You Just Have to Keep Looking

Now that the pandemic seems to be winding down (#fingerscrossed), the Marginalia team fans out to see how women got through the last two years.

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

“Covid has made us familiar with uncertainty and open to challenges. If one door closes, another will open. You just have to keep looking,” says 24-year-old Vaishnavi Kukatkar, a beautician from Walgaon, Maharashtra. 

Are we in the post-pandemic era yet? It seems too soon to say and we don’t want to jinx it. But what we can certainly say now is that things have slowed down enough for us to finally feel the effects of the last two years. We’re reeling from the collective trauma of having witnessed a global crisis, losing loved ones, watching millions die and be displaced, all through tiny screens in our insulated homes. The last two years have been very different for people, depending on who you ask.

For women, the pandemic posed an extra challenge, given the added straddling of home and work they had to do for two years. Women from different social backgrounds ended up bearing the brunt of the pandemic in different ways. 

We wanted to find out how women coped during this time and how things have changed for them now. So we asked women from different professions, social backgrounds and ages to share their experiences with us. All put together, they might offer a glimpse of what a slice of the world went through during the last two years.

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The Nurse’s Account

By Dnyaneshwari Burghate

“I had to prepare myself mentally for a whole day, before entering the Covid ward and working for twelve hours. I am very relieved that the cases have decreased and life is back to normal again,” says Pranalee Sukhdev Dongre, 35, who has been working as a staff nurse at the Government Medical College and Hospital at Akola, Maharashtra for the past 13 years. Pranalee was a breastfeeding mother to a 6-month-old child when India was hit by the first Covid wave in March 2020. “Since then life has been a roller coaster until now,” expresses Pranalee with a sigh of relief. As a frontline health worker, Pranalee experienced different behaviour from her neighbours and even from distant family members during the Covid years. She said she did not even have the option to back out as “we were not allowed to take leave unless we contracted the disease, so sometimes, testing positive felt like it might be a good option”. 

In picture: Pranalee Dongre

The lives of health workers, especially female health workers, in the time of Covid, have been unimaginable and unfathomable for most of us. Wearing a PPE kit for 12 hours straight without having the liberty to use the washrooms, particularly during periods, was a disaster for female health workers. Once the gruelling shift was over, they had to go home to their families as no separate residential facilities were provided. “Staying with family meant dealing with household chores and the baby after a 12-hour shift. That was a nightmare. Now that Covid is almost over, it feels like our normal lives have started. Getting ready for shifts with the heavy kits and all precautions felt like we were in the middle of  a war but now we can go to the wards with only a mask. That brings us some relief; work doesn’t feel like torture anymore,” says Pranalee. “But we love our jobs and are responsible for the health of the population of the country. We also hope that people respect and trust us for the work we do."

The Businesswoman’s Story

By Shristi Roy

 

“I used to deal in clothes and garments from the very beginning. I have been doing it for 20 years.”

 

Rina Gupta was in her twenties when she started selling products door to door in what was for her a new city: Ranchi. What began with the sale of cosmetics soon grew into a business of garments with loyal customers slowly turning into friends and well-wishers. For 20 years she carried a heavy black bag on her right shoulder until March 2020. “I don’t know why I just had the urge to leave everything and go back home [to Kolkata]. I thought I could live around my people…” she says.

Looking forward to a slower life, Rina had hazy plans of taking up suitable work to engage her as she went back home. However, with Covid and the pandemic 

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In picture: Rina Gupta

bringing the world to a halt, she spent two years stuck inside her house alone, following the same dreary routine day after day. She also discovered that it was difficult to set up new connections and find new customers in a new space. “In October 2021, a week after Durga Pujo, I broke my right arm. The wound started healing within a month and a half but that incident broke my heart even more,” she shares in a low voice. No one from her family came to see her when she hurt herself. She was alone in what she considered home.

 

So, when the world started opening up, she knew she had to come back to Ranchi, the place she had made her own. Her house in Ranchi still has space for just one, but she doesn’t feel lonely anymore. “My customers were very happy when they heard that I’m back. I don’t even have to pre-pay the sellers; they all know me well here”, says Rina, “I’m happy now.”

The Beautician’s Account

By Dnyaneshwari Burghate

"I wish there was a way to do someone’s eyebrows or facials using video calls. I am happy that there are no restrictions now and my customers have increased over time as people preferred home services during COVID."

 

Vaishnavi Kukatkar, 24, entered the beauty industry in 2018 after completing her B.Com. She lives in Walgaon, a town in the Amravati district of Maharashtra. Vaishnavi had just started making contacts and getting the hang of her new career when COVID hit in March 2020. Now she studies for competitive exams and provides beauty services at home. “There were no customers during the first wave but as the restrictions started to ease, one customer recommended another and my business blossomed gradually,” says Vaishnavi. Her customers continue to be faithful and that is a huge relief to Vaishnavi. But the expectation to wear masks post the 

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In picture: Vaishnavi Kukatkar

Covid wave affects her work. “I cannot thread eyebrows well with a mask but some people expect me to be wearing it all the time, even now when there are no new Covid cases. They will roam without masks everywhere but they want me to wear one,” says Vaishnavi. 

 

Vaishnavi now has a permanent set of customers but she now faces a bigger challenge: commuting. Most of her customers are in the city of Amravati, and she commutes to and fro by bus. However, since the strike of the State Transport (ST) buses in October 2020, there have been very few buses. “Now that one worry [Covid] has gone, the ST bus strike is causing another. I do not own a private vehicle, and most of my travel is done by bus. But I have to lose out on several customers because of the unavailability of buses,” says Vaishnavi. 

 

The challenges have also pushed her to expand her areas of working. Vaishnavi now makes videos of hairstyles and circulates them amongst her customers. “If I get good responses to my videos, I will open a YouTube channel. I will keep creating videos alongside my orders” says Vaishnavi. 

The Mother’s Tale 

By Umme Salma Saifee 

 

“Covid was neither hard nor easy for me. But getting life back on track was something that we were all looking forward to for the entire duration of the lockdown,” says Fatema Sevawala, homemaker and mother of two kids aged 10 and 5. Both of them became dependent on her for their education when online classes became hard. “Juggling household chores along with the added responsibility of ensuring their home work gotdone, sitting with them in the classes, making sure they were paying attention, it was a lot to handle.” Then as the lockdowns were lifted and everything opened, schools remained shut. “I initially thought it was a good thing, you know, that I would be able to supervise their learning. But after one point, it

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In picture: Fatema Sevawala

became exhausting.” Fatema always wanted to open her own business, decorating gift items and designing beautiful gift packages, as well as working as a make-up artist from home. “I had planned to formally start working when Saifuddin (her younger son) would be old enough to start school. But then the pandemic happened.” 

Schools opening up became a boon for her. “Now, after I send my kids off, I have half the day for myself. I’ve started my packaging business, and I’m able to give my creative best for that. Burhanuddin (her elder son) has also improved in his studies because school’s routine doesn’t allow the space to slack off. So it has worked out well.” Fatema’s business is picking up after the lockdowns, as she provides beautiful packaging with reasonable rates and has loads of personal contacts, who all help in promoting her work. After the burnout she experienced during the lockdowns, she’s glad things are changing.
 

The Doctor’s Account

By Jessica Jani 

For nearly four months, Dr. Vijaya Gowri, 51, did not take off her mask. The 51-year-old paediatrician and child specialist had just secured a job at B. J. Wadia Hospital for Children in Mumbai, as a consultant immunologist, when the first wave of COVID-19 hit the city. She was immediately put on Covid duty. When she was not on duty, she had to go back home to her teenage son, husband, and elderly mother-in-law. “I had this constant fear that I might be carrying the virus,” so she spent all her time at home wearing double cotton masks, and isolating herself in a room away from her family. When I asked her if she felt lonely, she said, “We could still talk across rooms.” All that paid off.“No one in my family contracted the virus in two years,” she adds with a hint of pride in her voice.

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In picture: Dr. Vijaya Gowri

Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Gowri worked with children who had contracted Covid or with pregnant Covid-positive women. “In the medical profession, ideally, we are taught that you should never personalize, but it doesn’t happen that way because in paediatrics, with kids, where the mother is admitted somewhere else and there is no other relative allowed, if a child suddenly develops a liking for me, that attachment comes automatically,” she says. “If something happens to the child, of course your heart cries, you do feel bad.” However, she adds that children are much more resilient than one gives them credit for. “When admitting a child, we might think, we won’t be able to save him, but often he will pull through.” 

 

As an immunologist, Dr Gowri is not over Covid  duty yet. She is now working with Covid babies — born to Covid-positive mothers, who have inherited Covid antibodies as newborns, leading to several complications going forward. She conducts regular follow-ups with these children now. For her, the pandemic was “a phase of life we had to go through.” She speaks in a matter-of fact tone, with a practiced pragmatism one can only find in a doctor of children. “It has taught us many things, medically, it really improved my lateral thinking and in my personal life, it was a learning,” she says. “I’m just happy we don’t have to go through that PPE kit duty again, hopefully.”

The Kids’ Tales

By Maahi Shah 

 

“That familiar sound of people turning their question papers, or of people cracking their knuckles, of the heavy breathing of people towards the last few minutes of the exam, that kind of felt good.” 

 

After two years of gaping uncertainty in nearly all the facets of a teenager’s life—the indefinite postponement of admission processes, alternating announcements of examinations, or the inability to meet and connect with people beyond the confines of a room, thousands of students like Udyati Shah appeared for their higher secondary board examinations in person. Nervousness and stress were interwoven with excitement and an undying desire to be a part of the campus, though only momentarily. 


 

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In  picture: Udyati Shah

While the transition to online learning embodied adaptability at its best, students in Mumbai, who opted to go to junior college, were taken for a ride. Circumstances compelled the education board to consolidate two years of learning into one, and simplified examination procedures through Multiple Choice Question tests via Google forms. “The transition was also in a way not welcome. Because we knew that eventually we were going to have to write physical papers some sooner than later,” she said laughing lightly. When the official announcement came, it brought with it a set of jitters. “So having to write the papers physically got us all a little bit scared, because you really think : How are we going to write the paper? And how are we going to finish it? After not having written a single word for such a long time? Yet, we made it through,” she said. It took a bit of getting used to the new normal : methods of study, remembering to take the hall ticket, writing for 3.5 hours (a 30-minute extension from the previous 3 hours was granted).  How did that feel, completing an offline paper? “We didn't really do much talking about it. We just about come out of our first written exam paper in a very long time. So we were kind of still in our own worlds a little bit I guess still kind of getting used to the rush or that numbness in the wrist.” There it is then: a numb wrist as a sign that we are beginning to find our way back.