The loss of a loved one can be difficult in the best of times. But it’s even more painful when the planes are grounded.
Late on Saturday night, three days into New Zealand’s level four lockdown, Harish got a call from his sister in India telling him that his father had died.
In bed and half asleep, Harish could not understand. His father had not been ill. He had had surgeries for a spinal cord infection last year but doctors had said they’d been successful and he was mending well.
“I was totally confused,” he said. “He was healed. He was discharged from the hospital, and the doctors said he’s recovering. It took me a while to realise it was not a bad dream.”
Panicked and distraught, Harish contacted the High Commission of India and pleaded with them to help get him from New Zealand to Hyderabad to be with his family. Nothing could be done, they said. The borders in both countries had virtually closed. The flight was impossible.
In desperation, Harish called his friend Giri, the director of an Auckland travel agency to see if he could do anything.
Under lockdown but with his home office set up, Giri logged in and scoured the meagre list of departing flights, trying in vain to find a connection so Harish could attend his father’s funeral, or what he called his “final journey”.
He searched until 2am, but it was fruitless. Even if he got on a departing flight, the connecting ports along the route had suspended operations. Like the high commission, he was powerless to do anything.
Having exhausted all options, Harish called his sister to break the news that he couldn’t return to India and the ceremony needed to go on without him. When I spoke to him a few days later, he was choked with grief and what he seemed to feel was his failure.
“This pain, I just cannot wipe off. I cannot come out of this,” he said.
The urgency to attend his father’s funeral was not simply sentiment – it was the result of a sacred Hindu responsibility bestowed upon him, the eldest son, to perform the burial rites and guarantee his father’s safe passing into the afterlife. Because he couldn’t travel, he could not fulfil what he believes is his essential duty to his father’s spirit.
“I’m the oldest son, I needed to do his cremation. The biggest thing that is haunting me now is I can never do my rituals, and I did not get a chance to say goodbye to him.”
Harish was one of many who were unable to reach the funeral. India is desperately battling its own burgeoning pandemic, and severe restrictions have been put in place in attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19 in a country of 1.3 billion people.
With Harish unable to attend, another family member was charged with the ceremonial duties and, with great difficulty, obtained approval from the Hyderabad police for a small and quick cremation the following day.
Harish said that in normal times he would have expected the passing of his father – a civil engineer and philanthropist of great renown – to have been a momentous, well-attended event.
Due to the restrictions enforced by the authorities, only five people were there – an inconceivable showing for a Hindu ceremony that typically attracts hundreds of mourners and can last 13 days. This one was permitted just four hours.
Giri, the Auckland travel agent and Harish’s friend, said stories like this have become common in the last few weeks, as countries around the world enforce extreme measures to bind their people in place.
“That’s the sort of scenario that we are looking at,” Giri said. “Stories have changed, things have changed. It’s radically changed. It is very unexpected, but that’s the way it’s going to be for another few months.”
I had spoken with Giri two weeks ago, before the level four lockdown, when he and his staff were still working in their Dominion Road office. As a tourism business, bookings had already begun to dwindle weeks before, and the staff was handling countless cancelled trips, deterred weddings, and disappointment, frustration and grief – emotional debris of upended lives as the world, and its planes, slowly ground to a halt.
Even so, when Harish called for help Giri knew how important this journey would be, and did everything he could to find a solution.
“He was very desperate,” Giri said. “We were trying very hard to see if there was any way out but it was all locked down. You can only empathise with him and try to say things, say ‘things are different now but when you go back home in a month or so you will still be able to be with your mother and family members’.”
Like most other businesses in New Zealand, Giri and his staff have retreated to their homes to wait out the four-week lockdown. He applied and was approved for the wage subsidy, which has provided him and his staff with the essentials of life.
“Of course the government assistance has been more than welcome. It has helped to a certain extent in terms of making sure that everyone has a meal, and basically every staff member is able to manage their households. But at the same time the future looks very scary.”
As workers in an industry with a dubious future, Giri said he and his staff must use the shutdown to rework, rebuild and adjust to a way of life that has changed for all those who make their living from overseas travel.
“I think we’re in for a long haul,” he said. “It all depends on how long this is going to continue.”
While he knew that people are struggling with the uncertainty and disruption of it all, he said he tries to do what he can to lift morale, especially among his staff, many of whom have little work to do. He sends them daily reports and sometimes poetry, encouraging them to find comfort in nature, in being away from the office and living in a country like New Zealand – which he calls in one of his poems “the world’s envy”.
“I tell them to look to the birds,” he said. “All the birds are out, and they’re having a good time.”