First Person accounts looking back at 2020: the good, the bad and the ugly

Amiya Kumar in Kolkata is thankful for 2020 which, he says, brought him closer to his wife three decades after marriage. He was too busy in work and had forgotten the pleasures of companionship

Thousands of healthcare workers have been on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19  
Thousands of healthcare workers have been on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19
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Sanjukta Basu

What was the year like for people? It was a nightmare for many and dismal for most. Billionaires’ wealth did go up while government employees and pensioners remained secure. Joblessness grew and the economy tanked and everyone had a story to tell. SANJUKTA BASU caught up with a few to ask how they coped with the year.

Namita Oli
Domestic Help

Policing the pandemic:
My village is in Nepal. I have been working in Delhi for the past 10 years or so. My husband and three children depend on what I earn.

I had heard of many kinds of bimari but had never heard of anything like this. If I get TB or Cancer, people can come to meet me and help me, but in case of Covid, nobody would even come close to me, not even my children.

There was a woman in my locality, who caught a cold and was feverish; her neighbour called the police. Just imagine. Police catching us for falling ill. Police forcibly took her away to a place five hours away. She kept wailing, “If I go to hospital, I will never come back; nobody comes back, don’t take me.” Her child was also crying but nobody listened to her.

Thankfully, after 15-20 days police dropped her back home. I also heard of a woman whose husband died but the hospital refused to release the body till dues of Rs. 60,000 was settled. She didn’t have the money and she never saw the body. I also heard people say that people are dying following some injections administered to them but I always wondered, why would they do that?

We were used to financial distress even without the bimari. During the first two months of the lockdown there was no income at all. At times we went without meals. I used to work as house help in eight homes before the lockdown but only four of them retained my services, and only one paid me salary for the lockdown period.

I know Modi Ji said everybody should pay salaries and landlords should not ask for rent. But they said, “We ourselves do not have income, how will we pay you?” Maybe they were right, I do not know.

Since we had no money for meals, where was the money to buy soap and sanitizers? Most of the people from Nepal working here went back home in crowded buses. I also planned to go back, but my in-laws said nobody was being allowed to enter Nepal, so I had to stay back.

Amiya Kumar

Retired from National Insurance

Dating once again:

After three decades of our marriage, this year brought me and my wife closer. It was as if we were again back to our college days when we were dating. We would aimlessly stroll around the JNU campus, talking to each other endlessly then.

But once I started working, I travelled around 20 days every month. My wife was a working woman too, so she too was caught up with her work. Lockdown gave us the time we needed just for each other. Then I also reconnected with friends from college days, some of them after 38 years. I think that is something worth cherishing amidst a global crisis.

Something I did this year which I had never done before was watching movies. The various OTT platforms opened up a range of regional films that I was not aware of. I discovered a rich and sensitive body of films in Marathi, Gujarati, Malyalam, Bengali and other regional languages. I also read more books in the last nine months than in the last 3-4 years.

The fear of the virus was real but not real. I mean I was not really scared of contracting it myself but I did lose four of my dearest friends to the virus, so there is that.

The lockdown was initially involuntary, I was at home because government told us to. I could not see my daughters, my mini bar was running dry for 3-4 months, cigarettes too were missing, and I was sick and tired of the cooking and cleaning in the kitchen. But eventually we all got used to it. Now it seems like why do we have to go out? Why do we need to crowd the cities with our commutes every day?

John Dayal

Journalist, Social Activist

Locked and lonely in Delhi:

Canon Daniel O’Connor, my old English teacher at College, wrote me a letter from his village in his native Scotland. He must now be in his late Eighties, but the letter was of hope in the midst of the Covid crisis.I wrote back giving him a word picture of life in Delhi.

COVID rages in a third wave in Delhi and is particularly savage in east Delhi where I have my apartment in a fortunately secluded apartment block with many trees and a spot of lawns. But we are essentially confined to our apartment on the 6th floor. Our 45-yearold daughter stays with us and is our primary caregiver. She does the shopping for things that Amazon will not deliver. Our son stays with his wife and our other son is in West Delhi, some 30 kilometres or so away. They drop in once a month for a while.

I go down to the car park driveway for a walk for an hour after breakfast, and another hour in the evening. It is rather quiet at those times, and I am the only person pacing up and down, in my mask, gloves and fullsleeved clothing, now with a jacket as it is getting cold.

The exercise keeps me sane, but walking in a loop also means monotony of a rather extreme kind. By now, I think I can recognise every leaf, every scratch in the fender of every car, and every crack in the concrete driveway. But that is the only way to keep safe.

I have stopped watching TV news, though I participate in debates occasionally, through Skype. It is like playing a hand in some blind bridge. I readand watch documentaries on YouTube, and occasionally, a film comedy. But never news, which I read in the next day’s newspaper.

The shroud of COVID - and I have lost many contemporaries, several friends and colleagues, and couple of relatives to the virus - has unfortunately also been used by the Union and state governments, and the Sangh, to unleash all sorts of indignities on the poor, on Muslims, and occasionally on Christians.

But we will survive and emerge stronger. Of that I am sure.’

A month later, I find it difficult to add more words. The sorrow deepens for many more close friends have passed away in the month since I wrote to Dan.

But the worst is that I find the leadership making light of the tragedy that has unfolded in the country. Covid comes after a dehumanising lockdown that sent a crore or more workers onto the street for a long, hungry walk home which may have killed people whose death is still to be counted, much less recorded and admitted by the political leaders and the bureaucracy.

Harsh Mander and others have said this migration had not been seen since Partition in 1947. But there is no contrition, no explanation. The prime minister is unfolding his most Tughlaqi schemes under the curfew of Covid. It fell upon the farmers to courageously challenge him. As for me, I find a little hope and some joy as I prepare my sparse home for Christmas, putting up a wreath here, a candlestick there, and the Crib on the main table, to stay there till Epiphany on 6th January, a symbol of hope, a cause for joy and an invitation to a better future.

Neema Tiwari

Home Maker

Making the most of life:

As a family we had the rare opportunity to spend time together after a really long time. My children, who are working professionals, hardly had any time to sit and have a proper lunch with us. But due to the lockdown and the work from home culture, we were able to sit together as a family and enjoy our time together. The children also learned how to manage their finances.

But 2020 also brought devastating and irreparable losses. I lost my brother-in-law to Covid-19. His children, who are still young, now suddenly have a lot of responsibility. My brother-in-law was the life of every party. He loved theatre and old Bollywood films. His death was the biggest shock to my family but he taught us how to enjoy life and we take heart from his life.

As the saying goes, “Every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn”, we are also hopeful that the next year will be brighter.

Mohan Sahay

Journalist

Life hurts more than death:

In March this year when a nationwide lockdown was imposed, I was in Bengaluru and was anxious to return to Delhi. But a journalist friend said philosophically, “write off 2020”. It was prophetic.

Death is so inevitable but was never as heart wrenching as it was this year. Even when people close to us suddenly passed away, there was no way for us to have a last glimpse. Hospitals were out of bounds and we remained confined to our home. Even close relatives were denied the chance to attend funerals and last rites. We grieved alone.

Just when I had steeled myself to deaths of the elderly, I was jolted by the sudden departure of younger friends and former colleagues. Friends who seemed fine and with whom I spoke at length over the phone barely days ago, were suddenly no longer there. It was hard to reconcile.

One of my closest friends, Dipankar, collapsed while having lunch. He and his wife were discussing when to watch a film together on Netflix when he suddenly stopped speaking.

Days before we had chatted at length and he was his usual teasing self, pulling my legs. And suddenly he had gone without a goodbye. He had recovered from Covid a few months ago. An engineer by training, he had chosen to work with an NGO after his retirement. He would meet villagers and try to make their lives better. He would also meet government officials and senior bureaucrats and would share his experience.

Even after a heart bypass surgery, he travelled incessantly in India and abroad. One year he would be in China and the next in Africa or in the United Sates. I remember how he insisted on travelling to Ranikhet to see the rising Sun on the first day of the millennium. This Government, he would complain of late, had made it impossible for NGOs to function. Endemic corruption in the bureaucracy and policies of the Government, he would say, made it impossible for politically neutral NGOs or secular NGOs to function. He stopped attending office of the NGO but people in need of his counselling kept meeting him till the very end.

Among his many endearing qualities was his ability to speak in different languages. He could even speak in flawless Bhojpuri. Although from a well-off family, he was a communist at heart and a voracious reader of communist literature. He tried his best to convert me and bought lowly priced communist literature as gifts. When I threatened to sell the mounting pile, he arrived home with a book-shelf.

A voracious reader he retained a childlike curiosity in everything from history to science to the environment. He read everything he could on the virus and the response of various countries to the pandemic. When agitated, he would call up friends to complain that we are not taking the right steps. This year taught us to be stoical in the face of death. But some deaths leave you heartbroken and lonelier than ever.

Dr. Hina Pandey

Foreign Policy Analyst

Navigating an emotional tsunami:

The pandemic exposed the worst and best in humanity. It remains the most bizarre in terms of how the ‘new abnormal’ of grieving while physical distancing was normalised. A lot of us learnt to navigate an emotional Tsunami while ensuring, own safety and protecting the immediate family. Sometimes sharing gazes across the windscreens and video chats were the best we could do.

It compelled each one of us to think deeply about questions of death, many times fearing it but also taught us to always remain hopeful.

While the promise of vaccine is yet to be realised fully; its ironical to note that something as basic as 99.99% germs fighting sanitizer or a handwash was a proven effective strategy to combat COVID19. Unfortunately, even the basic was not always available to the underprivileged.

When the state was burdened and overwhelmed good Samaritans emerged to contribute through community kitchens, donations, volunteering duties etc. They stood in their individual capacities to join a rare battleground wherein the enemy always remained invisible. While it remains to be seen the manner in which the post Pandemic world will evolve it is crucial that the post pandemic societal order be approached with empathy, kindness and gratitude more than ever.

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