Looking back at pandemic days…

[ Keselo Tayang ]
The lockdown came as a blow to the en- tire student community in the country busy preparing for their final exams, as it did to several sections of people. We, a batch of 21 Arunachalee girls at the Avinashilingam University in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, too felt its first pangs on March 16…
A sudden announcement by the university for vacating the hostels bewildered all the hostellers, but we felt at ease when we were told that all the NE students could stay if they wished to. So we decided to stay back as we still had our exams to be completed. Travelling back home just for 15 days was troublesome, and who could guarantee that we would not catch the virus while travelling? It was risky. We unanimously decided to stay back, and were given excellent care by our faculty and the management all through our stay.
Days passed by and all of us were busy preparing for our semester exams. The 15 days’ lockdown was almost at an end when the government announced another phase of lockdown. The rumours of lockdown getting extended came true and, to be honest, I instantly regretted staying back. Now, even if I wished to go home, there was no hope.
Former Lohit DC, Prashant Lokhande, our patron, advised us not to panic and take any decision in a hurry, and he assured that one day we would definitely be able to get a train home; but till then we were told to wait for the government’s notice.
Days went on, the lockdown got extended till Phase 4, and my days went in regret.
On the evening of 18 May, my roommate and I were relaxing when suddenly my friend Bethem rushed in, cheerfully: “Pack your bags!” she said. “Tomorrow night we’re catching the Shramik Express from Chennai to Dibrugarh. The nodal officer rang now!”
We screamed in joy.
Finally came the day for which I had been waiting eagerly. My whole body trembled for a second with happiness. That night seemed the longest night of my life as I eagerly waited for the sunrise.
The next morning, as we boarded the bus and bid farewell to warden Miss, she hugged us. I still remember her waving back with her big, bright and cheerful smile, with tears down her cheeks.
It was a nine-hour bus ride from Coimbatore to Chennai. It was very hot and we drank lots of water. We stopped at two different petrol depots to refresh ourselves, but were told “No water,” even as I clearly saw a man coming out of one of the toilets.
I experienced a mixture of emotions and was not able to figure out whether it was anguish or something else. All I knew was that we were again being stereotyped because of our Mongolian features.
Driver Anna stopped us at another public restroom near the highway, where an aunty was sitting. I hesitated a bit, wondering if we might get the same excuse, but she just smiled and asked: “Hindi?” and I said “Aama” (‘Yes’ in Tamil).
She then asked me: “Tamil teriyumaa?”
“Konjum-konjum teriyum,” I answered.
Her smile washed away all my bad feelings and made me realize that not everyone is alike.
By 3:30 pm, we reached Chennai. We were about 22 students from Coimbatore, six from Kalakshetra Chennai, and a few more who came with our group leader, Yuhey Chikro, a teacher from Rameshwaram.
We went to Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium for reporting. Even before we reached the stadium, I saw a very long queue of NE people, waiting anxiously for their turn. Fortunately, we were in touch with our state nodal officer, Pranav Tayal, who very kindly guided us inside the stadium to report and collect our passes. We then headed towards the the Egmore railway station.
We entered the station in a queue, maintaining one-metre distance from one another. We had temperature screening, and were handed over our railway tickets along with a water bottle and chapattis for dinner. Unfortunately two of our team members in the queue, Nishanlu and Ashapmai, found that their bags had gone missing. When asked, a policeman said that someone had taken them away! After a futile search in our compartment, Yuhey bhaiya wrote an application seeking help, and informed our nodal officer in Itanagar. Soon the police came for help.
To our great relief, the girls located their bags in another compartment! We all settled down in our seats and soon the train started.
The next day, the weather was terribly hot, which drove all of us crazy with thirst. The water bottle which were provided to us, and the many additional water bottles that we had carried individually, all got finished. The heat and the desperate thirst made our journey a real struggle. We again sought our nodal officer’s help. At the next very station we were provided with water bottles.
On the third day, we entered West Bengal, where we experienced a bit of the Amphan cyclone – it made the weather very cool after two days of intense heat. By god’s grace, the cyclone wasn’t that strong.
Finally, early in the morning of the 23rd, we reached our destination – Arunachal Pradesh! We were quarantined at the Parshuram Kund Covid care centre, where we were warmly welcomed and had all the accommodation facilities. A deep sense of gratitude towards Lohit DC Prince Dhawan, and his officers, Commissioner Prashant Lokhande, our nodal officer Pranav Tayal, my university faculty, warden and staff, and all the authorities involved in making our stay, journey and quarantine safe and comfortable.
The day we got our swab test results negative, we screamed again and danced, as if we had graduated and had received our degrees. The joy was incomparable. I was happy that we all tested positively negative! This pandemic journey in life was a whole new experience for us, as we went through different layers and levels of emotions and situations. (Keselo Tayang, a resident of Wakro, Lohit, is a youth library activist and has just completed her final year BSc in rural development & sociology. She can be reached at tayangkeshilu@gmail.com.)