When 13-year-old Sabir first landed in the indifferent lane my parents live on, the shut windows and empty balconies in houses made his stomach turn. How was he going to sell the fish he had lugged around since four in the morning?
The elderly residents of the quiet lane in south Kolkata, meanwhile, were grappling with a deluge of information that had arrived on their WhatsApp about the coronavirus. Most of them couldn’t ‘google’ and even if they did, it was difficult to tell which source to believe over the other. Over calls with their children, they were mostly shouted at: they were wearing their masks wrong, apparently not washing their hands enough, first they had to wash the vegetables with soap water, then they were forbidden from washing them with soap water, they couldn’t see a doctor, they should ideally not go near medicine shops if possible. “It seemed like we’d catch the virus if we even looked out of the window,” my mother told me, months later, when I managed to fly back home.
Sabir, however, couldn’t afford the luxury of fear. It had been a year since his father, a fish seller, was knocked down by a tempo and couldn’t move without help. So Sabir dropped out of the government school he attended and started selling fish in the local market, a longish walk away from their house in a crowded slum on the fringes of Kolkata. As the government shut down everything in late March to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, all Sabir understood was that there was a dangerous disease lurking around. But Sabir had a bigger worry — hunger. A month into the lockdown, most of his neighbours were fighting over the smallest odd jobs and the rest were going off to wealthier settlements on cycles to go from door to door to look for work, if they made it past the police that is.
So when Sabir came to know from locals that a small lorry will be ferrying people to the city so that they can sell vegetables and fish, he borrowed 1000 rupees from two acquaintances, bought some fish from a local fishermen’s gathering, squeezed into the vehicle with 8 other vendors and landed in the city.
By the time my mother made it to the balcony hearing the doorbell ringing through the 8 am quiet in the lane, Sabir was sulking away, as a middle-aged man next door shouted expletives at him for ‘disturbing his sleep’. Sabir’s slight frame wobbled under a huge aluminium vessel filled with fish that he carried on his head. Hearing the man shouting, a few women — now left to do most of the housework and hence up early like my mother — peered out of their balconies. One of them stopped him. “Why are you ringing the bells so many times?” one of them asked, somewhat amused.
“I was hoping someone would buy fish,” the boy said, slightly shaken.
In a year ravaged by organised hatred, unemployment, distance, death and disease, hope may have felt like an indulgence. A word as weightless as your Instagram hashtags, a word that floated on every screen you looked at yet a word you couldn’t feel in your mouth.
Six months since he showed up in our lane, I watched Sabir impatiently round off his bill to a lesser amount, only to have a middle-aged aunty who sells fruits scold him and do the math for him. “Is this how you are going to do business? Might as well throw the fish in the drain,” she said, shouting the exact amount to his customer. We often award hope with the biggest, grandest of our moments (no thank you Christmas movies!). Yet, watching Sabir and the unlikely friend he had made in our indifferent lane, it occurred to me how hope had often been the catalyst for the most unglamorous events of my life last year — like waking up in the morning.
It is perhaps difficult to imagine that we’d place our faith in humanity to show up and see us through the day, the next and a few more, but that was all we had. Daljeet Singh, an anaesthetist at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi, said that despite years of being a medical professional dealing with critically ill patients, he shuddered at the swift, cold dimming of hope in hospitalised coronavirus patients.
In the first few weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, when hospitals and doctors themselves were grappling with lack of information about the virus, a mother and her newly-married son were admitted in Singh’s hospital. “The son had come back from his honeymoon abroad and had contracted the virus there, and his mother got it from them. They were admitted in the hospital and were put in beds next to each other,” Singh said. The son was getting better, and his mother kept deteriorating and one evening, she collapsed. “We drew the curtain between her and her son and tried to revive her. Doctors were shouting, nurses were running in and out and trying to revive her. Her son was just a couple of feet away but couldn’t leave his bed and could hear all the noise. He perhaps understood that his mother was dying. He frantically asked what was happening, but no one had the time to answer him. To this day, I think what he must have gone through,” Singh said, explaining, doctors and nurses spoke gently to him in the following days, trying to give him ‘hope’ as he recovered.
“This was the first time that I realised just how much hope the mere sight of a human face gives,” Singh said. Talking to patients and nurses, he realised that a majority of coronavirus patients grappled with extreme anxiety as all they could see were the masked faces of other patients. “We go in with a full PPE and so do the nurses. The patients are interacting with are voices buried under this unfamiliar, scary costume. Sometimes all they wanted was to see just a human face,” Singh said.
In May, when the doctors in the hospital had gotten somewhat used to the dynamics of dealing with the disease, a new mother was admitted with COVID-19. She left her five-month-old baby back home and suffered from the anxieties of the disease, of being a new mother and being separated from the baby.
“Her case was serious, not critical, but quite seriously ill,” Singh recollected. Nurses and doctors who were attending to her often discussed among themselves how she seemed to have given up the hope of living. “She barely spoke and was terrified, even when she was getting better,” Singh said. Then one day, a woman doctor who was taking care of her took permission from the authorities, went to the dormitory she was admitted in and played a Daler Mehndi classic. “My colleague danced, right down to the hook steps of Ho Gayi To Balle Balle in the form. While the other patients were taken aback at first, they laughed and some sang with her later. And the new mother smiled for the first time in the 10 days she had been in the hospital,” Singh said.
“We usually tell patients to keep hope. And what if they can’t? This pandemic taught us that sometimes, we have to hold their hand through it.”
We don’t fight for hope. In fact, for most of us, the idea probably sounds like something that’d be a great caption to put on an Instagram post of a cup of tea sitting beside a Bukowski book. But scooping hope in humanity out of the trash that humans quite relentlessly throw at each other, is a bit of a task.
When Raashi Thakran set out to get the Indian government to create a helpline after her brother died by suicide, it was the easiest to give up hope. “I wrote the first petition in July 2019, the Kiran helpline came about in September 2020. I would write emails, and there would be kind responses, but no real work would get done. It was frustrating and terrifying, knowing, someone was going through what my brother was, and was getting no help,” Thakran said.
She fought for hope. “I used to constantly remind myself of why I was doing this. I thought about Raghav, and he was my biggest strength through all this.” As the pandemic clawed through our lives, Thakran suffered a relapse of PTSD and anxiety. After months of constant emailing, calling and writing petitions, suddenly NITI Ayog had stopped corresponding with Thakran (they would resume talks later). Soon, the unfamiliar sanctions of the pandemic also arrived in her life. “In the midst of that, I was constantly writing to students and professionals, trying to collaborate with people to create safe spaces, giving online talks. And yet, I felt like I was stuck, I was going in circles and was headed nowhere,” Thakran said. It wasn’t easy crawling out of that pit, except for the knowledge that giving up hope could mean there was one person less fighting for people whose struggles with hope were bigger, more difficult and visceral.
“When I feel overwhelmed, and I have been feeling that a lot of late, I talk to my mother. The helpline is in place, but I keep asking, ‘what next’, ‘is that enough’ and sometimes, I have no answers. And my mother understands the place my pain is rooted in and sometimes just venting helps,” Thakran said.
Late in the afternoon a few days ago, Sabir knocked on the doors of his now-familiar customers in this neighbourhood. He had brought along a much older man, whose fish had gone unsold. He went from door to door, laughing and talking, till his regulars bought some of the man’s produce. The older man stood tongue-tied, his hair ruffled, and his face sullen. One eager aunty asked, “You are selling his fish now? How will you sell yours then, we will be stocked for days! How silly of you.”
“Kakima, he has been roaming around for four hours and barely sold anything. He is tired, and hungry. It’s okay, I will come a few days later after your stock is over. Please help him out today,” he said. The boy kept his word.
The author is a journalist who writes on culture, gender, society and politics.