The lockdowns imposed by the government during the Covid-19 pandemic waves in India disproportionately affected the vulnerable sections of the society. This book tells the story of ‘the other half’ who battled unemployment, debt, hunger, ill health, homelessness and impoverishment.
The following are two excerpts from Pamela Philopose’s book A Boundless Fear Gripped Me: How the Other Half Lived in the Pandemic’s Shadow.
Suffering Domestic Violence in a Well of Silence
Her husband’s drinking set the pattern of Sarika’s life. The responsibility of feeding a growing family fell almost entirely on her shoulders. Her two older sisters, who also happened to have homes in the same neighbourhood, were her only source of support.
These difficult conditions turned insufferable once the first lockdown was implemented in March 2020. “Suddenly all my sources of income as a household help dried up—my employers did not want an outsider in their homes during the mahamari, and told me to rejoin only after it was over. For the next six months, I could not earn a single paisa. My husband, who would earlier at least leave the house in search of work, was now constantly around and constantly drinking. I was in total depression,” recalled Sarika. Studies have shown how a situation of substance abuse and domestic violence, combined with home isolation, increases the threat of a multitude of psychiatric diseases (Mental Health in the Times of COVID-19 Pandemic, 2020). In the bastis of Delhi, these conditions generally remain below the surface, but manifest themselves in vicious brawls, including those between spouses.
With time on his hands, Sarika’s husband made all kinds of unrealistic demands on her: “He would insist I cook something ‘nice’ for him and would scream at me when I failed to do so. I would tell him that first, he has to give me some money to run the house, otherwise it is impossible for me to provide appetising food for him. I would immediately get beaten for what he considered to be my insolence.” Every time the situation reached a breaking point, Sarika would escape, along with her children, to her sisters’ homes, “If my sisters had not been there, I don’t know what I would have done. They are so good to me, always helping out. But I know, eventually, this is a situation that I have to cope with alone. No outsider can do anything about it.”
Any money that she managed to get by borrowing from her sisters, he would grab from her and spend on his liquor. It had now become an unending cycle of violence and abuse, with the children huddled in one corner of the room, not knowing what to do. As the “master” of the house, the drunken man would deny his wife her basic freedom of movement. He would do this either by preventing her from going out, guarding the door and beating her if she tried to escape, or by locking her out if she was successful in her attempt to flee. Sometimes, when she was locked out without the children, she would be terrified about their fate, “What if he hurts them badly? What if my eldest, who is disabled, does bathroom and there is no one to clean up after him? Sometimes what I feared the most would come true. He would shout at the children and thrash them but thankfully, so far, he has left my eldest one alone. He—poor boy—is incapable of understanding the situation.”
The layout of her home makes the situation even more dangerous. Sarika stays in a room on the second floor of a row of tenements in the basti, which can only be reached by climbing two steep flights of stairs. Sometimes when her husband hit her and she got into a scuffle with him, she feared that she would fall down the stairwell and break her neck.
Locked Classrooms Leave Young Lives in Limbo
Are online classes better than those conducted in a classroom? A stray question put to a group of children in a Delhi basti—all of them between the ages of 9 and 11—indicates how intuitively the children grasped the value of school, which they have not been attending since March 2020. Schools in Delhi finally opened in offline mode in February 2022, but it will take a long while to evaluate the losses inflicted by the pandemic on their schooling.
The poignant and impromptu conversation conducted on the roof of a small dwelling overlooking the late thirteenth-century Lal Gumbad in August 2021, remains etched in the memory because it reveals the many ways in which the pandemic had left young lives in a limbo.
Priya, 11, her eyes all aglow, set off the discussion by remarking about why she just loved going to school, “In school I have my best friend and we talk all the time.” Her sister, Pallavi, all of 9, interrupted her with a tentative observation that online may be better because “ma’am cannot scold us”. Her suggestion was roundly dismissed by 10-year-old Sandeep, a neighbour, “Ma’am also scolds us online and tells us that she will stop teaching us if we don’t pay attention. So it’s not true that we get scolded less during online classes.”
Meanwhile, Priya came up with a more substantial argument as to why nothing can better the actual classroom, “Online we have to sit and listen, and ma’am gives us a lot of homework to do. In school too, we are given homework, but then we can ask ma’am if we are not able to do it properly. In school, ma’am writes on the blackboard and we can read slowly, and understand what she tells us clearly. It’s not the same online, because even if you have a doubt, you cannot clear it properly.”
Pallavi, now on the side that favoured school, listed her special reasons, “I like to dress up in my uniform. Also, we go for picnics. Once, we went to India Gate and we had bahut majja, great fun.