I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard village children talk of coronavirus while waiting for the school to open on a Monday morning (March 16, 2020). I knew about the disease from phone calls with my family in Europe and, honestly, I felt safe in a remote Sundarbans village in West Bengal.
Suddenly this word (corona) had entered the Bengali vocabulary. “Is it corona or corela?” I heard Kakoli (a village girl) ask her friend. Corela is the name of a local vegetable.
The school remained closed that day. The school authorities, following the government directive, declared holidays for 14 days (which was later extended). Now, the children felt free to spend more time at the ‘Happy Child Center’ which was also my home. I just about managed to deal with the crowd. But despite games, puzzles, drawing paper, books, and videos, I realised that I had reached a limit. I needed to make an adjustment and I announced that I could accept only two to three children at a time. This however didn’t really work very well. Village children are so used to appear in bundles. So, I gradually reduced the opening hours and finally closed the gates altogether.
My mud hut is on the grounds of Purba Chintamonipur Chetana Sangha, an organisation of local organic farmers. In normal times, I shared the vibrations of their often-stressful business. Sometimes, I wished to have a little bit more peace and quiet around me. However, I didn’t expect my wish to be fulfilled so soon. News of the virus had reached Subimal Bera, head of Chetana Sangha, and the Sunday market on March 22 was cancelled in advance.
Yet, many villagers seemed carefree. The regular ‘rationale’ extended by many of these villagers was, “You know, Didi, the virus doesn’t stand the heat. Additionally, we live so close to the sea that the salt in the air doesn’t give the virus a chance.”
We did start to keep more distance among ourselves but there was no fear. It was like acting in an adventure game. That Sunday, the word “curfew” entered the game and I was surprised to see an immediate response from the people. I took a picture of young men with handkerchiefs tied around their noses as if they were going to rob a bank. One of them asked me, “Didi, this is our first curfew. Can you tell us what it actually means? Are we supposed to remain in our houses or within the limits of our village?”
Gopal da, a staff member of Chetana Sangha, used to return to his distant village (across a mighty river) every Monday. I had promised to cook lunch for Gopalda that Monday (March 23) and was half way through preparations when he came into the kitchen to bid farewell. “Didi, don’t mind. I need to leave right away otherwise I won’t get home. They will close the ferry service.”
There was a peaceful place where I liked to go during sunset. On the way back from that place on March 25, I received a phone call from Subimalda. He enquired where I was and when I answered that I was returning from an evening walk, he got very excited. A short while later, we sat together (in one-meter distance of each other, Subimalda wearing a mouth mask and another staff member sitting behind the door as if to hide from view). He informed, “Didi, please don’t roam around the village anymore. There are police around and if they see you and recognise you as a foreigner, you will be taken straight to the police station. They won’t listen to you if you tell them that you have been here since November.”
So here I was, locked up in my little mud hut and my life became very, very peaceful. Subimalda and some other staff members offered to do my shopping.
Chetana Sangha went to market places to raise awareness for the proclaimed safety measures by distributing mouth masks and by drawing circles on the ground to indicate a distance of one meter. They also drove around the villages in their vegetable van equipped with loudspeakers and called out the safety instructions.
Ironically, Chetana Sangha couldn’t access the vegetables of their member farmers and a lot of precious food was wasted. However, the government distributed rice and potatoes to families with children. One businessman donated parcels of rice, potatoes, biscuits, and soaps, which Chetana Sangha collected from Raidighi and distributed among the needy in a disciplined manner.
I was truly surprised at the immediate obedience of the villagers. People stayed in and around their homes. When on the road, they wore masks, handkerchiefs or held the end of their sari in front of their mouth. Of course, people also expressed anger and frustration towards the restrictions. Normally, a lot of festivities are planned in the month of April. One woman complained, “City people go out every day, as they wish. We only have a few celebrations and now we are locked up in our homes.”
It wasn’t easy for me to live in uncertainty about when and how I would be able to return to my family in Europe. Life in the village is full of hardships that were unknown to me. Never did I need to care about getting water for my toilet, my shower, my dishes, and laundry. Never did I need to worry about getting food. Never did I need to share my room with insects of all shapes and sizes. Additionally, the humid heat with temperatures around 38 degrees got me exhausted. Despite all this, there was a deep sensation of gratitude and unbroken faith within me. It is in times of hardship that God’s grace becomes most evident. I knew that every challenge served my inner growth and that love would carry me through. Music, prayer, and meditation were just as vital to me as preparing my simple meals, keeping my hut clean and my body and mind relaxed.