We are often afraid to tell our own life histories, though Cultural Studies commit us to collect the biographies of others, in order to tell a story, glean sociological facts, and produce with the aim of generalising data. How may we presume that other people’s lives are less sacred than our own? Feminism made it increasingly apparent that the personal was political, and those who tried to camouflage it by speaking of value neutrality had already climbed the precarious ladder to salaried jobs and professional mobility in the profession.
The bare-faced act of feminism to expose oneself to the general public was methodologically presented as the reason why genealogies could have women’s names in them, instead of presenting only the names of men. Patrilineality was by itself, a cultural trope, where women were ordinarily subsumed, socialised – made to matter if they conformed, and excluded if they did not. In a way, the narratives of women when documented, produced realities which were substantially different than the bureaucratic record.
The strangeness of the contemporary, the scope of survival strategies, the honour of everyday work responsibilities, and the tenderness and care that strangers provide is immensely potent. In the following account, I provide a glimpse into the COVID-19 ward which I inhabited with nine other women patients. When I was discharged on May 8, 2021, I had spent 12 days in a women’s ward for COVID-19 patients.
It all began with a low fever and a headache, and a terror that after 1.5 years of social distancing, attempts to keep the house clean, using a lot of soap to wash my hands every few hours and gargling with hot water, the virus had caught my youngest daughter and myself. Afraid to inform anyone, we lay in bed, hoping it would go away. After ten days, a friend phoned asking us where we were, as she had not met us for a while. As soon as she heard that we were ill, she got an oxygen measurement instrument, and left it with us.
On the third day of measuring my pulse and O2 levels, my daughter found the level of blood oxygen had dropped to 75. So she phoned her two older sisters, who then attempted to find me a hospital bed, as the doctor friend we had called the previous day had said I would die if I didn’t go to hospital. His remonstration that we had not informed anyone, or got a COVID-19 check, fell on deaf ears. The newspapers had been full of weeping relatives who could not find their kin in mortuaries, or had left them at hospital for treatment and then lost them forever. COVID-19 tests were also about queues and being told to return home, even if they had been booked to be administered.
By great fortune, a private company agent came with the kit, and both my daughter and I were definitively COVID-19 positive. I was too ill to notice what was happening, as suddenly there was coming and going in the house, young people, friends of my daughter were there, friends of friends, all doubly masked, making phone calls. An oxygen cylinder appeared, but it seemed to be empty, so it was returned, and small aerosol-like containers were purchased.
“Please don’t send me to hospital, I will never see you again, I won’t know how to contact you,” I pleaded. The young people in the house, some of whom had had COVID-19 previously and were banking on the immunity that follows for a few months, were urgently making phone calls all the while, maybe trying to purchase more oxygen aerosols. My eldest daughter, who was living in another city with her family, lockdown having enforced them into a relatively pleasant stay for a year and a half, managed to find a hospital bed for me. It was a window to survival which few people had in those days. She used Twitter and Facebook, and innumerable phone calls, and someone sent an SMS saying, “There is a bed in Jamia Hamdard.” So at 7 pm, my youngest daughter, who lives in the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, called the JNU ambulance which appeared at the door.
We reached the hospital very soon, given that there was little traffic. At the gate, we were told where to go, and the doctor we should meet. We walked to the entrance. A young doctor was waiting for us, who said with some alarm, “You should not have walked, you should have taken a wheelchair.” My daughter, who was also COVID-19 positive, quickly relinquished me to his care, and called a taxi to return home, where she self isolated for the 12 days I was away. Friends sent her food, and while she did not have severe COVID-19, the fatigue was immense.
The doctor who had greeted me had a ward boy bring a wheelchair and the bag with fresh clothes which my daughter had packed for me. I went into the ward, which was packed, all the beds taken. I didn’t have any feelings, I merely thought, “Here is a bed, now I can sleep.” I did have my cell phone, and called after an hour to see if my daughter had reached home safely. Thankfully, she had.
We were woken up every hour to have some test taken, and all of us submitted to this because we realised that when one is at death’s door, one really has no will. We were in a collective state of lassitude, none of us made eye contact, we lay there, in some physical pain, the magnitude of which depended on the severity of it. There were two 70-year-old women who wept with the agony they were feeling, which caused the rest of us some inconvenience, for as soon as we dropped off to sleep there was a heart-rending cry from one lady or another.
Dying in the loo was the greatest fear most of us had. There were attendants who would accompany us if we were willing to use the wheelchair, but most of us preferred to walk down to the toilets alone, though the nurses regularly shouted at us for doing so, saying we could have an accident if we were not accompanied. The first few days I got lost returning, there were only four rooms to pass, but I would keep walking and then have to ask my way. I had no sense of recognition spatially, but as I said, it was a short walk, and there were medical staff visible everywhere.
What was interesting was that over those eight days, several patients did recover, their blood oxygen reached 98, and they were sent home. We had not made eye contact, exchanged a word or tried to introduce ourselves. The ward boys were at attention, sympathetic to our terrible condition. We lay as if dead for a week, but it was their courtesy which was enormous. At night, it was a different story, as we would be woken up at all hours to have our temperature taken, a needle inserted into a vein or a lung scan. Anyone could die any time, so the medical machinery just went on functioning as if there was no tomorrow. Neither did we bother with courtesies, nor did the technical staff who had to drag huge X-ray machines or take blood samples. There was no morning and no night, time was an abstraction; the bright lights of the COVID-19 ward were on all the time.
At the end of eight days, the world looked a little approachable, as the fever had abated and so had the headaches. I noticed for instance that we were on the ground floor, and that when the green shade over the window was lifted, one could actually see cars and people. I started to listen to the phone calls that patients received, and learned about their lives and their difficulties. They, like people at railways stations and in long distance buses, had no problem discussing the most complex domestic issues. I made no phone calls, except a few to say I was alive, and getting better.
I also started reacting very abusively if people put on their loudspeakers after 7 pm. Till 7 pm, I had no problem with listening to the litany of messages about what was cooked for lunch, whose property was at risk, and what expat children said to old parents, who had been suddenly been left marooned. These overheard narratives were immensely interesting, and as they did not mind being overheard, from day 8, I started interacting with fellow patients, and got to know them a little better. Post 7 pm, I would get abrasive if they played religious music or talked to relatives. No one seemed to have brought their ear phones with them, so this explosive enquiry, “Who has their loud speaker on”, would be met by total silence. Then I would get up from my bed, and accost the person, and say, “It’s not your home, it’s a hospital ward, a public place.”
Sometimes, having got to know their names, I would start shouting, saying, “It’s night, and you have your phone loud speaker on” and the accused person would say, “It’s not me” in a weak voice. It was as if my hearing was more sharp during the night, and any noise could make my head spin.
By the 10th day, only three of us were left. The new entrant talked a lot, and ordered much tea with sugar from the canteen, but then she got sent off to ICU, and the ventilator.
The doctors and nurses were marvellously kind, and stopped to speak to each of us. It was the everydayness of their concern that showed me what warriors they were. The whole nation was in their debt. They came regularly, and they tried to communicate to us how important it was to lie on one’s belly, as that was as good as the ventilator. I tried to do it as often as I could, the belly had to be empty, so it was possible between 11 am and 1 pm, and 5 pm and 7 pm, as the rest of the time one would have eaten a meal or had water, tea or soup. The kitchen was excellent, they fed us well, as nutrition was a central part of the rehabilitation process. Two cats dropped by every day at lunch time, and would examine me from a distance, as if they were reincarnated hospital consultants. No one chased them away, they seemed to belong, without infringing on us. The sheets were changed every morning at 5 am and for the first week we stood precariously, hoping not to fall and die.
The cleaning staff came through the day, mopping the floors and keeping the toilets clean. Their work is so difficult, and yet they manage to communicate a certain valour. Sometimes one wondered why the men’s loo was next to the women’s ward, and the women’s loo was next to the men’s ward. Just a change of the name plate would have made life so much easier. As most patients were in the state where reading boards given the fever was difficult for them, they would take the lassitude of their condition to use the loo nearest to them. As near death, all is obtuse (all are Brothers and Sisters), no one complained as long as propriety was maintained, as the long sojourn in the COVID-19 ward was like being in the Jammu Tawi to Kerala, which takes five days, with unisex loos.
We had no idea when we could go home, and my anxiety about my blood oxygen not going up was finally solved when it reached 93 for three days running. The nurses said, “You will do better at home, ma’am, with the food that you are used to eating. And of course, you will have to stay in bed for another two weeks, even if you think you have been discharged.”
My middle daughter had come to Delhi the day after I had been admitted to hospital. Friends loaned her an empty flat, and she commuted to the hospital to liaison with the doctors regarding my treatment, and to ferry messages to the anxious family who had no news of me. She could not go home to JNU as my youngest daughter had COVID-19, and had arrived basically to make sure that I got clean clothes and fruit. She lived in the flat near the hospital, and the kindness of friends helped her to get through two weeks of solitude, as she could not meet anyone. COVID-19 rules of social distance made it very necessary that since she visited the hospital once a week, she did not come in contact with the family who had kindly offered her the use of a safe house.
When she came to collect me from the hospital on the 13th day, she seemed a little like a Martian, double masked with a glass visor. I was afraid to make eye contact, as I knew my days of isolation had somehow robbed me of speech, but she was completely at ease, saying, “Hi Mama!” and escorting me to the taxi downstairs. The ward boy, who had pushed my wheelchair to the ground floor, said, “Yes, it’s our job, but we find it interesting, I cannot tell you how much we learn about others, and the knowledge they have. We don’t look at the risks, it’s about learning about humans.”
Since my older daughter has two little girls of her own, she was not able to come to Delhi, and my youngest was in home isolation with COVID-19, the trio would have long conversations from their different residences, and take all decisions together. This close digital interaction was crucial for the mutual survival of the members of the family, who from one day to the next, as they did not know the survival chances of their mother, for the first eight days.
I remember the kindness of the medicos and the nurses, all of whom were about 25 years old. The senior doctors appeared only once a day, at 11 am, to look at the charts and to advise patients. For the rest of the time, we were completely in the care of the interns, each one so kind and alert. I felt as if the country was being run by young people, and that their love and patriotism was a talisman for the years to come. I was one of the lucky ones who survived. There was an old woman of 84, who had COVID-19, and who wept a lot. Of her they would say, right through the day and night, “Keep calm, mother. The less you speak, the less you exert, the easier it will be for your lungs.” To one another, they would say, “She has very little life in her (Bahut thodi jaan bachi hai)” and there would be patent anxiety about her chances of survival. They really wanted to heal her, and send her back to her family.
As patients, we felt traumatised by her suffering and her fear of death. We felt that her panic, screams and cries mitigated our own chance of survival, as we would be woken up from our endless slumber, day and night, by her constant speech. When she was sent up to the ICU after five days, we felt relief, and really thought that the silence that was given back to us was a huge gift to our own recovery. When I was allowed to return home, I knew that being in a public ward was as comfortable as travelling sleeper class or in local buses. I am just grateful that I had the opportunity to be with women who understood our common human drive to stay alive, and the gratitude I felt to my daughters who had made such an effort to get me on the side of the living.
Susan Visvanathan is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, JNU.