By Ojus Jain
Table of Contents
As one of the world’s largest developing economies and most populous countries, India has been significantly impacted by the global spread of the novel coronavirus. After three extensions of then national government’s initial nationwide lockdown implemented on March 24th, 2020, tens of millions are now without jobs and an equally staggering number are struggling for adequate food and shelter. India’s dilapidated healthcare system only further accelerates the outbreak, and rising case numbers have pressured the government to consider again extending its lockdown.
In New Delhi, the national crisis is unfolding on a smaller scale, with 4,898 cases as of May 5, 2020. Strict social distancing guidelines have been adopted, businesses and workplaces have been shut down, and the usually constant stream of traffic has altogether ceased. Yet, the impact of this lockdown on Delhi’s nearly 30 million residents has been far from uniform. For the city’s countless migrant workers, the lockdown has brought an unprecedented level of economic and physical insecurity; for Delhi’s expanding upper and middle classes however, the burden has been far less difficult. In fact, it seems like for some privileged Delhiites the tempo of daily life has hardly changed at all.
This ‘tale of two cities’ narrative is not uncommon in India today. Rising income inequality, political polarization, and hardening social divisions have bifurcated Indian society. The coronavirus has compounded this divisiveness, and its effects are palpable amongst Delhi’s residents.
The oral histories that I have collected are of two residents who live in the Near Capital Territory of Delhi in Ghaziabad and Gurugram. Through conversations conducted on WhatsApp and Zoom video conferencing, they shared stories of how they have been adjusting and settling into their new lockdown routines. They shared their views on government decisions and their trusted news sources, and they talked about their brief moments of interaction within their community.
By India’s standards, they are both upper middle-class, and as a result of the lockdown, are living at home with their immediate families in isolation. Their financial stability and modest savings have largely insulated them from immediate economic shock, and their primary challenges have been ensuring their health safety and adjusting to living ‘full-time’ at home.
The interviews were recorded over the period of early-April to early-May as part of an ongoing project during the second half of the Spring 2020 semester. Each respondent was interviewed twice, I have listed the interview date and time being listed at the beginning of each transcript. Interviews were conducted in Hindi and translated into English. All times are provided in IST (UTC + 5:30)
Researcher & Translator
Ojus Jain, B.S. in International History, Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service
A Note on Translation and Transcripts
Sections of transcripts have been omitted to preserve the anonymity of participants and to maintain continuity in the conversation’s subject matter. As mentioned earlier, all conversations were conducted in Hindi and have been translated into English. Words that were spoken in English such as ‘lockdown’, ‘ration’, ‘coronavirus’ have been placed in quotes to indicate they were spoken in English.
Occupation: Bank Manager (conducting most supervisorial duties at home, occasionally going to office)
Household: Living with wife, mother, son, daughter-in-law, and recently born grandson in a joint-family house.
There is one domestic worker who comes to clean the house. The worker lives separately in a nearby neighborhood, and commutes by foot to work.
Socioeconomic Status: Middle-Class
Occupation: Technology review (at home, employed but currently not working)
Household: Recently married. Living with spouse in a large apartment complex.
There is one domestic worker who is responsible for cooking and cleaning. The worker lives within the apartment in the “servant’s quarters” which is essentially a room connected to the kitchen and isolated from the rest of the apartment.
Socioeconomic Status: Upper-middle class
A Interview 1
April 6th, 2020 IST 6:30 PM
O: So, I heard from [your wife] that you were out getting milk today?
A: All the ‘essential services’ are open, I sometimes go get milk, get bread, and other things
O: Are you going to same stores you do on the street?
A: On the street a few grocery stalls, vegetable vendors, and pharmacies are open. I go there. The ‘essential’ goods, the ones that are needed for day to day life, those are all open.
O: Who is taking care of those shops? Is it the government?
A: No, no, from what I understand it is the private owners of the shops. The government (center) is operating other ‘ration’ stalls for the poor, where there is also distribution of food and water. But, we do not have a ration card, so we are going to the private grocery shop.
O: You know if the grocery store is taking any precautions? Like limiting the amount of entry, for example only letting 10 people in at a time?
A: Outside of the shop, he has bound a plastic rope.
O: I see
A: From his store counter to about one meter away from it. So you can’t get close to him. Take what you need and from a distance he will tell you how much it costs. That’s it.
O: So then you would say there hasn’t been much difficulty in food and water then?
A: Yeah, there has not been much difficulty in food and water.
A: …Thirteen different districts have shut down in Uttar Pradesh, a full curfew has been put in place. Because there have been a lot of corona cases in UP
O: I see, because of Delhi?
A: Yes, because of Delhi
O: Do you know how long that curfew is going to last?
A: They have said the curfew will last until the 13th of May, if the situation does not improve then they can extend it more.
A: And just yesterday in Greater Noida, in the slum area, even in there they have found corona. So after that, the total count of people in the UP area surrounding Delhi that have corona has crossed the hundreds…If the Tablighi jamaat had not happened, then our condition would have been much better. Much more like other countries.
O: Yes, that event was responsible for a rise in the spread.
A: Yes, we are about to touch 6000 nationwide. There would have only been two or three thousand. In Delhi, out of all the corona patients, more than 66% are these, Tablighi people.
First there was Shaheen Bagh, now this.
O: The sad thing is, I don’t think it’s the fault of the people who attended, but of the leaders that called the event in the first place.
A: Yeah, the major fault is with the leaders. But the people who went, they also defied the orders of the government. ‘144’ was applied, large congregations were banned, and still people went.
In my mind, for this whole episode. China is the manufacturer. And Kejriwal is the distributor.
Shaheen Bagh was a peaceful sit-in protest led by women in opposition to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill passed by the Indian National Parliament. The protest began on December 11, 2019, when women had occupied a street in Jamia Nagar, Okhla, New Delhi. Since December, the city experienced high communal strife leading to widespread rioting and violence in February.
Section 144 is part of the Criminal Procedure Code in Indian penal law. It empowers the executive Magistrate of any state or Union Territory to introduce a curfew requiring people to stay indoors in a time of emergency. It can be used to ban gathering groups of four or more and is traditionally used to prevent riots.
A’s comment on Kejriwal being the distributor of coronavirus reflects A’s lasting frustration with the election results in February. The Modi government had seen a strong national election victory in 2019, with his party the BJP, winning a large majority in the Lok Sabha, India’s House of the People. Many BJP supporters, including A, were hopeful the national election victory would propel the BJP towards victories in state elections as well. Delhi, was one of those elections, and in February 2020 the BJP contested against Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP. The Delhi elections were held amidst high levels of civils unrest and widescale peaceful protests in the city, and as a result an otherwise politicized election became more so. A is resentful the AAP won in the February elections, landing Arvind Kejriwal another term as Delhi’s Chief Minister and delivering a significant election loss to Narendra Modi and the BJP.
More specifically, A is linking Kejriwal to the Tablighi Jamaat event which was held in mid-March in the Nizamuddin Markaz in Nizamuddin West, New Delhi. The event had an estimated 3,000 (or more) people in attendance from all over India and a few international travelers, and the event would later be identified as a significant vector in the spread of the coronavirus in India. Around the end of March, when this interview was being conducted, it had been discovered that many people in attendance at the Nizamuddin Markaz had become infected with coronavirus and had traveled back to their individual states. In Delhi, the event led to a significant community spread of the virus. Now known as the ‘Tablighi Jamaat event,’ this only strained already tense communal relations. A views Kejriwal as being complicit in the Tablighi Jamaat because A accuses Kejriwal of tailoring his political strategy to secure a particular demographic, also known as ‘vote-bank politics.’ In this case, the vote-bank Kejriwal is accused of pursuing is the Muslim vote bank. While criticizing ‘vote-bank politics’ is legitimate given the outsized role of patronage in Indian politics, it is often weaponized by conservatives in India against secularism. In the wake of the Shaheen Bagh protests in opposition to the CAA bill, Arvind Kejriwal indicated his solidarity with the protesters and affirmed his position on secularism. A viewed this as purely a political maneuver, and now is voicing his frustration with regards to the coronavirus.
O: So you work at a bank, but you were saying banks are closed, are banks not essential services?
A: Banks are essential services, and they are still open, but the hours have been drastically reduced and duty is now on rotation. But since I am the manager, I can just check in from home.
A: In my opinion, Modiji did a very good thing, getting people to clap for essential services, it seems like in other countries they got the idea to do the same thing from him.
O: People have been doing that the world over, people in New York have been clapping off their balcony. It is good to engender a sense of community.
A: I think anyone who is serving the community right now, is on the level of God, but there are a lot of people with no respect.
O: Are you talking about distrust in the government?
A: Yes, because it’s now all about who you belong to. First, Modi said we are not going to shake hands and now do ‘Namaste’ and the Congress party thought that was just politics. And that’s when people all over the world are doing ‘Namaste.’
They are just after the government. They are just after one person. Not even the government, really just one person.
O: So the domestic worker that was coming to your house to do cleaning, is she still coming?
A: Yes, she is still coming. Before she enters, we have her wash her hands with soap and then only she works.
O: So with this extra time, are you doing something that you didn’t do before, or doing something that you did in your childhood but after working you didn’t have the time to do?
A: Umm, right now, I wished to learn how to play an instrument, but who would teach in these conditions? In a lockdown like this? I will have to wait.
A Interview 2
April 28th, 2020 IST 7:00 AM
O: What’s the weather like?
A: The weather is nice, the rains are coming, and the winds are cool.
O: So what must it be 20, 25 degrees?
A: Here, oh no it’s getting much higher, I think today it will be 38.
O: So then it’s hot
A: Yeah, I guess it is hot here after all
O: So what is you’re thinking about the development of the coronavirus over the last two weeks? Lots has happened, and though overall case counts in India are low it has spread a lot in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi…
A: In Gujarat, they’re saying, you know in Ahmedabad, it spread because it came with Trump.
A: In February Trump came and visited you know, and between some people there are even rumors that that’s why the virus has really spread in Ahmedabad.
O: That would be very interesting if that was proven true.
A: Yes, because in Ahmedabad there is a big ‘hotspot’ right now of corona.
A: The biggest spread is still in Maharashtra, but also Gujarat, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and it’s really spreading in UP too, I think it is about to cross 3,000
O: I’m surprised the official numbers are still so low, I would have thought it would have spread more by now
A: Yes, because Yogi introduced very strict actions. He sealed district borders, and he has put district DM in charge.
If there is any disagreement, or if anyone is not obeying the lockdown than the DM will be held responsible
O: The DM is a position in the civil services right?
A: Huh? District Magistrate
O: But it is a civil service position?
A: Yes, DM is in the Indian Civil Services
O: So a non-elected position
A: Yes, non-elected position. So there’s a meeting I presume, where the DM’s are asked specifically what is happening in their district. And recently they changed a bunch of the DM’s as well, who were not able to strictly follow the rules
O: Were they just recently changed?
A: The one for Noida was just changed recently, something like 15-20 days ago.
O: Oh, I see
A: Yes, now there is someone new. He’s a young boy of just 35 years of age. He’s very strict. He blocked all travel from Noida to Delhi
O: Yeah, I also saw that the passageway was closed
A: Border has been fully sealed, same with the Delhi and Ghaziabad.
And it just came out that Noida and Ghaziabad are in the Red Zone.
O: Red zone? Meaning?
A: It means the corona cases are growing
O: I see
A: So all of India has been divided into three zones: red, orange, and green.
Red is where corona cases are daily growing. Orange zone is where it is not growing as quickly. And green zone means the area has not had a new case since last week.
O: So who is even in the green zone right now?
A: There’s no state that is entirely in the green, but there are a few districts across India that are green. So in green districts they will probably ease the lockdown restrictions, and in orange they will only ease some, and the red they will keep them strict.
O: So when was this red, green, orange system made?
A: It was just recently made when the original lockdown was extended on about the 14th or 15th of April
O: Okay, so this was a decision made by the central government?
A: Yes, they gave the chief ministers instructions to divide their districts into the three different districts. Red is strict limitations, orange is some limitations, and green is things are good.
But still, the district borders will be sealed. Travel from one state to another, or even from one district to another is not allowed.
O: So the decision to classify as red, green, orange is being handled by the DM’s and they are reporting to the center.
A: Yes, so the original policy was designed by the center, and it has been given to the chief minister who gave it to the DM’s to implement.
O: I see, but when a decision like closing the Noida Delhi border is made, that is taken up by the UP government?
O: So if even it wanted to, the Center couldn’t have sealed the border.
A: No see what the center has done. It has imposed its lockdown until May 3rd. Whether the lockdown continues or not that is decided by the center. But how that lockdown is implemented the center has left to the state’s chief ministers.
O: Because the situation is different in each state
A: Yes, because in each state situation is very different.
O: So the person who has been coming to your house to clean? Is she still coming?
A: Yes she is still coming
O: So she must live nearby then?
A: Yeah she does live close by
O: I see
A: That’s why she is coming, if she lived somewhere far away she wouldn’t be coming now.
The park that’s in front of the house you know, in our neighborhood, the entry to that has been banned as well. People were out in the park for their morning walk, evening walk, exercise, all that has been shut down by the DM.
O: So in all of Ghaziabad no one can go out to parks then for a walk?
A: No one can
O: Even in the day? You can’t even go for the walk?
A: You can walk alone, but you can’t go in a group. And you can’t go in the parks, if you want to walk on the streets you can. But parks are closed
O: That makes sense, people will see the parks and think they can go and play, but this isn’t necessarily a time to play together
A: Yes, and this only happened in the last few days. Just today the cases are growing in Ghaziabad and Noida.
O: So when the DM is making a decision to close the parks, how do you find about that decision? You watch it on the TV, or you read it in the newspaper?
A: It comes on the TV, but also the local police authorities announce it as well
O: They go into every neighborhood and announce it?
A: No, they take a big speaker and announce it over that on the motorcycle driving all around the city.
O: Okay I see
A: And the local government also provides a copy
O: Copy meaning?
A: A print out of the order
O: So are they like sliding it underneath everyone’s door?
A: No, they share it on WhatsApp groups.
O: Ohh, so the government has WhatsApp groups
A: Yes, governments have WhatsApp groups. The central government has made a WhatsApp group, where if you have some sort of sickness, you are in need of medical facilities, you can share your information and then you will get help.
O: I see.
A: The central government has made this app, Arogya Setu,
You can download that on your mobile phone. It has like 3-4 questions, and on the basis of that you can self-asses yourself.
O: The basic questions like have you traveled?
A: Yes, have you traveled recently, what is your age, do you have any cold, cough, or any symptoms, which demographic group do you belong to? When you fill it out, your data is fed to the central government server.
O: So is this app in Hindi, English, or what language is it in? Can you choose your language?
A: English, Hindi, Punjabi, I think in all 18 languages of India.
O: So really you can use it in your native language.
A: Yeah whatever language you speak you can use this app in India
A: Yesterday, I went to the office. And it was showing this app, this Arogya Setu, that in my area there are 21 people that are currently unwell.
O: Close by?
A: Yes, and 4 of them are confirmed COVID-19 positive. So on the news in evening I saw that the Niti Ayog office has been shut down because 4 people have corona there.
O: So every person in India is probably not using this are they?
A: Well the government is running ads everywhere, on TV, on news asking people to download the app.
Even then if you don’t download it, it’s not like the government can send an official to ask you ‘brother please download the app’
O: So it’s voluntary reporting, so if you are currently ill you will have to personally report that you are feeling unwell
A: Yeah, you will have to self-report.
O: That makes sense. People should be able to know who is sick around them
A: If your condition is getting worse, then the color changes to red. Right now, it is green, it says ‘you are safe.’ If you get into an orange zone, then it says, ‘you are in the risk zone.’
And every DM on their own district website, they have displayed mobile phone numbers saying if you need ration, need medical facilities, or any other help you can contact this number for help
A: I heard from my son in Maharashtra, what the grocery stall owners are doing is that they have given their WhatsApp information, and you can send them a list, and they will bring the stuff and leave it outside the apartment complex.
O: You should do something like that as well
A: We can’t because we don’t live in a complex. In an apartment complex there is just one gate. We just go in the store, early in the morning
O: Yeah I guess your store is just very close by, just across the street.
O: And I imagine they are still doing the system where they have tied the rope in front of the counter.
A: Yes, many stores have been doing that
O: And are you the only one leaving the house
A: Yes, wearing the mask.
O: And everyone else in the house is doing well?
A: Yes everyone else in the house is doing really well.
O: So where do you get your news? Mostly from the newspaper, TV, or WhatsApp?
A: Every morning I read the newspaper, then I watch TV in the night. WhatsApp news is not reliable
O: In my opinion, all WhatsApp news is fake
A: Yeah, WhatsApp news is questionable, so I stick to the TV and newspaper.
O: So what newspapers do you read?
A: Nav Bharat
O: Is this a Delhi/UP specific paper or is it national?
A: Well, it’s really a national paper, but they have editions based on region. There’s one in Delhi, Lucknow, but you know we are right on the Delhi border so we read the Delhi one. You know, and I watch TV too. And the Arogya Setu app keeps us informed on how many total COVID cases there have been.
O: What TV channels do you watch?
A: I watch Zee news, there are some channels that are anti-government, all day all they do is trash the government.
O: What channels are those?
A: You have NDTV with Ravish Kumar, then Barkha Dutt. this Ravish Kumar is just always badmouthing the government.
A: Here, Hindu-Muslim tensions have been happening for a while
O: Yes, that I agree
A: When Modi came…hear me out, over the last 70 years after independence, Hindus didn’t understand that the Muslim were pulling the rug from underneath them. Modi has only been PM for 6 or 7 years, but Muslims have understood that Modi is trying to make a Hindu nation.
O: I see
A: You had just recently the CAA bill, Triple-Talaq bill, Article 35(a), Article 370
O: I see
A: They have imposed all of these things, slowly, they were also going to do a population control bill
O: I see,
A: And the Muslims thinking that was against them, starting organizing many agitations.
A: When you talk about protecting Hindu rights then it becomes communal. When you talk about Muslims, then it’s protecting minority rights – it’s secular.
O: I definitely think that there are parties on both sides that try to profit from tensions…who in every genuine problem the country faces, try to bring up the religious Hindu-Muslim angle.
A: I also talk a lot of the Hindu-Muslim relations. Everyone here does. A Hindu will never stand up to protect another Hindu, a Muslim will always support a Muslim.
Just now, the Jamaati’s left Delhi, who were at the Nizamuddin Markaz, and an Allahabad professor kept 15 of them in his house.
He had to have taken some money from the Markaz, otherwise why would he feed them.
O: I mean there are a lot of issues that divide India. People here don’t even want to eat food together with each other.
So I’ve seen recently that a lot of people from the Markaz event are going to donate plasma?
A: Yeah some of them are. But a lot are still hiding. And their leader is still hiding…all of the Maulana’s in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are just after India…
Maulana’s are Islamic religious scholars, it is a term predominantly used in the Indian Subcontinent which includes the modern nation-states of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
V Interview 1
Conducted April 3, 2020 8:00 PM IST
O: it looks like you’re eating pizza, you make that at home?
V: No, I ordered it on Zomato
O: Is there also a discount on deliveries running in India?
V: Yeah, all the fees have been canceled. Anyways, very few restaurants these days are even delivering, so in the supply demand equation demand is winning.
O: So does that mean the worker you had in your house to make food and clean is no longer coming?
V: No, he is still coming – he actually lives here. We just ordered today from outside because we hadn’t eaten out in a long time, so we just ordered it today.
O: Oh yes, I forgot in your apartment there is a servant’s quarters.
V: Yes, yes.
O: So you have just been relaxing. I mean for other people, their home workers had to migrate back to their villages, and but he is just living with you.
V: Yes really. Because of this, I think it was worth it hiring him full-time.
O: So how much are you paying him?
V: Around 15,000 INR a month (~$200)
O: Wow, that is nothing.
V: Yeah, things are pretty cheap here in India
O: Very cheap, much cheaper than America. What about his family?
V: His family is still in his village in Assam.
O: Is he scared?
V: He was saying since it’s a pretty small village they aren’t extremely concerned. They are just telling people to stay away from each other. I mean there aren’t many people coming in and out.
O: Of the village?
V: Yes, I don’t think they are even doing much testing there.
O: It doesn’t seem like India is doing much testing at all. But I guess if there isn’t many people coming in and out, there isn’t much need.
V: Yes, but then there were also many of these migrant workers, Delhi-based workers, who worked you know around Delhi. Their survival was totally based off the wages they made every day. You know, the 80 maybe 100 rupees they would make, they would use that for food and to find shelter. And now all the work is gone. So now they have no money for food and shelter.
O: So I heard for migrant workers, the national government is providing buses and transportation.
V: Yeah, they did say they were going to provide transportation. But then that big issue happened on the Delhi-UP border, where all these people congregated and gathered waiting for transport.
O: Oh, I didn’t hear about that.
V: Yeah, and this is the problem. There was this big scene there where in UP, the BJP announced that they would provide 1000 busses to bring people from Delhi into UP, and hearing that all these people showed up to the Delhi-UP border. But no busses ever came there. So there were like 5,000 maybe 10,000 laborers gathered there. And then somehow they got home, and who knows along the way what kind of community spread happened.
O: So what about in Delhi?
V: Delhi just has its own problems. The police are in control of the center and not the Delhi government, they don’t have control on the municipality. So a lot of the responsibilities are divided between center and state, and instead of working together the center is worried about jurisdiction.
O: So what about your job? You were saying that you are now at home? But have you thought about future wages?
V: Yeah, you know I am hoping that a majority of the impact of this is absorbed in March. April is generally the time the companies give out bonuses, but I have already heard from some of my friends that those have been delayed.
O: Yeah that I can understand, but do you know if you are going to get your salary?
V: As of now yes. But if this has to continue for the next four or five months, then who knows what can happen.
O: Are you scared about the future?
V: ‘Bro,’ to tell you the truth. I don’t know if the realization has fully set in on me because my life has not been so directly affected. But you know when I think about how long this is going to last, or think about how little clarity we have. Like if actually lockdown goes on, then my work can really be stopped.
Hopefully by the end of April I will be able to know what the full impact is.
V: You know, what I think has made the southern states more effective in combatting the coronavirus is that they know they cannot rely on the center to help them in anything. In Delhi, you know, there’s this tussle going on between the state and central government. Right now, we had the elections. I mean, fresh of the elections this corona thing happened. And even before that, so many tense things were happening in the city.
O: Honestly, it appears, in Delhi especially, lot of people are viewing this coronavirus through the lens of politics.
V: Yes, absolutely. Overall, even on the national scene, I think there are very few people who are having discussions on this, you know, in a neutral sense. Too many people are interested in fighting politics. The center is very much trying to save face because they know they have botched the strategy. Especially knowing, how many poor and under-educated people are India. You know how careful you have to handle situations. Look, we are four days away from the end of the first lockdown. And it’s not like they are waiting for some crucial statistic to make the decision on the lockdown. They probably already have, but they are going to wait. They will announce it on the last day, create a panic, and a social media ‘hum drum.’
O: In this time, this free time, are you doing anything new in your life? Picking up a new hobby? Trying something you didn’t do before?
V: You know, it doesn’t feel like my lifestyle has really changed so it’s been difficult for me, I just made the resolution yesterday to learn some new software, but we will see
V Interview 2
April 28, 2020 9:30 PM IST
V: Yeah we started doing these YouTube video workouts, but we aren’t that consistent about it yet. We do it maybe 5 days a week.
O: I mean, they say exercise 3-4 times a week is all that is necessary
V: Yeah but that’s assuming that people are getting around otherwise. Now all of our movement is completely stopped. But recently I have gotten to this age and my metabolism has stopped working for me.
O: I mean if you eat like you do and don’t move then what else is going to happen (laughing)
V: So there were people who had come stayed with us for 3-4 days
O: What!? Who?
V: They are my wife’s family friends. They have this newborn, and they were supposed to shift into a new house in April. And in their temporary house there was no AC or fridge. And it’s gotten really hot here recently. So their little kid wouldn’t have slept at all in those conditions and so we thought they could come stay with us. And in a few days, some of the restrictions were lifted and they were able to call an electrician to fix things in their temporary house.
O: So which restricts were lifted? I didn’t hear that any restrictions were lifted.
V: So there was a decision to allow all construction activities. The essential services were already allowed, so we kind of stretched the rules and said that the electrician needed to fix the RO (water filter) and instead we paid him to fix the AC.
O: So they just left then 3-4 days?
V: And it was funny, I got a little trailer of “why not to have kids.”
O: So you weren’t scared that the people you hosted could potentially be carrying the virus?
V: No, well on the one hand they hadn’t left their house for one month.
O: I guess… honestly I’d be scared.
O: So what else is new?
V: Well, the old domestic worker Raj Kumar sent me a message that the new ‘momo stand’ (food stall) that he opened is now closed because of the lockdown and he doesn’t have money to feed his wife and four kids. So we, on amazon, ordered all the rations for him and gave him some cash.
O: Wow… how did you get it to him?
V: We got it ordered to the apartment complex and he came and picked it up outside the gate on his moped
O: I thought outside people weren’t allowed to come into the apartment complex
V: Yes exactly, so the amazon person delivered it outside the gates and Raj Kumar picked it up from there.
O: I see, I see. So why Raj Kumar?
V: I mean he came forward and asked, to be honest. I didn’t really think of it until he asked, but there was no reason not to help out.
O: So what about the person that is still working in your apartment?
V: I mean his scene is still pretty much the same in his village, and he said it’s a small place and there isn’t really any spread and people aren’t going in and out. It’s not even really next to a big city so it’s not of a concern.
O: What are your interactions with him? He just wakes up and makes you breakfast and then goes back to his servant’s quarters?
V: Yeah I mean, the interaction is pretty limited now that I think about it. He really only asks what we want to eat for the next meal once he cooks the current meal
O: Wow, so does he hang around in the apartment then or does he go back to his quarters?
V: He hangs around here, because the Wi-Fi connection is strong and I have given him a smartphone. And he just watches stuff on it
O: I guess.
Have you tried to learning any cooking form him?
V: No haha no effort, I made a salami sandwich the other day but after that nothing.
O: Hahah it takes nothing to make a sandwich.
It is worth noting that although V is a supporter of the AAP, Aam Aadmi Party (“The Common’s Man’s Party”), he seems somewhat ambivalent to the struggles of the domestic workers in his own home. V provided ration and financial support to Raj Kumar in a time of need, but didn’t seem to have reflected deeply on the event. In fact, when he conveyed that he had only helped Raj Kumar because he was directly asked, his indifference became apparent. Additionally, it doesn’t seem like V has considered the domestic worker who is currently working in his home. Again, when I asked him questions about the worker, V seemed like he didn’t really interact with him much and their social distance was very obvious. Perhaps there is some irony that V believes in ‘The Common Man’s Party’ but is a stranger to the common people he lives with.
O: So what all is going on in the news in Delhi these days?
V: I mean these BJP guys are the masters of crafting a narrative. Like in Maharashtra the virus has really spread, and testing is low. So the center is highly criticizing the actions of the CM because there is not a BJJP government in Maharashtra. In Gujarat, on the other hand, where there is a similar situation and also low testing. Absolutely no mention of Gujarat from the central government. They’ll go to West Bengal or Delhi basically only places where there aren’t BJP governments. They are able to exert such influence over the news.
And you don’t even really notice it, I didn’t notice it at first. All I saw was information about these states, and Kerala because Kerala is the ‘success story.’ But as I was doing my own research, I saw that Gujarat is doing very bad but no news
O: That’s so interesting
V: And now you have the booking of Arnab Goswami, the tv reporter, for inciting communal violence. And now the people who just the day before were screaming “Tablighi this, Tablighi that” are now saying “please don’t bring religion into coronavirus”
O: Arnab tweeted that?
V: No not Arnab, another reporter that is like him though that makes a business stirring communal violence
O: Now I have been seeing this “Tablighi heroes’ hashtag trending on Twitter because some people from the Markaz are donating plasma
V: Yeah, but I feel like people are overhyping that too. Saying stuff like ‘Tablighi heroes, Tablighi saviors” It’s just the opposite extreme. I mean they are just doing their job as humans. If they had the virus they should donate. I get it, because they are trying to counter the narrative that the Tablighi people were spreading coronavirus, put I think Indians just push things to the extreme.
O: So in this matter, what is Kejriwal saying?
V: I think Kejriwal is just trying to play it way too safe. Generally the guy is very active on social media but he has been less active and very deferential to the center. Every time he is asked, he just says we will follow the direction of the center’s narrative.
I think people are also upset because of the elections, and all the riots, and there was no closure and then this corona thing happened.
O: But what do you mean there was no closure?
V: Well, I feel like during the election that’s all you heard about was ‘riots, riots, Hindu Muslim, Hindu Muslim.’ But then when the elections happened, and the moment the BJP lost, they dropped that story and they moved on. So there was no ‘closure’ on who did them. There were videos that said that Kejriwal orchestrated them, others implicating others. But of course the moment the election ended neither the police nor the Supreme Court looked into it.
O: So where have you been reading all this, as in where do you get your news?
V: I get a lot of it from Twitter, following journalists and you know these accounts like NDTV, Times of India, Hindustan times. But I also just browse the NDTV website from time to time.
O: Have you been using that Arogya Setu app?
V: No, not at all.
O: Oh, why?
V: I personally think there are ‘major security issues’ involved. There’s ‘24/7’ government tracking. And they are asking for more than just your location permission when you download the app.
O: But I heard the app download was not compulsory?
V: It depends, in Noida there are fining people if they discover they have not downloaded the app. There are even rumors you could get booked.
O: Wow, the contact tracing has definitely been a civil liberties debate governments have had to face.
V: Yeah, and I am just not sure the central government has the competency to protect information from outside people, or even not weaponize it themselves.
The section of the transcript dealing with Arnab Goswami references a controversial TV-News show anchor, Arnab Goswami. He is a host on the network Republic TV which is known to be conservative in its journalistic leanings. Recently, Goswami has been charged by the Mumbai Police for inciting communal tensions for an April 29th appearance in which he made a derogatory remark against a mosque in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai. Thousands of migrant workers had gathered in Bandra outside the mosque on April 14th demanding the national government provide them transport back to their native places, and in covering this news, Goswami questioned whether the gathering had something to do with the mosque. Consequently, Goswami was accused of stoking religious tensions, and a case was filed against him.
The ‘oral histories’ that I collected were of two individuals (A and V, for anonymity) who live in the Near Capital Territory of Delhi in Ghaziabad and Gurugram respectively. By India’s standards, they are both middle-class, and as a result of the lockdown, are living at home with their immediate families in isolation. Their financial stability and modest savings have largely insulated them from immediate economic shock, and their primary challenges have been adjusting to living ‘full-time’ at home.
Despite sharing similar levels of insulation from the pandemic’s disruption, it is apparent A and V have diametrically opposed interpretations of the ongoing outbreak. Ostensibly, this division comes down to politics, with each adopting a narrative manufactured by one of Delhi’s political actors. V supports Arvind Kejriwal and the Delhi government, viewing Narendra Modi as distracted by communalism and social media optics; whereas A believes the BJP narrative, rallying behind Modi and vilifying Kejriwal as complicit in the outbreak.
Given the current political climate in Delhi, it is not entirely surprising A and V have adopted politics as their ‘language’ of expression; the city underwent highly politicized elections in February. It had been embroiled in communal and political violence since earlier in the year. Furthermore, Delhi straddles a politically ambiguous position as both the nation’s capital and its own independent polity (similar to Washington D.C.) In circumstances such as the present, where the Delhi government is in opposition to the Central government, this leads to a high degree of political strife.
A great example of this is the opposing opinions A and V had of the Arogya Setu (contact-tracing) application that the national government has rolled out. A is thankful that the application has been advertised by the central government, and he commends the resources they have made available for those searching for help. V, however, was skeptical of the government’s capability to protect private information and was concerned the government could have malign intentions. This could be the result of A and V’s different news sources as well. Interestingly, A specifically identified NDTV as a so-called ‘anti-government’ channel, and NDTV is V’s primary source of news. A even disparaged a journalist, Barkha Dutt, who has been highly critical of Prime Minister Modi as she has been documenting the struggles of migrant workers.
Additionally, I was fascinated by the insight into A and V’s relationship with the domestic workers in each of their households. Both A and V seem strikingly ambivalent to the struggles of the workers, each maintaining a significant ‘social distance’ from the workers although they work intimately around the house. V seems to be slightly more friendly than A, however, with the people who live and work in his apartment. He has given the current person a smartphone for entertainment, and he provided necessary rations to Raj Kumar, the person who worked there before. Still, it only occurred to him to help him when he reached out, indicating a degree of disconnect.
This is just a hypothesis, but it may be because of the minimal economic impact on their lives at the moment, A and V have turned to politics to decipher the pandemic. Regardless, I believe this is a valuable question to explore, especially through the medium of ‘oral history.’ It is often people in the upper and middle classes who have an outsized ability to shape culture, politics, and even historical memory.