“They were working for us, so why not work for them?” Neeshi Jebisamam remembers thinking in April, a week after the nationwide lockdown was announced. But even at the outset, there were murmurs: “Isn’t it risky? What if you get the virus?” Arunachal Pradesh might have had only one case of the coronavirus back then, but panic had begun to set in.
The 25-year-old English teacher was determined though, and one bright morning, she held a meeting with 10 women at a government school, empty due to the lockdown, located on the edge of her hometown, Bhalukpong. The desks and benches were stowed away, large utensils brought in, and a stove crackled to life. The 10 — homemakers, nurses, teachers — put on their masks, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work.
And just like that, far away from the virus epicentres, Jebisaman and the others had joined the ranks of the countless corona warriors across the country whom The Indian Express is celebrating as part of the anniversary of the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai — the men and women best epitomising the stories of strength that had helped the city put the killings behind. A show recounting their stories was telecast on Star Plus on Sunday night.
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On day one, Jebisaman recalls, they produced a meal for 70, but only 35 showed up. But then slowly, as word got around of the Bhalukpong Women’s Langar, the numbers doubled, the simple fare of rice, dal and boiled vegetables gave way to stews of pork and bamboo shoot, chicken cooked with traditional herbs and, on some days, even feasts of the delicacy mithun. The langar is still running, now manned by the district administration.
“We never charged for our meals,” says Mary Sidisow, the 39-year-old staff nurse at the Community Health Centre (CHC) who first suggested the idea of a community kitchen. “Our objective was simple — to feed the frontline worker, be it a doctor, a nurse, a policeman or even a daily wage labourer. A free meal for anyone who was hungry.”
Sidisow had got the first inkling of how the coronavirus could turn life upside down in their small town, located in West Kameng district. Health workers like them had been roped in for new duties, including screening people at check-posts.
As the entry point to West Kameng, Tawang and East Kameng districts bordering Assam, Bhalukpong sees constant movement of security forces.
Sidisow says she realised that working long hours at the check-posts as well as the hospital, many of them ended up skipping lunch. “Our town is so small that we were used to going home for a bite.” Most of the 10 who volunteered for the community kitchen, which would start operations by 8 am, were from her extended family.
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“Bhalukpong’s community-based organisations had collected some money from donations, we pooled in too,” says Sidisow. “I would finish work at the CHC early (having taken permission for the same), head home, put on comfortable clothes and head to the kitchen around 11 am.”
The oldest volunteer was Bajim Sagro, nearly 60. “Everyone knew everyone,” says Jebisamam. “Time would just fly as we chopped vegetables, planned the menu for the next day, and figured out how we could improve our dishes.”
Adds Amita Sangcho, 42, one of the volunteers, “The kitchen became our priority, took precedence over everything else. Once we stayed till 7 pm, that’s how long it took to feed everyone lunch.”
Often the lockdown made vegetables hard to source. “We would drive down 10 km to another town to buy from local farmers,” says Sidisow. Several people donated in the form of chicken and pigs. “In that sense, it was purely a community-run, donation-based kitchen.”
Among hundreds who would walk in for a hot meal every afternoon was Dr Tage Neha, Senior Medical Officer at the CHC. “We have been on Covid duty since March. In the initial days, late night dinner was the only meal I was certain of,” he says. “Until these ladies came along — the saviours of Bhalukpong.”
In July, as cases spiked, community members advised the women to shut the kitchen till things settled down. “We didn’t want to, but we understood that the risk had increased. We made it clear we were ready to pitch in whenever required,” says Sidisow.
Jebisamam has moved to another town, another Army school, carrying the memory of those days even as she holds online classes. “Initially, we would reminisce about our time at the kitchen, and keep popping in to check if the officials were doing their work. We spent three months there, it became a part of our lives, giving us immense joy at a bleak time.” The biggest satisfaction was the thanks they received from people, including high-ranking officials.
One health worker who had come to eat took their pictures as they served food, and posted these on Facebook. “He wrote a long, heartfelt post on us and our kitchen,” says Sidisow. “We were only cooking but someone actually thought it was special.”