This week, as India went into lockdown against an invisible enemy that has brought the world to its knees, my eighty-year-old father insisted his flower-pots would not pay the price.
Our balcony in a small town in West Bengal does not receive much sunlight. The plants droop. Lone shoe-flowers bloom once every other week. My father places the red, white, or saffron blossoms at the feet of his icons, by turns. My parents stay by themselves. So like most daughters away from their parents, I worry. My solution after the announcement of state lockdown was to home them with my mother’s family, in her ancestral village.
Over WhatsApp calls and frantic texts from Singapore, I directed my sterling young cousins, who packed up my parents’ household in a matter of hours, before the roadblocks made it impossible. My mother asked me questions like—should I take all papers with me? Should I do something about the jewellery? (We have precious little—valued more in terms of sentiment than money, but still.) Take whatever makes you feel calmer, I said. Don’t forget your prescriptions. Both of them are immunocompromised. I might have exposed them to infection during the car ride to the village.
Now, the entire family is hunkered down, waiting it out. We’re more fortunate than the rest- my family may not have excess, but still, enough space and supplies to weather things for a while.
Many Indians in Singapore with elderly parents in India are trying to get them support. Hearteningly, groups of Indian youngsters have come together in various cities—volunteering to take care of the elderly by delivering them essentials.
The trials of the middle-aged with their elderly parents are not over, though. Some parents insist they want to travel. Others want to go out to the market to ‘buy a few items.’ Parents with critical or chronic health issues. A daughter who is trying to find a way to reach India for her father’s funeral, but no one can go to India now. Frantic queries on social media groups. Rumours of curfews. Of jobs lost, of people taken ill. Of the imminent starvation of those who survive on daily wages.
My Italian friends send me dire warnings. On Twitter, the new word of this year trends from time to time—covidiots—those who do not follow rules to keep the COVID-19 at bay, who insist on hoarding. Memes abound, some saying that your choice is to rest at home, or rest in peace. After a spike of cases in Singapore, the government has locked down restaurants and cinemas, put physical distancing measures in place.
On other social media, I witness meltdowns. A friend could not get assistance for her husband who had driven a drill through his palm. Another who is losing it while locked down with a bunch of kids, without help, while both she and her husband must work from home. When I see doctors evicted from their rented properties in India for fear they might spread infection, my blood boils. I hear of doctors and nurses in other countries forced to work without proper protection, and envisage similar scenarios in India.
Once in a while, while watching the ticker rise all over the world, I feel as if I’m on a turbulent plane. None of it in my control, no ground beneath my feet, the seat-belt a poor protection if the plane nosedives.
Amid all of that, I talk to my mother. Tell her to be prepared for the long run, not listen to my father who’s been having meltdowns because without the newspaper he cannot do his daily crossword in Bengali; to just relax with her relatives. To eat carefully, not go out, and for the love of all of us, please stay safe.
To some friends still sending out invites for house parties in the condominiums, I wish to reply—I hope you don’t have doctors or health workers in your family.
Compassion, not judgement, I remind myself. Most of the panic shoppers or partygoers or determined selfie-takers are reacting from a place of fear.
In some ways, my frail eighty-year-old father clinging to a flowerpot in the face of a crisis is all of us.
Author of You Beneath Your Skin, Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore and supports Delhi’s underprivileged women and children, volunteering with organizations that work for this cause. The views expressed are the author’s own.