Four women of Indian origin share how Covid-19, having impacted travel plans, left them with a sense of guilt, challenges and the aching desire for a warm parental embrace
By Q. Ain Haider
Indian Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra couldn’t have hit closer home when referring to the gold standard in street food, golgappas, as an indulgence. Thousands of miles away, in Geneva, Ridima Mittal, 34, who works for not-for-profit organisation Swiss Finance Institute, would wholeheartedly agree. Mittal keenly identifies the spicy street food with her annual trip back home. Unfortunately, the treat remains on her to-do list. Mittal hasn’t been able to fly home to meet her parents, sister and in-laws in Delhi-NCR for around a year, on account of the pandemic and its complications.
Amongst women of the Indian diaspora in Switzerland, there are a number who have had to reluctantly put on hold annual home trips. For over a year, several have only been able to keep in touch with aging parents over video calls; and have postponed their catching up with the flavours of Indianess for a safer time.
M. Soundararajan, 70, a biologist and language teacher, moved with her husband to the German-speaking part of Switzerland three decades ago. Over the years, the couple has travelled back home to Trichy regularly. Of late, she and her husband had taken turns to fly down several times a year to be with her 92-year-old mother-in-law, who lives alone and cannot travel. Explains Soundararajan, whose last trip was in January 2020, “…we haven’t been able to visit ever since, as we wanted to be vaccinated, then there were no flights and the pandemic situation was pretty bad… also with the new variant… we’re in a quandary… but we have to go.”
The emotional stress of not being there for an elderly parent is telling as they coordinate banking logistics, urgent optical treatment and medication from afar. Soundararajan expresses an immense sense of gratitude for the caregiving helpers, neighbours and kind doctor, even as she and her husband grapple with the guilt of not being around.
Chandana Acharya, 34, a housewife living in Geneva, however, was able to have her mother visit her albeit over a year behind schedule. Acharya gave birth to twin daughters Navya and Naina in August 2020 but had been keen to have her mother’s much-required support to look after her seven-year-old son, Eshaan, while she was in hospital and to help with the newborns on their arrival home.
Unfortunately, the then travel requirement of wearing a PPE suit on the long journey from Hyderabad was far too challenging for her mother. Subsequent flight cancellations further delayed her trip. She eventually landed in Geneva only two days before the twins’ first birthday. While that certainly was a long delay, her father will have to wait till the Covaxin vaccine he received meets with WHO approval before he can board a flight to Switzerland and hold his new granddaughters in his arms.
This is precisely what Mittal dearly misses: her mother’s warm embrace. Facetime calls do help ford the distance but, as she says, if there’s one thing that comes to mind when she closes her eyes and thinks of home it’s her mum’s smile and warm hug. She hopes her parents can visit her soon. The common fear – cancellation or delayed return flights – in the face of limited leave from work has led Mittal to postpone her India trip. Till then, she keeps in touch with family on group Facetime and has even created a music video with a friend in India. A travel buff, Mittal will for the time being visit an island destination in Europe but will miss the company of her sister – her regular travel companion – this year.
For some, there has been a philosophical journey instead. Sherin Agarwal, 46, a teacher who lives in Geneva with her husband and teenaged son and daughter, had cancelled her annual trip to India in 2020. She didn’t want to expose elderly parents to any international travel-acquired infection. “I now realise that it was sheer luck and not just precautions and sound health that have kept many alive and safe.” The frequently received shocking intimations of close relatives and friends succumbing to the virus during the second wave in India despite favourable factors regarding health, age and finances makes me now think that while we must continue to respect the protocols, it’s time to adapt to the virus and live our lives. Disciplined adherents to the required safety precautions for over a year and a half, the Agarwals have only recently gone away – a short road trip within Switzerland to Interlaken. She intends to visit her parents in Alwar, Rajasthan, and in-laws in Gurugram, Haryana, at the end of the year.
The drop in airline passenger numbers could also reflect the general preference for safety over family reunions. While Swiss International Airlines did not communicate passenger numbers for specific destinations, spokesperson Elena Stern shared with namastebharat.com that “Overall, passenger numbers remained very low in the first-half period of 2021. In the first six months of 2021, SWISS transported around a million travellers, 67.5% fewer than in the prior-year period, whose early months were not affected by the coronavirus pandemic…”
Perhaps the rise in vaccinations, improved medical preparedness of cities and the unique safety measures announced by airlines (for instance, Swiss International Airlines assures vertical air circulation that is not distributed in the aircraft and high-quality air filters) along with the uncontainable longing to meet family, will see more heading home in the coming months.
(The writer is based in Geneva.)