It happened during the third week of the lockdown. My day had gotten off to a bad start, for I had just gone and done something I had quite recently sworn to myself I would never do again. I had gotten into a Facebook fight.
I’ve found myself in plenty of online skirmishes with Narendra Modi supporters over the years, and have realised that heated arguments on social media rarely, if ever, change anyone’s mind. But this particular exchange had managed to rile me more than a bit. Perhaps because this wasn’t a battle with a bhakt, it was a dispute with a liberal. (My contention was that, at this time of deep national crisis, we as the middle class need to show a lot more sensitivity towards the hunger and suffering around us and perhaps refrain from posting photos of every exotic meal we have cooked. The other person’s response was, ‘stop being moralistic’.)
As the discussion dragged on and tempers rose, I began to remember why I have always believed that battles on social media are, more often than not, a huge waste of time and energy.
Mercifully, my phone rang at that point. A school principal friend of many years told me she had just had a bunch of reusable cloth face masks stitched and would I know of a place where they might be used. I put this bit of information out on a relief network and immediately got a request from someone working with the poor near Turkman Gate. They needed face masks desperately!
The question, of course, was how to get the masks across to the relief workers, as very few people have transport passes to move around the city. I am not one of them. I searched through my phone book for someone who could possibly courier these face masks across the city, and found the number of a university student who had, just a couple of weeks back, taken urgently needed diabetes medication across to a friend at my request.
This young lady’s name is Anushka and she is an undergraduate who studies at Delhi University. She is one of the few to actually have a lockdown travel pass.
Anushka sets out early from home every morning – sometimes as early as 4 am – to distribute food, rations and medicines all over the city. Mongolpuri, Shahadra, Mustafabad, Majnu Ka Tila, IP Extension, Patparganj, you name it, she’s probably given out food there. Every day. Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. On a scooty.
That evening, I met her outside my residential complex to give her the face masks. It was late, almost 9:30 pm. I asked her how long she had been out.
“Since 3:30 am,” she said, and explained, “You see, food distribution in slum areas begins early and so people start lining up at 4 am outside the MCD schools, just so they don’t miss out. Many times the food finishes before they reach the counter, and so, rather than go home, many just wait in line the rest of the day so they don’t miss out on the next round of food distribution in the evening.”
Anushka visits these schools early in the morning to give food to as many of these people as she can. Then after she is done, she picks up rations and goes to the next place to distribute.
The street we are standing on is deserted. A few stray dogs gather around us. A police jeep drives past slowly, its blue and red lights flashing. The cops stare at us as they drive past. I feel slightly tense. It is late, and there is no one on the street besides us, the cops, and the dogs.
Anushka is a lot calmer than I am.
“Er… do they make you nervous?” I ask her, looking at the police jeep out of the corner of my eye. I have heard far too many stories of atrocity.
“You get used to them,” she shrugs. The cops drive past us again, the blue and red lights on their jeep flashing.
As we stand there outside the colony gate under a lone streetlight, she tells me stories about how Muslim youth are being picked up at different locations across the city and taken away to unknown locations, about how relief workers are being detained, and about the fear, despair and hunger in the city. I find myself breathing deeply in an effort to stay calm.
I suddenly remember the two gobhi parathas that my mom, who has been staying with me since the lockdown began, had packed for her earlier in the evening when I told her a university student would be swinging by to pick up the masks. (“She’ll be hungry. These young people never have their meals on time.”)
I ask Anushka when she ate last. Her answer is what I thought it would be.
“In the morning,” she says. I give her the parathas. She happily accepts them. She is not much older than the young people I teach.
I apologise for not being able to invite her home and offer her a cup of tea. No outsiders are allowed in the colony. She understands, of course, and tells me not to worry about it. She still has a couple more hours of work ahead. She has to drop off medicines to someone and then deliver the masks I gave her to an NGO that will distribute them at Turkman Gate tomorrow.
I try to tell her to please not be out so late.
She smiles from behind her mask, that “Yeah, sure” kind of smile that young people often give you, gets back on her scooty and drives away.
I am overwhelmed by her selflessness. I say a prayer for her protection and safety, and I thank God for her courage.
Anushka, with her simple and brave acts of care and compassion, has put a thousand dining room debates and Facebook fights to shame.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.