Corona + Amphan -- Rituparna Roy

Photo from 'The Telegraph', Kolkata - 20 May 2020
Corona + Amphan is the worst double whammy one can think of - and we are facing that at the moment. By “we”, I mean Bangladesh and two eastern states of India – Orissa and West Bengal. Cyclone Amphan hit us on 20th May. Last year, a similar cyclone - Fani - had hit the coastal belt lining the Bay of Bengal in early May. It coincided with my daughter Srishti’s Birthday - so, the small party I’d arranged at home for her had to be cancelled. This year, a day after Amphan, with no internet, we could barely wish our niece in Hyderabad on her Birthday. While the ISD call did connect, all that could be heard from the other side were garbled voices… but at least, we could shout out a “Happy Birthday”! 

Privileged kids

Birthday celebrations are luxuries that can be done without for a year or two (though for children it can be a bitter disappointment; eagerly wait as they do for months for their BIG day). But even for them, a greater calamity is not having access to TV or the internet. While ‘connectivity’ is an inevitable part of their lives even in normal times, it has been absolutely indispensable during the lockdown – both for work and play. Home-schooling has automatically increased the screen-time for most kids: in addition to TV programs and WhatsApp/Gallery photos and videos on their parents’ mobiles, they have been attending regular online classes. A lot of the homework, too, is being necessarily done on the computer, as teachers send study material on Edmodo (often with a lot of YouTube and other links) and soft copies of worksheets to be worked on and submitted via email. While this exercise is increasing/improving the computer literacy of the kids, no doubt, they are left with very little work off-screen. Unless they practice things on their own… but that, obviously, is expecting too much from them!

In Srishti’s case, this has increased even more. With the printer at home not working, printouts can’t be taken – so she has ended up doing tasks on the machine that she would have otherwise written in long hand in her exercise copies. (That even those assignments would have had to be ultimately mediated through the parent - photos taken of the hand-written pages and then shared/forwarded in an email to the respective teacher - is a different story).  

Unfortunately, though, just as she got more attuned to doing things online, Amphan hit us. It is the worst cyclone in the Bengal delta in more than a 100 years. While it may belong to the same category of tropical cyclones as Fani, its impact on the ground has been far more severe. Its impact on families not directly affected by it, and on privileged children like Srishti (yes, that qualification is very important), has also been very different. For Amphan has come as a profound irony: after two months of being wholly reliant on the internet, of being told - “So what, you are at home? everything is still available at the click of a button”, all of a sudden, kids have been thrown back to a pre-internet era existence, to an altogether different mode of being. 

Throwback to a different era

As today’s (22 May) edition of The Telegraph succinctly put it, Amphan has done what even Covid could not – snatch away even the solace of virtual connection from many people’s lives. 

The very fact that I quoted TT is because the newspaper is now my only link to the world. I read the paper after I don’t know how long a time. Had almost forgotten how it felt like to hold it in my hands – opening out both arms to stretch the paper to its full length, and bending over a bit to read the text towards the top. Not just that; I also cut out a striking photograph ( the one above) from the front page of yesterday’s edition (storm clouds gathering against the backdrop of the Hoogly bridge) and a feature I really liked in today's edition (where a well-known academic pleaded for a “zero year” as a more practicable and fair solution to the academic crisis we are facing in India at the moment). 

One naturally led to the other; or rather, was a natural corollary to the other – reading the hard-copy and cutting out the favorite bits, that is. In no time, I morphed back to my student self – when I would routinely cut pictures (rather randomly – of advertisements, writers, film stars, cricketers, heritage sites, you name it) and articles (op-eds from TT, and prior to that, innumerable features/interviews from ‘The Miscellany’, the beloved Sunday supplement of The Statesman).

This sudden, pre-internet era existence (admittedly, temporary), thus came in with a whiff of nostalgia for me, however irritated I might be at the inconvenience caused to my routine – can’t take classes or even record lectures, send emails, read online resources, catch up with news, call up loved ones, watch videos, not to speak of google-ing n-times a day for all manner of reasons. 

The Betrayal

For my daughter (who just finished Grade II), however, and hundreds of thousands of kids like her (both older and younger), this sudden new mode of being is nothing short of a betrayal. For they are now being forced to realize that everything that has been promised to them can vanish altogether without warning. 

Kids obviously have individual preferences: for Srishti, the TV is more important than the internet, any day. Hence, it’s not so much the virtual connectivity with others that she’s missing these two days as much as bemoaning the fact that her chief source of entertainment - and frankly, of joyful sustenance - has been snatched away from her. 

She did everything I reminded her that could still be done – read, draw, exercise, play (ludo), watch her favourite cats from our balcony. But even after all that, she asked me so many times: “Mamma, shall I see if the TV is working?” It’s no use telling her it won’t; she needs the testimony of her own fingers, repeatedly – the remote button pressed, but the slim black rectangular frame on the wall yielding forth no visual or sound.

It’s difficult to convey the sense of desolation that TV-less days can bring to kids like Srishti – who have no siblings at home or playmates where they live (the latter is out of the reckoning, anyway, during lockdown), and have working parents who can only give them “quality time” (‘working from home’, unfortunately, doesn’t change that much). Of course, in normal times, there are nannies – but they come and go, and can seldom, if ever, creatively engage with the child. Some also live with grandparents – once again, not all grandparents are the doting caregivers that they are stereotypically made out to be. 

Peppa Pig, Dora, Masha and the Bear, Shimmer and Shine, Paw Patrol – they are just not programs with 20-minute slots, for Srishti. They are her daily companions, allowing her entry into their fun-filled/adventurous/fantastic/magical lives (with a lot of outdoors, of course), and filling her imagination with stories which she recreates at bedtime or in English composition.

At school, she may study the explorations of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, create PowerPoint presentations on Rainforests, or try to figure out whether one-third is greater or smaller than five-sixth, or practice the difference between homonyms and homophones, not to mention learn poems by Tagore. It doesn’t matter. Her academic progress has nothing to do with her entertainment. They just don’t align. Her imaginary companions are simply her daily escape from a reality that is getting increasingly difficult to bear. Even for adults.     

Counting one’s blessings 

9.30 pm. I’ve just started writing this piece. She comes and sits on my lap. I leave the typing and hold her tight. That always helps – both of us! With her head still buried in my left shoulder, she says: “Today also there was no phone, no TV… can I at least do my ballet class tomorrow?” I don’t say anything about our snapped internet connection in reply. I just remind her of Wednesday evening – with the storm raging outside and we sitting huddled together for a few hours without electricity. We faced that for only a few hours. There are many who are still facing it – having to manage without electricity, without water. We are much better off than they, I tell her. She has never experienced water scarcity in her eight-year-old life, so I’m not sure whether she can fathom what it means. But the electricity part, she understands. The fan and the fridge are indispensable in summer - she knows that. And she could still do a PPT homework today on the laptop... she realizes that none of these would be possible without electricity. 

Then I tell her of the lakhs (many times hundred thousand, I emphasize) whose homes have been washed away – their roofs blown off, all their belongings destroyed. Strangely enough, on the evening of the storm, panic-stricken, she’d asked me precisely about them: “Mamma, what if our roof breaks?”, she’s asked first. I assured her it won’t. There are two more roofs above us, all tight and secure, she needn’t worry. She then asked, “What will happen to the poor?” I must confess I didn’t expect that question from her. She has very little idea of the kind of poor people who lose everything in a storm. Our domestic helps are not poor – they are just people who belong to a low income group, or else are facing reduced circumstances. But they all live in homes/rooms that can’t be blown away – though they may be shabby and small. Even the slum-dwellers that Srishti passes by every day on her way to school have ‘pucca’ rooms now. Srishti has watched the rage of the storm through glass windows on Wednesday, heard the howling wind despite everything being shut, seen our building being flooded that first night, photos of uprooted trees in the newspaper… but the devastation in our coastal areas… that is beyond the power of her imagination. Or, so I thought.

The very next morning, we heard of one such unfortunate home that was no more. A neighbour’s driver told us about his aged parents in Namkhana, in the Sunderbans, being forced to take shelter in a local school, after their mud hut got wiped out by the cyclone. He was determined to take special permission from the police and travel to his village to stand by his parents…. but he couldn’t get that permission.

Srishti knows him well. I tell her his story as an example of what she had feared (on Wednesday) coming true. I tell her, again, that countless others are now without homes– like his parents. She goes to sleep with that thought.

I don’t tell her the worst aspect of the double whammy of Corona + Amphan for these homeless people, though: in trying to seek shelter, they would face the palpable threat of Corona, as they would be overcrowded under whichever temporary shelter they hid. 


Griselda Heppel said…
You write such eye-opening posts. We in the UK have no idea how lucky we are that we don't have to face two such terrible natural forces at the same time, a devastating cyclone alongside the coronavirus pandemic. One of the things that have made the lockdown bearable for many of us in the UK is the glorious weather we've had for the last 2 months (though for people living in crowded areas in our cities this has been less of a boon, with little outside space to enjoy it).
As you say, so many aspects of normal life can be adapted to the internet... fabulous, until something happens to the internet too! I do feel for your daughter, not having the outlet of television at the moment, and even more of course for the thousands of poor people whose homes have been washed away and have no choice but to risk infection if they are to seek shelter. Thank you for sharing this.
Unknown said…
Thank you so much, Griselda, for reading my post! I was feeling guilty writing about it you know, writing about the problems faced by a privileged kid when hundreds of thousands of people havevlist their homes & are struggling to survive at a most badic level. But then, this is our experience... & I couldnt shake it off. Can't ignore the experience of my child.
Unknown said…
Please forgive the typos in my previous message!

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