The news came slowly. I had thought India was doing all right. That’s what the news reports had said. Then suddenly the information shifted. Exponentially. Just the way the pandemic multiplied and wormed its way into our lives.
Suddenly in spring of 2021, we saw striking images of Indian super-spreader events, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mass election rallies in West Bengal and throngs on the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar at the month-long Kumbh Mela celebrations. It was no surprise when those images dissolved into photos of people with Covid, gasping for air in the hallways of overcrowded hospitals. It was heart-wrenching.
Having traveled to India three times from 2017-2019, my husband David and I were deeply saddened. We have friends in India. Learning that India was having trouble taking care of its own people hit us hard.
It’s difficult to generalize about a country of 1.3 billion people, 28 states and 447 languages. But we felt welcomed in India like nowhere else we’ve ever visited. When I needed to go to the hospital in Chennai, we felt embraced and cared for. And when David’s mother, Miriam Newman, died while we were in Varanasi in 2017, before we headed home, we blended our own mourning with rituals borrowed from the Indian people.
Ram naam satya hai, the words of the ancient Hindu chant floated out across the Ganges the morning after we learned of Miriam’s passing. “The name and existence of god is true,” our guide Pankaj Singh translated for us.
“Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba,” whispered David that dawn as we floated candles on the river in his mother’s memory. “May His great name be exalted and sanctified.” The words of Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, are remarkably similar to the Sanskrit chant we heard in Varanasi.
That afternoon, tired and anxious before our flight home to San Francisco, we toured the Deer Park at Sarnath, the site where the Buddha first taught the dharma. Resting for a few minutes in the peaceful park, we reflected that loss, suffering and remembrance are universal.
Little did any of us know how manifest that would become in 2020.
News from our friends
As the Covid situation in India deteriorated and headlines in the U.S. intensified, I wrote to friends we met on our travels. I compiled their observations (with slight edits) from Varanasi, Delhi and Mumbai. Below their comments, you can find information and links to organizations large and small that are making a difference in India right now.
Pankaj Singh, the guide who was so kind during our difficult day in Varanasi: “Thanks 🙏for remembering us. I was Covid positive, but by the God Grace I recovered very soon. Now I am good and healthy. Today I got my first shot of vaccine. Since March 2020, we are doing nothing but staying at home and spending our savings. The second wave of Covid is terrible. People are dying. I’ve lost friends and relatives. Thanks and please stay connected and give us moral support.”
Shikha Mishra, friend from Delhi and wife of Abhi Hajela, co-leader of our Rajasthan and Varanasi photo tours: “We are both doing well — happy and healthy. It’s my personal opinion that the problem in India is of the population; with so many people it’s tough to allocate resources. Our neighborhood is pretty quiet — people are mostly staying indoors — getting vaccinated, masking up, and maintaining distances. But, most people are also venturing out as work has to go on as well. That unknown fear is not there this time as it was last year as mostly we have heard or read so much about COVID now. There is a lot of politics over the vaccines now — we are lucky we got our jabs — let’s see how it goes as production and distribution are projected to ramp up. India as you know is such a vast country — with such a varied social, economic diaspora — so the situation varies wildly every couple of miles.
“Most of our friends and extended family got infected — but they have all tested negative now and are recuperating at home. The situation in India was pretty grim — the government was not prepared and spent time getting the infrastructure ready so a lot of people have lost their lives. The infection rates have now gone down in urban centers and an equal number have recovered well too. Oxygen and hospital beds are now available thanks to the vast amounts of aid coming in from abroad and the generous outpouring of funds from Indian companies as well. We hope and pray the situation stabilizes and infection rates plateau soon.”
Pradeep Kumar, founder of Delhi by Locals tours and the grassroots nonprofit Learning by Locals, which serves 100-plus students in the Sanjay Colony slum area of Delhi with English lessons, computer classes and more: “My family and I are fine, but my country is going through one of the most difficult disasters of all time. I have never felt this much frustration, anger and helplessness in my life. I have seen many people dying and suffering. Life can be short and we never know when our last day will be. For the last two weeks, we have delivered medicine, N-95 masks and small medical equipment. We might not provide beds or oxygen, but we try our best.”
Anup Sethi from Delhi cheerfully and safely drove us to Agra and throughout Rajasthan: “Namaste 🙏🏽 Madam Ellen and Mr. David, thanks for SMS. I’m trying to keep myself and my family healthy, but for how much longer, I don’t know. It’s been almost 14 months since the tourism industry crashed. There are no jobs. I’m worried and anxious about work.”
Janesh Bhaskar, our Delhi guide and friend who helped us understand the subtleties of Indian history and introduced us to delicious specialties: “Namaste from New Delhi. Yes you are right, the situation in India is grim but it should improve soon. Thanks for your concern and generosity. I am blessed with my family, but my surrounding area is bad and I am helping them out.”
Freni Avari, our knowledgeable and companionable tour guide in Mumbai: “The scene is grim. There are shortages of everything. It is an absolute miracle that healthcare hasn’t completely collapsed, at least in Mumbai. It’s a struggle getting beds, medical equipment, and drugs, but other parts of the country are much worse off. Bravo to all the overworked medical staff who have managed to hold things together as best they can.”
Sushma Kuvalekar, an Indian animator who guided us through the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai: 🙏🙏🙏🌹that’s so kind of you. Here in my family my father-in-law, 94, my mother-in-law, 91, and my brother-in-law all are past their suffering from covid. They are all safe. But I am sad to tell you that many of my contacts and two of my friends are no more now. I wish that all who are suffering now come out safely. Regarding the museum, its operations are maintained daily to avoid disfunction, but it’s not yet open for public.”
Priya Pathiyan, lifestyle journalist and delightful Mumbai guide: “Things are pretty dismal in India at the moment, and even though it hasn’t affected us directly, the mood is somber. We’re all in lockdown, staying completely at home. Fortunately, I’m doing fine and none of my close friends or family have been affected adversely.”
Deepa Krishnan, founder of Mumbai Magic, which offers custom tours throughout India: “A year ago I wrote an article on how I think the epidemic will play out in India. It is pretty much playing on schedule. I am neither surprised nor angry. The rich are outraged because for the first time in their privileged lives, money cannot buy them safety. The poor have lived with this reality for a long time. I don’t believe the greatest damage will be from deaths due to the epidemic. The greatest damage is the economic shock to the most vulnerable sections. Their livelihoods are disrupted and the economy is in shambles. I am doing several projects (see below for one) to help those who cannot withstand the economic shock of this virus.”
How we can help
Local Indian NGOs
The Vibrant Villages campaign, suggested by Deepa Krishnan, provides direct financial aid to rural villages in India’s Maharashtra state (near Mumbai) that have been hard hit by the pandemic, drought and unemployment.
Oxygen For India is an international group of individuals and organizations that provides lifesaving medical oxygen.
SEWA International’s Help India Defeat Covid-19 Campaign buys supplies and medical equipment like oxygen concentrators ventilators for hospitals across India.
International aid organizations
American Jewish World Service works worldwide to provide vital personal protective equipment and deliver educational, nutritional and emergency mental health support to vulnerable communities.
Doctors Without Borders is delivering emergency medical services in Mumbai.
Oxfam provides medical equipment, supplies, food and cash in India.
Please help where you can. To learn more about India’s varied spiritual traditions, see Reflections on the Indian Spirit.