On a morning when my nerves crackled with anxiety, my writing teacher read us the poem “Small Kindnesses” by Danusha Lameris and encouraged us to consider the small kindnesses in our lives. A hand gently leading me to look towards the light — that, in itself, a great act of kindness.
I did as I was told. In that moment, it was not hard. A close friend had just texted me, “Are your parents here or in India?” They are in India.
Scrolling through headline after headline about coronavirus, he must have seen the ones for India: 1.3 billion people told to stay indoors. Long lines forming outside the handful of open stores; scores of people waiting for buses, heel to toe, heel to toe, their personal space shrunk to fit the space available; police enforcing social distancing with their batons. He must have read about the desperation already simmering at the edges: a rickshaw driver who would normally take his day’s wages to buy 400 grams of rice and 200 grams of lentils for his family of four, wondering how he will feed his children tonight. Migrant workers told to go home but left stranded with their bags on the roadside, hundreds of miles from home. Desperation can easily boil over into anger at times like these.
My friend must have wondered if my parents, both in their 80s and continents away from their children, are ready for the upheaval that might upend their lives. And he picked up the phone and texted me those seven words. “Are your parents here or in India?” A balm in form of a text, the healing hand of a friend bearing witness to my anxiety.
I try to think about the small kindnesses. Maybe Rajesh Bhai will check in on them in person. Maybe he will bring them some fruit. It’s the end of April — mangoes should be available in India. Mummy likes chausas best, the kind you can knead in your hands, and suck out the pulp from a hole on the top. She doesn’t need mangoes to survive these weeks of isolation, but they will lift her spirits.
Papa doesn’t worry about much. It might be because he has survived difficult, uncertain times — partition, an impoverished childhood — but more likely, his nerves of steel are genetic. But Mummy, she is like me. We worry about everything, including each other’s worries.
Maybe she will find her balm in her own acts of kindness. The lockdown offers up space for the art she has been honing, writing letters to her friends in India and family far away, serenading them with passages of her love and adoration. When she lived in the U.S., Mummy kept a plastic bag full of blank note cards in the cabinet below the spoon drawer, cards she had bought from garage sales, with pictures of Hawaiian sunsets and doe-eyed puppies. On every birthday, anniversary, or even an impending divorce, she would rummage through the bag, pull out a card, and fill it with beautifully scripted notes in both Hindi and English.
She would write to cousins, aunts, nephews, their wives, her cousins’ nieces and nephews, friends, the friends’ parents. Over the years, she must have written hundreds of letters. After they moved back to India and mail delivery turned out to be as bumpy as the roads, she switched to WhatsApp. On our family group chats, where the rest of us write a quick “Happy bday,” or where the sentimental among us slap on a heart or a kiss emoji, she composes full-on love letters. She must have been rushed when she wrote to her grandson’s wife, “It was indeed a blessed day when you were born. You bring us such joy, words cannot express. May God bless you through all your years.”
None of us quite know how to reciprocate Mummy’s sentiments. But her words embrace us. Judging by how often she writes them, they must comfort her, too. When all of us are told to stay within our own walls, and the torrent of words from TV, newspapers, and the net only deliver bad news, these texts, seven words or seventy, are great acts of kindness.
Vibha Akkaraju lives in the Bay Area. More of her writings can be found at http://www.medium.com/@vibha.