A microbe. And that’s what it took to bring the human species down to a lockdown. We have been thrown into the COVID-19 pandemic, something this generation had never experienced in this magnitude before. Normal life as we knew it is suspended indefinitely. The whole of humanity is in this together without any exceptions of caste, creed, religion, colour, race, political orientation, sexual orientation- one and all in a way which we witness only in movies. The image of a gigantic UFO towering over the earth fills my vision. I only wish the world came together not under such dire circumstances but in a manner which was more pleasant. We were not prepared to handle this crisis and it’s almost like taking one day at a time but also having to plan and prepare for the next several weeks. Tesco yesterday breathed panic. It was the morning after the government announced of indefinite school closure. I had run out of milk and came home without one. The milk aisles in Tesco and Co-op were empty. I didn’t have the time to search elsewhere as I needed to get back to start my work-from-home day.
Later in the day after I picked my girls up from school, the girls and I sat in the car on my driveway. Lots of pressing questions poured out from their bewildered minds which couldn’t wait: When will it be over? How long will schools remain closed? Will school not open before summer? Is Friday going to be the last day of my year 6? Now that the France trip is cancelled, will the France trip take place next year? How will I finish my GSCE curriculum? What will happen to work experience placement? I answered them one by one as we entered the house and followed the ‘after school’ routine. I tried my best to not dampen their spirits yet be honest: a skill parents have to learn to use almost every day yet never quite master it!
My answer to one of their questions threw them off guard and me too. The curious minds of children are always undermined. Often than not I put myself in their minefield and by then it’s already too late to reverse my steps. The mine explodes. They asked, “Did you ever have to go through this kind of situation when you were growing up Mamma?”. I thought hard and then I said, “Maybe not exactly like this but we also had a situation when our schools closed down for a year and everyone had to stay indoors for days, weeks and months together during curfews”. I had to explain what curfews and blackouts meant. I had to explain to their horror-stricken faces how people were assaulted, killed, abused because of their ethnic origin. “Did anybody you knew got killed?” they asked. “Yes. Our neighbour” I said. Our neighbour, a humble man with a family of two little kids, sold pakoras in his roadside makeshift shop. They were aghast to know that their dad’s youngest uncle was also pulled out from his shop and beaten up so badly that he had to be admitted in critical care and only barely survived. Their eyes widened with terror when I said that their dad and I were attacked in a street by a group of boys with knifes hidden in their leather jackets and how we narrowly escaped.
“But why Mamma? Were you not in your home country? In India?”
I said I was in my home country, but we were the second generation of Hindu Bengali refugees from Bangladesh living in a place belonging to the ‘tribals’ and where, we the ‘non-tribals’ were not accepted. I had to explain in short, our complicated history starting from Bengal partition which made my grandparents homeless and flee their homeland which is now Bangladesh and cross over to Shillong, the capital of the state of Meghalaya in North East India. And how even being in India they and their progeny were not safe and still are not. I told them how as we were growing up in Shillong we were subject to discrimination, called derogatory terms like “dkhar” meaning ‘outsiders’ lost the rights to purchase land or property amongst the other covert and overt animosity. I told them how Bengali families after the 1979, 1987 and 1990s unrest in Shillong had to again flee for their lives and go elsewhere. They understood the reason why my parents, their grandparents sold their house in Shillong and now live in Kolkata. As I spoke, my words got bolder with the raw emotions making their way in. I told them that they are the fourth generation of the ‘homeless’, or the ‘displaced’ Bengalis. We are the demographical truth of being the migrants. We are the political truth of being the ousted. We are the social truth of being the unwanted. We are the emotional truth of longing to have a place to call ‘home’.
My girls were shocked to hear all that I said. They exclaimed, “That sounds like terrorism!” and accused with concern in their eyes, “but why didn’t you ever tell us about all this?”. The look on their faces reflected confusion and amusement when they remarked, “How are you able to say all the horrific things you went through so calmly without any emotions just like how people tell a story from a movie or about something that have happened to others?”. They went on: How do we not know about it? How does the rest of the world not know about it? We know about the Holocaust, we know about Vietnam war, world wars and even if one person is killed in America or in the UK the whole world comes to know! How did the rest of India not know about the years and years of crime against a whole population? Why did India not do anything about it? Why didn’t any one fight for justice? Why did you not talk about it, Mamma?
The disbelief in the eyes of my girls pierced the steel wall in me. A stoic wall which we Bengalis in Shillong had built perhaps to cope against what we went through. We, who never voiced out or even thought we had a choice to voice out. We were living in a well of fear, surviving day to day placidly until we could get out of Shillong and get back our self-respect. When we left Shillong, we left behind the responsibility of standing up against the wrongs done unto us, the wrongs done against humanity arising out of narrow racial or ethnic insecurities. We were tired. We left to find safety and security never to look back to those dark times which haunts us in our memories and nightmares. In many, including me who grew up in the perpetual fear of being persecuted on racial grounds, those dark times have left a permenent imprint on us as PTSD and we live with it.
The questions to me from my girls disturbed me even under England’s dark overcast sky of a possible Coronavirus apocalypse, some twenty years and eight thousand miles away from my Shillong time and space coordinates. Even under the shadow of this health calamity looming over the human race, their words echoed in my ears, “You should talk about it, Mamma. You should tell the untold stories”.