A Covid-19 Thanksgiving Tale : Of 3 States, 2007 kms and a Harried Dad

This is going to be a bit long. That’s not because I’m on compulsory home quarantine, but this is the least I can do, to reduce in writing a recent experience, as a sort of Thanksgiving to very many selfless souls to whom I stand indebted.

I went to pick up my daughter from Goa and came back to Kerala with her last week.

What’s so great about it? Afterall, we are speaking about a Fauji, moving in his own car, through three states of India and not about illegally moving into the US of A through the Mexican border. But then something as minuscule as the Covid-19 has the propensity to convert two neighbouring states under one federal Republic into independent warring Nations.

My daughter was into her 10th day of suspended classes at her Medical College when the sudden cessation of flights was announced. She was preparing for her 2nd semester exams slated to begin on 1 April 2020, and one didn’t think too much about getting her home, though the environment was thick with anticipation of a long haul break. Lockdown 1.0 was announced by the PM himself on 22 March 2020, but the Medical College nor the MCI gave any indication of postponing the exams. And when they finally did so on 30 March, it was all too late. Covid-19 had established its grip over multiple states across India in varying degrees and the desire to protect one’s own within their boundaries had a devil’s grip on the Chief Ministers. The war had begun.

Progressively, the long distance relation started to take its toll. Every video call to our 19-year old would end up in tears at both ends. Looking back, had she not cried and took it more bravely than how she did, I would have presumed her to have outgrown her home and parents. That would’ve given us more pain I believe, whereas this was the trigger to work towards a solution to get her back. After all, she was staying away from us for the first time ever! By the 1st of April, palatable food, along with most of her friends had also mysteriously vanished from the college hostel.

Invigorating stories of clandestine moves to bring back stranded children by daring parents, most of them amounting to glorified human trafficking, started doing the rounds and adding pressure on me. Similar news would be loudly read out from the newspaper followed by a deep sigh or the TV volume would increase automatically while such news were aired on TV.

After all, as a father, it was me who was to act. And all the acting I was doing was putting up a brave face and singing paeans to the healthy green condition of Goa where she was, in a desperate attempt to surrender sentiments to intellect. I clearly could perceive no official way of getting her. There was enough fear of being pushed into state quarantine of individual states in case I attempted going by my car to get her. There was no public transport. Respect to the uniform subjugated thoughts of attempting illegally adventurous sojourns.

Goa, pre Covid-19

But then, the intra-psychic pressure was mounting. Love has the proclivity to alter one’s rational intellect, more so if it’s long distance, even more so if your heart is scalded a daughter’s tears. That is when wild thoughts engulfed me, and I realised that I should take the attempt to another level, a collective one, involving my friends and acquaintances. Accordingly, I identified friends from various spheres whom I thought would be able to help me get her.

I started discussing with a lot of them to get some inputs as to how this task could be accomplished. I got abundant words of solace but few ideas as those I spoke to, too had enough understanding of the prevailing conditions. Some impractical plans were dropped as others were made, my friends spoke for me to their friends and relatives and thus I got new friends all through Kerala, Karnataka and Goa. That was a big take away from this episode.

But things were easing up a bit. Lockdown 2.0 gave way to 3.0. I had booked her on a flight for 15 April, had a confirmed rail ticket for Rajdhani Express on 16 April on standby, and Veraval Express on 17 April. All were unceremoniously cancelled and once again I booked her on the 04 May flight, adding to the coffers of Indigo Airlines. I had not an iota of hope of that flight taking off, but still.

I was suddenly reminded of a good friend, a school type, at the Hon’ble Governor’s office. I spoke to Prince Sir (the PRO) with a lot of hope but was crest fallen to hear that his own daughter was stuck up in Bangalore. The end of April saw frenzied discussions about getting back stranded Malayalis back to Kerala through NORKA under orders of the MHA. I applied to the Govts of Kerala, Karnataka and Goa for my movement through these 3 states, and asked my daughter to do the same for herself.

A good friend of mine, Mr Shivakumar Bhasi informed me that the MD of NORKA was an old acquaintance. Hopes soared after I spoke to him on 30 April and he assured me that I would be able to move definitely by 3 May to get to Goa. After I don’t know since how long, I slept like a baby that night. It was short-lived though, as Mr Jagdeesh, the MD couldn’t get me a Pass since the government was changing its stance quite often. 3 days of euphoria vaporised into the muggy, summer air. I decided to adopt a new tactic – approach the IAS officers who were spearheading the activities in various states.

Thereafter, it seemed a Kazakh show through and through. A childhood friend from school heading an NGO, Mr Babu Matthew contacted the Collector of Pathanamthitta district, Mr P B Nooh and the Executive Director KSIDC, Mr Umesh. Another classmate of mine, Dr Peter P Vazhayil, contacted his brother, Dr Joy PV, IAS at Delhi. My brother-in-law, Dr Ramraj, again my school type, spoke to Mr Jyothilal IAS. Prince Sir spoke to the Special Secretary at Governor’s office. I spoke to the District Collector of Thiruvanathapuram. Col. Sajjad (Retd) had by then spoken with high officials at the CM’s Office. Nothing meaningful materialised. Chances appeared bleak.

Others were struggling to reach different places too. A good friend and senior Air Force officer, a brother to me, was trying to get a window to move to his place of duty, Bengaluru. He informed me that Group Capt Lamba from the SAC had a tie-up with the ADM Thiruvanathapuram, Mr TR Vinod, who was helping them obtain Emergency Passes to move defence personnel stranded here. This started an array of frenzied activities. My coursemate, Col Rakesh Rana, the Adm Comdt provided me with an NOC to move. Armed with the same and under reference from Lamba Sir, I approached the ADM Thiruvananthapuram on 05 May. Needless to say, he was extremely helpful and in what appeared to be ‘no time’, I had in my hand the Emergency Pass to move for me and Arun, a driver who was organised by a good friend and colleague at Sainik School, Mr.Sudeep.

Meanwhile, adversity brought the better out of my daughter and she visited the North Goa Collector’s office with her friend. She managed to convince the ADM, North Goa, Mr Desai IAS, and obtain a Pass for herself to return to Thiruvananthapuram and a Pass for me and Arun to reach the Karnataka-Goa border to fetch her from there. A phenomenal feat indeed, since about 1000 applications to travel to Kerala were pending with the Collectorate there.

The grounds were set. I purposefully pushed an old back injury into the innards of my conscience. In whatever time I had at my disposal on 06 May, I coaxed my neighborhood Maruti Service centre to open up for a quick service. My brother-in-law had already chalked out a travel plan for me. Col Girish, another Kazhak, friend and brother, had tied up certain loose ends which had the propensity to pose problems in Karnataka through his course mate, Col Srinivas (Retd). Mr Gopi, another classmate at Bangalore spoke to certain senior journalists to feel the pulse at Mangalore. Cdr Lijo Chacko (Retd), another classmate, gave me contacts of certain friends of his who were planning to enter or exit Karnataka. Yet another school buddy, Mr Arun Thomas Alex, in Canada, readied his relatives at Mangalore to be on standby for us.

Rest, I’d say is something which I will carry throughout my life as a beautiful memory. My classmates offered us stay with them all through the journey of above 2000 Kms. Mr Manoj MK, Dr Manish, Dr Tharian. Mr Shibu, all were more than willing to ensure that I meet my aspiration.

A special thanks to Dr Tharian for organising short halts at places where we didn’t pose a potential threat to any local neighbourhood or vice-versa. Another dear friend & fellow Kazhak, Mr Santosh Tharakan was at the ADM office the full day on 08 May to ensure that there were no hurdles when I brought my daughter home. He had in fact insisted he’d drive with me whenever I chose to go get her. He’d have had to leave his wife and young son alone had he come, leave aside the resultant quarantine, so I had to reserve informing him about the move till I crossed Kochi.

And as I started my journey, with blessings from our parents, I was not alone at all. I had with me, throughout the journey, the goodwill and hearts of many of my friends without whom I couldn’t have learned certain beautiful lessons on life. The only thing that surprises me greatly is how I could be stoically emotionless when I collected my daughter at the Goa border at 6.17 pm on 07 May. Maybe we spent it all before 05 May. Thanks to Cmde Prakash (Retd), and Capt (IN) Prasad, worthy seniors at school, we could stay at the Naval Base at Karwar and embark refreshed, both mentally and physically, on our return journey.

We reached Trivandrum at 2 pm on 09 May. I had travelled 2007 Kms in total but the journey never felt long nor tiring. Not once did my back play dirty with me, even though I did drive about 1/4 of the journey. The only thing that kept me on tenterhooks till I crossed the Karnataka-Kerala border were the erratic and unpredictable changes in the stance of various govts on the return of their own into their own lands. Issues did crop up, but then they were expected and tackled.

I wonder whether this episode demands me to quote Paulo Coelho. But then, the desire to get her back, even though temporarily, had gotten into me with a vice like grip. As I write this, I am acutely aware that there are many more people stranded all over, who have much stronger causes for return and who deserve to do so. I wish and pray they are able to unite with their families the soonest.

My story is one of a collective effort of my friends. It is a story which re-assures me that we’re loved. I thought it was a story worth telling. Thanks for being part of it.

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