A few days ago, a man stood on the threshold of his house in Kalimpong in the northern region of West Bengal and smeared charcoal dust on his and his mother’s forehead. He had heard the night before from his mother that the Dalai Lama, unsatisfied with measures taken against COVID -19, was taking matters into his own hands. The Dalai Lama was conducting – a WhatsApp forward on his mother’s phone read – a magical ritual through which a piece of charcoal would appear in flower pots outside homes, and people were to collect these pieces and use it to draw an elaborate design outside their homes. The following morning, they were to shore up what dust they could collect from the design and inoculate themselves against the virus by applying a tilak made of charcoal dust.
This son did what most sons often do. He dismissed his mother. But a scream from his mother, a couple of hours later, brought him out of his home and standing adjacent to her, looking into a flowerpot that stood outside the door to their house. Lo and behold, a piece of charcoal lay there.
As pranks go, this seemed to have quite a bit of luck going for it. A relative living in another part of the town phoned in to confirm that he too had found a piece of charcoal in his flowerpot. And so that morning, putting aside whatever doubts they had, which included warnings from well-meaning friends and local authorities against believing messages on WhatsApp, the mother and son and no doubt a number of other people fell to the rumour and spent a good part of the remaining day with a line of dust on their foreheads.
Of course not everyone living in this region is as superstitious. People here – like in most places – negotiate their lives between faith and reason, willing to placate a deity or give in to a superstition so long as it does not make too cumbersome a demand or stray too far from their notions of logic.
But when a pandemic arrives close, such balances get upended.
Kalimpong – which lies in the foothills of the Himalayas and territorially falls to the norther regions of the West Bengal, close to several international borders – is in many ways like a lot of other small towns and cities in India. Everyone here knows everyone. It may have been a relatively small town some decades ago, but with rapid urbanisation and migrations from nearby villages, it is in reality a small compact city. And like many other such smaller towns and cities in India, all of last month there has been a palpable fear of the arriving coronavirus.
There are many things that make this town susceptible both to the pandemic and the panic that would result from it. The only hospital located here is poorly equipped (in fact poor healthcare facilities extends the entire region, which includes the nearby district of Darjeeling and Sikkim), and those who have the means, usually travel to distant cities such as Chennai or Delhi to even have their ailments diagnosed. It isn’t surprising to many that the quarantine facility set up for this region, in the nearby city of Siliguri, have some patients complaining of lax and unhygienic facilities, from people having to share basic things like thermometers or bars of soap between them. Most essential commodities also arrive from the nearby city of Siliguri, from eggs and groceries to packaged goods. So when a lockdown takes place – and this has been the case – despite rules allowing for the sale of essential items, when people visit their grocers they routinely find empty shelves. Many also – because of poor higher education institutes and absent job prospects – work in distant cities and countries. With the lockdown coming into force, many of these individuals have returned, carrying, some fear, the virus with them. What happens, many locals wonder, when an infection arrives here? Will the near absent healthcare service manage to cope?
The town – like the neighbouring district Darjeeling – also suffers from an almost non-existent public water supply. Everyone depends on natural springs, either having their members, even young children before and after school-hours, walk several miles to fetch water in jerkins or purchasing water from vehicles that carry water from these springs. In a pandemic of this kind where people are told the best course of action is to wash their hands constantly and to never venture out, they are caught in something of a contradiction.
And so as reports of cases emerged, first in distant metropolitan cities, then one much closer – about a night’s journey away on a speeding train – in Kolkata, and then another, the circle of anxiety has been tightening, leading to fear and irrational panic.
At first, the entry point into the town and the nearby town of Darjeeling were closed down for tourists. At one point, a popular local leader, reacting to rumours that chicken were carriers of COVID-19, carried out a raid at a house where an individual was believed to be selling diseased chicken. The price of chicken at one time fell to as low as Rs 25 for a kilo; now it is even difficult to find chicken. Several more WhatsApp rumours gained currency, from fake reports of people having tested positive to recommendations that hot water when consumed burned down the virus. The Dalai Lama seems to have been a particular target of these rumours. According to one popular forward, everyone was to consume black tea at a specific hour, because the Dalai Lama was carrying out a special ritual against the virus by putting all sorts of enchantments into black tea across the world. This rumour became so popular, beyond Kalimpong and to Tibetan Buddhist communities across the world, that the Dalai Lama’s office had to issue a statement saying no such ritual was taking place.
There have also been some indecencies. An official list of locals, with their personal addresses and phone numbers, arriving from elsewhere and recommended home quarantine also began doing the rounds, leading to fears of ostracisation.
And then on 28 March, all hell broke loose.
A woman who lived right at the centre of the town and whose husband ran a bustling jewellery-cum-pawnshop tested positive. She had returned from a trip to Chennai over a week ago, stopped for a few hours at a relative’s house in Siliguri on her way back from the airport, before moving on to Kalimpong.
She had gone about her days as usual for the next one week, visiting a popular general physician in a nursing home twice, before she was finally tested and found positive.
She died two days later.
The town – whatever little life was visible even during the lockdown – now resembles a ghost town. One can hardly see anyone now. Even grocery stores and pharmacies are closed.
The house of the deceased, according to some reports, has now been marked with posters. Some of the relatives living in Siliguri, according to an account shared by one of them, were collected and dumped in a quarantine facility whose nurses and doctors did not even know what needs to be done next. After much protestations that since there is a child in their group and the entire family is under quarantine and cannot possibly have meals dropped from their homes, on the first morning, a nurse gave them two packets of milk to consume directly. The rest of the family hand’t even been picked from their homes.
For the pandemic to be contained and not overwhelm the entire public healthcare system – while there has been a lot of focus on the preparedness of hospitals and individuals in larger cities, and so far the system seems to be responding well – it is going to be absolutely crucial what happens in our smaller towns and cities.