In the space of two months, over 1,000 residents of Mumbai have fallen to Covid-19. They were ordinary men and women, who are now part of India’s growing number of coronavirus victims. To their family members though, they are more than just a statistic. Having said their goodbyes from afar, nine families recall the frightening moment of testing positive and how they choose to remember their lost parents, spouses, siblings, children and friends.
Sulabha Ambetkar (64), self-taught singer who toured the world.
Her performance of the Asha Bhosle classic “Dum Maaro Dum” was so convincing that her audience often believed the legendary playback singer was herself on stage. “The way Sulabhaji presented herself and carried herself on stage it was as though Ashaji was singing,” said Chetan Rana, colleague and fellow performer. Along with her saxophonist husband Nandakumar Ambetkar, Sulabha was among the most respected singers in Mumbai’s live performance circuits.
A diabetic, Sulabha tested positive after developing a urinary tract infection and fever despite staying at home. She passed away at Seven Hills Hospital in Marol on May 7 after her breathing rapidly deteriorated, said her son-in-law Shailendra Pednekar, a percussionist. He remains confident that Nandakumar, who tested positive too, will make a full recovery, “My father-in-law also tested positive around the same time as his wife. But his lungs are very strong because he has been playing the saxophone for many years,” he said.
Rana remembers her for her willingness to mentor young singers, her warmth and her composed performances. “I started performing 23 years ago when Sulabhaji was at the peak of her career. I learned a lot by simply observing her perform. The last time I performed with her entire family she told me afterwards that she was getting too old for this,” he said.
Prakash Hande (63), a retired civilian supervisor in the Indian Navy, who loved to spoil his grandson.
One moment from his father’s three-decade-long career as a civilian supervisor in the Navy’s Material Organisation in Mumbai will always stand out for his son Amit. “I was in Class 9 when the Kargil War was being fought. My father would come home very late every night. When I asked him why he said he needed to stay back to inspect consignments of rations and clear them for transportation to the soldiers. My father’s boss would keep telling him to go home and finish work the next day. But my father would say, ‘I cannot delay sending food to our soldiers. If they do not eat on time, they cannot fight’,” said Amit.
After retiring, Prakash devoted all his time to his grandson Anuj. “After Anuj began kindergarten, not a day would go by when my father wouldn’t buy him chocolate or chips or a cold drink on the way home. We would only find out whenever Anuj had a runny nose. I would scold my father for spoiling Anuj but that never stopped him,” said Amit.
Prakash Dhawali (56), self-made garage owner and amateur cricketer.
Prakash’s nephew Abhijeet believes unceasing worry and restlessness got to him. “He was not the sort to sit at home. He would go to work six days a week and went out of Mumbai every Sunday to play cricket. He was very fit,” said Abhijeet. But in less than three weeks of the lockdown, Prakash developed acidity and eventually cough and high fever.
“He had risen from nothing to become an apprentice to a mechanic after dropping out of school and had saved enough money to buy his own garage in Andheri West a few years ago,” said Abhijeet. The dream would not last. Six months ago, the garage was razed by the BMC for a road-widening project. “My uncle was supposed to select an alternate site but then the lockdown was announced. At home, he became increasingly worried about how he would provide for his two daughters,” said Abhijeet.
Siddharam Gaikwad (52), Ambedkarite and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi party worker.
Siddharam’s younger brother Uttam said had he died of natural causes, at least a lakh people in Saki Naka would have attended his funeral. “As a social worker, he had helped many people in the locality,” he said. A building construction painter, Siddharam began his morning reading the Marathi newspaper Samrat. “It publishes a lot of articles about Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was the only newspaper my brother read,” he said.
Having never once gone to a doctor, Siddharam was never the same after seeing bodies lying unattended at Bhabha Hospital in Kurla in late April. “He had been suffering acidity for some time but seeing those bodies really scared him. His health began to worsen and he passed away on April 24,” said Uttam.
Kisan Mali (60), member of Sant Nirankari Mission.
Soon after the lockdown was enforced, Mali made sure his neighbours in a Goregaon East slum did not go hungry. “My father had organised food donation drives at the Sant Nirankari Mission office in Goregaon,” said his son Ramesh. His Facebook page is flooded with messages mourning the loss of a “beautiful person”. Mali passed away at the Trauma Care Centre in Jogeshwari East on May 13 after shortness of breath.
Ahsan Khan (75), a chain-smoker with a Pathan’s stubbornness.
For more than six decades, Ahsan smoked three packets of bidis a day. “His doctor had told him that 40 per cent of his lungs had wasted away and that he had no chance of living if he did not give up,” recalled his son Tahir. After episodes of quitting and quickly falling off the wagon, Ahsan finally stopped smoking last year. “But the damage was done,” added Tahir. Tahir remembers his father for what he did for his family — an uneducated man from Prayagraj who worked as a supervisor at the Metal Box India Ltd in Worli and had pleaded with the principal of Father Agnel School at Bandra Reclamation to admit his sons. It is due to that persistence that two of his sons are now professors and the third a businessman.
“We tried a lot to stop his smoking, but he could never tolerate us hiding his bidis. He would say to us, ‘Main apni kamaai ki peeta hoon’. Woh dimaag se Pathan they,” said Tahir.
Haji Ghulam Abbas Shaikh (67), a medical social worker.
There was not a soul at Nair Hospital who did not know Ghulam bhai. “He had friends at every hospital in central and south Mumbai. Whenever he came across someone who needed urgent medical help, he would personally take them to the hospital, banking on his good relations with hospital authorities,” said his brother Sharvar Shaikh. Despite overcoming asthma 18 years ago, Ghulam’s breathing grew increasingly laboured half-way into the holy month of Ramzan. His 13th fast would be his last. He passed away at JJ Hospital in the early hours of May 11.
“My brother took the lockdown seriously. But since he could not leave home, he would feel bad at not being able to help anyone. He knew that ordinary people would not know who to turn to for help,” added Sharvar.
Rashida Shaikh (30), a Mehendi cone maker.
Her devastated family is still trying to comprehend how a bright young woman fell to a virus they believed claims only the old or infirm. She leaves behind a young sister and father. Rashida’s uncle Khaleel Shaikh said she ran her home with her Mehendi cone machine, even during the lockdown when she insisted that Mehendi artists visit her to collect finished cones. “She was careful not to leave home much,” said Khaleel.
At the end of April, Rashida got tested after failing to shake off a persistent fever. She was the first person to test positive in the narrow lanes snaking beneath Gilbert Hill in Andheri West. Soon after being admitted to the Trauma Care Centre in Jogeshwari, she passed away.
The family described Rashida as an intelligent woman who never changed her mind once she had made a decision. “She had married a man seven years ago but left him within two months after discovering that he drank too much and was abusive. She had decided never to marry again,” said Khaleel.
Ameena Bi (83), a passionate cook with age-defying energy.
It is only now that her son Rizwan Umar can truly comprehend just how old his mother was. “I always thought she looked no older than 75. She had the energy of a much younger person,” he said. Until the time that typhoid laid her low in the last week of April, Ameena Bi commandeered her kitchen and instructed her daughter-in-law to layout a scrumptious Iftaar. “Her knees had gone and she couldn’t walk without support. She had high blood pressure and diabetes but she truly enjoyed cooking and could never stay still. Even while sitting on the sofa, she would peel garlic,” he said. Of all his mother’s cooking, Rizwan will miss her daal gosht the most.
(For this report, The Indian Express approached several families who had lost a dear one, and it includes only those who agreed to speak about their loss)
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