Deepika Bhatia heads recruitment at a big private bank. She, her husband and daughter have all been cooking, scrubbing, washing and working from home in their Delhi flat. The family left Delhi to drop off her husband Vikram’s elderly parents to his brother’s guesthouse in Uttarakhand. They were to return after four days.
Four weeks on, their return date remains uncertain. “I never valued the sunrise or the sunset, or lived in such harmony with nature,” Deepika says. “I now sleep at 10 pm and wake up early,” she adds with a smile.
Running away together
As cities become hotbeds for the coronavirus, urban folk clamber onto lifeboats to escape these sinking Titanics. Some head to rarely visited hometowns. Others to mountains/seasides with lower infection rates. Second homes are seeing the highest occupancy ever. A new service called “Work from Mountains” helps people find country getaways through Facebook.”
Nine-year-old Ahana has three friends in neighbouring flats in Pune with whom she “window talks” for two hours every day
Upper-middle class urbanites realise that their most precious asset is not gold or property, but household help. Swabbing and cooking for months is a training programme on the dignity of labour. While evil urban RWAs ban maids, help in small-town India continues to toil.
“It’s good to not have to cook and wash. My brother’s guesthouse here in Uttarakhand is called the Quiet Place and really lives up to its name. So we walk outside, play badminton, and often sit in the open for chai,” says Vikram, Deepika’s husband. “We are lucky all of us can work remotely,” he adds.
Where is everyone?
The benefits of this reverse migration are obvious, the challenges less so. To leave the city, you have to be able to work remotely. If any family member has physical work, you’re stuck.
You need a country home to start with. “We’ve visited our friends in the mountains often. But this time they sounded surprisingly wary. Gurgaon is a red zone, so it’s understandable,” says Puneeta Trivedi Bhatnagar, an aspiring migrant. “Besides, I guess there’s a difference between four days and indefinitely,” she adds wistfully. She is still in Gurgaon.
To leave the city, you have to be able to work remotely
But in the countryside, boredom can be a problem. “My son Anurag has a beautiful place. I enjoyed the natural beauty, but the emptiness really bored me. And I worried about the hospital being so far away. It’s a three-hour drive to Haldwani,” says Kanwaljit Singh Chatrath. All his friends were back in Chandigarh, his home for 17 years. So after three months, he has gone back. Upcountry India has lower infection rates, so it’s great for prevention, but not for cure. Healthcare is a real challenge.
Nine-year-old Ahana (name changed) continues to be in Pune though her grandparents invited her to Ooty. “Ahana has three friends in neighbouring flats with whom she “window talks” for two hours every day. The next-door flat and the two below us each has kids Ahana’s age. They all speak through window grills. She loves it. Whenever we ask about Ooty, she says no,” says Ahana’s mother.
Small town, small minds
Internet access in small town India is also a challenge. “The only thing I would change here is bandwidth,” says Annanya, Deepika’s daughter. “Although we’ve upped bandwidth and use every single hotspot available, it can still be a challenge to attend meetings. Even the phone signal can be patchy.”
Physically fleeing the virus requires many things to be in place
Finally, like people everywhere, villagers can have regressive mindsets around caste and religion. Husain lives in Delhi and his wife Mary (both names changed) works in a village in Nainital district where she rents a home. Husain arrived at the village house with a Covid negative certificate and went straight into quarantine. But the influential landlord – who had made anti-Muslim slursin the past – was looking to make trouble. Husain told us, “I spoke to the pradhan week before I reached. He said I was welcome as long as I quarantined. Yet, the day I reached, the pradhan repeatedly called me and asked me to leave. Mary’s neighbour, Sharmaji, who drove from Delhi with me, was not asked to leave. But he isn’t renting. Some viruses aren’t physical, I guess.” Afraid for his wife’s safety, Husain left the next day.
So physically fleeing the virus requires many things to be in place. A job which is virtual. A welcoming country home. Good connectivity. Comfort with being alone and an outsider. Even with all that, you should hope that an uninvited virus won’t show up at what you thought was a fairy-tale getaway.
Chetan Mahajan is a writing coach, author and co-founder of the Himalayan Writing Retreat.
From HT Brunch, August 2, 2020
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