The first sight that hit me on reaching Terminal 3 in November 2020 was the few and far between passengers walking through gleaming glass and steel structures shaped like airplane wings, which cover an area of 18,440,000 sq feet of space. Except for a few, the 180 check-in desks were abandoned, and the famous duty-free shops of Le Clos, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Chanel and the counters which sold everything from perfume, wine and spirits, women’s accessories, gold jewelry, dates, luggage, and books to chocolate and electronics were empty.The heaven for shoppers worldwide had disappeared into a black hole for the unknown future. With pain and grief, I tried to fathom the loss of business, here where shopping used to be a serious activity for travelers who connected to 260 destinations in the East and West. I recall longing for the electrifying vibrancy and hub of humanity in this place where I have had incredible conversations with fellow travelers, from countries I had known little about, and so many have left lasting impressions and warmed my heart. This time I met no one transiting through Dubai.
On reaching home, I quarantined for 14 days in my bedroom. On those bright winter mornings, sunbeams shone through the mammoth windows into my room and onto my bed, waking me up to a gorgeous, cheerful sight—without any disturbances from honking vehicles—and a hot cup of elaich chai (cardamom tea) and nankhatai (Indian shortbread biscuits) from the local bakery. Drinking chai is an integral part of my family’s daily ritual, and I could whiff the smell of its warm, spicy aroma even before the tray was placed at my bedroom door. Later, I would share this morning indulgence with Ma on her verandah before taking on the day. I took to writing a journal during my confinement, reading peacefully, making edits to forthcoming publications, conversing endlessly with cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends and watching the gardener prepare the balcony garden for winter flowers with extra TLC. As ironic and brutal as it might sound, I was having a splendid pandemic. In Kolkata, unlike in the US, I started to perceive confinement as a rare privilege for personal reflection, meditation, and spending many happy hours with Ma—playing board games in the evenings, reading together her favorite authors and poets, listening to music, watching T20 series of cricket matches and online performances, and having lengthy, meaningful conversations with her because we had no visitors during my twelve-week stay.
Among all the changes in India during the pandemic, the transition to using contactless digital payments for purchases and services small and big has been notable and dramatic in the day-to-day functioning of our household. I am led to believe the transition is widespread across India. So, the fear of coronavirus infection finally accomplished what India’s shock demonetization of 2016 failed to do. The fear of touching “hard cash”—often mistakenly perceived as the ultimate carrier of the virus—and concerns over hygiene and social distancing were palpable among all our service providers, from the maids to the gardener, the groceries, vegetable, meat, and milk vendors, the driver, the cleaner, the delivery people from Amazon or Zamato or Swiggy (Indian food delivery companies), to the doctor, home banking personnel, and others. Whatever happened to Indians’ traditional attachment to hard currency? The most popular forms of digital payment were Paytm and Google Pay for anyone with Android phones, tablets, or watches. I was both pleasantly surprised and amazed observing the ease with which such transactions were performed by folks who were unlettered or who might not have completed school. The virus has definitely quickened the pace of digital adoption in India. For me as a sociologist, this surely was an indicator of the democratization of power in which the small grocer or general store owner, or any type of service provider, got a tiny economic boost. The empowerment from cashless payments was heartening. It has made everyone rethink, regardless of their social and economic location, how they will shop and pay in the future.
Marigold and chrysanthemum at our apartment in Kolkata, India. Photo by Manashi Ray
In this brief reprieve, I was able to see the clear blue skies striated with the green flash of flying parrots and hear sounds I had long forgotten, like the chirping of crickets at night and the low, sweet coo of the solitary spotted dove (ghoo ghoo pakhi) on the window balcony. But this came with the sad realization of our incorrigible tendency to overconsume and become insensitive to the fine balances that exist in nature. Our world and my home in Kolkata became quieter, cleaner, and slower in the winter of 2020-21, when the winter flowers— petunias, roses, dianthus, chrysanthemum, pansies, marigold, and sunflower— bloomed in our balcony gardens and window boxes in abundant sunshine with far lower CO2 concentrates amid the absence of dense winter fog. There was no one, including stray passersby or a delivery person—a ubiquitous feature of the housing colony now—who did not stop to marvel and destress at this delightful living, growing space. I believe for these few months nature triumphed, reminding me what life could be like if we lived differently. In closing, while acknowledging that coronavirus affects everyone, but not equally, and that widespread vaccination will take years or decades, I firmly believe this “pause,” with all its inconveniences, is an opportunity to reimagine and question our ways of living and working, our consumption behavior and our leisure time, and our personal relationships and structured cooperation. It definitely reminded us, in the Dalai Lama’s words, “how interdependent we are: what happens to one person can soon affect many others,” even on the far side of our planet.
Dr. Manashi Ray, is a Professor and Program Co-ordinator of Sociology at West Virginia State University. Her research interests lie at the intersection of international migration, transnationalism, and network analysis. She use concepts from migration and transnational studies—such as migrant capital, Bourdieu’s theory of forms of capital, social ties, transnational spaces, life course perspective, and policies of sending and receiving countries—to understand migratory processes, motives, and transnational practices brought on by globalization and technological innovations. Dr. Ray also studies refugee populations from South and East Asia, asking why and how they engage in migratory movements, adopting a gendered perspective to unravel migratory patterns and settlement experiences. Dr. Ray research has appeared in professional Sociological journals: Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies; Development; Economic and Political Weekly; Asia and Pacific Migration Journal. In addition, she has several book chapters in edited volumes and books from reputed publishers. She is currently the Treasurer for RC 32 (Women, Gender and Society) of International Sociological Association.