For most of my adult life, I have viewed phone calls as distracting, especially when I’m trying to have a productive work day. I’d put my phone on silent and avoid even possibly necessary work calls if I was in the “zone” (you know the “I’m going to finish 5 days worth of work in one afternoon” zone). Ever since I’ve come home to ride out the pandemic, almost all of my interactions are happening digitally. Naturally, the time I spend on phone calls has gone up drastically. And with it, the feeling of unproductivity.
It took a good amount of interesting phone conversations and an even greater amount of reflection to realise that a great deal of learning was happening due to these calls. That apart from keeping me connected, they were also making me think (like really think). In other words, I spend an entire day only on phone calls and gain some surprising insights along the way.
The day begins with a phone call with my mentor from the organization. It’s been a while since we last spoke. It feels like we’ve been playing a cat and mouse chase when it comes to phone calls. There’s not much work happening on-ground. So our calls have taken on a more social nature these days. After asking about haal-chaal (both our own as well as the communities we work with), the conversation shifts to the current situation, general trends in the development sector, the alarming situation of funds more or less drying up in the sector, and the many screw-ups by the administration in handling the pandemic.
Our conversations have a familiar pattern now (with us cycling through the same few topics each time) and just as I’m settling into it, he asks, “Are you able to truly think these days? Actually ideate?”. It’s a simple enough question, but it stops my brain cold. “No. Now that I think about thinking, No.” I reply honestly. “Yeah, me too”, he admits sheepishly. There was a surge in our productivity when this lockdown first began, but with more time spent in stasis, it’s not just our bodies, but our minds have also become stagnant.
Case in point – for months now, the two of us have been pondering over the question of “How do we move forward and engage with the children, the community?” But where we once prided ourselves on throwing out multiple ideas in minutes (at least the basic concepts), we’re still struggling to come up with even one workable concept after months. My thinking capacity has definitely decreased. The longer I spend in front of a screen, the less I seem to achieve. Problems seem to be mounting on ground, but solutions come less quickly to our tired minds. Or is it overwhelmed minds? I’m still wondering an hour later as we end the call to get to “work”.
There is a scheduled weekly team meeting with my host organisation back in Thakurganj. But it gets pushed to 3.30 pm because heavy rains have cut the power and connectivity in the area.
Since the team meeting is a bust, I decide to call my co-fellows instead. Having worked for a solid hour and a half, it’s the apt time to take a break from work, I reason. But it’s mostly because I’m free and I miss them and want to see their faces. Again. Our interactions have increased drastically, almost like we’re trying to overcompensate for the midpoint meet up that slipped through our fingers. These calls rarely have the same combination of people – everyone pops in and out as time permits, so it makes for interesting conversations always. And it’s a treat to see who might show up that day.
Today is no different. After general catching up, the talk turns to how there is a feeling of loss, of grief, when we consider the events of this year. A fair number of us have been working from home in order to keep ourselves and our communities safe. And for some of us at least, that feels like a step backwards.
Till this conversation, I had never considered that I was allowed to feel grief about my own situation (after all there are so many who are affected worse). But being out of the field area and moving back home indefinitely has caused a profound sense of loss, one that I wasn’t acknowledging. It took me years of careful consideration and a fair amount of courage to take this step (the fellowship). I had taken this year for me – a decision not strongly supported at home. Now back in the same home, I sought to leave, I feel stuck, like I’ve taken two steps backward.
Even as I try to put this sense of loss into words, my co-fellows are quick to assure me that this is a temporary state and even if things don’t get better, they will be different soon enough. More than anything, they remind me that I’m not going through this alone. That we’re all navigating some version of this and that we’re there for each other. Unequivocally. In spite of the heavy topics, I leave this conversation feeling lighter and more grateful for the fellowship for bringing these truly wonderful people into my life. It’s a feeling I try to carry forward into my day.
Time to get back into the work mode again. I log in for the team meeting and hope that we’ll be able to connect this time. The link has been active since 3 pm but it still takes almost a half hour for everyone to settle in. The sheer amount of network issues we face on these weekly meetings almost seem funny – someone is standing in the khet with the crops swaying gently behind, another one is on the neighbour’s terrace balancing precariously on the edge, and yet another one has made their way into the local kirana store.
It may seem funny but what it actually highlights is how they have all been forced to take the leap into digital/online working with practically no prior experience. Technical issues aside, there is a sense of confusion and overwhelming amount of new information/practices. Since I’m assisting remotely, there is only so much help I can provide. Yet, they’ve taken it in stride.
After a fair amount of confusion, the group call finally gets underway. A quick “What’s going on?“ from my side brings an onslaught of information. There have been heavy rains and flooding in several of the villages, the lockdown is ongoing and so the communities’ access to essentials has further hampered. Reaching interior hamlets has become an even bigger issue. All of this is said matter of factly. I’m still processing the information but the team has already moved on to other things. When prompted, they assure me they’ll be fine. Every conversation serves as a reminder of their resilience, how they band together to move forward no matter the circumstances.
I have to acknowledge that this pandemic has thrown my privilege back in my face in stark relief. The communities we work with, don’t quite need us after all. It’s not been easy for them but they’re pushing on. It’s a reminder for me that I’m not as indispensable or important as I’d like to believe. It’s not a new insight, it’s something I’ve been told many times over, but seeing it play out in front of your eyes has a way of driving the point home like nothing else. Indispensable or not, I’ll keep supporting them however I can. Even if all I can do right now is to conduct weekly team meetings.
This hour sees the start of a series of calls for impact assessment of the Covid Cash Relief campaign. Started by the India fellow team, the fundraiser aims at providing relief to the most vulnerable and marginalised groups who haven’t received much help from local administration or any other organisation. They do it by providing cash transfers directly into their bank accounts. A part of ensuring that is by calling up many of the families to check if the money has reached them and to also understand their everyday realities during the lockdown. The fundraiser is still ongoing.
I’m still mulling over the idea of resilience as I get started. These calls, though the shortest, are the truly emotionally exhausting ones – for me and more so, for the people on the other end. All the families that I speak to, are struggling in some way or the other. “What are the difficulties you have faced due to COVID-19 and the lockdown?” is probably the 5th question on my list, but most of them start sharing it long before I get to it.
“There is no work, no money right now.”
“We have spent all our savings and don’t know what to do.”
“We didn’t get any free ration because we don’t have a ration card.”
These are but a few of the statements we regularly hear from them. Financially, almost all of them are on thin ice, mere days away from plunging into the icy depths of destitution. The cash transfers, in many instances, are the only thing keeping them afloat at the moment and even that cash is not all that much.
One man confesses that he is left with only 40 rupees to feed his family of 6. I’m at a loss of words most of the time. Though they aren’t looking for empty platitudes from my side, just someone who’ll actually listen to them. I hear out their troubles, and their small victories. “I’ve started selling mangoes to support myself now!”, someone shares. They inevitably thank us for the help and ask if we can support others in their community.
It strikes me – There’s more of that same resilience that shines through here but they also need a bit of extra support, a little crutch maybe to keep them standing. That’s what we are. What I am. An hour ago, I realised that we’re not indispensable, and now, it hits me that that doesn’t make our role any less important. And because of that I’ll keep showing up.
“It’s time for your playdate”, my phone chimes and startles me from my inner monologue. I smile! It’s time to connect with my niece, who, halfway across the world is jumping with anticipation and driving her parents mad. It also means that it’s time for me to mentally switch gears as I wouldn’t want to burden a 7-year old with my thoughts on the crushing issues faced by the marginalised parts of our society. An excited squeal greets me as soon as she picks up and then we’re off to indulge in the game she’s chosen for the day (we’re creating stories with animal finger puppets today). I let her take the lead and enjoy the sound of her excited voice. It’s a rare moment of quiet in my head.
One of the few good things to come out of this pandemic has been the strengthening of my bond with my niece. As digitally connecting has become the norm, we have spent increasing amount of time together- I have, at a minimum, a weekly play date with her where we’ve tried crafts, woven fantastical stories, read our favourite books together, had talent contests and whatever else we can get away with, that doesn’t require being together in person.
But it’s not just me, all of her playdates are online now – with family, with her friends, with classmates. I know she misses the physicality of actually playing with other children, of actually meeting her friends in person, but off late, she mentions it less and less. She doesn’t bring it up even once today, which leads me to wonder, “How long before this new normal becomes her only reality?”
At 7, she is still in her formative years. How long before memories of holding hands, of running with friends, of climbing jungle gyms unabashedly get replaced by playing with each other on video calls or meeting people with physical distancing norms? How long before she forgets the comfort of a simple touch, a pat on the back by a teacher, a friend squeezing your hand, an aunt hugging you senseless?
The world will be forever changed even after we emerge from this pandemic and it is scary to think of the implications of that on her (or any child’s) socio-emotional development. Will she still learn how to identify her feelings, exercise self-control and manage conflicts with her peers? Something that children learn usually by interacting with other children. World over, we are unsure about what these implications mean for our young ones. But children are adaptable and I can only hope that whatever interactions we are able to provide, will suffice. For now that means turning my attention back fully to “Gilly – the super giraffe” and the little girl giggling behind it.
The entire cohort as well as the India Fellow program team comes together to do a poetry reading, virtually. This is just one of many readings and workshops that are being held online in lieu of the in-person midpoint training. Despite everything, we’re trying to keep the learning and connections intact (the medium in secondary). Today, it happens to be about our journeys and our perceived memories of them.
Like all poetry readings, this one also encourages all of us to share personal stories and be vulnerable. New stories emerge as the discussion ebbs and flows. I close my eyes for a second and just listen. With them closed, I can almost believe that we are all together, sitting in a circle, maybe around a bonfire as we engage in this discussion. I can imagine us leaning against another, all loose limbed and yet animated as we listen to one another. Almost! I wonder when we’ll meet again.
The reading gives a lot of new thoughts (too many to share here). But as we’re wrapping up, I realise how lucky I am that this platform exists, these people exist because of whom my learning continues everyday. Who find different ways and means to broaden my thinking. Because the reality is that this isn’t true for so many. It isn’t, for the kids back in Thakurganj – the ones who have no access to smartphones or video calls or educational programs on TV.
In terms of education, the lockdown is only worsening inequalities. I wonder how these kids will catch up – they who had such little opportunities to begin with. The thought comes unbidden. It’s another area where I’m privileged. But this might be the one which I can use to others’ advantage. If the fellowship can ensure my learning, then surely I can try to ensure theirs. Tonight’s reading has inspired me to give my community in Bihar, some agency over their own learning. I resolve to discuss it with my mentor the next day.
The day is winding down but I have one more call to take. With my friends scattered across the globe, in at least 3 different time zones, someone is always connecting at an ungodly hour. Guess it’s my turn today. We have gone from “Busy at the moment. Catch up on another day?” to incessantly talking to each other almost every single day. I guess we’re all a little desperate to feel connected to someone these days.
No pleasantries exchanged on this call (to be fair, we did see each other less than 24 hours ago), everyone just dives into whatever is bothering them in this moment. Some days we play games, watch movies, discuss books – those days the conversations are light and easy. Today is not one of those days. The anxiety is palpable through the screen today. A friend lost his job in Europe because the new company policy is to only keep EU citizens on the payroll. He now has 3 months to find a new one or come back to India. But everywhere he looks, the same trend seems to be repeating. Across the spectrum, whether it be about jobs, medical attention or any other kind of support, the countries are placing their own on priority over others. As non-locals, they are struggling to hold on to their jobs or their salaries if they still have the said job. The ones who went to study, now face an uncertain future with regards to their continued stay in the host countries.
I think about how this is playing out even within our country, how lines have been drawn over and over again based on state, caste, class and religion, dividing communities constantly into us and them. In a time when we should be banding together, the world is busy closing ranks, choosing “their own” over the “others” again and again. The pandemic is just strengthening the invisible borders that existed between communities into real tangible ones. It makes for a frightening world.
But I also remember the other conversations I had today. I think of the fundraising (and the people donating) that’s giving some dignity to the marginalised; of the field staff rising to support their communities; of us sitting miles away but still trying to support those same people and communities and realise that at least in some smaller ways, the civil society is dismantling those borders. And on that hopeful point, I log off for the last time.
By the time my head hits the pillow at 2 am, it’s buzzing with too many thoughts. This day, though a slow one by usual standards, has given me a lot to think about. It’s going to take some time to process. “Maybe I’ll just write about it” is my last thought before I succumb to slumber.