September 19, 2021 6:10:51 am
It was a triumphant feeling to have left India COVID-free in June, when the virus was wreaking havoc across the Indian map. Not because Charlie and I had been living in a cave; rather, we’d taken every precaution and care to not catch it.
My family is by no means strangers to COVID-19. We have dealt with its challenges closely. In the first wave, my mom contracted it from our family chef, who’d picked it up from one of his many hospital visits. It was a feat to keep these family members comfortable and well cared for. More challenging was the task of keeping the remaining household safe. We succeeded and were proud to have endured.
The second wave had my brother Samir catching the virus from a colleague. Once again, we strove to care for a COVID patient. Samir emerged from it without much challenge, the household did too. We fought the virus tooth and nail twice, and each time we stayed together and beat it.
The second wave was not without its tragedy. We lost two of our family’s closest and most precious members, Abha aunty and Ajay uncle. Their loss within days of each other brought home the ugly and vicious nature of this disease. Like parents to my siblings and me, these two had seen us through the arc of our lives, and in Papa’s absence, it was Ajay uncle who often played that role. And, now, we were left bereft of that presence, too. Then we lost Prabha aunty, a great gynaecologist of Delhi, who brought me and my siblings into this world and was by our side at every noteworthy moment of our lives. These three deaths at the hand of COVID will remain stark reminders for us to appreciate the heft and might of this deadly disease.
My mother and I flew into New York City early this summer with certificates that proved we were COVID-free, but nobody checked, nobody questioned; we weren’t asked to show them. We were coming from India, the land of the Delta variant, and there was no requirement for us to be tested when we arrived. As I settled in Manhattan, I realised how the richest nation in the world was fooling itself into believing we were post-COVID. Everywhere, I saw people without masks — in buildings, streets, cars. At once, I realised that America is a country that isn’t paying attention to its own needs and thinks of itself as too strong to be bothered by such trifles that the rest of the world is having to face. But a pandemic is a pandemic because it is universal. It doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, a developing or developed nation. It affects you no matter what, no matter who.
I’m a man from two countries. When in America, I consider myself an American. In India, I’m an Indian. I’m proud to be from both New Delhi and New York.
In India, as an Indian son and brother, I became an Indian caregiver when my mother and my brother were struck with COVID. They were isolated but not quite separated. I and the other members of the household were able to care for them, make them feel connected to the world, and feed them good food. They felt loved and provided for. As Indians, we instinctively and collectively heal each other.
In America, as an American son and brother, I found myself thinking like an American and becoming an American patient. Here I was, with a loving, caring family, but I quarantined myself in a hotel room. It was a rather lonely moment, and I felt self-pity even though I was living in the hotel’s luxury. In that room, I realised how tough life is in the US. How quickly we are left alone here, how quickly we are made to feel helpless, hopeless and hapless.
Lying in the hotel in Westchester, I felt like the last Mughal emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was sent to solitary confinement in the nation of Burma, away from his own nation. My family cared for me when I would let them. My mother and my sister would visit me — they sat in the car while I sat outside the hotel. They brought me food and caring every minute my American mindset would allow it.
I realised, in those moments, how different the approach to healing, suffering and malady is in our two nations, and I was homesick. Not for a place, but for a way of being. I was homesick for Indian warmth, hospitality, and connectedness. I was broken by this disease, and I was alone.
In the end, what saved me through the loneliness of quarantine was being connected to my extended big fat Indian family through the WhatsApp group that we have. Songs sung for me, poems written for me, messages of love, care, and nourishment sent my way. This was the healing and curing that brought me back to the mindset of those willing to fight this deadly battle. I came out victorious, with monoclonal antibodies, ready to brave the challenges of life and an impending surgery.
In life, we must have one way of living, loving, caring, and thinking. One set of values that is unshakeable, that we are never too far from. India shows me the beauty of the feminine, America the resolute power of the brute. I have learnt to combine the strength of the brute and the softness and maternalism of Mother India, and together they give me the ability to live life never too lost, never too strong, but always in the middle, loving and surviving.
(Suvir Saran is a chef, author, educator and world traveller)
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