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Friday, May 22, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 59 of Lockdown

CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 57 of Lockdown



Returning home!


22 May 2020

I am extremely happy to inform you that, as I write this post, Sugreev and his friends are on a train to their hometown. If you have been following their journey so far, I am sure you would understand how important this moment is. This is how it happened.

Yesterday, Government opened Sleeper class and 2S Second sitting booking on the 15 trains that previously only had AC compartments open for booking. Trains with these coach would run from the 2nd of June. Sugreev told me that some of his friends had already booked their tickets. So, without delay, I booked their tickets on IRCTC website (Train booking site) for the 2nd of June. 2S second sitting cost them Rs 510 to reach Jhansi from Bangalore. Jhansi is 500 kms away from their hometown Gorakhpur. 

However, in the evening, Sugreev got a call from the police who informed him that he could board the Shramik special train to UP the very next day. Their names were confirmed again and they were asked to report at the station at around 7 am next morning. We decided not to cancel the train tickets until they boarded the Shramik. 

Next, Sugreev informed his Owner about his leaving. The owner wanted Sugreev to accompany him to the police station. Sugreev was worried that he would speak to the police in Kannada and prevent them from boarding that train. I told him to stay confident and stick to his truth about wanting to return home. Luckily, the owner did not have the guts to speak to the police beyond confirming the travel.

Sugreev was happy that he was finally going back home. He thanked me for all the help and told me that when he would reach home, through a video call, he would show me his village, fields and farm. We all eagerly waited for the morning to come. 

At 6:00 AM this morning, when I stepped out to go for my daily jog, I met Sugreev outside the construction site. The other three had already left to the police station. He was waiting for the owner’s son to pay him the balance amount. I wished him a happy journey and continued my jog. When I returned 30 minutes later, I saw that Sugreev was still in the house but was about to leave. When he called me later, he told me that the owner had not paid him the full amount. However, he has promised to transfer the balance shortly. I refrained from asking him the details. That could be done later. I checked if he had sufficient money for the journey, to which he said, he did. 

They were asked to assemble at a traffic signal next to the police station. Around 100 migrant workers had gathered there. Thanks to Sugreev’s regular update through calls, WhatsApp pictures and videos, I was able to follow the process as it happened. They were first taken to a playground next to the signal. There, their medical checkup was done.


They then had to pay Rs 1010 for the ticket. As per the Government, railways is supposed to pay 85% of the ticket fare and rest 15% is to be paid by the State Government. But, in reality that isn't true in most of the states. Only some states are sending the workers back, free of cost. I know that the state of Kerala hasn't charged the migrant workers for this journey.


Some of the workers had not registered on Seva Sindhu website, so they had to be taken care of. While that process happened, the others were made to wait. Overall, the local police had handled the situation really well. Social distancing was maintained through out. Workers were provided breakfast and lunch while they waited for the process to be complete. They were then handed a token to board a bus.


By the time Sugreev boarded the bus that would take them to the railway station it was already 5:00 PM. A packed dinner was also provided to them.



Sugreev and his friends finally began their journey back home on that train at around 7:30 PM. After all that we have been through together in these 2 months, this was a moment of joy and satisfaction. I am glad that despite all the obstacles that came our way, we never gave up. This story deserved a proper conclusion! Sugreev and his friends deserve to return to their families. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 57 of Lockdown

CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 48 of Lockdown



Lockdown 4.0

20 May 2020

We havent got any update from the police after we registered the names of Sugreev and his friends at the police station. On the 12th of May, the Government began train services to 15 destinations, with limited seating. On these trains, only AC compartments are functional. For Sugreev and his friends, there was only one option - to take the Bengaluru-New Delhi train and alight at Jhansi, which is about 500 km from their hometown. But the tickets to Jhansi were priced thus - Rs 2500 for AC 3tier, Rs3600 for AC 2tier and Rs 6250 for AC First class. It was clearly not a train for the poor. However, Sugreev, who desperately wanted to go back, told me that, in the worst case, he could arrange for that money. Since the tickets were being sold out in minutes of opening, it was impossible to get a berth on that train. Shramik special trains therefore remained the only hope for migrant workers. 

Meanwhile, on the 17th of May, we stepped into the fourth phase of lockdown. A lot has been relaxed in the state of Karnataka. Limited public transport is allowed. A few days ago, our Prime minister, as always, gave a speech that was high on rhetoric. He talked about making India Atmanirbhar (Self reliant) and informed us that the Finance Minister will soon announce an Economic Stimulus Package of 20 Lakh crore, which, like always, he chose to rhyme with 2020. In the week that followed, our Finance Minister gave the details of this Economic Recovery Package

Many declared that the cost to the Government is not 10% of the GDP as claimed but only about 1% of the GDP. Most of the relief came as loans. Schemes with direct money transfer were less. One may argue that with no or meagre demand, MSMEs (Micro, Small, Medium Enterprises) may hesitate to take that loan, which they must someday repay. The package also included free ration for migrant workers and TDS (Tax deducted at source) rates are cut by 25%. PF (Provident fund) was cut from 12% to 10%, which means one could now have more money to spend, rather than save. Additionally, many public sector undertakings (PSUs) will now be privatised

Anyways, in this so called Atmanirbhar Bharath (self-reliant India), many labourers like Sugreev and his friends still struggle to get back home. Everyday, Sugreev would tell me stories about his friends who had somehow made their journey back home. While some were lucky to get on the Shramik Special train, others had traveled on trucks filled with more than 60 workers. It was apparent that they were missing their children and family. All they wanted was to go back home and be with their loved ones. Every day when Sugreev would ask me what news I had, I was hesitant to reply that I had no positive news for him. 

During one of my walks, I noticed that a police station near my house had set up a booth to address queries of migrant workers. I advised Sugreev to enquire there. I chose not to accompany them this time as I thought it would be better if they themselves express their frustrations and eagerness to return home. Sugreev went there early that morning and he spoke to a lady constable. She informed him that the cops have taken some Bihar migrants to the railway station and will return by 10 AM. She asked them to come by at 10 AM and get the names registered. 

Sugreev decided to take a day off as the owner of the house where they work isn't very supportive. He does not like it if they take time off. Instead, it was easier for them to take the entire day off. When Sugreev told the owner that he was going to the police station to check on his request, the owner did not seem happy. He wanted them to complete the work and then leave. "If you finish our work, then we will help you return home." he allegedly told them. Sugreev was quick in his response. He asked him - "So will you not help us, if we do not complete the work?" There obviously was no answer to that. 

At 10 AM, when Sugreev went to the police station again, a constable told them that this wasn’t the station they had to report to as their area came under a different police station. I really do not understand how it matters. The migrant workers like Sugreev do not have a permanent house in Bangalore. They live in a construction site and vacate it when the work is complete. Even if they do live in a rented house, does it really matter which police station has to take care of it? No address proof is asked from them anyways. I understand that the police wants to distribute the work but that is valid in normal circumstances, with people permanently living in an area. 

Anyways, we had no other option but to return to the same police station were we had already registered a few days back. This time, Sugreev spoke to the man who was registering workers on a computer. He was again asked for Seva Sindhu registration form and copy of Aadhaar card (ID card). He assured them that they would get a call from him soon. 

We no longer await that magic SMS. Instead, all of us are eagerly waiting for a call from the police station. Somehow, this time, things look positive. 


CONTINUED HERE - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 59 of Lockdown



Monday, May 11, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 48 of Lockdown

CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 44 of Lockdown



Magic SMS

11 May 2020


A few days ago, 16 migrant workers who were walking on a railway track to their village in Madhya Pradesh, felt so tired that they slept on the tracks near Jalna, Aurangabad district. Since the trains were cancelled, they assumed that no trains would ply on those tracks. Little did they know that they would be soon run over by a goods train. Perched atop a heap of mangoes on the Agra-bound truck coming from Hyderabad, 15 migrant workers were headed towards Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh. The truck overturned killing 5 workers and leaving 13 others injured. In another incident, a boy cycling back to Bihar from Delhi, was run over by a car while he was taking a meal break. These are only a few of the terrible incidents that are happening due to this ill-conceived lockdown. The pro-Government news channels do not find it important enough to highlight the plight of these poor migrant workers. Thankfully, there are some who are still doing their jobs as journalists. 

On the 6th of May, when Karnataka Government announced a stop on special trains, many labourers set off on foot towards their homes in the North of India. In two days, due to strong criticism by the opposition and worker’s union, the Government had to take a U-turn on its decision. Unfortunately there is still no clear communication on how this whole thing works. How can a migrant worker board these special trains?

Like Sugreev, many migrant workers who have registered on Seva Sindhu website or at a police station near them are still waiting for that SMS to show up, which would inform them of their itinerary. Many have given up hope. Sugreev told me that he had met a man from UP (Uttar Pradesh) who, with 17 others, is about to begin his walk on the 11th. Others before them, had done the same and found trucks to reach various destinations on this 2300 KM long journey. "If you are walking in bigger groups, the police won’t stop you", he had told Sugreev. Somehow, Sugreev and his friends could not make up their mind to take up this precarious journey. If they are to hitch-hike, they would have to travel from Bangalore to Hyderabad, then to Nagpur, Jabalpur, Prayagraj and finally Gorakpur. This journey isn’t safe by any means. Apart from that, the truck drivers charge anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 2000 per head.

This morning, Sugreev called me at around 7:30 AM. He told me that he had spoken to a man from his village who had recently left Bangalore on a Shramik train. According to him, the migrant workers gathered near Nice road junction on Kanakpura road would be handed over a token by the police and would then be transported to the railway stations in buses. By the way, to avoid crowd, the trains are not leaving from city center. They will only ply from Malur (50km) and Chikkabannur (20km). 

Looking at his eagerness, I decided to take Sugreev to Nice road junction and verify the news. On our way, I noticed that Bangalore has sprung back to life. Private vehicles are plying as usual and there are enough traffic jams at the traffic signals. Along the way, we stopped at two places to speak to different groups of migrant workers sitting by the main road. Everyone had the same story to tell. The police at the Nice road junction had asked them to go to their nearest police station for the tokens. 

At the junction, there were at least a 100 migrant workers waiting patiently with their luggage. To avoid the scorching sun, they had found some trees to sit under. We met a group of men from UP who had also registered on Seva Sindhu website but never received a SMS. They have been coming to this location every single day. They were discussing on spending the night at the tents setup outside a near-by police station. There, they would be served free food. 

The police had setup temporary camps next to the toll booths. There were around 10 policemen in the one we visited. I enquired about the situation with a constable. He politely gave us the necessary information. He told us that they were, in fact, handing out tokens to workers a few days ago and transporting them to the railway stations. But as it got crowded, they are now requesting people to go to the police stations near their house and make an entry, and wait for their turn. He told me that there was one train leaving to Bihar the next day and that they can get a token that same evening. When asked about a train to UP, he said that he did not have much information, as he himself was from Mysore. We thanked him and left.

We decided to inform Upendar about the Bihar train. Upendar has left the construction site near my house and has moved to his room on Bannerghatta road. His contractor has promised him to get a ticket back home. 

Sugreev and I rode to the police station near my house. Two constables were sitting in the main hall - A middle-aged man and a young man in his late 20’s. The older one asked me to wait as he had a man already sitting in front of him, waiting to file a complaint. He kept him waiting while he cracked some jokes with his friends. Meanwhile, we stood at a distance, waiting. 

A visit to a police station in India can be an emotionally draining experience. There was an enquiry going on in a room next to where we stood. Two boys were being questioned. We could clearly hear the constables hit the two as they pleaded for mercy. As people walked in and out of that room, we saw the police ruthlessly hitting the two boys with a hockey stick while the boys cried in pain. When the two boys saw me, their eyes displayed a mixed emotion of pain and embarrassment. And then, the door closed again. 

When it was our turn to speak to the constables sitting in the main hall, I narrated the situation to them. The old man told me that registering on Seva Sindhu website was sufficient. "A SMS would arrive soon",  he assured me. When I told him that it has been more than week and there has been no sms till date, he was dumbfounded. By then the young man, who I presume is new to this job, said that one has to also register at the police station. He asked me to bring all four workers to the police station. 

We went back home and asked the others to join us at the police station with their Aadhaar cards (National ID Card). By now the two boys who were badly beaten up by the police were sitting on a bench at one end of the main hall. Next to them, sat two more well-dressed, middle-aged men. A boy walked in straight up to one of them and handed over a cellphone. The police quickly stopped him. Apparently, it was the son of one of the men. The police confiscated the phone, scolded the boy, and asked him to go away. The two policemen were trying very hard to sound aggressive, but were failing miserably. 

One by one, the names of the workers were entered in a sheet of paper by the boy constable. He questioned each one of them on what was already on their Aadhaar card. When I tried to clarify something, he said to me in Kannada - " Wait! let them answer, I am verifying." 

What was he actually checking? Are they criminals? They want to go back to their homes and they are showing their Aadhaar card as ID proof. What is there to verify by asking them to repeat what is already in the card? I failed to understand, but he had to do his job. 

Meanwhile, one of the workers, Sudama had an issue. His Aadhaar card had his father’s name instead of his. So, his name was not Sudama, as mentioned in the card, but Neeraj. In India this is possible. Neeraj is the shy one and he barely answers a question. He wasn’t able to answer the constable well. The boy constable kept asking him all sorts of questions - What is the name of your village? Where are you going? What is the full form of UP (Uttar Pradesh)? Seriously, the cops were questioning them as though, they would lie and take a jolly ride in a train around India during this pandemic. 

And then, there was another major issue; this time with Neeraj’s age. As per the Aadhaar card, he is only 14 years of age. It is illegal for kids under the age of 14 to work. I had noticed this when I had registered them on the website. When I had asked about it, they told me that it was again an error in the card. I am not sure if that is true. What I know for sure is that we need to analyse this in detail before jumping into any conclusions. Why do people choose to work at young age instead of going to school? Is there a flaw in the system itself? We cannot sit in the comforts of our city homes and dictate law to the poor. A detailed analysis would be required.

Anyways, the constables were surprised. They laughed and told me that I could be jailed for hiring him. I explained to them again that I wasn’t their owner and was living next to the construction site where they work. Then the boy constable asked - 

"So, why is it that you are bringing them here?" 

"Because they have been struggling since the lockdown was announced and there is no one to help them." I replied without a delay. 

That seemed to silence him. He quickly went into a room and checked with another man who was working on a computer. That man suggested that age 15 can be written on the entry form. While the boy constable was away, the old man looked at me and told - 

"They will get a SMS soon. You should be doing all this work, but we are doing it on your behalf anyways." In India, that statement means  - "I shall be doing my duty, like it is a favour and would expect a bribe for it." 

Having dealt enough with the police before, I smiled and remained silent. The boy constable returned and quickly completed the details for the last worker.

"A SMS would arrive soon!" they sang in unison. 

However, Sugreev and his friends did not seem hopeful about this additional step in the process. Two of Sugreev’s friends for whom I had registered on Seva Sindhu website earlier were also asked to go to their nearest police station. They were turned back by the police without an entry. The policemen had told them - 

"All this is not required. Only Seva Sindhu registration is enough. We take entries just to give some hope to workers."

Poor communication and misinformation has been causing terrible confusion for the migrant workers. They are running from pillar to post just to get on that special train that the Government boasts about on newspapers and twitter accounts. The migrant workers are so scared of the police that they hesitate to speak to them directly. Some of them at the Nice road junction told us that they got caned. I felt that it was necessary to fill these men with some confidence. I told Sugreev - 

"There is no reason for you to be afraid of these policemen. You are not committing a crime. All you want is to go back home." 

It is ridiculous how all this is unfolding. We are treating these people like criminals. All they want is to return to their homes, that too, with their own money. The Government is charging Rs 1020 for a ticket. They are prepared to overcome any hurdle that may come their way to get on that train. But, the question is - 

When will that magic SMS arrive?

Thursday, May 07, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 44 of Lockdown

CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 34 of Lockdown



Migrant Workers

7 May 2020


On Labour day (1st May), another extension to the lockdown was announced; for another two weeks (Upto May17th). However, Government has decided to arrange transport for migrant workers. Many labourers from Odisha, Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh work in the South of India and other major cities in the country. They have been pleading the Government to let them return back to their families. 

Free buses are arranged for those who want to travel within the state. Shramik Special trains are also being arranged for migrant workers who want to travel to other states. The newspaper carried articles about these special trains but had no information on how migrant workers can avail this facility. Such is the state of journalism these days. I made sure to write a letter to the newspaper editor complaining about poor quality of reporting. If an article is only intended to inform us what happened and does not help us take action, it is useless. 

I informed Sugreev about the trains and asked him to try calling some helplines. He was directed to couple of numbers and finally was recommended to register for a travel on Seva Sindhu app or website. How can Government expect migrant workers to have smart phones or laptops to make such entries? This seemed utterly foolish. 

I then made their respective entries and submitted their travel request. Each one had to give their current address and destination, upload their Aadhar card and passport size photo before submitting the form. Sugreev wanted me to submit forms for two of his friends as well, therefore, in total, 7 forms were submitted, requesting for travel to UP and Bihar. I watched this on report by Ravish Kumar (The only sensible journalist we have today) that those workers who did not have access to Internet had to go to police stations where they were mistreated.

Thankfully, this extension has allowed all independent shops to open. I took advantage of the lockdown and went for a jog on the main road. Flyovers have been turned into jogging tracks. 

Indian Government has allowed operation of liquor shops for generating revenue. There were long queues in front of liquor shops around the country. And obviously there was chaos. All the Government needs now, is revenue!  

For Sugreev and his friends, the work at the construction site has resumed. Therefore they are able to focus on their work. They have to wake up early, cook their lunch before 8 AM and then work until 6 PM. Then, they cook their dinner. Remember, they have no refrigerator to store food during this summer. I prayed that the application would be accepted and that they can travel home soon. 

On the 6th of March Karnataka Government decided to stop all Shramik special trains to other states. Post a discussion with builders, it was decided that migrant workers would stay back to revive economy. Many who traveled to the railway station on the 6th of May, hoping to travel to their villages in the north of India, were turned back. Such a pathetic situation it is here. It is disgusting to say the least! 

For the Government of Karnataka, migrant workers are not humans, they are machines that run the economy. Those who build thousands of houses for us are denied permission to return back to their own homes. On the other hand, labourers from the state of Karnataka can return back to their villages on free KSRTC buses. Because, they are not machines, they are vote bank!

CONTINUED HERE - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 48 of Lockdown

Monday, April 27, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 34 of Lockdown


CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 24 of Lockdown



Changing Attitude

27 April 2020


A few days ago, Sugreev informed me that they are running out of grocery and it would be helpful if I called the Government helpline (155214). The last time they had called, the officials wanted someone who could speak in Kannada. So, I called the helpline. A man at the other end took my address and ensured that I would be contacted soon. We waited for three days and there was no response. I called them back again and this time a lady picked  up the phone and told me that it always took sometime to get the grocery and I should hear from the supplier within a few days. It has been more than a week now and we havent heard from them. Therefore, I decided to buy the grocery myself. So, that is Government COVID-19 helpline for you!

One day, Sugreev called me and informed me that there were several people standing outside our apartment. He wanted to know if they were supplying food. Upon enquiry, I learnt that a businessman who lives in the apartment opposite to that of our's has handed out coupons to some slum-dwellers via his employee. He was now distributing food grains to them. Two women came down and handed over big sacs of groceries to the people and took some pictures with them. So, that's Dhaan (Charity) by Upper class for you!

Sugreev seemed delighted that Oxford university is conducting human trials of a vaccine. He also informed me that they have taken details of migrant workers in the village. UP Government recently arranged buses to bring back students studying in Kota, Rajasthan. So, there might be chances that the labourers too would be brought back. 

I have noticed one big difference in my interactions with people such as vegetable vendors, grocery store owners, neighbours etc. Everyone has become much more compassionate towards one another. People are more polite now than ever before. The irritated, arrogant attitude among some people has disappeared. I hope we stay so when things get back to normal. 

We had an interesting class on philosophy of art. We discussed Tolstoy, Collingwood and Croce. In another class, we had an introduction to Rasa theory and a detailed study of a research done on Bhoota Kola ritual. As an artist, it was very interesting for me to understand the concept of rasa (Aesthetics or a sublime experience of an emotion). 

In Subaltern Studies, we discussed a little on Brahminical hegemony and Dalit movements. Mam made a good observation that I can completely relate to. She mentioned that as a Brahmin herself, she has always had an advantage in terms of how she was treated in the society. It is therefore, she said, that most Brahmins do not hesitate to object openly. For example, we do not hesitate to take up a fight with a boss or argue with someone if something seems wrong. Others may let it go or some may just accept orders. We, who have never been socially oppressed, often, revolt back. This also develops a certain arrogance in us that is hard to get rid of. In some small way or the other, it does show up in our behaviours. 

I completely agree with her. I have constantly been in this process of unlearning but there is a long way to go. Invariably, since childhood, several customs, mannerisms and behaviours have made us feel superior about our own lifestyle and it is really hard to let go of it. However, it is important to be aware of it in the first place so that we can make an attempt to change it. 

I recently watched a movie called 'Platform', that very well mocks our society. If only we eat as much as we need and share the rest with the others, there will be enough for everyone on this earth. Unfortunately, human greed at every level of this society has damaging effect on this planet and ourselves. 

***

Blacky, our apartment dog is doing far better with its injury curing rapidly. I had to submit a chapter of my dissertation for review and that kept me terribly busy for two full days. 

Continued Here - Covid-19 Diaries - Day 44 Of Lockdown

Friday, April 17, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 24 of Lockdown


CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 20 of Lockdown



An Extension

17 April 2020


Anti-muslim sentiments are growing day by day. Social media is filled with posts on how Muslims should be kept away as they are supposedly spreading the virus intentionally. A vegetable vendor I spoke to other day was suspicious of a Muslim man trying to sell her some potatoes for a wholesale rate. After he left, she told me that one has to avoid speaking to Muslims. When I asked her why, she had no answer but instead told me that that’s what people are saying. Sugreev and Upendar on the other hand, also told me the same. "This  disease is spreading because of Muslims." They watch local news and get most of their information on WhatsApp and youtube where such rumours are freely floating around. What is shocking is that, even some of the popular media houses in the country are spreading hatred and fake news. 

Other day, Sugreev and his friends ran out of cooking gas. The cylinder refill station was closed, therefore, they were considering to cook using firewood. I asked them if I could  prepare some rice for them real quick. They declined my offer as they did not want to trouble me anymore. My wife normally stores the coconut shells which come handy for construction workers who use them as fuel for cooking. We decided to give a sac of shells to them. One of the men helped Upendar with Mundan (Shaving of head when there is a death of close family member). 

While speaking to Sugreev, I learnt that he has four children. He tells me that in his village people get married very early, around the age of 20 or 22. In fact, he tells me that child marriages are still practiced in most villages though the girl moves to her in-law's house only after she turns 16. I asked him why he chose to travel and work here instead of staying back home and farming. "Are you paid better here?", I asked. He told me that they get almost similar wages in their village. But the only difference was job opportunity. There is more construction work happening in the cities than in his village or a small towns close by. Also, people there are okay with say, single coat of paint, while here, people are conscious of quality. More days they spend working, the more they earn. On the contrary, if they do not work, they don’t earn and therefore they can’t afford a meal. 

Migrant workers all over the country are facing such issues. Thousands of migrant workers in Surat, Gujarat staged a protest other day requesting Government to allow them to return to their respective villages. On the 14th of April, our Prime Minister announced that the nation-wide lockdown will be extended till the 3rd of May. This promoted a protest by migrant workers in Bandra, Mumbai.

Of course, with no work or income, they are unable to feed themselves. Additionally, they are also worried about the condition they are living in currently. Psychologically, they are suffering from home sickness, which tends to aggravate in such difficult times. 

A Tamilian woman who sells vegetables near my house is finding it difficult as well. She tells me that she gets the vegetables from Electronic city (Which is around 15km away). There are no buyers and the vegetables go stale as days pass by. She is left with no choice but to sell them at a much lesser price than intended. She even offered me some vegetbales for free. As always, I bought extra to share with Sugriv and his friends.

With the lockdown extended, things will only worsen for them. One can only hope that right measures are taken to ease their problems and that things would soon get back to normal. 


***

Well, here is what has been happening with our pets. Blacky, our apartment dog, is badly injured as it got bit by some stray dogs. Our watchman who takes care of the dog, got him vaccinated. To prevent Blacky from licking the wound, he requested me to get a mask and a spray for the wound, which I did. By the way, the kittens are doing great. After almost a week, they have now opened their eyes.


Monday, April 13, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 20 of Lockdown


CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 19 of Lockdown



Charity v/s Sharing

13 April 2020


In continuation to yesterday's episode, this morning, I asked Upendar if he had received any document from his village. He told me that after some contemplation, he has decided against traveling. His family had suggested him to stay back, as returning home did not seem like a feasible idea. First, he had to find a way to return home, which might take him at least a week, if not more. Even by train, they take 4 days to reach their village. Then, he will be in quarantine for 14 days in the village school. By then, the final rites of his daughter would be complete. So, considering this and all the other difficulties that he might have to face along his way back, the family decided against his travel. 

I called my student’s uncle who had some food supply to share. He arrived with some grocery that would suffice the labourers for at least ten days. There was a commotion out there when my student’s uncle met his friend from the apartment opposite to ours. This friend of his was loud-mouthed and together, they began to abuse the labourer's owner for not helping them. I was a bit worried that the owner might listen to this and cause trouble to the workers by asking them to vacate. I asked them to let it go. 

Then, the friend wanted to show off a bit. He called our watchman and made him tell how he offers them tea and snacks every evening. "Do I take any money from you guys for that?", he asked our watchman to which the latter shook his head. The friend then asked the workers why they never came out and that he did not even know they existed. All this boasting seemed extremely weird to me. I thanked my student’s uncle for his generosity and dispersed the crowd. 

Later that day, head constable Sriramalu called me. Sriramalu had helped us extensively during the mugging case. He has now become a good friend of mine. He told me that they were running out of good quality masks and jokingly asked me if I could buy him some from Bangalore. Well, with the lockdown, that seems impossible. I told him the story of Upendar and asked him if there was any chance of him being able to travel even after getting the pass. Sriramalu told me that it would be difficult as he shall have to hire a private vehicle to reach his village which is more than 2000 km away and that would be very expensive. "Video cameras are helpful during such events to view the final rites", he added. Indeed!

That evening we had an interesting class on subaltern studies. Mam introduced the topic and narrated a few examples. She mentioned about a Facebook post that she had read only a day ago. Someone had posted a story about their charity work during the pandemic. When they had gone to supply grocery to the poor, the poor had asked them - "Sir, food is fine, but what about the jobs? we have none." Someone had replied arrogantly to this post calling these poor ungrateful. "Even when you feed them they aren't happy and ask for something more", the reply was something in those lines. This in itself is a very elitist attitude. 

We tend to help people based on our opinions and thoughts on their situation. But we fail to understand their perspective. We tend to believe that if we feed the poor, their basic needs are met, and therefore, they shall remain satisfied. But, do we make an effort to put ourselves in their shoes and try to understand what they really want? Does their self-respect allow them to keep accepting our charity? Or do they want to earn their living, without relying on others? 

We also discussed the concept of Dhaana (Charity), which is prevalent in the current times. People are posting pictures of how they are helping the poor, and some, like that man from the apartment opposite to ours, want to brag about their petty favours. Mam clarified that Dhaana is a Brahmical or upper caste concept. We offer something as charity because we have an excess of it. But on the other hand, when a Dalit feeds a dog, he considers it as sharing of his possessions and not as charity. This struck me really hard.

Coming from a Brahmin family, I have seen this word being heavily abused. I have often been sceptical about this idea of Dhaana that lacked empathy. We often speak of Dhaana as a matter of pride. It is also an act of redemption. We go to the extent of calling the act of giving away used clothes as charity. It is also believed that our problems and difficulties would be transferred to the one receiving our used products. Even the idea of helping others, may give rise to a certain arrogance in people.

On the other hand, when Hanumma, a daily labourer living near my house in Surathkal, gives us some pulses that she has harvested from her fields, she does not consider it as charity. She is only sharing her produce with us. Therefore, it is not sympathy that we need to acquire, but empathy. This class gave a lot of clarity and comfort to me as I had been struggling to arrive at a solid conclusion to the doubts I had about these practices. 

When Sugreev thanked me for my help and told me that he shall remember my favour for the rest of his life, I thought to myself - I am just sharing what I have and that is my duty. Hence, through the subaltern's perpective, we can understand the subtle flaws in our own behaviours as the privileged. This clarity of thought, I believe, will allow us to be an empathetic individual. 

CONTINUED HERE - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 24 of Lockdown

Sunday, April 12, 2020

COVID-19 Diaries - Day 19 of Lockdown


CONTINUED FROM - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 18 of Lockdown



Grieving Alone

12 April 2020


Despite lockdown, today has been an eventful day. In the morning, I took a walk around my house to see if any salon was open. Unfortunately, I found none. On my way, I noticed a man chase a motorbike that was racing away. He told us (who had gathered there) that the two boys on the motorbike had snatched his cellphone. Deserted streets seems to have aided crime. Our apartment watchman informed me that a theft had taken place in his locality as well. The motive there was to steal some bottles of alcohol. There are several reports of people addicted to alcohol finding it hard to deal with this lockdown. 

I bought some vegetables and fruits from Gandhi bazaar. Once a busy market, today, received a small handful of customers. I have previously observed some of the vegetable vendors in Gandhi bazaar to be arrogant. They are known to quote higher price as compared to other vendors in the neighbouring localities. But today, they seemed eager to sell their products. Their helplessness was clearly visible on their faces. 

I bought some lentils and vegetables for the migrant workers. I also included some extra wheat powder that we had at home. In a piece of paper, I wrote down the Bangalore south helpline number (9946499464) that was launched by the local MP to help migrant workers and senior citizens. I also wrote down the house address in Hindi so that they could direct the officials. 

At home, our cat Baki did not budge and stayed in her basket all day, licking the kittens. I cooked Bisi Bele Baath for lunch and finished some University work. As part of my Philosophy classes, I was going through a study material on Subaltern studies and it was then that  a thought occurred to me - I should be narrating the story of this lockdown on my blog. Though the idea seemed interesting, I remained lazy to start penning down. 

A student of mine lives close by and she had mentioned on her WhatsApp status about some shelter and aid provided to people in need. When I enquired further, she told me that a school in Chamarajpet (a locality close by) had been converted into a shelter to house migrant workers and the homeless. They were served two meals a day. However, when I mentioned about it to Sugreev, he seemed a bit sceptical about moving to a Government shelter. They thought that it would be more like a prison for them. on the other hand, here, they had all the freedom. The only concern right now was managing food without money and work. 

I also enquired with my student if there was some aid provided in terms of grocery. She put me in touch with her uncle who has been distributing grocery for the needy and might have some stock left. I decided to call him the next day. 

In the evening, when I went to the terrace as usual, I enquired if they had contacted the helpline. Sugreev told me that he had called and they were directed to another helpline that  has been established by the state Government (155214). They had called that number as well but unfortunately, the person at the other end did not understand Hindi. The official had requested them to take help from someone and provide the address. I assured the men that I would do so. 

Meanwhile, Sugreev told me that daughter of Upendar had passed away last night. "I saw him crying last night and I thought may be he was feeling home sick because of the lockdown. But only later did he tell us that his 8 year old daughter had died", Sugreev added. 

I was shocked. Upendar stood silently next to him. He appeared stoic and that really made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure of his mental state and therefore hesitated for a while to ask him any detail. After a while, I asked him how she had died. He told me that she had suffered severe vomiting and diarrhoea. He had in fact spoken to her the previous day and she was fine. Upon further questioning, I learnt that they do not have a hospital in the village. A village doctor had diagnosed her. In the evening, when the situation worsened, they decided to take her to a hospital in the neighbouring town. On the way to the hospital, his daughter Sonakshi has passed away. Though he remained stoic, you don't have to be a genius to understand that he wanted to be with his family now. 

I advised him to go to the police station and narrate the incident so that the cops could may be help him. He thought about it for a while and discarded the idea thinking it wasn’t feasible. Since every state was under lockdown they may not be able to help him reach his village. It made sense. I returned back to my house, but remained extremely disturbed by the news.  

It simply did not seem right and I had to do something about it. Coping with grief all alone during lockdown seemed like one of the most difficult things to do. So, I called the Basvanagudi police station for help. They informed me that my locality came under Hanumanthnagar police station and I could reach out to them. I did so and the constable at the other end of the telephone asked me to bring Upendar to the station.

Upendar and I rode to the police station. There were several motorbikes parked on the outside. I considered them to be bikes confiscated from those breaking the curfew. I walked in directly to the head constable who was sitting in the main hall, speaking to an other constable. When I approached them, he asked me to maintain distance, wear the mask, and speak loudly and clearly. I restated the situation and they gave me a sheet of paper and asked me to write a request. To be honest, they had a rough and arrogant attitude. However, the tone of their speech did not bother me at all. If this was the first time I was dealing with the police, I might have felt offended. But, having dealt with them enough during the theft case, I remained unaffected by their behaviour. From my past experience with the mugging case, I have learnt one important thing -  if you are fully convinced that what you are doing is the right thing, you will have no fear or hesitation in dealing with it. 

I did not have a pen to write the letter so I asked a man standing next to me. He handed me his pen, but told me that he had to leave soon. I began to write the letter for Upendar in English. Meanwhile, I noticed that the man was eager to leave though he politely asked me to finish my letter. I therefore asked a lady standing next to me for a pen. She pulled out a pouch from her handbag and dropped a few pens on the table. At that moment, I failed to understand why she had not handed it over to me directly. I picked one, returned the other pen to the man who was in a hurry to leave and continued writing. After I was finished, I showed it to the head constable. He glanced at it and then asked me to take a signature from the SI (Sub Inspector). 

I walked into the office of SI and handed him the letter. SI asked me the motive and I explained the situation again. "Then you should be writing that", he said and wrote down the same thing in Kannada on the other side of the paper. I had actually detailed it out well in English. I shall allow you to arrive at the signification of this act by yourself. He then signed the paper and stamped a seal on it. Then, he asked me if Upendar had any proof of the death. Upendar remained clueless. "How could we believe anyone without documents?", The inspector added. He handed me back the letter and explained to me the next steps in the process. 

Next, I had to take it to the office of Assistant commissioner (AC) located in South end circle. He asked us to carry some proof of the event; a certificate or letter perhaps. I requested Upendar to get some note from the hospital, the village doctor or the village head. He made a telephone call to his family and told me that it could only be arranged the next day. By the time we returned home, it was 7:00 PM. We planned to visit the AC office the next day. 

Oh! by the way, when Upendar returned the pen to the lady, she refused to take it back. It is then that her behaviour became clear to me. She was avoiding contact. 

When I came back and reflected upon what had happened, I was deeply saddened. Everything seemed so strange. Here was a father, helplessly mourning his daughter’s death from thousands of miles away and we are asking him for documents to prove her death. I am not blaming anyone in particular for this. I am just shocked at the times that we are living in, that has made us incapable of easily trusting another human being.

Back at home, I had forgotten about my online class. I apologised to my student who lives in New York and began my class. After the class, I continued to watch the video on Subaltern studies. 

It was then that I realised how important it was to record these events; to narrate how this lockdown has affected common people. No journalist, no politician, no historian who is bound by an ideology or theory can record this without a grand narrative. It had to be the voice of common people; the subalterns. May be some day in the future, my blog posts would serve a bigger purpose of understanding the times that we are currently living in. Because, nobody else will report how Sugreev and his friends longed to return back to their village and how Upendar grieved alone. 

 *All previous post on lockdown are backdated. I began recording the events, this day onwards

CONTINUED HERE  - COVID-19 Diaries - Day 20 of Lockdown