Scattered families​

Worried parents of children studying and working abroad in the countries worst affected by the pandemic are dealing with disconcerting uncertainties 

One of the implications of the spread of coronavirus is that some unfortunate families remain scattered during the lockdown and may remain so for months to come — especially when children from the family are studying or working abroad, stranded thousands of kilometres away in Europe or America at the epicentre of the pandemic.

Sukhaarth Kanwar, 21, who can easily be confused for a Mediterranean lad, albeit much taller, is pursuing an undergraduate course in Brighton. His father KB Singh, a former Indian Navy officer now holds a leadership position in the corporate sector and his mother Leena and 11-year-old sister Pia Kanwar, live in a 26th floor apartment in Gurugram.

Thanks to the pandemic, his college is shut till September. While many of his fellow students have gone home, he’s stuck there with a few other expat students, forced to spend months without much to do.

London is one of the worst affected cities and Brighton, located just 100 km to the south, has reported a spike in the number of  Coronavirus cases.

Learning about the situation there has made Leena a worried mother. She prays every day for her son’s welfare and hopes he doesn’t venture out of his room too often, and that when he does, remembers to wear a mask. Initially, Sukhaarth was restless and eager to come back home, but now he understands that travel is not a possibility even though his college will remain closed for nearly five months. 

Leena recounts that he misses home food, particularly ‘alu ka paratha’ and ‘halwa’ but is generally in good spirits. “Of course, it would have been better had he been at home,” Leena explains the situation, “But I have asked him to stay put. Even when the flights are to resume, Heathrow Airport is the last place I want him to be. And as on arrival in India, he will be forced to quarantine at a shitty place. It makes no sense to return.” 

The only consolation is that Sukhaarth has a friend, a girl who is also staying back, and they like to spend time together. Thankfully, they have their own separate accommodations, walking distance apart, so they don’t overwhelm each other with their constant presence. He sometimes spends the whole night online and goes for a run before he finally goes to bed in the morning. Once a week, he goes to a supermarket to stock up the fridge and can cook well enough to satisfy his taste buds. Leena anxiously waits for his message, it’s necessary for the tranquillity of the family to get regular updates that all is well with Sukhaarth. They chat up once a day.

Sanjay Tiwari is an entrepreneur living with his mother and partner in Vasant Kunj. His son, Apoorv, 30, recently married Itziar, who belongs to the autonomous Basque country in northern Spain. Both were pursuing higher studies when they met a few years ago in the US and romance ensued.

KB Singh with his son Sukhaarth Kanwar

Lately, they couldn’t stay together as Apoorv is pursuing his post-doctoral research in Zurich while Itziar is teaching at Yale University in the US. It was meant to be a long-distance marriage and then the lockdown happened. A blessing in disguise, as they are together for more than a month now in Apoorv’s apartment in Zurich, both working from home. 

Sanjay is of the view, “It would be better had they been here in India,” but draws solace that they are together. 

For the couple, the lockdown is a blessing in disguise as they have the opportunity to live together. Apoorv goes for a run every day and in the evening plays football with some local kids, which is still possible. Sanjay is waiting for both of them to return “in summers” and hopes the situation will improve enough, in a month or two, for the resumption of flights. The proposition that this may not be the case worries him. 

“Apoorv travels a lot. He returned from the US to Zurich just a few days before the lockdown was enforced, he was suspected to have been infected but is fine now,” recollects Sanjay. 

Gunjan Arora’s daughter Shruti Arora, 30, is a data scientist living with her partner in New Jersey. Shruti’s main concern is her ailing mother, suffering from a serious ailment. Gunjan attends to his wife despite the debilitating complications of a lockdown. “She connects with us via video calls every day,” says Gunjan. 

Initially, Shruti was tense as no one was following the safety protocols in the region which led to an exponential increase in the number of Coronavirus cases. Also, there was political drama, when a tussle precipitated between President Donald Trump and Governor Phil Murphy. Things are looking up now, thanks to the fantastic work by the governor,” says Gunjan, who’s constantly watching the news from New Jersey.   

The Coronavirus is a matter of worry for his daughter, not just as a health issue, but also in terms of its far-reaching effects. Shruti is anguished about her future given Trump has made his intentions clear to seal off the US from the world to save  American jobs amid the pandemic. “One day she called me at 2 am local time because she couldn’t sleep,” says Gunjan, “She’s concerned, has mood swings and there are moments of weakness.” Uncertainties can be disconcerting during a pandemic, especially when medical care is expensive.

Thanks to the internet, video chats, visual validation is comforting, that they are safe, particularly so if a family member is residing overseas. However, the thought that there is no knowing how long the situation will remain tense and how long it will take for loved ones to be reunited is not an easy thought to live with. 

(Cover image: Sanjay and Apoorv Tiwari)

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