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Back to Square One

March 27, 2020. Today is the eleventh day since the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In China, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus, the disease appears to be under control, but today the US is the new epicenter of the pandemic with more than 81321 known cases.

There is a massive disruption in daily life. More than a third of Americans are staying home. Offices, factories, schools, churches, bars and restaurants are closed. There is no revelry at the beaches now. In the aftermath of the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, infections have soared in Louisiana. Even the national parks are closing. Italy, Spain, and the UK are overwhelmed by the toll the disease is taking. Boris Johnson the UK PM has tested positive today. In India the entire country is under a strict shelter-in-place.

The huddled masses are reinventing how to live in their homes. Everything from head to toe and all surfaces are sanitized. Millions are soaping, scrubbing and rinsing their hands to wash away traces of germs. Every time I wash, I chant the Gayatri mantra but the image of Lady Macbeth’s constant obsession – washing the blood off her hands – flashes in my mind.

My eight-year-old grandson, Ayush, has been home since the first week of March. He has completely broken free of his school routine. He has immersed himself in cricket and tennis with his playmate Bahadur and did not come indoors to FaceTime with me. But now he has lost his playmate. Bahadur, like so many other Nepalis, has gone back to his village and the borders have closed. When I ask him about Bahadur, Ayush has a wistful look in his eyes and a hollowness in his voice. We stopped playing monopoly, chess, cards, or other board games because the most important element of play for Ayush was his interaction with Bahadur and teaching him the nuances of the game.

Images of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwallah and Mini float up in my memory and a lump forms in my throat. I hope that Bahadur has reached home safely and his family members are well.

Now, Ayush plays for ten to fifteen minutes with me and those are the brightest moments of my day. It’s usually late at night for him and mid-morning for me. He has downloaded games on his iPad and we play Words with Friends, Chess, Ludo, and Snakes and Ladders.

He is a patient teacher when it comes to computers because he can download and install almost any application at lightning speed. I move ponderously, watchful about privacy and security issues.

Yesterday we played Saanp-Seedhi. This ancient game originated in India and was originally known as Moksha Patam. Today it is a worldwide classic – Snakes and Ladders. We used to play this game as a family with my parents. Every time I play with Ayush, reminiscent childhood laughter spills through my veins. As per Eckhart Tolle, the world is not here to make you happy but to make you conscious. I think that the only exception to this truth is the joy of playing with children.

In the thirteenth century, a saint called Gyandev invented Moksha Patam with lessons in morality ladders representing virtues – asceticism, generosity, faith, reliability, and knowledge. Snakes were vices: anger, lust, pride, and theft. To win the game was to achieve salvation. In his honor, it was also called Gyan Chauper.

In the original game, ladders were fewer than snakes indicating that the path of goodness was more arduous. Snakes were plentiful, showing that our life path was replete with bad elements.

When the Brits took it to England it became popular as Snakes and Ladders and also acquired Victorian connotations. Generally, every player tries their best to roll the dice so that they can race quickly from 0-100 on the 8 x 8 square, red and yellow gridded board which originally had 12 snakes and 5 ladders. Children love it because they think of it as a game of luck but still try hard to roll the right number on the die. They are jubilant, shimmying up the ladders and tiptoeing silently by the snakes. But invariably squeals of disappointment erupt when the snakes swallow their tokens. They also learn that the ladders are not straddling the squares so they have to pay close attention to which square the leg of the ladder touches.

This game of probability is not simplistic but embedded in the game is the innate duality of life. The strong ladders sooner or later balance out the surreptitious serpents. I think of the sinuous snakes as unavoidable incumbrances in our spiritual growth. They remind me of irrational behaviors by people who interrupt conversations, spill vitriol on social media, or blatantly scoff at social distancing even though people are dying of COVID-19.

The worst snakes are strategically positioned on the 99th square. Many human interactions, especially in these gloomy times of the pandemic, remind me of the energy of the 99th square. When I look at all the anger, anguish, and frustration of health care workers facing increasing patient loads and vanishing global supply chains, I am alarmed. Our failings have culminated in a humongous COVID -19 serpent poised on the 99th square to swallow frail humanity. I wonder if this is an important life lesson teaching us that if we hold tight to the five ladders of virtue and do not take life on this planet for granted, we might survive. Now that we are all stuck on the 99th square, let’s look inward and try to reinvent better habits. This may be our last chance to roll the dice.


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner. She drew the featured image as a symbol of her love for her father.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents


 

Do It For Others: COVID-19 Pandemic

How is it affecting our lives in the United States?

I am a medical director of a community hospital based clinical pathology laboratory. We have been preparing for the COVID-19 for a few weeks at the hospital. It became urgent and real when someone rushed into the lab through the patient collection area to steal hand sanitizer and masks. Then we started getting calls from the emergency department. The virus was literally within an arm’s reach! The wolf was huffing and puffing at our door! We have currently 6 confirmed cases in Alabama. This prompted me to write an article about all the facts I have gleaned by talking to my medical colleagues. 

What has happened?

In 2019, an animal virus of the Coronavirus family jumped from a small mammal into humans. MERs and SARs are two other examples of viral infections that spread from animals to humans and caused epidemics in the recent past. The epicenter of COVID-19 was in Wuhan, China but now it has infected more than 149596 people and caused more than 5604 deaths in several countries world wide. The reported overall mortality rate varies from 0.6 to 4 percent. Children under ten don’t show symptoms but those over the age of 60 with other comorbid conditions are at risk of developing pneumonia and dying. To put it in perspective the mortality rate may be taken as 1 percent if you are fifty. 2-4 percent of you are sixty. 8-10 percent of you are seventy and 50 percent or more if you are eighty. There are more infected people around us who are shedding virus in droplets because they have not been tested, or the test came back negative because it was improperly collected.

What are the symptoms?

High fever, body ache often described as the worst flu with slight betterment of simpletons followed by difficulty breathing and dry cough. Some people have nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. 

How does it spread?

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the virus particles enter the air around him in the form of droplets and then settle on the surfaces which can be contagious from 1-9 days. The virus survives for 1-2 days on paper but longer on glass, granite and handles. 

Why is it bad?

This is a new virus that we do not have any exposure to and it seems to be more infectious and contagious than influenza to the tune of 1: 40 compared to 1:9. Unlike Ebola or SARS, infected people can shed it in the incubation period while being asymptomatic and also after they have recovered. The most vulnerable people are the elderly in nursing homes who are suffering from congestive heart failure, COPD, hypertension, diabetes, cancer and other autoimmune diseases. 

What are the limitations? 

As we have seen in China and now in Italy, and other countries in Europe, COVID 19 infections have exponentially increased overwhelming the health system: isolation resources, health care providers and ICU beds providing life support to the critically ill. 

How is it tested?

Your health care provider will collect a sample from your nasopharynx (high up in the nose) and put the collected sample in a special viral transport medium to send it frozen or refrigerated to the testing laboratory. The results will be released to your provider. The federal and state governments are working overtime to make tests available to everyone in the near future. The vaccine is being tested and may be available to us by the end of this year. 

What we all can do

  • Social isolation by staying about six feet apart, not shaking hands, hugging or touching your own or others face. Indian Namaste is the best greeting! 
  • If you have to travel in a public transport, don’t touch the handrails and handles with bare hands.cruise ships are a complete NO! In the plane, wipe down your seat and hand rests and preferably sit on the window side with the air vent blowing directly on your face. 
  • Cover your cough and sneeze properly. 
  • Wash your hands thoroughly, cleaning, fingertips, thumbs and backs of hands. I chant the Gayatri Mantra twice while working up the soap suds. 
  • At the gas station use a paper towel to pump gas and knuckles to punch in your zip code. 
  • It is best to keep children at home because although they don’t get sick they can transmit the virus to grandparents and elderly relatives. 
  • Don’t share food, don’t eat snacks in between meals while working. Stock up on essentials, like water, canned vegetables, lentils, rice and medicines. 
  • You do not need to wear a mask right now unless you are sick to protect others from droplets. You do not need a N- 99 mask because the viral particles are bigger and an ordinary medical mask can serve the purpose. If you wear a mask, dispose of it properly.
  • If you are sick stay at home because even if you are not feeling poorly you can prevent spreading the disease to others. If you think you have the symptoms get in touch with your medical provider and they can help you with testing. Apart from state departments of health, private laboratories like LabCorp and Quest are testing for COVID-19.

What I have done 

  • Stopped all congregations: Churches, celebrations, museum events, literary gatherings, medical conferences, nonessential travel. 
  • Stopped cleaning service and nonessential shopping. 
  • I have designated clothes, outerwear and purse etc. for work and wash those items daily. 
  • I don’t wear shoes at home and clean all surfaces by spraying them with disinfectant spray. 
  • I only use a few areas in my home and have made a “hot zone” in the basement to isolate if any of our family members get sick. 
  • I put all sheets, comforters and sweaters in the sunlight when I can. I keep the temperature higher in my bedroom and have a humidifier to prevent the air passages from drying and allowing virus to enter. 

In conclusion

Stay clean, stay safe, stay informed. Do not take this as a joke. Do not hoard toilet paper or masks. Please help in every way you can to flatten the epidemic curve so that we can handle the sick patients without running out of supplies especially ICU beds with respirators. 

Remember, social distancing is not an act of fear it is an act of love and care.

Monita Soni is a pathologist and a free lance journalist in Madison Alabama. 

 

When You Love Someone…

It was a Valentines weekend but it was not jolly! My world was hurtling down a steep cliff, only it was worse than my hormone drenched teenage-ish mind imagined. My gut was in overdrive, signaling danger, and my cerebral cortex was out of orbit. 

I have always been a late bloomer and although my limbs stretched in height, my brain failed to catch up to speed. So when I got married, my baby face and warm, almond milk palette did not know that I was hurdling head first into a sharp, glacial disaster. As I said, it was not jolly.

Having fond memories of the ancient city of pink palaces – Jaipur – as a child was radically different than going as a bride into a family of three strangers and their even stranger acquaintances! 

Their thought processes were radically different from mine. They were very conservative in terms of customs, food habits, and medical treatment. A daughter-in-law should wear a saree, cover her head and touch the feet of every stranger who stepped into the house. Food was extra spicy, difficult for me to digest, and if I fell sick,  I was only allowed two or three antibiotic capsules instead of the entire course.

Most of these issues I could navigate. But there were times the home dynamics were rocked by temper tantrums and hysteria which defied human logic. I was absorbed in the quixotic chaos of my marital home with the eyes of an avid reader of mystery novels but not enough to prepare me for the harrowing hair-pin-bend-like Jumanji moments in my newly wedded life.  Help from home was a few thousand miles away. My parents lived in Bombay. There were no cell phones. The only landline phone was in the living room and was not private. There was not a single soul in the ramparts of my Piya-ka-Ghar who was sympatico. 

On one such dire occasion when my cup of sorrow was spilling, I made a plan to make a phone call from an outside line. I stealthily crept out of the house in a sweltering mid afternoon down the dusty lane when the family folks were on their daily siesta. There were no public phones and neighbors had no connections. I walked into the office of a relative and I told him a white lie. “The phone at home is not working and I have to call my parents in Bombay.” He acquiesced and I dialed home. When dad came on the line I explained to him, “It’s bad!” I wailed and then rattled off the issue in code language. To my dismay, my brilliant dad was having difficulty cracking my code. Regardless, I told him it would be good if he came there urgently, choking over every wor…d…he was having difficulty understanding. My only hope was that he could grasp the gravity of the situation from the emotional current in my voice. Mr. Relative kept staring at me but did not ask questions. I hung up and ran back to my in-laws’ house sobbing silently. I was at my wits end.

Monita Soni and Her Father

Hours passed and my mom called on the landline but her message was not conveyed to me. Then at 3 AM on a very cold and foggy winter night, a very tired, bleak-eyes tall man in a tweed coat and muffler came over the threshold. My mother-in-law called out my name: “Monita… your dad is here”. I ran out in my nightgown, bare feet without bothering to throw a shawl on my shoulders. “Daddy!”, I cried out and clutched at the hand knit grey sweater on his chest and started bawling.

He gently patted me on my back and said, “It’s good to see that you are okay my daughter.” I looked up at his face, he had not shaved and his lips were cracked from the cold. There was a worried look around his eyes.

Later, I found out that he was flying from Bombay to Delhi for an urgent business matter when he took my “call” and then not knowing how to contact me for a better understanding of my duress on the phone, he took a night taxi from Delhi. He traveled all through the dark, bitter, cold night to check on my condition.

He also said: “Daughter when you love someone, you don’t subject them to stress.” I forgot my troubles and felt guilt because I realized how much anguish I had caused my dad and how he must have suffered not knowing what was troubling me. I gave him a comfortable bed and said: “Dear dad, you rest now. We will talk in the morning”.

But my dad’s words “ When you love someone…” are instilled in the staccato of my beating heart. I can never forget his worry-stricken face. I also became acutely aware of how many insurmountable struggles of his own he had kept hidden from me. Those gently spoken tough words from a very tender hearted man caused me to transform from a crying daddy’s girl into a woman of tremendous resolve like a koi fish swimming against the current.

Because when someone loves you… you grow.

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner. She drew the featured image as a symbol of her love for her father.

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

For My Grandson, Ayush, and His Future Best Friend

Last evening, I had been contemplating writing a commentary on friendship and I saw two ladies walking briskly towards each other in black velvet overcoats. As I came within earshot, they were hugging and rocking one another vigorously. I waited for their joyous greeting to end and asked, “ Are you best friends?” They broke free of their embrace and turned towards me. It was the beautiful Stephanie Walker and her friend. I burst out laughing at the serendipity of the process. Stephanie is well known in the Alabama arts community as a children’s author and currently works at WLRH where this commentary could air! My thoughts had found these friends and I could already envision them as the opening act of my story. 

“Do you have one?,” Stephanie asked me. “What, a story?,” I responded. Stephanie shook her head, “No… a best friend?” I winked and said, “Well, for that you will have to read my story”.

I reached the restaurant I was heading to, musing about my eight year old grandson, Ayush, in Jaipur; He often talks about a classmate, maybe Noel or Anshuman, as his in-today-out-tomorrow best friend. Together they share a bench in class, participate in frivolous boyish acts like rolling pencils, singing slightly off-key, having lunch, and maybe inviting each other to birthdays. For the past few days Ayush has been sitting alone. I want to fly over, be his friend in class, and share gossip with him at lunch. I guess friendships at that age are less stable. Your table mate can be your best friend and when your seats change, so does your friendship.

Back in Huntsville,Alabama, I sipped my cucumber martini alone and I found myself surrounded by groups of friends, some celebrating birthdays, others meeting for dinner. I remember my kindergarten days, there was no dearth of friends then. The green-eyed monster had not reared her ugly head!  We hugged, tumbled, twirled and hugged some more. Life was all play. In middle school, my best friend was Shiwani, or as I liked to call her, Juju. We climbed mango trees and got into scrapes together. By high school I had moved on and become close friends with Ganga and Mukta. Together we were known as the “Three Musketeers” and we were inseparable. We did homework together, shared food during intermission, talked about our first crushes, laughed  over classroom drama, and made concrete plans on living in the same city once we were older . We are still close though we all currently live in different countries. Perhaps one day we will be together…

I have met wonderful, talented people in the Tennessee valley. I know artists, poets, engineers, nurses, doctors, researchers, bankers, librarians, journalists, musicians, herbalists and I share their virtuous company with joy. But the naked truth is that, although I wear my heart on my sleeve, I do not have someone I consider a friend. I have to confess that I don’t relish the “so-so” company of women in cliques . They dress to match, carry designer purses, have perfected their eye rolls and dissolve in mirth together at those who are in a pickle. They have no qualms about whispering under bated breath like pepper merchants in Thailand. Their makeup is flawless, as though their faces were hand dipped in porcelain, but when no one is watching their features settle into a shapeless gelatin mass that shudders with every breath. I try a joke or two to break the ice but their responses often set my teeth on edge. 

So I seek my redemption in my place of worship: a bookstore. Viola! As soon as I pick up a new book, the world is my oyster again. I immerse myself in the lyrical prose of Towles, Doerr, Patchett, Dalai Lama, Tolstoy, Tagore, Twain, and Shakespeare. As I sink into the arms of a comfortable well used sofa, I realize that I have come full circle to my true best friends. They don’t mock my Boheme mismatched socks. They could care less. All ennui vanishes into thin air and I am in their heart of hearts. All of them take turns in sharing their life lessons with an urgent candor. Suddenly I have uncovered the light I could not see. My trepidations vanish into thin air and I am surrounded by my familiar best friends with hearts of gold. All’s well that ends well. What do you say William?

Oh little Ayush, you will settle down into the social norms of being in school. Being an only child, I know you hanker for a regular companion but you are a resilient young man. You read stories of Pinocchio and Red Riding Hood to me on FaceTime and I feel we are the same. So I’m not worried. I hope you find someone who will enjoy reading stories with you, till then you can find new friends in books.

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. Monita has published two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart