Bed number 8: Middle class man likely in his late 20s, full of a sense of entitlement, impatient to go home, confident that he’s alright, rude to his family over phone and when they visit him, convinced that the doctors are fooling them about his condition.

Bed number 3: Middle class woman likely in her 30s, gave birth to a child just days earlier, not allowed to be with her newborn admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit, deep in physical and emotional agony, unable to sleep, sobs incessantly through the night, begs for a phone to call her family 24×7, unwilling to eat unless her sister feeds her.

Observations from bed number 9 during a 12-day stay in the COVID-19 ward of a hospital in South Kolkata. April 22 to May 3, 2021.

This is a close-up shot of an intravenous drip bottle half filled with a golden yellow medicinal liquid. Only a part of the bottle is visible in the photograph. The photograph has been taken from below the bottle. A pattern on the bottle surface makes it appear as if countless air bubbles have formed several columns inside the bottle. Photo credit: Pawan DhallThe hospital: Filled with primarily a middle class clientele; in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw away from my alma mater; a building I’ve walked by often on the way to sundry shops, offices and restaurants; strange that I should spend days and nights inside it, sleeping this way, that way and prone; it’s fascinating that I have a past connection with it, memories of my father and a cousin being treated here three decades ago – with favourable outcomes, memories that give me strength that I too will go home restored. Should I call it ‘positivity’?

The doctors, nurses and support staff: A masked army of frontline ‘COVID warriors’, oddly some in PPE suits, others not; initially intimidating but gradually friendlier; the nurses (all women), ayahs, helpers and cleaners (all men) mostly attentive, gone for long stretches at times, appearing just when you begin to fret about the drip or the bed pan.

The doctors (almost all men) do their three rounds a day, ever encouraging, they explain your progress on protein levels, keep the discharge date a mystery, never come too close – unlike the nurses and support staff who have to, or the endearing and punctual young man who brings in the tea and meals – “Aajke raate veg debo na non-veg?” (“Would you like a vegetarian meal or non-vegetarian for dinner today?”).

The nurses and ayahs: Some friendly and talkative, others quieter; the nurses pore over endless paperwork when not on their feet tending to the patients; the tireless ayah-in-chief, cajoles the patients one moment to finish their meals, scolds them the next for expecting her to find a charging point for their mobile phones (which she does eventually).

A peep into the lives of nursing and assistive staff in a hospital – their daily commutes from the suburbs (Sonarpur to the south of Kolkata and Kanchrapara to the north), poor pays and financial insecurities, fears of infection, distrust for politicians – some of it shared during impromptu chats with me (who doesn’t need a listener?), some overheard from their night shift congregations after the lights go off and before sleep overcomes me with weird dreams.

This indoor photograph is a close-up shot of an incentive spirometer placed on the author’s bed in the hospital where he was admitted for COVID-19 treatment. This instrument is used for a breathing exercise that helps clear the lungs that become congested because of the coronavirus infection that causes COVID-19. There are several varieties of incentive spirometers available in the market. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

An incentive spirometer placed on the author’s bed in the hospital where he was admitted for COVID-19 treatment.

Early the next morning, a new cycle of medicines, drips, tests, breathing exercises and meals begins; I add in mind games, doodling, light exercise and pressing a stress ball (ironically made in China); I read news, check emails on the phone; my personal WhatsApp support group is great (though every day one member or the other tests positive for COVID-19); humour helps as I share how my loose pyjamas fail me on my trips to the toilet; daily calls from my brother and sister-in-law and occasional chats with my mother keep me going.

Yet, I also worry – will the medicines really work, isn’t my blood sugar too high, will the virus let go off me, will my health insurance work – till I’m reminded that not everyone caught in the recent surge of COVID-19 has had the ability or opportunity to fret.

* * *

Stretcher (number unknown) wheeled into the ward – the stretcher stops just a couple of feet from my bed: Working class man likely in his late 30s, lies on the stretcher with eyes vacant and rolled sideways towards me, saliva dribbles from his open mouth, his chest jerks with each half-breath, hair unkempt, only a pair of shorts on, taken to the intensive care unit (ICU) soon after being brought in (not rushed off like they show in the films).

Can the man see me? I look at him with a mix of sympathy, horror and indecision – should I say something to him or do something for him? Shouldn’t he be covered? For a moment I’m terrified that I could be in his place – not just on the stretcher but in life, caught in the circumstances and events leading to the point of landing on the stretcher. What would that feel like? How does the world appear from the stretcher, fading away slowly, as mind and body give in?

I almost panic that I won’t be going home. Discharge is planned the next day. I take a deep breath and lie down. The man is wheeled away to the ICU. I have my pillows, nebulizer, medicines, syrups, stress ball, mobile phone, support group, health insurance . . .

* * *

This is an indoor medium shot of Lakhi Bibi standing inside the living room of the author’s home. She wears a cheerful smile as she looks at the camera, her head inclined slightly to her left. She is dressed in a patterned light brown and white cotton saree. One edge of the saree covers grey-specked hair on her head. In the background a wall of the living room and a few household objects can be seen. Lakhi’s smiling charm is the centre point of the photograph. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Lakhi Bibi

I retreat into the ‘security’ of my possessions. But there is no retreating from the void created by the death of Lakhi Bibi (???–May 2, 2021).

Lakhi was our in-house culinary expert since 38 years or more, about half her life, and my mother’s attendant since the last few. Her cooking style, a robust amalgam of Bengal (mostly from across the border), Bihar and Punjab, was often not what the doctor ordered but undeniably soul satisfying. Boiled food, eh, what’s that, she’d say, and add a load of kali mirch or kancha lanka on the sly. I’ll miss the arguments with her on rationing the monthly consumption of oil.

If it weren’t for the Hindi software on my computer that went corrupt, her life story documented by my mother and typed out by me years ago could’ve been published somewhere. Now I remember only snatches. Her childhood was spent in a village in the Nadia district of West Bengal. She was married off at a young age, with barely a few years of schooling. She lost her husband to snake-bite. She was an orphan by now and her relatives arranged a second marriage, which brought her to Kolkata. Her second husband was a cruel and violent man who eventually abandoned her. She brought up five children from two marriages on her own. They are all married and parents in turn. Lakhi spent a life-time fending for them (and her grand children) from their small house in a slum in the Tiljala area of Kolkata.

I am her children’s mama, not many years older than them, who once guided them in arithmetic and taught them how to make envelopes. In later years, when we were all older, I tried to stop some of them from dropping out of high school (or college) and marrying early. I say ‘tried to’ because Lakhi, though appreciative, never quite felt that my arguments were realistic. She did not stop her children from taking the decisions they did. Interestingly, some of her grand daughters have gained far more formal education than their parents, though they too married fairly early.

Though all her children or their spouses have had their own incomes, Lakhi never saved money for herself. It was only recently that she agreed to open a fixed deposit in her bank. The process remained incomplete.

A silent observer of the developments in my life – health crises, professional highs and lows, romantic build-ups and break-ups, she was never one to offer advice. But there was the occasional rebuke for raising my voice in arguments with my mother or having too much coffee in restaurants.

In the last decade or so, my home, witness at one time to numerous family gatherings, queer community meetings and celebrations, and the functioning of NGOs, increasingly fell silent. In such times, the mere presence of Lakhi was comforting both for my mother, her best friend (who has been grieving silently), and me.

I count her as one of the allies of the queer movements in India, not the least because of the countless cups of tea and meals she served my fellow activists during meetings at my home. She was Lakhi Didi to many of my close friends and colleagues. Aren’t there numerous such allies we should count and acknowledge?

She fell sick because of COVID-19 around the same time as I did. She was hospitalized in a private nursing home after a frantic search for a bed in government hospitals, even as I dealt with fever at home. At one stage she seemed to be getting better, her eldest granddaughter tells me, and could’ve returned home. But she suffered a relapse.

By a strange coincidence, Lakhi and I had the same doctor though we were in different hospitals. This ‘connection’ was broken early morning on the 2nd of May when her heart stopped beating. Our bonds of friendship though will never end.

* * *

This photograph shows a rough sketch made by the author during his stay in the hospital. The sketch shows a dwelling in the countryside, with a palm tree next to it and a pond nearby with grass growing along its edges. A pathway runs from the door of the house to the pond. In the background, the outline of a hillock can be seen in the distance. The sky has a clump of a cloud, the crescent of a moon and a star, all quite close together. All around the sketch, there is some blank space. More random objects can be seen near the lower edge of the notebook page on which the sketch has been drawn with a blue ball point pen. The sketch is dated April 27, 2021, the date being camouflaged in the grass growing on the edges of the pond. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

A sketch drawn by the author during his stay in the hospital.

On discharge day, my long-time friend and fellow activist Rafiquel Haque Dowjah aka Ranjan was there to take me home. Just as he was there when I fell sick and was confined to my room. Supervising my mother’s new attendant, helping out with household chores, running around with me for tests and doctor’s visits, coordinating with family and friends to find me a hospital bed, ensuring that I was admitted to the proper ward, visiting me every evening, even managing time to visit Lakhi at her hospital – I marvelled at his energy! This was vintage Ranjan, just as he functioned in the 1990s when we were colleagues in (offline) queer support groups Counsel Club and Integration Society.

Just a few months ago, he was the one hospitalized with a serious COVID-19 infection and associated complications. At the same time his mother Suriya Haque Dowjah was battling a worsening illness. It was her condition that brought Ranjan to Kolkata in December last year from Mumbai, his home away from home since around a decade. But he fell sick before he could begin her treatment.

I did my share of legwork along with several other people (another WhatsApp group) – organizing tests, medicines, attendants and funds for both mother and son, but that wasn’t half of what Ranjan did for me and my mother. After he recovered, even before his follow-up medicals could be completed, his mother was hospitalized. Tragically, she didn’t respond to the treatment and breathed her last on March 14, 2021 at home. She was 69. Ranjan lost his mother; India’s queer movements lost one of the first parents to have publicly expressed support for queer people.

These whirlwinds of happenings and role reversals around COVID-19 remind me of the challenges Ranjan and I experienced in activism or during off-the-track holiday travels, 20-25 years ago. Those were happier homecomings. Today, it’s about coming to terms with the deepest of losses, picking up the pieces, and still dealing with super-cyclones of uncertainty.

About the main photo: Cactus planted and looked after by Lakhi Bibi at the author’s home. All photo credits: Pawan Dhall