My Voice - 2021

Homecoming: Returning to America During India’s Second Wave

By Shivani Tripathi

Mumbai's famous Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge looks
picturesque from the vantage point of Bandra Fort.

After spending nearly two years in India, terror unleashed in two weeks made me quickly leave the country.

In 2019 I took the bold step of being a full-time writer in India, a country that has inspired countless people for many millennia. I spent nearly all of 2020 in Mumbai in different phases of lockdown but compared to the suffering experienced by millions of Americans, it seemed India had dodged the devastation many experts had predicted at the start of the pandemic. The anticipated post-Diwali surge towards the end of 2020 thankfully did not occur and what many Mumbaikars deemed “normalcy" set in soon after the 2021 New Year's curfew ended in the city.

More people were out and about in the neighborhood, pictures of diners in restaurants saturated social media, travel packages were advertised in newspapers, and I was becoming increasingly restless. The casual conversations I would have with people made me think I was missing out on living in one of the biggest cities in the world. When chatting with vendors, especially when asking them to put their mask on, I was told that Covid is a conspiracy theory believed by wealthy, urban Indians or why else were people in small towns and villages unaffected? Even global thought leaders were being asked why India didn't have the number of cases expected from a country with well over a billion citizens.

The massive, post-holiday Covid surge in the United States kept me vigilant, but the decline in cases within Mumbai and across India had me wondering was I being careful or unnecessarily fearful? In early February, on a whim, I went to a well-known chaat eatery and decided to order a plateful of the popular street snack, pani puri. I had not realized how much I had missed the crispy, sweet, savory and tangy treat until I experienced its iconic burst of flavor in my mouth. Pani puri kits were being delivered by restaurants and grocery stores, but the joy of eating the street snack by the street, and having it served outdoors by an employee who had on a mask, hair cover and gloves, with no other customers next to me, gave me the sense that I was responsibly enjoying Mumbai.

I visited restaurants and famous khao gallis, or lanes lined with outdoor dining, that had been on my list for almost a year and explored famous sights such as Bandra Fort while being double-masked and socially distanced. In late March, after a twelve-month gap, I watched a film in a virtually empty mall, in a large IMAX theater with only a few other patrons. Such activities were giving me such joy and a sense of freedom that I did not know I had missed so much. There were still more exciting places and activities I wanted to check off my list but soon enough, headlines began appearing exclaiming Covid cases were rapidly increasing in Maharashtra.

Numbers continued to rise, and it was only a matter of time before a lockdown would be announced in the state but whether it would be as strict as the one declared by the Prime Minister almost a year ago was debated. Families and businesses that were finally making ends meet were again faced with wondering how survival would be possible this time around. Simultaneously, my peers in America were getting vaccinated and soon after, posting photographs of them socializing and traveling with other vaccinated family and friends.

Unlike 2020, where I would have been made to stay indoors whether in India of America, 2021 was becoming very different as the United States was inching towards normalcy, while India was falling deep into chaos.

A highly contagious variant was quickly spreading across the country, more cities and states were declaring lockdowns and there was a massive vaccine shortage. Early in my trip I had registered with the US State Department to receive important communication for American citizens in India. Emails were sent only when necessary but within a matter of weeks the frequency greatly increased. Mid-March I had received an email about complying with recently announced restrictions by the government of Maharashtra to prevent the spread of Covid and in the first week of April the State Department sent a message stating that due to the concerning rise of cases, only essential services would be provided by the American consulate in Mumbai.

Despite no restrictions on capacity, the upmarket R City Mall was
mostly devoid of customers in late March. Ghatkopar, Mumbai

Two weeks later, their emails were encouraging Americans to leave India at the earliest as the country was deemed unsafe because of the massive rise in Covid cases and a healthcare system that was unable to cope with demand. The message requesting Americans to depart from India was delivered every two to four days. My social media timelines were filled with frantic messages requesting oxygen cylinders, medications and hospital beds, including SOS messages from Indians residing outside of the country who were trying to procure medical resources for elderly parents in India. And the number of people losing their lives was astonishing.

Indians were succumbing to complications attributed to the disease and also from having no access to proper healthcare, and if some access was secured it was often too little or too late. The privileged were mostly spared in 2020 as the torturous journey of migrant workers traveling from cities to their small towns and villages became the image associated with Covid in India. However, in 2021 in a matter of a few weeks, Covid affected a spectrum of citizens from city-dwellers to families in small towns, to rural farmers. My family members and friends in India were becoming ill with Covid and many well-wishers were reaching out to me asking about my well being and when I planned to return to the States.

There was a concern and urgency in their voice which wasn't present before as now India's crisis was featuring prominently in American news. Multiple countries were announcing travel restrictions and bans for passengers traveling from India and airline carriers were suspending flights as well. I quickly booked a ticket hoping I would return to the US without incident. As the Ola cab took me to the airport on a Saturday night, neighborhoods and intersection that were lively and busy with activity a month ago were now completely empty at 11pm. But the flights I boarded on route to America were packed with passengers leaving for safer shores.

An email sent towards the end of April from
the US State Department encouraged Americans
in India to leave the country.

When I arrived at my final destination, a suburb of Raleigh, the extreme quiet in a neighborhood made me think I had traveled from one night curfew to another. Before I fell asleep, I heard the neighbor's outdoor air conditioning unit shut and thought the power went out, but the nearby streetlight remained on reminding me load shedding wasn't a common phenomenon in America. Hours later, I was suddenly awakened by the early morning loud chirp of a bird which was neither a crow nor a koel and was quickly realized that I was no longer in Mumbai.

My first few weeks in America were spent in a daze. Many hours passed while looking out my window or sitting on the front porch. Watching squirrels run up and down trees, rabbits hop between lawns and birds soar between branches was helping me decompress. I breathed in the clean air, fragrant with flowers around the house and planted around the neighborhood. As I sat on the porch, I booked appointments online to become vaccinated, something I couldn't imagine doing in India. Although the decision to hastily exit India was entirely mine, I continue to feel sadness at what I experienced during the month of April.

I also did not have the opportunity to properly say “Thank you" and “Goodbye" to India, and especially Mumbai, a city that sheltered, protected and nurtured me for almost two years. With a lockdown in place, activities associated with a typical farewell, such as dining with family and friends in a favorite restaurant or revisiting sights where fond memories were made, were not possible. I left a country that was experiencing a crisis, steeped in sorrow, anxiety, and uncertainty. I know I am one of the very lucky ones who had family and friends recover from Covid, who was able to return to a safer country and quickly become vaccinated.

There are so many Indians mourning the loss of a loved one, who are anxiously awaiting vaccination, and who are wondering when the next lockdown will be announced. I am certain I will one day return to India, but along with many others, do not know when that will be as variants and a mostly unvaccinated Indian population are factors to consider, even for the fully vaccinated traveler. Perhaps “Goodbye" is not the correct word to convey my sentiments, as it has a strong sense of finality and doesn't carry hope the way a phrase like “Until we meet again" does.

So, my dearest India, until we meet again.


Shivani Tripathi cannot remember a time she wasn't madly in love with Indian cinema and writing. She spends time in New York, North Carolina and Twitterpur at @Shivani510