Maya sits alone at her window every day, thinking of how much life changed when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. In the weeks that follow the announcement of a nationwide lockdown, she gets to know the stories of people around her. From her classmate Chinmay – who has to skip online school to sell vegetables – to the aged scrap dealer who is unable to work after falling ill, everyone seems to be on their own, doing what they can to stay afloat. Maya hopes for all their sakes that better days are on their way.
“Bo-rrring!” she announced to no one in particular.
Maya sat at the drawing room window and looked out at the deserted road. It was as if Covid-19 had erased the exciting everyday bustle and cheer from her street. Earlier, the footpath used to be lined with fruit and vegetable vendors, and the sound of them announcing their wares used to float in through her window. Nowadays, she could only spot the fish vendor and only rarely. No one seemed to want to buy anything from her anymore, whereas in the past they used to rush out as soon as she came into the street. Once in a while, Maya spotted someone masked up and hurrying along nervously to the grocery stores nearby. She sighed.
Just a few weeks earlier, Maya had rejoiced like many of her classmates had when they first heard about schools closing down – no exams! But the isolation also meant no friends. She decided that it would have been infinitely better to go to school and see them, even if it meant writing those dreaded exams. But there was a pandemic raging outside – so they were cooped up inside.
To the bright-eyed 12-year-old, it felt like the hundredth time she was staring at this view. Her mother had explained that the newly discovered Coronavirus was very contagious and attacked the respiratory system. Maya learnt that it had already spread all over the world, stopping everyone in their tracks. Many other countries had also announced lockdowns, with only those in essential services being allowed outside.
The past month had been unlike anything Maya had ever known. Except for her father who worked in a large kirana (grocery) store selling fruits, vegetables, dairy and snacks, no one else in her house had stepped out even once. Ma (mother in Hindi) was a primary school teacher and she was busy all day long, juggling her online classes with household chores, including the ones baba (father in Marathi) usually did. Baba’s new coworker had tested positive for Covid just before he was due to join work, and this meant baba had to take on all the responsibilities at the store. Maya’s grandmother, who loved to run errands for the household because she enjoyed the fresh air and exercise, had to stop doing so, because people aaji’s (grandmother in Marathi) age and older were classified high-risk. As for Maya and her older sister Dyuti, they sat in front of the computer or smartphone and watched their teachers in small boxes on the screen for hours on end, until the time came to log out. Ma, who was usually strict regarding studies being a teacher herself, had left Maya free to do what she pleased during the evenings, but there was nothing to do and there were no friends to meet.
The only thing Maya looked forward to was spending time with aaji over the weekend, and learning how to play the harmonium. Aaji taught her patiently and told stories about the old instrument that had been in the family since aaji’s childhood. It was slow, but fun nonetheless. Maya liked listening to aaji’s accounts of what life was like all those years ago, and asked if she had ever lived through a lockdown back when she was a little girl. Aaji replied that she had never seen anything like this in her lifetime. “The last time the world saw a pandemic so terrible was more than a hundred years ago!” said aaji. “It was in 1918.”
Aaji saw Maya’s eyes widen and smiled gently at her while playing a silly tune to lift her granddaughter’s spirits. As the notes rang out, Maya looked at the window. Someone was approaching their front door. It took her a moment to recognize the boy. “Chinmay!” yelped Maya excitedly as she rushed to the door.
Maya grabbed her soft cloth mask and fastened it around her nose and mouth as ma opened the door.
“Hi!” she exclaimed, delighted to finally see a friend from school. “How are you, Chinmay? I haven’t seen you in online class at all. Come in!”
“Uh, no, my mother told me not to go inside anyone’s home,” he replied apologetically, his voice slightly muffled behind his bright green mask. “I’ve been working all morning and it’s so hot. I thought I could get some water at your house.”
Working! Maya was surprised but didn’t get the chance to ask him anything, since ma immediately sent her to fetch him some water. As she filled the glass, she looked out the window. Had Chinmay been toiling all morning outside?
On returning, she saw him resting on the shaded steps outside, talking to her mother, a basket partially filled with vegetables resting next to him. He accepted the water with a smile. Maya looked over at the vegetables and asked, “Are you selling those?”
Chinmay nodded. “You know my father worked as a driver, right? He lost his job recently and so did aai (mother in Marathi) who used to be a cleaner at a big office. My father found work now as a security guard a few streets over but aai is still looking for work. So Snehal and I have to sell these every morning.” Maya knew Snehal, his older sister. She was friends with her too. She glanced at the basket. It looked like it would be heavy when full. She couldn’t imagine carrying it all morning. “It must be tiring, lugging all those vegetables around,” she said. “I can’t even begin to tell you,” he said and wiped some sweat off his brow. “My neck hurts so much every evening! My mother gives me an oil massage with a warm cloth when I get home. That way, I can carry another load of produce the next morning.”
Maya’s mother, who’d gone inside, returned with a plate of ladoos which she offered Chinmay. His eyes lit up when he saw the ladoos, but he hesitated. “If you don’t mind, could you put them in a box for me to take home? I don’t want to take off my mask and this way, Snehal can have some too.”
“Of course!” ma said, going in and returning with a tiffin box. Maya smiled, remembering how Chinmay always liked to share his lunch at school. “Do you have to go to the big market every day?” her mother asked, handing the box to Chinmay. He nodded. “But it’s usually Snehal who goes either with our father or with Vikram, our neighbour. He lends us his scooter but we pay for petrol. Aai then bundles the vegetables for us to sell.”
It was nearly noon and Maya saw there were only a couple of bundles of greens and a few sprigs of curry leaves in his basket.
Maya’s mother bought all of it. As she was paying him, she added that he could come to their house regularly; they certainly needed vegetables. Chinmay got up, happy to have sold everything and happier still to be free of the load of his basket. “Bye!” he chirped as he left.
Maya waved back. As she put the vegetables away, her mother said she would ask around if there was any work for Chinmay’s mother. Maybe someone at the school might know, she said.
Maya wished desperately that someone would help, so her friends wouldn’t have to work and miss all their classes.
The next day was Sunday but Maya’s entire family was busy. Aaji was on the phone with one of their relatives who had tested positive for Covid and had been admitted to the hospital with slight breathlessness. Maya’s older sister was attending an online lecture about further studies. Ma was on a long conference call with other teachers from the school where she taught. Baba was poring over his accounts books, looking worried, as many of his customers had switched to online grocery shopping lately.
“How is Anand kaka (uncle in Marathi)?” Maya asked aaji as she ended the call. Anand kaka was her favourite uncle and he would often talk about how good health was the greatest blessing. “He’s going to be okay, they say. He needs to be under observation for a few days and can then come home,” replied aaji. She turned towards the TV that baba had on in the background and shook her head sadly. Maya watched a report that showed thousands of migrants walking home to their villages since the lockdown meant closure of all inter-state trains and buses. “Hundreds of kilometers in this summer heat. Terrible,” gasped baba, looking up at the screen. Maya watched, shocked, as the news reporter spoke of a girl her age who had collapsed on the way and died.
“I’m going to go talk to Shuklaji for a minute. Do you want to come along?” baba asked Maya, getting up from his chair. “He’s been wanting to return to his village. I wonder what his plan is.”
Shuklaji was one of the security guards in their housing society. Originally from Uttar Pradesh where the rest of his family still lived, he had been working in Mumbai for at least two years now. He had told baba earlier that his family was so worried about him, and that they wanted him to come home to their village so he could be safe.
Shuklaji was seated in his usual position on a chair near the gate. A man was standing next to him with a couple of packed bags. Maya recognized him as Mohan, the security guard from one of their neighbouring buildings. As they approached, Mohan waved goodbye to Shuklaji and left.
“Hello! Out for a walk?” Shuklaji greeted them.
“We came to check on you,” Maya’s father answered. “I was wondering what happened to your travel plans. Did you get any information?”
“Ah, no!” Shuklaji replied. “The whole thing is a mess. There is no news about when the lockdown will lift. I wish I lived nearby like Mohan does. He is going home to Kolad today.”
Just then, the local tea vendor stopped by on his bicycle with the afternoon tea. Taking his tea from the vendor, Shuklaji continued, “Thankfully, we get our tea here and my agency provides us with daily meals. But I used to work in Andhra Pradesh a few years ago and the people I worked with have been having a really terrible time in this lockdown… no wages as there is no work.”
“How are they managing then? And why are they not getting paid?” baba asked, lines of worry forming on his forehead.
“They work in a village as security guards but it is very informal. There isn’t any fixed salary. In the first few days of every month, they would go to all the houses and shops in the neighbourhood to collect whatever wages they could. It used to be around 20-30 rupees from each place. But in the lockdown, they haven’t gotten anything since shops are closed,” said Shuklaji.
“Do they at least have the essentials?” baba asked, his voice now tense.“Barely. The last time I talked to them, they said they’d bought a cylinder and some rations with the little money they had. But they ran out of it soon enough.”
“Are they from your village too?” Maya asked. “They must also want to return.”
“That’s another problem they have!” Shuklaji replied. “My friend Gopal and his son are from Nepal. The Nepal government closed the country’s borders in March itself. None of them can go back. The most they can do is reach one of the border outposts and wait till they’re allowed to cross.”
“Oh, no!” exclaimed Maya, thinking of the people she saw on the news, walking for days. And to think some people would not even be allowed to go home after all that struggle!
“And the worst thing…” Shuklaji continued. “Gopal’s son Akash isn’t doing very well. He had an accident a few months ago and hasn’t fully recovered. They didn’t even have money for the treatment. I wish I could return to my village, but if I stay here, perhaps I can save some money and help him out. Even then, he needs a whole lot of luck to make it through this ordeal.”
Maya’s face fell and she felt anxious for the people Shuklaji was telling them about.
“I hate online school,” Maya muttered, as she submitted her homework through WhatsApp the next day. Her head and shoulder hurt from using the phone all the time, and she was always rubbing her eyes. She missed talking to her friends and longed for the days when school ended when the last bell rang. Now, it was as though the school day went on forever, with endless messages trickling into the class WhatsApp group. Maya and her friends were constantly having to ask questions on it, to find out what happened if they missed a few minutes of class when the internet wobbled.
She thought about those who didn’t have internet connections. “What do those children do?” she asked baba. “They don’t go to school at all,” he said. “But how will they catch up?” Maya asked. Baba shook his head. “It will be very difficult,” he sighed. “Come on, let’s get to work and help in whatever way we can.”
Maya and baba spread a huge set of textbooks and learning materials out on the floor. Many students at ma’s school had no access to the internet, so the faculty had decided to take pictures of the material and then put it in an online folder. Some teachers who had printers at home had volunteered to print out copies for the children who didn’t have smartphones, so they would at least receive study materials through the post.
They looked around at the room and at all the old books, paper and scrap that had gathered in the room. “After we’re done with this work, we must sort everything out and throw out what we don’t need,” said baba. Maya thought it was strange how they had never noticed the growing pile, perhaps because they had never been home for such a long stretch before this.
Maya had overheard baba talking to aaji earlier that morning. The owner of the kirana store had refused to pay the new employee for the two weeks in isolation, and had said that baba would only receive half-pay during the lockdown, since there was a dip in sales. Aaji had replied that this was worrying, since they still had to pay the full rent for their flat. “Let’s see,” baba had said. “We need to think of ways to save more. I can take the scrap with me to the dealer on my way to work tomorrow.”
“But we always give our scrap to Moru,” Maya had said, walking up to them. She suddenly wondered about the elderly scrap collector who visited their neighbourhood once a week calling out for scrap. She hadn’t seen him lately.
“Apparently Moru contracted Covid at the beginning of the month and has been in pretty bad shape since. But his family is taking good care of him,” said Ma, adding that Moru’s son had called to let their neighbour know, during contact tracing.
“Poor Moru,” said Dyuti from the next room. “Scrap dealers have been having a tough time during the lockdown.” She went to the computer and pulled up an article. “I was reading this article about a scrap dealer in Bengal the other day – Kalu Das. He used to collect scrap in Kolkata for 25 years before the lockdown put a stop to his work.”
“25 years!” Maya exclaimed.
“A long time, isn’t it? He came over from Bangladesh in 1971 because of the conflict,” Dyuti said. “The article says he earned about 3000 rupees a month before the lockdown. And I don’t think Moru earned any better. Not much they could have saved to tide them through this period.”
Maya looked around the room at the piles of books, newspapers and magazines accumulated over the years. All of these things which must have cost so much when they were bought would not amount to even a fraction of that cost as scrap.
Maya peered at the screen and saw a photo of Kalu Das. He looked as old as her grandfather would have been and hated to think of him not having any money during this time. Maya wondered glumly how much longer it would be until Covid went away.
Maya woke up early the next Sunday and thought it was odd that the house was so quiet. Ever since the school year had begun, everyone had been constantly busy. She and her sister Dyuti would be attending virtual classes well into the afternoon on weekdays and Ma would be busy teaching her class online too. With baba’s reduced pay, ma had taken up more responsibility at school and that meant she was busy with work till late in the evenings, even on weekends.
For once, Maya had no homework to complete. She went to her usual window seat. Shuklaji was stretching his legs near the gate and Atif, who was employed to wash cars and motorcycles owned by people in the neighbourhood, was working in the compound.
Maya looked on as he rinsed the cloth rag in the bucket by his side and squeezed it before turning his attention back to the motorcycle he was currently cleaning. Atif looked different. He had become thinner. Maya knew that he had contracted Covid a couple of weeks ago and had to be hospitalized. She noticed that he still looked a little weak. He wasn’t joking around with Shuklaji like he used to before nor was he chatting with the newspaper delivery boys as they passed the gate.
“Hello, Maya,” he called up to her when he spotted her at the window. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, Atif uncle,” Maya answered. “How are you doing? I heard you were sick.”
“I’m better now. Well enough to work anyway,” he smiled. Before Maya could say anything else, one of her neighbours approached Atif and pulled him into a conversation. Ma had woken up in the meanwhile and joined Maya at the window.
“Atif is back today, I see,” ma noted, sadly. “He had to be in the hospital for almost a week, did you know?”
Maya nodded, “He doesn’t seem well enough to work so much yet.”
“No. But I suppose he can’t go any longer without a job. He also had to get his 14-year-old son to help him. I think he’s working in the next building.”
As ma went into the kitchen to start the day, Maya noticed that aaji had woken up too. She was once again fiddling around with her harmonium. She had been complaining for a few days now that it was out of tune. When Maya approached her, she was covering the instrument with a cloth.
“It isn’t getting fixed anytime soon,” said aaji.
“I thought you were going to call one of your friends about it,” Maya asked.
“I did,” replied her grandmother. “I called an old friend. She knows a group of petiwallahs (Hindi for those who repair harmoniums) who are experts in the art of repairing these instruments. They travel all over the state from October to June every year repairing harmoniums.”
“And how would they travel with the lockdown?” asked Maya. “I suppose the pandemic has been horrible for them too.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” said aaji. “They come from Madhya Pradesh every year and travel to many places across states repairing harmoniums on the way. They have not been able to do this after the lockdown was announced in March.”
“Can they go home at least, aaji?”
“No. It’s the same story as those friends of Shuklaji’s,” aaji replied. “They have no money to travel nor is there any transport. The friend I called mentioned that an organization called Avartan Pratishthan has been helping them. They raised money to provide the company with ration kits.”
“Thank goodness,” said Maya, but aaji still looked upset.
“It’s a disgrace really, the tiny amount of money they earn! Do you know the skill it takes to tune a harmonium? One needs expert knowledge of swars (notes in Hindi) and shrutis (pitch in Hindi). Understanding the variations and tuning the same to match the vocals requires an extraordinary grasp of frequencies, pitches, rhythms and layas (rhythm in Hindi). It’s no easy task.”
“But then why do they get paid so little?” asked Maya.
“Because no one appreciates certain skills anymore,” answered aaji. “Indian classical music is losing its popularity and with this, the people who support it are also suffering. Like my friend said, getting a piano tuned costs 7,000 to 8,000 rupees nowadays whereas harmonium tuners barely get 2,000 rupees. These people are skilled artists. But when the art itself is dying, what are the artists to do?”
Aaji put away the harmonium and left the room. Maya went to sit at the window again and noticed it had begun to rain. Normally, she would get excited at the sight of raindrops, but today, she thought about all the things she had learnt during the lockdown. If it wasn’t the virus, then it was the lockdown itself that had been badly affecting people. She thought about all those who had lost their lives or livelihoods. And how the news said the rainy season was going to make it all worse.
In the distance, she saw a man pushing something and passing by their building. As Shuklaji waved at him, Maya recognised the man as Babu, the very old soft-spoken tailor who used to set up his machine down the road and mend torn clothes or stitch small things like patchwork tablecloths. He’d stopped coming around during the lockdown, but here he was again, looking frail and tired.
Maya waited for him to park at his usual spot, her mind racing to think of what they could give him to mend, but he pushed his wheeled sewing machine around the corner and dashed off as the rain suddenly came down harder. She craned her neck to look for him and thought to herself, “What kinds of things must Babu have endured during the past month to make him want to set up shop again in the middle of a pandemic? And if he can’t even do that, what will become of him?” Her shoulders slumped as the clouds hosed and flattened everything in sight. “We’ll send a message to everyone in the building’s WhatsApp group,” said baba wearily. “That way, when the rain stops and he returns, we will be able to give him some business at least.”
Maya nodded as baba sent out the message. She closed her eyes, listening to the steady hum of the storm. She pictured the gentle face of Babu in her mind’s eye, and wished with all her heart that a bit of luck would find its way to him.
Note from the PARI Education Team
This story is a work of fiction, based on PARI’s extensive coverage of Covid-19 and the lockdown beginning in March 2020.
As the country went into lockdown, it was reported that around 122 million people lost their jobs, a majority of them being small traders and wage workers. In the year following the lockdown, household incomes fell, making it difficult for families to find money for even basic necessities.
The exodus of migrant workers on foot from urban to rural areas is said to be one of the greatest humanitarian crises in India’s modern history. It is estimated that as many as 11.4 million migrant workers (roughly double the population of New Zealand) were left with no choice but to walk hundreds of kilometres to get home.
COVID-19 or Coronavirus was initially identified in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020. By April 2020, about half of the world’s population was under some form of lockdown and countries closed their borders.
The author drew from PARI stories including Schoolkids: digital divide to digital partition, Lockdown lays waste to Kalu Das’s scrap work and Dealing with dissonance, restoring harmony. All other names, places, dialogues and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination.
Ma: mother in Hindi
Baba: father in Marathi
Aai: mother in Marathi
Aaji: grandmother in Marathi
Kaka: uncle in Marathi
Petiwallahs: Hindi for those who repair harmoniums
Swars: notes in Hindi
Shrutis: pitch in Hindi
Layas: rhythm in Hindi
Swadesha Sharma is pursuing a master’s degree in English Literature at SNDT Women’s University. She has always been interested in exploring diverse narratives, their intersections and the spaces they occupy within larger social constructs. Swadesha considers journalism as well as fiction to be effective tools in highlighting and examining the experiences of the most vulnerable people in society. She says of this experience, “My work with PARI helped me explore the narratives of a diverse cross-section of individuals and also understand the sensitivity needed in portraying their lives.”