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Seeing Humanity As One: Seva in the time of COVID

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We are in day 14 of the lockdown here in Chennai, India. I was taking my evening walk in the driveway to clear my mind. I was agonizing over a question and a solution continued to evade me. As I kept walking, a realization washed over me – we must give up our notions of what life is and learn to go with the flow. We don’t know what life brings to our doorstep the next moment. A movement near the gate made me stop. A young man, perhaps 23-24 years old, was trying to catch my attention. “Ma’am, if you don’t mind can I speak with you? I need some help.” I wasn’t sure at first, but the helplessness in his eyes and his hesitation made me pause. He was wearing jeans with a shirt hanging loosely over his narrow frame. His hair was tied up in a small pony-tail high on his head. He had a small beard, and was visibly tanned, which he explained later was due to days of walking in the sun. As I studied him, he told me about himself, in bits and pieces. Stopping sometimes to catch a breath, sometimes to hold back tears. “I saw your dumalla* from a distance. I thought you must be from Punjab. I am from Punjab too. My family emigrated to Poland seven years ago. My brother’s death broke my father, and he wanted a change of scenery to deal with his grief. I completed my studies in Poland. I was selected for an internship with Segro which brought me back to India. And now there’s a lockdown. I am stuck at the airport with many other passengers. The foreign currency exchange counters are not working. We have been provided accommodation at the airport, but things are very bad there. They provide water but we have to buy our own food. Food at the airport is very expensive, and I have run out of cash. I need to buy some medicine. I am left with 13 rupees. I need 87 rupees. Could you just help me with that?” He looked away as his voice choked. “I have enough money in my account. I am not able to withdraw anything because of the lockdown. For a few days, I was taking help from a French national next to me. I would transfer seven euros to his account and he would exchange it for Indian currency worth six euros. But today he has found some transport and has moved out. I can give you my passport and IDs. You can check my profile on social media too. I just need 87 rupees. I am not asking for anything else.” He went on to give me more personal details to reassure me that he was not trying to con me. “We were in the lorry that was intercepted at the border. We were desperate to go home. The lorry driver charged us 3000 rupees to drop us up to Ahmedabad. From there, I was hoping to go to Delhi and then to my village in Punjab. I lost that money too. The driver is now in jail. I have to wait till the 15th for the flights to start operating. I want to go to my village in Punjab. There I can access my bank account and also pay you back.” As he sat down on the stone slab near the gate, I could see that he was worn out and distressed. I asked him if he had eaten anything. He said he had not had anything since yesterday. And his voice choked again. I was pained to see a human being having to go through desperation and stress in an unknown city with no friend, no family, no acquaintance. Left completely to fend for himself. Beginning to relax a little by now, he began to ask me about my family. My mind went back to stories recounted by my parents about the 1947 Punjab Partition and anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. I have no roots in present day Punjab. My grandparents had to leave everything behind during the Partition. In fact, my father was born in a refugee camp in Gilgit, currently in Pakistan administered Kashmir. It helped me understand in some way what it means to be stranded far away from home. To have to live your life day-by-day not knowing what tomorrow will bring. My aunt would narrate a story about my father when he was two years old. The family was in a refugee camp. One evening when they sat down in rows for dinner, she noticed that he ate half his roti and tucked the other half into his pocket. When she enquired, he told her he was saving it because there may be no food the next day. It still breaks my heart when I think how he was forced to learn tough lessons of life at a tender age. I always wish I could go back into the past to meet my father in his childhood. Give him a wholesome meal, a restful shade and heal his wounds. And give that little boy the comfort that Mata Khivi did for so many: ਬਲਵੰਡ ਖੀਵੀ ਨੇਕ ਜਨ ਜਿਸੁ ਬਹੁਤੀ ਛਾਉ ਪਤ੍ਰਾਲੀ ॥ balava(n)dd kheevee nek jan jis bahutee chhaau patraalee ||

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Lakhpreet Kaur