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Voices From the Pandemic: Sharing Across the Rooftops in Kerala

Anubha George is a writer and journalist in India, and a frequent contributor to ONE magazine.

A new family moved in opposite our house. Even before we could have a chance to say hello and introduce ourselves to them, the southern Indian state of Kerala was forced into lockdown.  That was on 21 March. We’d only ever seen the dad and his son bring in their belongings. We really had no idea how many children they had, what they did for a living or indeed if they needed anything as they settled in the new neighborhood.

It’s summer in Kerala. Summer here means early sunrise, breezy but extremely humid afternoons, slightly cooler evenings and restless nights. But it also means we get an abundance of mangoes. We get at least 40 varieties of the sweet juicy fruit at this time of year, from March to August. We have two mango trees in our yard. This year, we have had plenty of mangoes. Most of our neighbors also have mango trees in their gardens. Thankfully, the variety in each house is different. Every year, we share mangoes from our tree with them and they in turn share theirs. Abundance has to be shared, doesn’t it? That’s the neighborly spirit here.

But this year has been like no other. Lockdown meant restrictions. We kept our gates locked. No one was allowed out or in, not even when people lived just a few hundred feet away. In India, particularly in Kerala, lockdown has been very strictly imposed. Police are at every corner and questions are being asked if you leave your house. Social gatherings are not allowed. People are staying home because they understand that the rules are for their own good. Social distancing is being conscientiously followed.

As a result: we had all these mangoes and no one with whom to share them. The harvest increased in time. There were days when we’d pluck at least a hundred mangoes a day. Truth be told, eating the sweetest fruit gets boring after a while. We had mango ice cream, mango shakes, smoothies, mango curry, mango cake, mango pudding, you name it.

What also happened as a result of the lockdown was that there were more birds around. It was actually a joy to share the mangoes with them. They’d come in, peck at the fruit and leave, only to do it all over again in the afternoon and then in the evening. If we didn’t have the hustle bustle of people, the house was bustling with birds chirping.

Amongst all this, it was Holy Week.

For the first time in forever, there was no church. But the Holy Mass was being broadcast on our local cable channel every day.  Even though it felt a little strange at first, we got used to it. Our parish priest phoned everyone and kept in regular touch to keep our spirits up. We even had a prayer meeting on Zoom. Who would have thought? Our faith carried us through this time. We found different ways of worshipping the Lord. If not in church as we were used to, then online; we just wanted to feel connected to the Lord. Our prayer at home before bed became more meaningful; we said the rosary every day. It gave us all much respite from the strange times we have found ourselves in.

It also gave us belief that this, too, would pass.

“Our faith carried us through this time. We found different ways of worshipping the Lord. If not in church as we were used to, then online; we just wanted to feel connected to the Lord. Our prayer at home before bed became more meaningful; we said the rosary every day.”

Anubha George

We still had no idea about the family who were now our neighbours. But as days went by, we’d see the father read a book on the rooftop. In India, most houses have rooftops. They’re covered with earthen sheets to provide shade from the sun and to keep the house cool during the summer. He’d be there first thing in the morning, drinking his tea and reading. His wife and two sons would later join him.

In the evening, they’d all come back up and exercise, chat or just do their own thing. It’s not like we were spying on them or anything. We could see them from our window if we made an effort to look out. They could see us too. The boys were teenagers. Sometimes they’d be moody and spend hours on their smart phones chatting to their friends. After all, this sort of virtual connection was the new normal in this new world.

One day, they waved to us. We waved back. Through our terrace and theirs, shouting across the road, we swapped numbers. We called them. They were a Hindu family. They’d moved in from another city. Their sons were now enrolled in a school but it was shut, just like all other schools. They missed their friends and family and knew no one in this new city which was now their home. The father had a job in insurance but his office was closed, just like all others. We asked if they needed anything. They said they were fine. We offered to help if they needed anything. They were grateful, they said. And so, introductions were done.

Two weeks into the lockdown, the summer heat grew and, with it, the humidity. The father stopped coming to the terrace to read; the mother stayed indoors; and the boys played video games on their phones. We’d wave whenever we saw them. That was the only communication we had with them. If things were as they were meant to be, we’d have invited them over for tea.

We were enjoying the novelty of the lockdown. Days were filled with trying out new recipes that friends were sharing on WhatsApp, reading, watching films, calling friends and families in India as well as other parts of the world, clearing out messy wardrobes and playing board games. We did all the things we never had the time to do before. As the days went by, we started to wonder how long this lockdown would last; it had been more than six weeks already and things weren’t showing signs of easing off. The parish priest called to ask if people could help out parishioners who had lost their jobs and were struggling. Yet again, the church brought us all together. We made donations via bank transfer. In these difficult times, it was imperative to help however we could.

One day, the phone rang. It was our new neighbour, the mother. We exchanged pleasantries. But just before we said goodbye, she hesitated. “Can I ask you for a favor? I hope you won’t mind,” she said. She wondered if they could have some of our mangoes. “My sons really fancy them. They’ve been at me to ask you,” she said. “We can’t go out to the market or else we’d be able to buy them.”

We were more than happy to share the harvest with others. Problem was, how to get the mangoes to them. We thought about it for a while and then called them back.

The next morning, the father and the sons came out to their rooftop. We went to our terrace. We threw one mango at a time to them. To their credit, they caught them all! The mother called again, happy. They’d enjoyed the mangoes. It was the best gift they could have had.

We were overjoyed. Who would have thought that in these changed circumstances, we’d still find a way to share?   

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