When what used to be your home is destroyed by the rising waters, nothing can ever be “normal” again. The residents of Chiplun, one of the places in Maharashtra that drowned in July, can never forget those days.
Yes, help arrived soon. To feed, clothe and rebuild. But how do you rebuild your mind? Especially when you are a teacher who is responsible for shaping minds and lives?
That was the prime motivation for Vaijayanti Thakar, always ready to help others cope and heal, to conduct a workshop for a group of teachers on August 26, 2021.
What follows is based on the information and emotions shared by her.
Bundles of joy and sorrow
Some of the teachers had already resumed work. Some were visiting children at home. They were all making a good effort to be normal. They were all dressed well—in clothes that were borrowed or had been donated.
We started with a prayer to the Sun. “Please rise again every day.” It was a plea. It was an expression of hope.
After they had settled down, I began with a story.
There were two women in a village. Both faced similar situations. Violent, alcoholic husband, not much to eat. Yet, one was always sullen while the other was happy. The sullen one could not stand it any longer. “Why?” she asked the other. After everyone goes to sleep, the happy one said, I sit before the idol and pray that everyone should be happy.
The sullen one tried the same thing, nothing seemed to happen. Then the sullen one had a dream. She was walking towards a light coming from far. She reached a cave that had several bundles. And a beautiful woman sitting on a throne. She was the source of the light.
“I am the servant who looks after these bundles of joy and sorrow,” the one who looked like a princess said. The sullen woman opened her bundles. There was hardly any joy. But the other woman, her bundle of joy was so heavy. What was the difference?
They both had had similar experiences. They were both unwanted children because they were girls. Yet the other was happy with her mother’s love whenever she was held close and fed. Yes, her father would beat her. But she remembered the times he would hold her close. The clothes she got occasionally were all old and torn but she was happy to get clothes. She loved the moments she spent with her children.
Story over, I requested all of them to congratulate themselves. You have suffered so much, yet you have emerged strong, ready to teach again.
It was time for the “trust walk”. I requested them to choose a partner who was a relative stranger. One would be blindfolded and had to totally trust the partner to lead her right.
The floods too had presented a situation where they quickly realized whom they could trust. Calamity or not, we must learn to trust. And we have to teach our children, our families to trust, to help one another.
Then I invited each to share her feelings. There was anger, there were tears. I let it all flow, without interruption.
“I … my child … no. I can’t speak.” One of the other teachers filled in for her. “She has a six-month old child. When her building got flooded, she picked up her child and went up to the terrace. It was impossible to go back down the stairs. The terrace did not have a parapet. There was a tin roof which was somehow holding up against the howling wind and lashing rain. She held the child close to her chest and stood there in the dark for 28 hours.”
Another teacher said, “All of us had moved up to the upper floor but the water kept rising. We decided to abandon our house. We used a ladder and went to the adjoining house. There were about eight of us, including children. Then we all went to the terrace of that house. We could see various things floating away but we were numb. Our only thought was that we had managed to save ourselves. There we stood for more than 24 hours.”
For another, it was time to realize what really mattered when everything was at stake. She took her jewellery and money and put it on the floor above. Then she decided to move some grains and, like a true teacher, some books also. Then it occurred to her that her life was more precious. Everything else could be earned or bought again. She was happy to get out of it alive. But the next time?
Get it all out
I asked them to write down all their thoughts, their fears. To let their anger flow. Forget you are teachers and supposed to be role models. Use the worst swear words you know. This is for yourself.
At the end of it, we collected all the pages they had written in and set those on fire.
Then they were given pillows. I encouraged them to hit the pillows. Let all the anger come out, transfer the pain to the pillows. There were giggles to start with and just light taps on the pillows. Soon, the mood changed. There were tears, screams. Some just could not continue.
We ended with a meditation session. Soothing, calming and, hopefully, rejuvenating.
There was a lot more to do. But, right now, it was time for a fresh start.
The sun will rise again. We must too.
Vaijayanti Thakar may be contacted at email@example.com
Four-year old Gulab was at a busy railway station with her father when someone came close and stabbed him. As he lay dying, and as the world around them rushed about its business, she quietly shut the world out.
All I knew was Gul was a puzzle and one of the problem cases when I took charge of her and a bunch of other children at the orphanage, where I used to work.
Her face would always be blank. No expression at all. Normally, we would quickly know every new child’s likes and dislikes. Gul had been around for weeks. There was no sound, ever. We had to anticipate everything—from washroom breaks to food to even a few sips of water.
Once the background story sunk in by and by, I knew that more than psychology, Gul needed to reconnect to love, to belong to someone. Long before he was killed, her father had been the only one for her. Her mother and a sibling had gone away after some family dispute.
Being there for Gul
I started giving her extra affection. I would be with her every possible moment of the day. She would go to sleep on my lap. Whether she responded or not, I would keep up a chatter with her. I would laugh and not bother about her response.
I could sense her eyes following me. There was no expression on her face, but her eyes would be on me and would tell me a lot—sorrow, helplessness, loneliness, frustration, depression and so on.
Later, she was comfortable enough to put her hands around my neck. Those hands would transmit her unspoken words, her fear, her worries and, simply, her need of a hug and lots of love. She used to wait for me, and her eyes would follow my every act until I finished with the other children. Then I would take her in my lap, hold her hands or kiss her.
Others in the orphanage were getting sceptical. I ensured that I did not neglect any other child in my care. Just that the physical and emotional attachment was strongest with her. Though there was no reciprocation of any kind.
Depending on the weather and the time of the day, I would often take the children to the terrace. There we had books and drawing materials. I would read them stories. We would draw stuff and sing songs.
When playtime was over, all other children would rush down on their own. Gul would stick around until I took her down.
That day, the children had run down. I was putting the books away. Gul was there too, as usual waiting for me.
Suddenly, I heard a little voice behind me: “paani …” I dropped the book and turned around. Gul was looking at me. She repeated, “paani…”. I grabbed her and kissed her wet eyes. I was laughing and crying. I crushed her to me and just didn’t know what to do or say.
Sometime later I carried her down and excitedly shared the news with my colleagues. Gul had spoken. She had asked for water. They had difficulty believing me. Because Gul had clammed up again.
Opening up to love
Gul started changing. It was slow. She would continue to cling to me. It was quite a task to get her to accept the other “mothers” in the orphanage. Gradually, Gul was as normal as she could be.
The day she was taken away by her adoptive parents, I was not sure if I was happy or sad. I was not around to wave bye to her. Maybe it was better that way.
Months later, someone told me that Gul was paying us a visit with her parents. I was thrilled. This time I was determined to see her and talk to her, even if she did not remember me.
I was in one of the inside rooms and saw them get out of the taxi. Gul was looking taller and prettier. Suddenly, I noticed a change in Gul’s expression. She was looking at the building and it was as if a cloud had passed over her face.
I was all set to rush out when I stopped myself. Did the place remind Gul of the dark days of her life? If she were to see me now, won’t it be worse for her?
I remained hidden and moved to another part of the building. Far away, I could hear the supervisor calling out for me. I ignored that and moved towards the terrace. Maybe an hour later, I could hear them getting ready to go back. I peeped out carefully. Gul appeared to be happy. Yet, I sensed she did not want to look back and was in a rush to get into the taxi.
I waved out more for myself than for her. Once again, I was crying and laughing. Then I gathered myself and went down.
There were other flowers needing help to bloom.
Based on a true story narrated by Vaijayanti Thakar. Some details have been changed to protect privacy. Art by Shravani Panse.
One of the privileges of being a writer is meeting people like Vaijayanti Thakar, whose work is to connect, heal and, simply, love. Recently she remembered an unforgettable Holi celebration.
The month of March 2021 ended with the festival of colors, Holi. Traditionally, it is a time for people to come together and color one another. But this year the virus did not allow that. It kept revelry at a forced, colorless distance.
My friend, Vaijayanti, whose lifetime work is to care for others, shared the story of a different Holi celebration—with a group of blind girls.
Holi with those who see only black
Some years ago, she used to handle the corporate social responsibility (CSR) function of a company. When she invited volunteers to join her to celebrate Holi in an institution that cared for blind girls (some of them had limited vision), there were questions galore.
Is that a joke? How do you celebrate colors with someone who can see only black? How do you even spend three hours with them?
“When we arrived, the girls were all in their uniforms, sitting in a neat row. I asked them if they wanted to just sit there or play. They were immediately up with great enthusiasm,” Vaijayanti remembered.
She reminded her colleagues that everyone there had the same inner vision. It was just a question of letting go, of accepting, of sharing love.
They started with balloons. “Someone whispered a doubt. Can you blow a balloon without seeing it?”
You can and they did. The inhibitions began to crumble. The balloons made all of them little children again.
They sandwiched a balloon between one person and the next and made giggling trains that went on some merry trips. Not once did anyone fumble, touch the balloon or lose direction. They were too busy enjoying the journey.
Letting in, letting out
Back in the room, it was time for a fight with the balloons. It was the time to truly let go. There were several displays of aggression and anger. The black within was yielding to color. The balloons were harmless, but somehow, they were powerful in drawing out the deepest feelings.
“Then we held hands and went round and round. It was a time of connection, of reassurance.”
Out came the colors and the musical instruments. It was clear that art did not require perfect vision. And from chaos can emerge some wonderful music (again requiring more instinct than sight) that touches the heart.
“Those were a few short hours. We gave and gathered a lot of love. Often the canvas before our eyes is washed black, but everyone has a rainbow inside that is just waiting to come out.”
Before they reached that place, everyone was going on about blind girls. “When we left, blindness did not figure either in our conversations or in our silence.”
“Everyone has a right to love and be loved. It just takes effort. We were all lost in the little effort that we had made and what more we could do if we just let the colors enter our heart."
Images: Shirish Ghate. +91 98230 18328. firstname.lastname@example.org. Insta: sigafotopune
The Jeep stopped on the muddy slope. Sunil was eager to show me that the vehicle would “hold” and not roll back. Unfortunately, the loose soil underneath the wheels spoilt his plans. As the SUV started inching back, he put it into gear, revved up, and stopped in front of the office, which was just ahead. He was happy showing off his new “toy”. Then his expression changed.
“Do you think someone would question this purchase? Point fingers? You know, this is from my personal savings. It pinched. But I really needed a new car and I got a good price for the old.”
It was a question from someone who cherished hard work, integrity, and honesty right from his youth.
As a young man, he had trekked long and hard, along a river that passed through his village. It was an exercise in connecting to the water and the earth it nurtured. And the simple villagers he came across. He gathered a few of his friends. That group of young friends shaped his purpose in life and the name of the organization he would lead and guide for nearly 20 years—Yuva Mitra.
It gave him as much pleasure treating visitors to some unusual local eateries as talking about his plans for social upliftment. “We must institutionalize; they must stand on their feet. True development is not charity. It must be sustainable. Learn. Teach. Train.”
I walked among the farmers and the goatherds. Many of them women, who had just found their feet and voice. They were just a few of the thousands of women, youth, farmers, and children who had already benefited from Yuva Mitra’s work in water resource development and management, agriculture and livelihood development, institution building, and health.
His religion remained sustainable people empowerment through people participation, without any political coloring.
He was always building bridges between rich corporate houses looking for an efficient and transparent channel for sustainable social development and the marginalized who had otherwise resigned themselves to poverty and hardship.
Sunil, my friend and teacher, I am sorry, but we are all pointing fingers at you now. So many are waiting for you to lift them from misery. You have to build so many more bridges yet.
How could you, someone so full of life, so giving of hope, go away so young? Today, you would have stepped into your 50th year.
Rest never came to you easily. Hopefully, you are now at peace. Developing another world.
Sunil Pote passed away on September 13, 2020.
He was not the only one to crack this year's entrance examination to the National Institute of Design (NID), considered one of the toughest tests in the country. As a veteran designer put it, it requires formal training and extraordinary skills of observation and design thinking. However, teenager Prasad was likely the only one who passed it without any formal preparation, except for making things like a triangular stool and a tyre chair, living in a remote ranch and simply going with the flow. This story is about Prasad and Sapna Ranch, which attracts, as Hasmukh puts it, “creative problem solvers” of the world to live life their way and in harmony with nature.
I was born in Goregaon, a small town in Mangaon taluka, Raigad, Maharashtra. I spent the first seven years of my life here and then we shifted to Panvel, where my dad had many clients. After three years we moved back to Goregaon, where I live now with my mother. I have no sibling.
My school life was an interesting mix of cultures, languages, and learning styles. Starting out in Goregaon, I changed schools frequently for different reasons. I have studied in a traditional Marathi medium school, a semi-English-medium school, and a convent school. Now, after completing my XII, I have secured admission to the National Institute of Design (NID).
Once my mom and I went to a home-schooling conference at Sane Guruji National Memorial School. Hasmukh was there to talk to us about home schooling. He made a lot of references to Sapna Ranch and how learning happens there. That’s when I got interested. I spoke to Hasmukh and promised him I would surely visit the ranch once.
During that session I met several parents and their children. Many of them showed interest, including Prasad. He was the only one who actually came from that group and that too after some time. Prasad came and stayed back, and I really did not have any expectations.
My expectation of the place was some people would be working and some children learning. But no, it was completely different. A kid was firing up a Himalayan rocket and someone was telling him how it was made and how it works. Some foreign volunteers were working on the geodome. We met them and we had sherbet with them, which Hasmukh was preparing when we reached there. I was surprised that the person I saw at the school conference was making sherbet for us. It was so amazing. So, we washed our glasses and put those away. We understood how the ranch works, the community there and the thought behind the whole thing.
I came to know about the ranch in May 2018 and my first visit was in November 2018, when I was about 17. My first stay at the ranch was in May 2019. I was under some stress for some reason. My mom dropped me there.
One of the regulars at the ranch came and asked me if I was staying there. Then she just sprayed me with water from a pipe and then everyone else also poured water all over me. I felt as if I had been living there for 10 years. Hasmukh came and hugged me and we started working on something immediately. Then he started showing me stuff and how things were working.
There were about ten people already when I arrived at the ranch. Everyone was talking to me. It felt as if we had known each other for the last ten to twelve years. That night I was talking to them on a lot of subjects. The conversations were about me, how they were spending their time, and how I got to know about the ranch. I am a card magician, so I showed them some stuff. I also showed them some of my drawings.
The most memorable interaction was with the animals. I have never seen so many animals in one place. Dogs and cats fight with each other but here there were three dogs and seven to eight cats, all living in peace with ten humans and that was amazing.
People who come to Sapna Ranch come with zero expectations and I accept people with zero expectations. Prasad seemed interested. His conversations were interesting. He showed that he wanted to learn, and I gave him the space the same way I give for everybody. It was not that Prasad was an exception. Once he came here, he looked at things. He started observing and working on whatever projects we had going and then he asked me about most of the stuff at the ranch.
My house is only 45 minutes away from the ranch. So, my visits to the ranch are very frequent. I am lucky about that. I have been going to the ranch for the past two years as and when I get two or three days free. My stays have ranged from a day and a night to three months at a stretch—March to May 2020. I have seen the ranch in all seasons.
My first interactions with Hasmukh were very interesting. At the conference, where I met Hasmukh I was just listening to him. Talking to him was a completely game-changing experience. He is into science. I am a science nerd and so we were always talking about science.
I do not have many friends and I am not into many things young people are into, social media included. For me, the ranch is not a getaway but my home. Sometimes, when I am going home, I tell Hasmukh I am going for a vacation. I try to look for the ranch outside the ranch—similar values, similar people, and similar thoughts. I connect with them and study them so that I can be a better person and contribute to the world.
The traits of a rancher have been inside me from my childhood. I started travelling at the age of thirteen or fourteen. I was doing a lot of trekking, mountaineering in the Himalayas also. I used to stay away for months and my mother was used to that.
She was happy that I had found a place so heartily amazing. My teachers were amazed because I was one of the few students who, instead of being focused on marks was wondering where to use this theorem or apply that theory. My marks were average. One of my teachers visited the ranch and loved the place.
The way people look at you changes completely when you start talking about the ranch. Previously they were looking at you as a disturbed person, living your life as the other 99%. When you tell them about the ranch, they start looking at you as a unique person. Actually, everyone is unique but very few realize that.
There are many memorable things that I have done at the ranch. Like the forest fire we doused in March 2020. It was a great learning experience—how not to panic, stay calm and handle a disastrous situation. The other one was when I completed the triangular stool in May 2019. From the designing to standing on the stool to show how strong it was. That was completely unique because I had never made a product from start to end. I designed it, studied it, re-designed it, modelled it, and made it in just three hours. I also estimated its costing with help from Hasmukh. I will get into product designing in future.
I told Prasad that the triangle is the strongest two-dimensional structure. After some time, Prasad mentioned to me that he wanted to make a stool whose top was triangular, the base was triangular, and it would have three legs. That was just the day before he left. He started on that stool and within a day he had completed it, more or less on his own. I shared some stabilisation ideas from my experience, and he implemented those. He completed it at eleven in the night or something and his dedication did impress me. And then the next day before he left, he stood on that stool.
He told me how happy he was because until that time nobody had given him an opportunity to do what he wanted. Everybody just told him what he should do, nobody asked him what he himself wanted to do. So, creating that stool was a milestone for him. The stool is still in use at Sapna Ranch and it is as sturdy as it was on the day he made it.
Prasad is willing to learn anything and everything. Here, he learnt electrical, plumbing, and cement work and he got good at it. We fixed the roof of the invertor room. We made a chair from used tyres. He had an idea to cut a tyre and making a backrest. I had never tried it. We gave it a shot and it worked out very well.
What I also like about him is he is willing to work with small kids and big people. He has a very mature head on his shoulders.
When I first came to the ranch, I had thought I would get amazing plans. That I would have a list of stuff when I came back home, and I would be ready to face the world. But my most important lesson was finding the flow inside me and just going with it. Here you become more patient, learn to listen more. You develop a different level of understanding, of empathy.
Another important lesson was learning and teaching. Even my teachers remarked that there was a difference in the way I was learning. When you understand how to learn, it is easy to teach. Earlier I used to boast about my knowledge and people would get bored of my explanation of things. Now they don’t. They appreciate my attitude.
We discussed about his career, including options abroad. I was keen that he should have the entire world as his palette. If he were interested, I could have helped him get scholarships from some universities abroad. We even discussed about the option of taking a gap year which I thought would do him good.
I did not restrict him to Sapna Ranch. If there was another place that interested him, I would help him go there. He was also looking at architecture. But the test schedule did not work out because of the Covid problem. There was also an opportunity in the US.
I was there to put the options before him, and the choice was his. I knew that he was going to get into NID because he is pretty bright from that perspective.
I had no idea about my career even a month before NID. Architecture? Film making? Product design? I would speak to Hasmukh. I would talk to myself. I did not even know about NID two years ago. A friend told me about it, and I thought of giving it a shot.
I had heard from a lot of people that NID worked on experiential learning, giving more importance to progress than marks. I thought that was like my experience at the ranch. Hasmukh also told me that at NID, you are completely immersed in the design environment.
I did not do a thing for preparing for the entrance. There was no class, no books, and no consultation with any experts. My friend had got me some books, but I did not study those seriously.
I was not even sure of passing the first level. When I did, people were happy for me, including some NID alumni. When I finally achieved the 187th all-India rank, people were quite happy because they thought it was not easy. I passed the test by implementing the methods of the ranch and what I have learnt from Hasmukh and others at the ranch.
The pictures that I had drawn on the exam paper and the answers that I had written largely reflected me. During the interview, they told me they did not get to see many frank candidates. Many were rude, many boasted but they told me that I had a good attitude. I showed them a card trick just for some entertainment and they loved it. That changed the picture, we got talking and it was no longer an interview after that. That happened because at the ranch I have learnt how to talk to those I have just met as if they are old friends.
I am not going to get a nine-to-five job and just do stuff that will help industrialisation and capitalisation and encourage the lifestyle that we are avoiding by living at the ranch. I would like to use my design abilities to create places like the ranch to enhance the experiences you get. I want to spread it more. I want to create more such places, more such communities. I want to get more people into that and for that. I will earn some money to survive and be happy. I want to give the world some good experiences, some remarkable things to enjoy. I am not going to visualize everything that I am going to do. I will just let the need be my guide to the future.
For Prasad and anyone else for that matter, Sapna Ranch is a place that gives them space and the freedom to try out their passion within the framework of our guidelines: respect yourself, respect others, forgive mistakes, go with the flow, and go at the pace you are comfortable with. Practise OLLA (observe, listen, learn, apply).
What Sapna Ranch does is help people believe in themselves and manage their self-esteem. I have had people who were depressed. Some of them had tried to commit suicide but survived. They came to Sapna Ranch and spoke with me about their life and the environment that has been created here. One of them told me that Sapna Ranch gave her hope. This environment does make them believe that they can do something with their life. And that was the whole purpose of creating this space. Sapna Ranch does not manipulate or change the thinking of the individual. It encourages the thinking of the individual and supports them, which normally the society doesn’t do.
Fortunately, Prasad’s parents have given him a good level of freedom in what he wants to do. I did not try to influence his decision to go for NID. But seeing his interest in the geodesic dome and all the structures here, I would say that design did attract him. Probably, to that extent, Sapna Ranch did have a role to play in fanning his interest in design.
When I go to conferences, I do talk about Sapna Ranch and EBHLE and the environment that is created here. Effectively, what I share with people is that you should give kids the opportunity to explore their curiosity, not tie them down. You know the drawbacks of the conventional education system and what we are trying to do here is create an environment where they have the freedom to explore their own passions. People hear that, like that and then some of them come here. Like Prasad did.
I have listed this project on two international websites: workaway.info and Helpx.net. People read it and some of them come. So far, I have had over 295 international volunteers from 39 countries. I don’t want to advertise. If I did that there would be a lot more people coming, and we don’t have the capacity to handle that. Only people who are truly interested are coming here.
People like Prasad and others will help in solving world problems. For example, we have compost toilets. I had a couple from Australia who built the first compost toilet and they went back to Australia and built a compost toilet there. Another couple from Chile in South America built the second compost toilet and they went and built one in Chile. Compost toilet is one example of something that does help in solving the world’s problems—reducing waste and generating manure.
Yes, people like Prasad will be creative problem solvers.
It has been nearly two months after I last visited my shop located about 20 km from my house. It is a trip I have done millions of times over nearly a decade; a route so familiar that I can do it blindfolded. Today my eyes are wide open as I cautiously drive down deserted roads.
A policeman stops me at a junction, about 7 km from my shop. His expression changes as he looks at me closely. I explain where I am headed and what I do for a living. “I know,” he replies. I wonder if he is being sarcastic.
“I have been to your shop,” he clarifies. He is not happy that my wife is accompanying me at a time when even one person has no business to be out and about. But then I am out on business, running a shop selling essentials and he knows that for a fact. He points me down the only route that is open.
Finally, I reach the shop. It is mid-morning and the neighborhood is unusually quiet. I start pulling up the shutter and then stop, worried that it was very loud. My wife and I do some cleaning, rearrange the shelves, and sit in the shop for a while.
There are no customers because I had not told anyone I was planning to open the shop. And I didn’t want to do that until I had official clearance from the police. For that I was determined to go the police station nearest the shop. We close the shop and head there.
Policing for protection
The inspector who heads the station emerges from inside just as we enter the station. I introduce myself.
“I know you,” he stops me halfway. I can sense my wife looking at me. How come this fellow is known to so many policemen, she is probably wondering.
“I started my duty before 7 a.m. keeping people away from the road,” the inspector continues. The last meal he had was the previous evening. So, he had just finished a late brunch before duty took him away again.
I apologize for not recognizing him. I did have a regular customer from that police station, but that was—
“I had come with my senior and you had given us both some coffee.” He mentions the name of the senior and it clicks.
Before I repeat my apology, he asks another question. “Your shop is the one that always has those long south Indian bananas hanging outside, right?” I agree. No point in reminding him about my shop’s name.
“If you are supposed to be selling essentials, you should have been there all these days, at least for limited hours. Why do you want to open now?”
I explain that I was scared. And I wanted to make sure I obeyed the restrictions. Which is a polite way of saying that I was afraid of being beaten up by the police. From his smile, it is clear he understands.
“Do you know that we are in a red zone? That means we are all in big danger from the virus. You think that the virus will simply go away? The virus will remain with us, even in our lungs at least for a couple of years. So, we have to take care. That is why we have to be bad and rude with everyone. Because people don’t understand that we are all in danger. All—you, me, them. We have to do our duty. We can’t work from home,” he pauses. I wonder if he has read up on the virus.
“Listen, I am not complaining. We have nothing against the people we keep driving away. Our biggest problem is all the news and videos people share on the mobile. Everyone believes anything. And they love to show us worse than we are. After all, it is fun to share a video of a policeman supposedly beating up a poor vegetable fellow. We may not get to eat. We may share our food with 10 others who have nothing to eat, but that is not fun. Right?”
He shrugs as if trying to shake off the mood he is in.
Is corona goading us?
He tells me I can open the shop for a limited duration as applicable to the zone. Then he describes how I can avoid overcrowding and the precautions I must take. All his directions make perfect sense. Before I leave, he warns, “If we find your shop is responsible for causing overcrowding, we will close the shop and take action against you.” There is no malice, it is just a statement of intention.
On the way back home, I pass several policemen on duty. They are out in the sun, not safe at home. The only protection they had was a mask and a lathi—one against the virus, one for the people. In this fight against an evil entity we can’t see, are we and the police making each other the visible evil? Would we be happier with the virus if the police didn’t use their lathis? Is Covid setting us up, goading us all to be lesser beings?
I reach home and send a WhatsApp message to all my customers that I was opening again and what they needed to do to help me stay open.
As I head to the shop the next morning, I wonder if this is the return of the normal. After all, normal never stays new for long. We make sure it doesn’t.
This post is triggered by the tone and substance of the WhatsApp message my anonymous shopkeeper friend broadcast. Far from being a dry announcement, it was eager to serve again, apologetic for staying away for long, joyous to be with friends again and anxious to ensure everyone bought well and stayed safe. Yes, it was infectious.
About the graphic. It must not have been easy for a busy designer who takes appetizing images of food to digress into illustration, but sportingly she went bananas for this piece. Thanks, Tasneem Syed!
Many happy returns, we say. At least once a year. What should we say when that wish is no longer a blessing but a curse?
You never see him at rest. If you hear the gate opening when the birds announce the rising sun, it is him with a vessel full of frothing milk, that he has just drawn from the cow.
Are you willing to forgo your afternoon nap and walk a few meters to the coconut plantation that kisses the edge of the backwaters? You will see him there at work. He will not stop working but if you can walk along and pay attention, he will readily share his wisdom in gentle words. If you are not distracted by the water birds following the tractor, he will explain the mechanics and commercials of cultivating paddy. He may even offer you a tender coconut to savor.
During the day, you will find him zipping about on his motorcycle. Errands never end. There are at least five homes of the extended family that count on his visits so that things get done. Then there are visits to the bank, to the panchayat office. He barely has time. If he spots you walking by, he will stop, park the bike and talk as if he has all the time for you.
You will not want to get too close to the cows when he is tending to them in the shed next to the house. They do not look very friendly and are given to shaking their heads, making their horns bang noisily against the wooden railings. He remonstrates with one for not eating properly. There comes a prancing calf that gets a hug and a kiss. He has simply become one of them. You watch and wonder.
The pages of the calendar keep flipping, bringing along the special day. He makes a special visit to the temple and there is a special sweet dish cooking at home. Looking at his hearty smile you sincerely wish the day would return many happy times. He is special. He deserves it.
When that day came the last time, you did not want to wish him that. He was laid low by cancer. You flinched at the sight of the helpless figure on the bed, all bones and bedsores. You saw an apology on his face for not being able to get up and talk to you and share tea with you.
He is gone. At last.
All of us must. But not the lingering way he did.
What do you say when, to wish for even one more return of the day, would be so insensitive, so cruel? Keeping in mind the only gift that matters and the inevitability of the end, perhaps it is time we learned to say, “Live full, die well.”
Dr Sanghamitra Bora
State Lead - Palliative Care, Assam Cancer Care Foundation, Guwahati
I was chosen to contribute to the Covid-19 mission and asked to supervise infection control in the screening area, potentially the most infectious area. My job started immediately after the nationwide lockdown, on March 22, 2020.
When we started, we did not have adequate number of personal protective equipment (PPE). The team started working with whatever was provided.
Getting to know a patient
On April 1, I noticed that one of the persons who had come for screening had red eyes. As he waited in the queue, his body language appeared to convey that he was sick. His wife was in tears. As a palliative care physician, I considered it my duty to talk to her, comfort her and find out what was going on. So, I went to her.
Of course, I was maintaining a safe distance. I had put on one N-95 and two triple-layered surgical masks. I was wearing my apron, a disposable surgical gown and three layers of gloves. The wife told me that her husband had a history of asthma going back 12 years. He was on and off medications. Recently he had had fever and an attack of asthma. Their family physician had prescribed some medications. As those didn’t work, the doctor had advised a CT scan of the Chest. The scan revealed pneumonitis, which had prompted their doctor to send him for Covid screening.
On probing further, I also came to know that he had travelled to Delhi and returned around February 29, 2020.
Meanwhile, her husband was called in by the doctor. That being a screening area, the doctor was supposed to ask questions from a distance of at least two metres. The doctor had two layers of masks and the patient also had to have a mask. To me, it was the perfect situation for a possible miscommunication. Maybe the patient would say “I have fever” and by the time it reached the doctor, he would possibly hear it as “I don’t have fever.”
It was important that the doctor filled up the registration form correctly. Because the doctor decided if there was a need to take samples, based on the history as he understood and recorded. The next stop for the form (and the patient) was the laboratory technician who would take samples (if the doctor called for it). I was trying to do what I could to reduce the communication gap so that the doctor was able to record the history correctly.
I was trying to talk to everyone who was there for screening to try and avoid any miscommunication. As a protocol I had to recheck the filled-up standard form of sample collection, and hence a second conversation was necessary.
I definitely did not want any miscommunication with this particular patient I was observing. Both husband and wife told me they felt really good after they spoke to me. They were advised medications and home quarantine. I told them that if the tests yielded a positive result, the superintendent’s office would contact them. They would be instructed about the standard procedure to follow thereafter. They appeared happy that they had the complete picture. The couple thanked me and went home.
Negative times follow a positive result
Two days later, I came to know that the man was Covid-positive. The moment I heard that, a fear gripped me. I did not regret that I had helped the couple when they were undergoing emotional trauma. But my fear was what would happen to me.
I went to the authorities and reported that this positive patient had been screened during my duty hours. I was advised to watch out for symptoms over the next seven days. After that they would do a test and that was that.
Nothing happened for seven days and I was relieved. However, on the eighth day I developed slight fever and I was on the verge of panic. Why fever? Why now? I tried to look for reasons.
Every morning I would take my bath before leaving home for duty. Once I finished my Covid duty, I was sprayed head to toe with D-125, a disinfectant. That would really drench me, clothes and shoes and all. Then I would reach home and take another warm bath. All that drenching must have caused the fever, I tried to justify. But there was still a 0.001 probability of infection and that was frightening.
In isolation and on the edge
I went to the doctor on duty and told him I needed to get tested. He rolled his eyes and asked me why I had not told him before. But the seven days had gone off well, without any problem. How could I have told him before?
“You may develop symptoms after 7 days or 14 days or even after 28 days. This virus is so tricky, the symptoms can come at any time. You must not take any chances,” the doctor explained. He called for the Medical Officer, who was in charge. My samples were taken.
The Medical Officer spoke to me for about 45 minutes asking me the same questions over and over again, maybe just to check if I was consistent. By then, I was really very scared. Then he pronounced the verdict. He immediately sent me to the isolation ward for 24 hours. If the tests turned out negative, I would be quarantined for 14 days. “If the results come back positive, you know where we would send you,” he said ominously. All positive patients were being sent to a Covid facility in a different area, that had facilities for isolation and treatment.
My throat was dry, my mind empty, and I had no idea what to do. After some time, I called up my husband and briefed him. Fortunately, I had sent my husband, my son and everyone else in my house to my father’s place, that was close to my house. When I did that, I was simply being very cautious as we were in a vulnerable location and I was dealing with Covid patients.
I landed in the isolation ward. Yes, it was secluded. It was on the third floor of what we called the Covid building. It was scary to be all alone. The whole ward was silent. There was no conversation. Those who were on duty looked like robots, dressed up as they were in their protective suits. They never talked. They would come and do their job and then they would thoroughly wash their hands and go away. The silence was absolutely fearful.
I had simply not anticipated what lay ahead. There were so many messages and calls on my mobile, but I did not feel like responding. I had become very emotional and wanted to stay aloof from the world. I even switched off my phone; something I never do.
Many fearful scenarios passed through my mind. I will never see my husband and son again. I will be moved to another isolation ward. If my immune system is not strong enough, the symptoms will start.
Breathlessness would be the first.
It is very difficult to even see someone else experiencing breathlessness. Because there is nothing you can do to help. It is so frustrating.
I imagine myself struggling for breath with a ventilator pipe inside me. With all my knowledge and experience, I can’t bear to think of anybody trying to give me false hopes, telling me everything is okay, and I will be fine soon. I can’t see expressions of the medical staff around me. They are all wearing masks. Are they smiling at me? Are they frustrated? Are they angry? I can't see them. But they can see me. And that is so difficult to accept as a patient.
Then sanity kicked in. Why am I shutting myself away? I am a professional, a healthcare worker, and this was to be expected. My friends are genuinely worried. Why am I pushing them away? I started replying to messages and returning calls.
Positive thoughts follow a negative result
After almost 36 hours in isolation, my test results came back negative. And I am writing you this from home, where I have begun a 14-day quarantine. I am now so relieved. I am so grateful to all for their love. I just want to share my thoughts that would hopefully help someone somewhere somehow as we all go through this difficult phase.
Those 36 hours spooked me, and I am supposed to be a doctor. Imagine people having to live through this for days together!
It is so easy for us to point fingers at someone who is infected. But why not focus on what we can do to help?
Can we spare some time and compassion to counsel a patient who has been sentenced to isolation?
If someone in isolation is not eating (I did not) and not accepting calls, can we reach out and ensure that he or she has not slipped into depression?
We may have to maintain distance physically. But should that stop us from getting close emotionally? This is when, more than medicine, you need comfort and care from a fellow human being.
Now I am clear that I do not want sympathy. Neither did I do anything extraordinary. You may attribute it to my palliative care training, but I think a Covid-19 patient (proven or potential) deserves the same compassion and care that you would not hesitate to offer someone who is terminally ill.
Today, I feel more charged up to carry on with what I am best at—providing palliative care. I have more than one reason to justify why it must be an important part of a humanitarian crisis. I wish to improve my skills, especially in the area of communication so that I can convince authorities to adopt a palliative care approach in every setting. And of course, the biggest challenge will be to demonstrate a visible change in the patient as well as the whole scenario of caregiving. I do hope that the science of palliative medicine will be allowed to play the key role it can, when we are trying to copy with such a calamity. We have the ability; we can reinforce the confidence.
Will I go back to the screening area? Absolutely! I will go there and continue talking to people. I have seen the positive effect of a simple conversation.
Yes, I cannot interfere in the isolation area. However, I have realized that there may be unknown fears in the minds of those working in the isolation ward. Perhaps, that explained their behaviour? I would like to tell those workers that they can talk to me, tell me about their fears. I am sure that would bring about a positive change in their approach, and ultimately benefit the patients.
Personally, in the last few days, I have learnt the skill of detachment from worldly pleasures. They don’t mean anything unless you put a price tag to each.
We do not know what tomorrow holds for any of us. At least today, when we still can, let us care for one another. That can be priceless.
Based on a video posted by Dr Sanghamitra Bora and subsequent conversations with her.
After the virus pushed the office and the school into the house and locked the door, life has been rather strange. Imagine having to live every minute of the day with people like husband, wife, children, parents, in-laws and some combination of the above, without a break.
Yet, despite the horror stories and jokes, surely something positive must be happening on the bonding front?
So, I went hunting for positive stories. Nobody opened the door for me but some friends (mainly counsellors) had some snippets to share. Of ordinary people working magic. Of cracks healing over. Of I and mine giving way to we and ours.
They had major differences. Age and culture were just two. After prolonged therapy, they had decided to go on a holiday. For the first time in three years, they spent a few days together without arguing and fighting. When they came back home, it was back to the boxing ring. Until the lockdown happened. Soon they realized they were stuck together. First the husband learnt to say, “we’ll stop now” and walk away whenever an argument threatened to get out of hand. Then, she, the more abrasive of the two, learnt it too. They learnt to adjust. They are managing well now. Who knows, they may even go on another holiday, whenever they can.
They are into their 50s. They had a good, healthy arrangement of living in the same house efficiently for decades. Then the children left home. Suddenly, they were all by themselves day and night. No servants, either. So, they decided to do some spring cleaning. In the process, they came across a bunch of letters they had written to each other after their engagement. “We rediscovered our romance,” she said. “We continue to do things together like cleaning and gardening. Nowadays, we also watch a lot of TV together. Will things change after? I don’t know. For now, we are enjoying our time together. We are happy all by ourselves. That’s all that matters.”
Imagine a father and son duo, both victims of bipolar disorder. Imagine the plight of the wife and mother caught between the two. So, when she called up the counsellor after more than a year, the counsellor feared the worst. “I called up to thank you. My husband is so lost in the board game you gifted us so long ago. No violence. No abuse. There is so much peace at home now and all of us are together. He wanted to know from where we got the game. So, I thought of speaking to you.” Ironically, it was The Game of Life that had brought about the transformation.
The TV has been pushed away in many homes. Limited viewing. Definitely no news. Only a few serials that the whole family can watch together. Board games and home-made games are the new favorite. No more adults doing their adult things leaving the children to do theirs. Now the family does family things together. Like the activity-laden custom-made snake and ladder. Or word dominoes (some would call it word antakshari).
Grandma’s version of the musical chair for her two grandchildren requires just one chair. She uses a spoon and plate to create the music. Ever played lagori (seven tiles) in the house? You just need some paper cups and a small ball. You will soon discover that the size of the house has nothing to do with the fun you can have. What matters is that all are in it together. Everyone knows surya namaskar is good for health. It works even better when you have three generations prostrating before the sun at one time, keeping a healthy distance from one another of course.
It was difficult for the teacher, a single parent, to accept that her son was suffering from clinical depression. The counsellor gave her a list of things to observe. The mother always went alone to the counselling sessions. It was as if she wanted to shield the son. Then one day she agreed to visit a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist confirmed the counsellor’s diagnosis. The mother was reluctant to give him the medicines. The counsellor suggested: “Don’t keep telling your son what to do. Don’t ask him questions. You do the talking. Just share what you feel. Accept your emotions. Be honest with him. There is nothing either of you can do about it. But you are happy that you have him.” Many days of conversations followed and continued through the lockdown. A few days after being homebound, the mother saw something the son had written: “My mother is a good person. It’s okay if my father is not there with us.”
As a counsellor, I am amazed when my young friends, 18 to 22 age range, call up at random just to talk. I know some of them were almost lost to the world, caught in drugs, drinking and what not. But now, after days at home they want to talk about spirituality. They want to analyze. They want to introspect. They want to make others happy. And for that they accept that they have to be happy first. They have had enough of TV and the social media. They are bored. For the first time, I realize that boredom is healthy, if it makes you think and look inward.
It is strange to see parents without mobile phones in their hands. Instead, they have the handlebar or the seat of the bicycle their son or daughter is learning to ride. Or a badminton racket. They are scrupulously maintaining the rules of distancing. They are distant from their neighbors, their normal partners. They are now with their new playmates, their children.
In all the years she has been working from home, her husband was a presence she took care of in the mornings and the evenings. Now, I am surprised to see what a hands-on househusband he has become. She is so relaxed. That’s not all. They are at times in the same room with her in-laws. They talk. Believe it or not, they all laugh so much. Together.
At 53, he was the epitome of brand consciousness. Super rich. He bought what he fancied, and that meant only the big names. His cupboards were overflowing with the best he could buy from all over the world. Until the lockdown, the closed shops and the panic buying. “For the first time, I realize that it matters more to have milk at home than all these silly things. I have been such a fool, a hoarder of the worthless.” I laughed. Told him he would go back to who he was as soon the virus allowed. “No, I don’t think so. This is a life lesson. My only regret is I took so long to learn this. And a virus had to teach me.”
Reading a story to your little one? Many are also recording it. So that other parents and children can enjoy it too. There can be no better time for story-swapping! Your child can speak your mother tongue, but can an English-medium student also learn to read and write it? Just ask you resourceful neighborhood parent for flash cards. Earlier, junior could not boil water. Now he has a video that will teach you how to microwave a delicious cake in a jiffy. An IT father developed digital worksheets and shared it with the school principal. Now they have a whole range for different grades. There is a surge in creativity and the wonderful urge to share. Our social intimacy appears to be peaking (and not just to show off) at a time when we are expected to maintain personal distance.
This lockdown has finally made me realize that the radical decision I took about two years ago was so right. After he cleared his eighth grade, we decided to homeschool our son. He was afraid of mathematics to the extent that it was damaging his self-esteem. He also wanted more time to pursue his passion: music.He was taking lessons in tabla, drums and guitar even while in school. So, after he left school, we enrolled him at a music academy for a good four hours in the evening. He now had his open school subjects keeping him busy during the morning and the music in the evening. Then my guilt, my working woman’s guilt, kicked in. I was only getting time with my son when I was ferrying him to and fro the music school. He would be asleep when I left for work. At night after dinner I would be too tired to talk or spend time with him. Even on Sundays, we would just get time together in the evening as he had classes right through the morning. Except when he went off to be with his cousins. Then came the lockdown and now we are so happy. I am getting to spend the entire day with him. There are so many things we do together like cleaning the house, gardening, cooking, watching and discussing news, enjoying movies, and reading books. Above all, I am with him during his music practice sessions. I am so grateful for these days.
He has not walked or talked for years. He is always on the bed. The only movement you notice is in one eye. Just barely. He breathes, so he is alive.
Then one day, the inevitable. A bed sore. It was deep and infected.
The world was locked down on account of the corona pandemic. But he had to be taken to the hospital. The wound required cleaning and dressing. The doctor hoped to discharge him after a week.
The hospital was under pressure. His condition was stable enough. The wound was healing, but slowly. One of the nurses agreed to come home every day for the dressing. For 15 days. So, he was discharged on the third day.
The nurse arrived in the afternoon the next day. She did a good job. Patiently. With great care.
As she was about to leave, I asked her about her fees. That was when I noticed the tears in her eyes.
“Years ago, we used to meet almost every evening. He would be on his walk and I would be returning from the hospital. One day he stopped to talk. He was amazed that I was walking a long distance back from the hospital. Maybe I should try a scooter, he had suggested. That became a routine. We would pause for a chat. He would always say something funny. Thanks to that I would reach home smiling, the day’s tension forgotten. I wish I could return the favor now. But he does not know me, cannot hear me.”
She wiped her tears and opened the gate. She paused. “No, you don’t have to pay me anything. He already paid, a long time ago.”
(Based on a true incident.)