By: Amrita Mukherjee
Location: Kolkata, India
When I was asked to write for Caliআছে ? I thought my story should bring out the essence of the word in every way. This word is a weird combo of English, Cali is short for ‘calibre’ and 'আছে', is ‘has or have’. Loosely it means: Do you have the calibre?
But to any Bengali who’s had his or share of para 'adda' over 'bhars' of chai this word has a different connotation altogether. It stands for a person’s ability to take up challenges, their spirit of adventure, their courage and their capacity to rise up in the face of adversity.
So I had to choose my story carefully to make it worthy of Caliআছে ?
This is the story of Indrani Das, who never knew what a roller coaster journey she would be embarking on when she reached Kolkata from New York on March 1, 2020.
Stuck in the lockdown, separated from her family, this is the tale of a Bengali woman, who did not leave a single stone unturned to ensure she reunited with her daughter in the US.
Read about her entire adventure in this interview.
Why did you come to Kolkata in March 2020?
I went to Kolkata to help my mother with her knee replacement surgery.
I reached on March 1.
When were you supposed to go back?
I was supposed to go back end of March. Since my daughter (12 years, seventh grader) had her spring break for two weeks from mid to end of March, my husband and my child were supposed to join me in the middle of the month and then travel back to the US with me.
My daughter could not come as around March 13th a rule was passed by the Indian government that US citizens would have to be quarantined if they were coming from abroad. My husband and my daughter stayed back as it was getting risky for her to travel with the new rules in place.
When lockdown was announced why did you not prepone your tickets and go back?
Official lockdown started on March 21 in Kolkata and I could most likely change my tickets and rush back as flights were still leaving India. That is what I had planned as my mom was doing well with the recovery.
Then it dawned on me that she would not have any domestic help indefinitely and in her post-surgery condition, she would be left alone to recover and take care of her day-to-day needs. I made a decision to stay back.
What were your thoughts initially when the lockdown started and how did you stay positive?
Like everyone else I had thought the lockdown was temporary and we would eventually get back to normal sooner than later. I took the opportunity to connect with old friends and find out how each one was doing under these weird circumstances.
I gained strength from their struggles and it helped me alleviate my sufferings as I realized that we were all in this together. Things could have been a lot worse. I missed my daughter dearly and spoke to her a number of times each day. She has always been my source of sustenance.
I got back online to work US hours from the last week of March and that helped me keep myself busy in the evenings. I would be drained out at the end of the day with the domestic chores, so the office environment brought some sanity in the late evenings.
When did you start feeling a bit jittery?
It was after the first phase of lock down about three weeks into it (approximately after Bengali New Year) and I could see no hope that international travel would resume. I started getting nervous. By then I had also acquired a full-time, stay-at-home domestic help.
What was the most difficult part of being stuck in Kolkata not knowing when you can get back to the US?
I struggled with Internet speed and I felt helpless not being able to be productive at work - let alone the crazy hours and lack of sleep that was draining me out. Since 2000 I have lived in the US and my stay in Kolkata has never exceeded three weeks and this was the first time I had doubled my stay to 6 weeks with 3 weeks of working from home.
What was worrisome was that I could not see any light at the end of the tunnel and a plan to get back to my regular life.
What initiative did you take to ensure your travel back to the US?
Around April 1 I got to know from some friends in the US that there were repatriation flights being organized from the US by the US consulate and preference was being given to the US Citizens and GC holders. I applied right away and kept on following up with them.
In the third week of April I got a call from the US Consulate saying that the flight from Kolkata, which was a charter flight, was full but I could still come and take a chance. I was desperate, so decided to go to the airport and try my luck at it.
It was definitely not my lucky day as every passenger was taken in and they were all most likely US citizens. I was the less preferred permanent resident or green card holder. I happened to meet another guy, Arijit, Arijit Dutta Gupta, who was in the same situation and was denied a seat.
So as two less fortunate people, we bonded as friends. I had a family eagerly awaiting my return in New York, especially my 12-year-old daughter, who was going to turn 13 in a few weeks, while Arijit’s Goldendoodle Max, was stuck in a doggy hotel getting restless to be united with his owner.
Arijit and I decided to keep in touch and diligently kept following up on repatriation flights status info by the US government but to no avail.
It seemed like that was the last flight that was arranged from Kolkata and we had indeed missed the boat. However, I had gained a buddy now and we were in the same boat.
So did you finally get a repatriation flight?
As mentioned we followed the news closely and in early May we found out that India was organizing repatriation flights for Indian citizens stuck abroad to bring them back and they did not want to carry empty flights to bring people back and would instead take some Indian citizens to the respective countries where they resided in.
Air India in collaboration with the Indian government was charging each passenger one way $2000, which was more than a roundtrip economy class fare from the US!
Despite many flights heading out to the US we figured that our chances were pretty bleak because all the international flights were taking off from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore but nothing from Kolkata.
At that time there were no domestic flights from Kolkata going to any of these metros either.
So I had two options either despair or keep trying. I chose the later of course.
What did you do then?
I was adamant that there had to be a way out. We watched the first phase of the operation and started planning ahead for the next phase. I thought if we rented a vehicle and drove to Delhi to catch a flight from there, it might work.
There were other things to think about. We had to acquire permission to cross state borders because by then all the states had mandates in place. I mentioned the idea to a few friends and everyone thought I was crazy.
One evening Tagore’s song “Aekla cholo re” kept ringing in my ears and I thought to myself that by hook or by crook I am getting home. My dad, whom I lost in 2013, was my inspiration growing up and I almost felt him whispering to me, “Luck favors the brave”.
Around this time, sometime in mid-May (I had missed my daughter’s birthday) there were some special trains running from Kolkata to Delhi. I convinced Arijit that we had to take the plunge, it was a “now or never” situation.
We booked the tickets on a flight to Washington DC. Even booking the ticket was an adventure in itself. The Air India Vande Bharat (that is what they called this special mission) website created for booking these special flights rejected all US based credit cards.
Luckily Arijit’s father had an SBI net banking card which worked and we could book our tickets. From the time the booking window opened to an hour after that the flight tickets were all sold out. We managed to secure a ticket to Washington DC as we could not get the New York one, which most likely had more takers.
Then our next step was to book the train tickets and we were not able to get the direct train from Kolkata to Delhi, so we bought the ticket from Dhanbad to Delhi. I decided to arrange for a car and driver to drive us to Dhanbad. It was going to be one long journey but there was no looking back as I had made up my mind.
Arijit and I had the train tickets for May 25th (Monday) from Dhanbad to Delhi.
The plan was to reach Delhi by train on May 26th morning. We had booked rooms in Holiday Inn in Aerocity. We would rest there for that day and then leave for the airport. The hotel was providing us pick up car service from the station to the hotel and drop off from the hotel to the airport.
This was just after the Amphan, wasn’t it?
The Amphan came on May 20 and Kolkata was in shambles after that. I was really scared my impending departure was doomed. I feared the water logging would stop trains from functioning.
That was when something happened that renewed my belief in human survival. I had called my driver, Binoy during the storm to express my concern about how we will reach the station.
The wind was howling and making strange noises and water was gushing into our living room from the balcony.
Binoy sounded super cool and told me not to worry and casually mentioned if I could hold on for a second as he had to switch hands. Switch hands? Turns out that he was holding his roof down with help from another neighbor so that it did not fly away, and at the same time he was talking on the phone with me.
The optimism that came from the man lifted my spirits sky high! Here I was worrying myself sick on petty things and here was this man (literally) holding the roof over his family and candidly reassuring me that all will be well.
So finally you took the train…
As I mentioned earlier we had the driver and car lined up with permission papers from the local police station to cross Bengal Bihar border to get to Dhanbad. On May 24th Sunday we were getting all the printouts ready for travel.
We were cross checking our documents and on checking the IRCTC website I found that there were tickets from Howrah to Delhi for that day (May 24th). We made a spot decision to leave the day before instead of the day later.
We immediately called the driver and told him that we need him to take us to Howrah Station that day and not to Dhanbad the next day. Then we called the hotel and extended our reservation for an extra day and everything else remained the same. Our bags were packed anyways so we just had to leave.
The train was at 5 pm. We left for Howrah station around 2 pm and reached there before 3. We were armed with our N95 masks and bottles of sanitizers, tucked away in handbags, suitcases, pockets. We had sanitizing wipes and sprays and napkins. We stood outside the station as no one was allowed inside until the train was at the platform.
Did you have to follow any particular instructions?
On the train reservation website it was mentioned that we needed to download the ArogyaSetu app and it was mandatory for travel. Even Air India website made it a requirement. We downloaded before leaving our respective homes and entered the questionnaire and activated it right before we lined up to get into the railway station.
Six feet distance was being maintained in the lines and there were security guards who were checking our temperatures. As long as they saw a green color on the app they would let us pass.
It is a harmless app – more like a yes and no kind of questionnaire but we were told that it could have glitches and turn red for no rhyme or reason. So we made sure we activated it as close to the check in as possible.
We had booked a coupe in A/C first class. Our coach was otherwise empty. Some men were sitting near the toilet area who seemed like the railway staff but who knows. We kept the door of our coupe closed after the ticket checker left us. We wiped down everything we could using our sanitizing wipes.
Once inside by ourselves we took off our masks and it was not that bad anymore. The A/C functioned very well. We were well stocked up with paratha and mutton kosha from Arijit’s home and chicken sandwich from Ma, with a lot of other goodies from Cakes. We had plenty of water bottles.
The train windows did not have any curtains. We got a few bedsheets from home and abandoned those in the train after we used them to sleep on.
What was the scenario when you got to Delhi?
We reached Delhi on time. A coolie came and charged us like some random Rs 1500 rupees to put our stuff on his cart. We refused and got off the train with our luggage.
The temperature outside was somewhere close to 40 degrees. We figured we needed some help with the luggage anyways so we got hold of another porter. We negotiated to Rs 600 and he loaded our bags on his huge thela (cart).
There was another large family, who had already occupied about seventy percent of the space. We were told that to get to the entrance of the station we had to cross the rail tracks and so we did with the luggage cart and all.
At one point one of our suitcases was toppling over and between Arijit and I we pushed it back up.
In the dry heat of Delhi our body temperatures must have already risen, added to that was the stress of standing outside in the hot sun and haggling with the porter. That’s when we realized that if they check our temperatures we could be pulled over.
I started talking in the most ridiculous Hindi I could think of.
A six foot tall Punjabi guard was coming straight at me with his laser thermometer and I started yelling in a horrendous Bengali accent, “Eetna garoom hai aur aap haamara temperature leta hai? Hamara taxi keedhar hai? (It’s so hot and you are taking our temperature? Where is our cab?)”
The guard was taken aback for a bit and mumbled something like, “Madam rule hai …. (madam it’s the rule)”
I looked up at him through my sunglasses and went on in the same high pitched hysterical voice “Bhai hamara maa-jika operation hua. Hamara beti tera saal mein poila akla jonomdin manaya aaur tum kya bolta hai? Cholo cholo jete dao!"
(My mom had an operation, my daughter spent her thirteenth birthday alone, what are you saying? Let me go!)
He obediently nodded his head and stepped aside. I thought to myself “one down!”
So it was over now…
Not really. As soon as we stepped out of the station taxi drivers were crowding us to offer a ride and a series of “Kidhar jana hai? (where do you want to go?)”. I politely told them that we already had a taxi. They were not ready to listen and a bunch of other men joined and were closing in on us.
Delhi anyways scares me bigtime. After the Nirbhaya case I have not been able to forgive that city. I turned around sharply and this time in Mumbaiya Hindi, thanks to my Marathi husband of twenty years, I said “Chhe foot ka distance maintain karke baat karo, Covid ka rules malum nahin kya? (maintain 6-feet-distance, don’t you know the Covid rules?”
By then our ride had arrived. For the first time since we got off the train I noticed Arijit, gaping at me and I am sure he was wondering what just happened.
You checked into the hotel?
The hotel experience was very good. They gave us clean rooms and clean sheets to sleep on. We could order anything from room service. The hotel staff would ring the bell and leave the order outside the room for us to pick up.
One night of stay did not need any housekeeping. They supplied us fresh towels and sheets in the morning. We just had to stay put in our rooms, order and things would get done.
That same evening after dinner Arijit and I decided to go for a walk within the hotel premises. We walked a bit outside and then while we were headed back to our rooms we stopped to enquire if we could pick up some food on the way to the airport the next day.
Our flight was post-midnight and we would be reaching the airport around 6 pm and that would be a long wait there. We saw stacks of boxes which looked like food boxes and we asked could we pack something like that to take tomorrow. The service desk guy said those were for the quarantined guests and our jaws dropped.
We had heard of rumors that many of these hotels, since they were not making enough money at that time, were accommodating Covid patients a paid stay in their hotels instead of hospitals.
We got super scared and rushed back to our rooms. Every now and then I glanced up at the ac vent wondering if I was breathing the air that was affected by the virus. I hardly slept that night.
Next morning however we learned that travelers from abroad who had to be quarantined before going back to their home states were residing in the hotel. So not necessarily everyone was a Covid patient. But, nonetheless we were just happy to be done with that part of our journey.
What was it like at the airport?
A month back I had fallen and had fractured my skull in Kolkata. I was getting headaches every now and then since my fall. I had the MRI report with me. I used it to get a wheelchair instead of standing in the long lines.
In a way my fall and suffering paid off because I was relieved of standing in the queue. The checks normally would have taken 3 hours and I was able to get through the lines in half the time.
They must have checked my temperature at least 5 times and there were additional Covid related checks. My sanitizing spray came in handy. The good thing was no one messed with me since I was in the wheelchair. Arijit looked like a much tormented family member, most likely a cousin who was assigned responsibility of carrying out his duty catering to my whims and fancies.
So you made it to the flight...
Yes after all the madness I was finally on the flight. The flight experience was bad. All the flight attendants were in hazmat suits while we were in our masks and we were given face shields to wear.
There was no social distancing whatsoever, every seat was occupied. No entertainment. No tea/coffee or any beverages.
No food was served. Dry snacks which would make people have acid reflux were stored in boxes under our seats seats.
Two large water bottles were provided. The saving grace was that it was direct flight and we boarded the plane past midnight. We tried to sleep as much as we could to get through the ordeal.
How did the reunion with the family feel?
After meeting my family after 3 whole months I could not hug them right away. There was a puppy, a new addition to our family who had arrived two weeks before I got home. It was a birthday present for my daughter which I had planned at the beginning of the year and the puppy arrived at that time as promised, only I missed the fun!
My husband and daughter along with the dog drove to DC the previous night and spent the night in the hotel.
They picked me up as my flight was in the morning and we all headed straight to the hotel where I showered and threw away my travel clothes.
We ate breakfast together, checked out of the hotel and drove back home. NYC to DC takes about four hours so by the evening of May 28 I was finally home.
What was the lesson you learnt from this?
More than lesson learned I would say I am richer by experience. Lesson learned would be more like making a mistake and trying not to make it in the future. Here it was an adventure and it will not come by frequently and I was glad to put my resilience to test in these unusual times.
I think I maneuvered quite well through the situation I was in. Also, I feel a bold decision when made with good judgement pays off. My goal was to get back to my daughter and I focused on that and fought my way through to get to her much like my father would have.
About the Author - Amrita Mukherjee
Amrita is currently an independent journalist, who has held full-time positions in publications like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and The Asian Age in India and she was Features Editor at ITP Media Group, Dubai’s largest magazine house. She blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com .
Twitter handle: @amritamuk