Thursday, 4 June 2020

Where do I belong?

Rinan Shah

Disclaimer: I acknowledge the privilege that I have to sit down and contemplate how Covid-19 is affecting me.

Strikes and lockdowns are not uncommon in the Darjeeling Hills, where I am from. When the first 21-day lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister of India, folks back home turned to humour (as they always do; humour seems to be a way of life to cope with the antagonising situations we have been facing for a long time).

We joked, “We have survived the 104-days lockdown; the 21-days is nothing”.

The 104-day lockdown happened recently in 2017. The lockdown occurred as a part of a political movement demanding Gorkhaland, a separate state within India. I was there when the strike began and as a recently registered PhD candidate I was raring to start my field work. Needless to say, I waited every day for the strike to open, like everyone else. I made my way out of the hills after a month to get back to my institute. There are too many stories there – let us keep that for some other day.

The two lockdowns are incomparable except in terms of the visible pause it has brought to our lives. Unlike the lockdown experienced in Darjeeling, COVID-19 has curtailed our movement, even preventing us from leaving our homes. It is being experienced by the world as a whole, with an influx of advice and information communicated from all imaginable sources.

Something which bothers me is that when China was facing the COVID-19 epidemic, there was no show of mass solidarity, yet as it moved towards the West, there was an immense show of global solidarity. Perhaps this was because, by the time it arrived in the West, it had become a pandemic.

I am currently based out of Bangalore, south India, where I have been pursuing my PhD since 2015. When the lockdown was announced I felt that having experienced lockdowns back home, this one would be a cakewalk, but that was my naivety.

The first week was manageable and I felt fine but it was unusually restricting. Subconsciously, apprehensions were building up and they were getting reflected in my sleep cycles. The heat during those times could have also been responsible for it to a certain extent.

I am currently in a lockdown with my siblings and my father, with everyone having their burdens to weigh. In the first week, the subconscious anxiety manifested in anger and gloominess. By the end of the second week, we got into the groove and in a way resigned ourselves to the uncertainty.

Not being acquainted with local language here in Bangalore had not been an issue until now, when most announcements are being made in Kannada. This is limiting since I cannot even decipher the announcements to know if they are related to COVID-19 or something entirely different.

Like many cities there is very little interaction with the neighbours. We are on our own if we do not know people in the vicinity. Timings for essential services like gas cylinder and water can deliveries have also been affected, and there is a reduced certainty of accessing these important services.

We do not own any private vehicle and are entirely dependent upon public transport or app-based transport, hence our movement has automatically become restricted. My office is shut and we have not faced any emergencies yet. We have to be careful about not falling sick for the fear of having no provision to visit the hospital or a doctor, since the public hospital is around 5km away.

Connectivity with my immediate neighbours is also wanting. We need to be aware of the community transmission cases and their spread in the neighbourhood. All we are relying on is the state and city counts of the cases. I do not have a neighbourhood network that can forewarn me.

The COVID-19 situation has everyone on their toes. Existing apprehensions and prejudices are coming out much stronger all over the world. There have been multiple cases of people being attacked verbally and physically from around the country and the world.

We try to follow what the people around us are doing – wearing masks, turning off the lights and the like. I have my family with me but we need to be alert and cognisant of the situation around us. Some faces are friendly but some strangers are downright hostile.

We try to avoid confrontation with locals in complex situations and try not to be too conspicuous. It constantly plays out in ways where we wonder what they could be thinking of us. We are intimidated by the police because they have been harsh with people who are out on the streets even for an essential service run.

There have been good instances of belongingness too. The only condition placed on us was to wear a mask when collecting the vegetables being distributed in the neighbourhood. In other places, people who do not speak the local language are not allowed to collect distribution items.

However, otherness is realised in the vegetable basket we received which consisted of some vegetables that we did not know how to cook. Not belonging to a place shapes our experiences differently as we do not have any shared experiences with our local community.

In India and the world people have come out on their own to the best of their capabilities, as much or more than their governments, to provide for the welfare of those who have been at the receiving end of COVID-19 and the associated effects. There has been an ample show of solidarity but unfortunately there has also been numerous acts of hatred. This pandemic is a collective experience for the entire world. It has been a lesson for all of us to learn … when we come out at the other end, we have to come out kinder.

Rinan Shah is a PhD candidate at The Academy for Conservation Science and Sustainability Studies at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore. Her areas of interest encompass environment and development in the political economic context. She is currently studying manifestation of domestic water scarcity in urban mountain towns of the Eastern Himalayan Region. She was a Senior Research Fellow under the National Mission on Himalayan Studies.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UWA of Aii.


UWA Public Policy Institute