Non Resident Indian Naivete Meets COVID

Editor’s Note: Sita is a Goddess in the Hindu religion. Mohammad is the Prophet and Founder of Islam

By Sita Bhaskar

Four years ago, determined to be independent and drive in India, I went for a test for a learner’s permit. When the old fogey in the RTO office corrected one of my hand signals, a signal listed in his decrepit, yellowed, fraying handbook from the seventies, I walked out of the office giving him the middle finger in my mind.

Enter Mohammad. From a service that had a few clients like me - women who were skittish about driving in India. Mohammad. My friend. My mentor of Indian roads and long-distance traveling. My voice of reason against Non Resident Indian (NRI) naivete. Sita and Mohammad. An unlikely alliance in today’s India.


(Left) Sita; (above) Mohammad

I got used to his embarrassed smile and knew what was coming. “You have been away too long, madam. You don’t understand India.” As time went by, and I understood India, and the religious tensions that permeated everyday life, I began to worry about the safety of a Mohammad should our car meet with an accident in a non-Mohammad kind of area.

I am a fiction writer. I create characters and set scenes. Accident scenes were like riot scenes. In this scene, I would quickly tell Mohammad that his name was not Mohammad. It was … wait, did he look like an Anand? No. Aakash? Think, woman, think! A nondescript non-religious name. Yes. Aakash. And I would scream above the guttural noise of the baying crowd, “Don’t hurt Aakash. The accident is not his fault.” And I would fling him to the ground and cover my body over his. They would have to get to me, Sita, first, before they got to Aakash/Mohammad. But I am also an editor. This scene failed my fact check. My height fell short of his by four inches, mine coming up short. That would still leave four inches of his feet exposed to be pulled away from the mob. Or four inches of his head exposed to be bashed in by the mob.

On May 10, 2021, as he lay fighting for his breath, I should have flung my body over his and prevented him from becoming another COVID statistic. On May 11, 2021, I should have flung myself into the grave they dug for him, so that there was no burial spot for him and without a place to be buried in, he would just have to continue living, right?

Mohammad drove for me on all my long-distance trips. Initially I would jump out ready to question unlawful stops by lawful policemen. How dare they stop us for no reason? But Mohammad requested me to stay in the car because I messed up the system. NRI naivete. If they see yellow hair, the rate goes up, madam, he said. I had black hair, but I did travel with blonde visitors. He knew I liked scenic routes, which gas stations had clean restrooms, which check posts we would get stopped at for no reason whatsoever, which policemen could be argued with, bargained with, given in to. They will say Mohammad argued with COVID, he bargained with COVID, and finally gave in to COVID. I will say COVID didn’t kill him. The system killed him.

Mohammad had fever. He went to the local doctor who gave him a course of medicines.

Mohammad was tired and exhausted. Could be the effects of the medicines. The doctor asked him to get an X-ray and a urine analysis. Both were clear. The doctor told him to rest up, drink plenty of fluids, and stop watching television.

Mohammad got himself a pulse oximeter. As if to prove its worth, the reading showed 55. His family managed to snag an oxygen cylinder while they ran from hospital to hospital for a bed. How did they go? Who drove? Mohammad was the driver, not the driven. And the driver was on oxygen. He couldn’t drive. His family sent me a photo of him on oxygen and the pulse oximeter on his finger. A tendril of fear snaked its way into my confidence. And I scrambled to help.

We knew. We knew how to start campaigns, we knew how to make our voices heard, and we knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. In return, I was sent a Patient Bed Form that had 21 data items to be filled. Give us as much information as you can, they said, and we will register him, and contact him when a bed is available. When a bed is available? Not we will give him a bed? And information about Mohammad? Me? I knew the names of his two adorable daughters, and his hopes for their future. A good education and a path to support themselves. I knew he encouraged his wife to be an entrepreneur and have her own income stream. None of this was included in the 21 data items. The data I had on hand was NRI naivete.

In return for my plea for data items, even as they were running from hospital to hospital, his family managed to send me a photo of his Aadhar card. Aha! The Holy Grail in India! “But I have an Aadhar card number,” I said, and set forth on my search. As the hours went by, my triumphant announcement turned to desperate pleading. After some time, I managed to get another data item. “I have an SRF ID,” I said. “We need a BU Number,” they said. ‘Without a BU Number, our hands are tied.” I didn’t know the system. Only Mohammad knew the system. And Mohammad was being driven around the city of Bangalore with an oxygen cylinder begging for a bed with a ventilator.

And while we made calls, we heard other stories:

“There was one hospital, but they said the patient was too sick.” As if hospitals were for the not-too-sick.

“One person required us to cross the grid-locked city, lakhs in hand, maintain a low profile and let me do the talking.”

“A middleman said, no problem madam, we can find a bed. And quoted his rate card for everything from ambulance to medicines to oxygen to bed to burial.” As if it were a menu at a restaurant with rare and exotic cuisine. Not everyone knows how to read coded menus.

With each story, my confidence sank, my desperation rose.

Late at night I was given an offer of several thousands of dollars in a private hospital. I said, I'll take it. I mean, several thousand was better than several tens of thousands, right? Who was I to decide on how much a life is worth?

At the same time, Mohammad’s family found a hospital bed. By the time they drove to the hospital to claim it, they found the bed was just like the bed he used at home, except that it looked vaguely hospital-like, as if it carried a healing power that his bed at home did not have. They had no oxygen, no ventilators available. So they didn’t take it.

Meanwhile, the several thousands of dollars offer was gone. A lot of people waiting in line to take that offer. I was holding up the queue. They came back home and set about locating another oxygen cylinder to carry Mohammad through the night.

The next morning, his family managed to get him an ICU bed with a ventilator in a private hospital at the other end of Bangalore from where Mohammad lived. And the doctors started care right away.

But it was too late. Too much damage had been done.

Mohammad left us after four days.

Mohammad was 38.

I am a fiction writer. I set scenes. I had practiced for this scene for years. If anyone was ten minutes late, I started planning what I would wear to their funeral. I create characters. I would be grief stricken, but admiringly dignified. I set the perfect scene. Created the perfect character. Moved all the pieces around. All that practice crumbled when Mohammad’s family put me on a video call so that I could see his body and say goodbye. I became a blubbering mess. I was completely gutted. I was completely shredded.

Sita and Mohammad. An unlikely alliance in today’s India.

The system eluded me. It defeated me. I can claim NRI Naivete. But the system failed Mohammad. It killed him. COVID did not kill him. The system did.

I am not one who believes in self-flagellation. But today on Eid as I sit in stunned disbelief and scroll through our WhatsApp exchanges, I flog myself for not saying, “My friend, you need to contact someone who knows the system.” What made this young man reach out to me and take me along to his end? I am not one who believes in cosmic connections. But I am deeply humbled and privileged that he allowed me into his journey and his life. And I live with the consequences of NRI naivete.

Mohammad died three days before Eid. Today I told his wife to dress his daughters in festival outfits. I would like to think that Mohammad and Allah are looking down on them.

Sita Bhaskar, a 30-year resident of Madison, is a fiction writer and the author of Flirting with Trouble and Shielding Her Modesty. Since 2017, she divides her time between Madison and Mysuru, India. However the pandemic has played havoc with her migratory pattern and her prolonged stay in India has brought her heartbreakingly up close and personal with the Covid crisis.  She can be found at: Twitter: @sitacares Instagram: bhaskarsita