‘Covid return’: Will the next wave of pandemic change the world again?
I was not supposed to be writing on this subject in this particular column – in this particular week. I mean, we are just days away from the year coming to a draw and there’s a rather infectious air of positivity and optimism all around that is hard not to soak in. Plans for Christmas, boisterous parties on New Year’s eve, resolutions made on 1 January – we know the rest.
And yet, tonight, as I pack in my room for an international trip, tomorrow afternoon, my 72-year-old, mother panics, asking wistfully, minutes after reminding me for the nth time to carry an N95 mask, stay away from crowded areas and sanitise my hands, ‘is the world going to change again?’ My father, who is sitting beside her and battled for his life in Intensive Care for a month, last year, during the deadly second wave, mutters, absent-mindedly, ‘you may be tested after you return, just read that 2 per cent of total passengers are going to be randomly tested at the airport on arrival…Covid returns…’
Their words linger in the air.
Just before my parents walked in. I am on a call, describing my newly applied hair colour and how I had to wait longer at the parlour, this afternoon, because my hair-stylist, a Kolkata born and raised Chinese woman makes the streaks a tad redder than usual.
I used to be a self-certified brunette – but, last year, a part of me, changed irrevocably as I lost more than half my hair to the deadly virus. Clumps fell out. Choking the drainage in my bath tub. Covering my pale pink, silk pillow case. Crisscrossing my wooden floor, inviting the daily commentary of my house help, who offered indigenous remedies for hair growth – and massaged my practically bald scalp with an oil, I prepared personally – adding whatever I knew was good for new hair to sprout – dried hibiscus petals, mustard seeds, coconut, almond and olive oil, aloevera from our garden, downstairs, amla…you name it.
I remember breaking down like an indolent child, when Michelle, chopped off what was remaining – tenderly consoling me all the while, claiming that the month long dosage of steroids had destroyed my hair follicles – and that she had no choice but to do away with the length.
All my life – my hair was my confidence. I grew up a fat girl, who was body shamed and bullied. The buckteeth didn’t make it easier. I closed my eyes, refusing to see myself as she held a mirror at the back of my head to show me my new haircut. I felt like I did, growing up.
Ugly. Incomplete. Fragile.
This afternoon, there are two elderly ladies at the parlour. One of them is a regular and smiles acknowledging me – the other, her friend, maybe, speaks with a distinct accent. Clearly, she is visiting. They talk about the new variants of the Covid and are fearful of what lies ahead. The friend curses China.
‘Virus manufacturers…killing the world…there should be a total boycott on everything Chinese…all Chinese people should be sent back to their virus factory…’ she hisses, pursing her thin lips.
Michelle who is in her mid-40’s grew up in Tangra – known as Kolkata’s China, an area that traditionally housed many tanneries and once constituted one of the major industries of Bengal owned by people of Hakka Chinese origin. Apart from popular restaurants specialising in spicy and oil slicked Chinese delicacy for the middle class Bong gentry – Tangra also boasted of a very old and auspicious Kali Mandir, located close to the Kim Fa restaurant and Relax Foreign Liquor Shop.
A mecca for both Chinese and Hindu devotees, Michelle, like most of her ilk, speaks fluent Bengali and today employs a host of Bengali beauticians in her newly opened parlour in swish South Kolkata – a post Covid, entrepreneurial venture, when the salon where she worked for close to three decades shut shop unceremoniously, thanks to vacillating and lengthy lockdown schedules that swallowed what was once a rip-roaring business. Her previous owner, a prosperous Marwari woman, left for London where the rest of her family resided – selling the parlour, unable to break even. One hears she did not provide any compensation to her loyal workers. The Covid made that commonplace – selfishness.
I watch from the corner of my eyes as Michelle pretends not to listen.
Maybe, she doesn’t care.
Maybe, she cares just enough.
Business is still brisk.
I ask about her younger son – studying in twelfth.
‘I am planning to send him also to Canada…like my older one…it costs me a lot…but, life is better…I have my sister there…’ she muses, heaving a sigh, her eyes strangely vacuous.
Jessica – her unmarried and childfree sister-in-law who manages the cash and sits behind a tall white counter with a Laughing Buddha, speaks of visiting Hongkong to meet her extended family.
‘We could only stay two weeks…Indian passport holders can’t stay longer…and, the first week was spent in testing for Covid at government approved centres and getting clearances…’ she makes a face.
The friend who is waiting her turn for a haircut smirks.
It’s an expression I recognise.
A look I saw on countless faces in Delhi and Bangalore where I lived and worked for close to two decades, living like Michelle and Jessica and countless other immigrants, outside their home town, outside their home state…and, countries.
I saw that look as women from North East were brandished as Chinese and labelled ‘Chinky.’
Eve-teasing, molestation and harassment by young men and over-charging by autorickshaw and taxi drivers being some of the most common problems faced by women from the North-Eastern states in the four cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore, a 2014 survey conducted by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, stated.
27 per cent women complained about over-charging by taxi and autorickshaw drivers while 26 per cent complained about molestation or eve teasing. The survey, sponsored by the National Commission for Women found that 27 per cent of respondents had faced verbal abuse for being mistakenly identified as foreigners. Besides, while 14 per cent said that shopkeepers often overcharged them, 16 per cent complained that landlords asked them “uncomfortable” questions about their lifestyles, work, food and native place. 4 per cent of the women said they were declined tenancy as they belonged to the Northeast and 3 per cent stated that they had faced harassment on the streets by young men. It found that migrant women were especially vulnerable to deprivation, hardships, discrimination and abuse, and that such cases were 30 per cent more pronounced vis-a-vis women from the Northeast. However, the survey found that despite the discrimination, 44 per cent of the respondents would still encourage their friends and relatives to migrate to the metro cities as these held better opportunities for both education and work.
A young girl who is busy on the phone while getting a pedicure is discussing Afghan women sobbing and consoling one another outside universities after being turned away by Taliban guards. This on the heels of the country’s Taliban rulers ordering women nationwide to stop attending universities effective immediately.
‘Eye erak jaat….(this is another race)! Amader desheo bhore gelo…eye State tao oder hobe…(our country is also full of them…even our State will be theirs soon),’ another buxom lady who is also getting a pedicure, retaliates, gesturing to the two women.
Pinky, a quiet girl with blonde streaks massages her feet, looking away.
I wonder, if the lady knows her name.
Her jaat (Muslim).
On 13 September, 2022, the Morality Police arrested 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian Mahsa Amini in the street in Tehran while she was visiting the city with her family. The Morality Police informed Amini’s brother that they were detaining her for “improper” hijab and taking her to an “educational and orientation class.” They threw her into a van and, according to eyewitnesses, beat her in the vehicle while en route to the police station. The Morality Police later told her brother two hours after her arrest, as he waited outside the station, that she had suffered a heart attack and brain seizure. He watched an ambulance take her, comatose, to the hospital. “I found her face swollen and her legs black and blue,” her brother said after visiting her.
Amini passed on 16 September, 2022.
Pinky wears a fitted, half-sleeved tee and tight jeans and sports short hair.
Coloured flaming red.
She is single by circumstance.
Abandoned by her husband. She now lives with Michelle’s mother.
Just then, I receive a phone call from my best friend, an Anglo Indian, Roman Catholic who now lives and works in Perth. Her ageing and retired parents, are visiting. She has rung to wish me a safe and happy journey and to inform me that her parents have ordered my Christmas cake – a ritual that is an annual repeat. Her father receiving his consignment of rich, wine soaked plum cakes that are made to order and baked by a Muslim baker in Metiaburuz.
I tell her I miss them.
Then I say how I am carrying the same.
A Jewish bakery in New Market – a colonial vestige.
Michelle is Catholic.
I am Buddhist.
I don’t know why I think of the nurse who watched over me as I tossed and turned in my sleep. On nights, when the dead were wheeled out, practically every passing second, wrapped in transparent, green plastic – when the life support machines, stopped beeping. Junior doctors in PPE suits running helter skelter – as if there was a mighty war. Screaming instructions. The bed next to me, almost immediately filling up.
It didn’t matter who you were.
No one cared.
No one could.
Life was a statistic.
I remember Michelle sending me photos of new hair styles to cheer me up. Promising me roasted pork, a staple from her sister’s Chinese eatery, in winter.
I remember my Manipuri nurse who had lost her own sister – a nurse in the national capital hold my trembling hands, more than once, and reciting the rosary.
I remember the lady who pushed the van with food bringing me a bowl of freshly cooked rice and a piece of fried fish – the first day I was able to breathe, sans support and IV’s.
‘Ma-er heather moton (like your mother’s hands)’ she smiled, from a distance.
I promised to write a special recommendation for her, when and if I was discharged.
‘Najma…’ she had smiled, shyly, looking back at me.
‘Is the world going to change, again…’
My thirteen-year-old sister who has fought Covid twice, places her head on my shoulders.
I want to tell her what I know.
What I have seen.
I want to tell her about women all over the world.
And, about the women in the parlour.
I want to say a lot, tonight.
Instead, I write this….
The writer is the best-selling author, Sita’s Curse, Status Single, Leading columnist on gender & sexuality, Community Founder – Status Single, India’s first and only community for 75 million single Indian women. Views expressed are personal.