#WhatIf we connected deeply with the experiences of our children and young people.
‘Beta (son), I never wanted this day to come. I’m sorry. I need you to come to work with me.’ Mihir looked up from his drawing, expressionless and saw for the first time, tears in his fathers eyes. ‘What’s wrong baba?’ ‘We have to close the shop beta. All the shops have to be shut because of the virus. So we will have to go to different buildings now to sell vegetables. I need your help Mihir. You and me, we are the men of the house, we have to take care of the family.’ His fathers shaking hand was on his head now. Mihir could not understand what his father must have been feeling but his stomach was getting really queasy.
It had only been 2 weeks since the whole country had gone on a ‘lockdown’. Mihir had been excited about exams getting cancelled and his holidays starting early! He was spending all his time drawing! And he was enjoying it. Until now. What will it be like now? Will I have any time for drawing? What will happen when school starts? Will I still go to school? I don’t want to see baba like this. He’s so… sad I think?
‘Sanjana! Sanjana! Check the gas! It smells like you’ve burned the rice again!’ Oh no! Not again. I just left it for 2 minutes. Sanjana jumped up almost trampling Jai as she went to the reached over and hurriedly switched off the gas. Slowly she opened to check. Hmmm… its just a little burnt. I’ll eat this part. ‘Sorry Ma. I was helping Jai with his school work.’ ‘When I was your age, I was already married and cooking for many more people than you have to today. If you want to keep going to school, then you have to learn to do all this also. Good this lockdown has happened. Now you can focus on learning how to cook. Otherwise all you want to do is read books. Nobody will marry you because you know how to read. Then you don’t say that your mother didn’t teach you.’ ‘What if I don’t want to get married! What if I don’t like to cook! What if I want to study and get a job in an office!’ ‘Enough Sanjana. Finish preparing the food now. Your father will be back soon.’
Just then the door slammed, startling the two of them. Pens scattered on the floor, Jai’s book hit the wall. ‘I told you to keep the house door shut at all times! Can’t you even follow simple instructions!’ The police are everywhere. You know that gosht-wala (butcher) Shaikh in galli (street) no.4? His sister has been coughing since last night. I just heard she has fever also. One more reason to stay away from them’ ‘But we are cooking. It becomes really hot…..’ ‘What do you want me to do? Tell the police the women in my house want to keep the door open for the cool breeze?’ ‘Papa, can I use your phone please? The teacher has sent some test papers on whatsapp. I’ll just take 5 minutes.’ Nothing is there on whatsapp. I would know.’ ‘Must be on email then. Please let me check.’ Sanjana grabbed the phone before he could change his mind. Her father would go for a bath now. So this was the only time to call Mariyam and Ahmed. She was worried about Anjum Khala (aunt).
Mariyam was sitting by her mother, feeding her a broth of dal and rice when the phone rang. She knew it must be 7pm. ‘How is your mother?’ came Sanajas voice from the other side. Mariyam had been holding her tears back for so long hearing her friends voice, they just came rushing out now. She signaled she’d be right back to her mom and went to stand behind the fridge. ‘She’s not doing well Sanju. I’m really scared. They are not letting her take a test also. They asked for 2000 rupees.’ ‘What about medicines?’ ‘There are no medicines for this Corona virus. It’s like a new virus or something they are saying. And they think all of us in the house can get it. And I’m the one taking care of her. Abbu and Khala took Ahmed and the other children to the shop. They are going to stay there till ammi gets better.’ ‘Shall I come help you Mariyam?’ ‘No no. You should just stay in the house, keep your face covered when you go to the market. And don’t talk to anyone also.’
Ahmed barely had time to pack his things. Early in the morning his mother had woken him up and told him to quickly get all the children ready to go live in the shop for a few days. Good I have my school bag. I can keep reading these books. I’m already getting bored. Can’t go out. Can’t meet friends. I wish I had a mobile phone, I could do so many things then. ‘Ahmed, you have to take care of the children till we go home. Mariyam has to stay and take care of her mother.’ ‘But… but what do I do with them! I’m 14! They don’t understand anything I say!’ He was the eldest of the group. The 3 other children were between 4 and 8 — Abu, Reshma and Humza. Sanjana would know what to do. I wish I could talk to her.
And so the virus took over their lives, disrupting it, throwing new responsibilities their way, hurling uncertainties and not leaving any space for calm. It had just begun. No one knew how long it would be, how many more lives were being disrupted just like these young people. But one thing had become clear quite early on — if you were poor, a dalit, a muslim, a child, a single parent, if you were marginalized and living in adversity, this pandemic was a fight for survival — life and death was facing you and your family in each moment and if you survived, it would be haunting you for a while to come.