Part I: A Phone Rings in Bombay
A good friend’s Covid-19 diagnosis far away puts a face to the devastating healthcare crises ravaging India.
It is the call you never want to make. The one you said you would make when you’d last spoke last week. You promised to Whatsapp him again next week, and next week is today. But today his phone rings, and rings until his voicemail puts it out of its shrill misery. You hang up. Dial again. Repeat. The call you never want to make is the one that your friend never answers.
“Where could he be?” you ask yourself. A 30-something actor and writer, he’s not been able to find work in Bollywood after the industry mostly shuttered last year and has been evicted from his apartment. You Google search: time in India. 22:14. Good. Maybe he’s asleep, you pray. Asleep, you hope. Asleep, to awaken again tomorrow.
Last week when you spoke he recounted how he was still slumming it in Mumbai. Depressed. Dejected. Hopeless. He told you he had lost his sense of smell and taste. You had, too, you told him, in March of 2020. But developing antibodies was the ultimate silver lining.
He told you he was sharing a 120 sqft dwelling in the slums with 6 other people, half of whom had tested positive for Covid-19. The government had blocked the exits of the slums a week prior and marked the doors of the infected — in scarlet letter fashion — so that no one was allowed to leave or enter the tiny flat. You remarked to yourself how 120 sqft seemed small for an apartment, but rather large for a coffin.
“Are you eating?” you asked.
“Food is left once a day,” he replied.
“What do you do all day?” you asked.
“We wait,” he replied.
After advising him to prop open a window and station himself there to be the first to breathe in the fresh air, you cursed at him: “What the fuck are you still doing in the slums anyway! I though you were leaving last month!”
A few weeks ago, you had sent him funds via Paypal. It was enough for him to rent a hotel room in Bombay for a month or so. Get clean. Reset. And figure out his next steps. But it was not enough to cover all his debts. Ever the considerate soul, he didn’t touch the money. He said he was saving up to first pay off his former landlord.
“How can you pay off debt if you’re dead?” you screamed, hysterical.
Anyway, all hotels had closed in India. Depression now hung around him like a fog, thick and heavy. Without an outlet to share his creative talents, he was losing hope. The pandemic snuffed out opportunities in his industry but they would come back, you assured him. Bollywood is not dead. He has a story to tell and when this nightmare is all over he could share it, you told him.
He didn’t want handouts so you offered to pay him to write. He had something to look forward to, you urged him. Write, you begged. Just write.
Then, he asked: “Do you know what a slum is, Jaja?” “
“No,” you sheepishly replied.
“Watch Slumdog Millionaire,” he said. “This is where I am.”
In the past few weeks, a surge of Covid-19 cases has ravaged India. This is not a second wave. This is a tsunami. Reports of hospitals and morgues being at full capacity, dead bodies being burned in the streets, oxygen tank price-gouging and people transporting the corpses of their loved ones on wheelbarrows and rickshaws have filled the headlines. But in between the lines, there are countless stories that remain untold. In a nation of more than 1.3 billion people, my friend’s story is just one.