With the pandemic and subsequent economic slowdown, 2020 upended lives across India. People from all walks of life lost jobs, had to move back to their hometowns, and were often forced to start from ground zero. For some, the demands of the "new normal"—the long work hours, the economic recession—were too much to handle. For others, the pandemic presented an opportunity to realise their long-cherished dreams. Lounge spoke to four Indians to find out their stories of loss, adaptation and resilience in this year of displacement.
Pratik Patowary (36), Guwahati: Airline trainer to cloud kitchen owner
I worked in the airline industry for 17 years. I started off as the cabin crew, rose up the ranks and in 2012, joined IndiGo! as a Safety and Emergency Procedures trainer.
Soon after the covid-19 outbreak, we were asked to work from home. Only, the manner in which organisations had started functioning was getting increasingly intrusive and restrictive. Everything was being monitored. If you completed a training session a couple of minutes earlier than the stipulated time, you'd be asked about it.
Teaching can be a monotonous job. You’re often repeating the same thing to new student trainees. In a classroom, you have the liberty of putting things in different ways, adding humour to liven up the lectures. But over a Zoom call, I couldn’t even tell if people were listening to me. It was starting to get to me. And if you're working from home, you'd be expected to be on call all the time.
Around this time, something unusual was happening. I’d put in on a lot of weight during my years in Delhi. I’d started cooking to lose weight and during lockdown, I’d do it everyday. I noticed that I had a knack of doing it decently. So when I made up my mind to quit and return to Guwahati, I decided to start a cloud kitchen once I was home.
It’s been a few months since I’ve been back. I don’t miss Delhi much, except maybe for the same-day Amazon deliveries. The air is cleaner here, and I can decide my own working hours. I don’t earn anywhere close to what I was earning in Delhi, but I am an upper-caste Hindu in India. What more privilege do I need?
Dhanaji Ratal (42), Pune: Catering assistant to barber
I worked as a catering assistant in marriage ceremonies. I would earn just about enough to sustain my wife and kid. Work dried up as the covid-19 cases started increasing in March. I couldn’t afford to pay rent for the shack I lived in. By April, my family and I were on the streets.
It was a gruelling time. My wife was pregnant, but we had to depend on charity for two meals a day. The government had started camps for the homeless in schools, but these were very crowded, and I didn’t want to risk my wife catching the virus. The police would harass us, asking us to go from this pavement to that. I’ve seen homeless people commit suicide because they couldn’t take it anymore.
We happened to meet a doctor in June, when my wife was nine months pregnant. He got her admitted in a hospital, paid for her childbirth and asked me if there was any way I could earn until the catering business restarted. I had worked with a barber friend a few years ago and picked up grooming skills. The doctor gave me ₹5,000 to buy the necessary gear.
Today, I work as a barber on pavements outside public hospitals. On a good day, I earn around ₹400. It’s not much, but it helps my family get by. Soon, I hope I’ll be able to put a roof over their heads, too.
Khushboo Pathak, Gondia (24): Management trainee to unemployment
I worked at a developer firm in Mumbai. I had been moved to a work-from-home mode in March, much before the lockdown begun. As things started to open up in May, my office ordered some of us to return. I felt unsafe, but they insisted on it.
I reluctantly went in for a couple of days. On day three, I got a call from the Human Resources department saying they were letting me go. I was performing well, but this was a management decision. They still wanted me to continue till the end of the month. I refused to go back.
By the end of May, I returned to Gondia. It was okay at first, but when I started looking for jobs, there were no answers. I’d email, cold call people; for every 50 people I reached out to, two would respond, only to say no, there are no jobs. I was done with my hobbies: painting and exercising. In Mumbai, I would work out every day. Here, I lost 5kg without a day of gym, all because of the stress.
Around this time, I lost my uncle to the virus. I was depressed for a month after. My landlady in Mumbai, too, had refused to reduce the house rent or return my deposit. “It’s not my problem you don’t have a job,” she said.
This has been the longest I’ve stayed with my family in nine years. I had not asked for money all these years, but now I’m forced to. As the economy seems to be getting on track, I, too, have a few interviews lined up. I just hope I get a job.
Shiv Kumar (43), Bengaluru: the continuing cycle of construction labour
I was working at a construction site for an office complex in Bengaluru when the lockdown began. The work stopped, so did the wages. At first, the contractor was giving us money for food. After a few weeks, that stopped too, and we were forced to depend on private camps for food.
The virus had my family in Begusarai, Bihar, worried sick. Even I was thinking, if I die, they won’t even be able to see me. After several fights with my contractor, I managed to get him to buy me a train ticket for home. I decided then—I would not return.
When I reached Danapur station in Bihar, it was like there was no pandemic. Barely anyone wore masks, the police had wound up their checkposts, too. I returned to my place in a crowded bus. No one isolated me. A few weeks on, someone came to my village to test the residents. They didn’t find one positive case.
I started working at a farm first. The rains were upon us, so there was a lot of work to do. But with time, that ended, too. I’ve been a labourer all my life. I don’t know how to do business, I don’t have land to go about farming. Finally, when the contractor called in September, offered to give me a raise, I returned to Bengaluru. After all, what choice did I have?