Home 2021 A COVID Tale from Melbourne

A COVID Tale from Melbourne

by Shubroto Bhattacharjee

Illustration by Pradnya J

Nandita and I, both IITB EE grads [1971 and 1972], have lived in Melbourne, Australia since September 1990; our sons were then but 11 and 4. We’ve lived through many struggles, trying to establish a new footing. Fortunately, we were able to give the boys a fine education, and a lasting set of values. We now have two delightful grandchildren: Asha nears 11, and Alex 8.

Both of us retired in the last decade after rewarding careers. Twice-yearly overseas travel brought added pleasure to domestic holidays, with accompanying photography. No place was too far. In January 2020 we celebrated Nandita’s 70th in Singapore, joined by her sister and brother-in-law from Bombay.

Then Covid struck.

Mobility crashed as we entered lockdown for an unprecedented 111 days. Far from travelling country-wide or even across the state, we had to remain at home, unless shopping for essential groceries or medicines; visiting medical facilities; care-giving; and limited exercise – all within 5km of home. Severe fines applied to transgressions. Businesses large and small had to shut. Restaurants and cafés closed, laying staff off. Weddings, birthdays, and funeral ceremonies vanished, seemingly forever. Schools and universities resorted to online instruction. The once-busy streets were deserted. Aircraft were grounded. Despondency was writ large on most countenances.

The once-busy streets were deserted. Aircraft were grounded. Despondency was writ large on most countenances.

Online ordering of groceries proved a disappointment. Supermarkets substituted items unilaterally. Pickers were known to load a two kg bag of potatoes instead of two loose potatoes. I received croissants instead of a wholemeal loaf; the subcontinental van-driver had swapped my labelled bags for someone else’s, and a prompt refund was no consolation. I resorted to personal shopping instead.

We seniors were allotted a 7−8am slot for grocery shopping. I mastered the art of waking at 6, rushing through my ablutions, driving 1km to the shopping centre, showing my driver’s licence as age-proof, dropping all the needed supplies into the shopping trolley, going through the self-checkout, and rushing back to the car. On one such morning, I found a deep gouge along the left-side doors of my beloved 10-year-old station wagon – clearly, the elderly driver of the Benz parked beside me was totally ignorant of motion-physics as he reversed out of his slot. I could only gnash my teeth in fury, and pray for forgiveness for his miserable soul.

Our sons played a vital supportive role in keeping us sane and healthy. Shom (41), a Consulting Physician and Rheumatologist, was on the front-line looking after Covid patients in one of the major hospitals to which he is attached. He visited us once a week for a sanity look-in. Never entering our home, he spoke from the porch, two metres away, fully masked. Neel (34), a Business Strategy Consultant with Booz Allen, delivered our groceries weekly, per the list his mother texted him, to discourage our venturing out. They were a blessing, indeed!

In our Bombay days we had watched the incomparable Jeremy Brett [no-one else comes close] in the televised series of Sherlock Holmes stories. The lockdown prompted an online search for discs of this British show. A set of BluRay discs surfaced on Amazon/Spain, with selectable soundtracks [English or a Spanish dub]. 41 stories had been televised before Brett’s untimely passing. Nandita and I watched an episode every third day, revelling in the flawless characterisation of Holmes delivered by the actor. [I know many of the dialogues by heart, owning the complete set in print].

Netflix and Amazon Prime played supporting roles admirably. We discovered The Crown, as well as the wholesome joys of Vidya Balan, and even the symmetrical face of Taapsee Pannu – hitherto unknown stars in our firmament!

For Bengalis such as we are, socio-religious events are markers of the passage of time, as are weddings held in the traditional style. My bagfuls of Nikon gear find deployment at a minimum of three Puja events; all were cancelled last year, as were weddings, at which I delight in shooting detail.

Glimpses of Durga Pujo 2017

 Digital photography by the author using Nikon DSLR gear

My pictures are treasured by my subjects, and equally by those hosting the events, for they are very different from those shot by the professionals – they are very personal. The gear has, sadly, been languishing for over a year. A fast, new lens arrived from the US, only to be put into safe storage. Disappointing, certainly, but this will end, and the ecstasy will return.

The resilience of my compatriots in general, and Melburnians in particular, has been wondrous and inspirational. Yes, the government stepped in with generous relief payments to the affected, to keep families afloat and businesses in slow preservation. Yes, vaccines were promised; they have been developed. And some will be manufactured right here in Melbourne.

Teachers acquired new skills, and rose to the occasion to deliver online remote learning to their wards. We witnessed how Asha and Alex maintained steady progress, completing and submitting assignments, and participating in group discussions, online. Memories of our lectures at IIT Bombay flooded back – we had “live” teachers, in physical classrooms, and never dreamed of the facilities and devices taken for granted by our grandchildren. We wondered – so much progress, in our lifetime, before our eyes?

We continue to live in a virtual bubble; international travel is forbidden. Yet, in all this, we see a glimmer of hope.

The pestilence has not disappeared, though we have hardly any of it in Australia and New Zealand. We continue to live in a virtual bubble; international travel is forbidden. Yet, in all this, we see a glimmer of hope. We are in our autumn; winter will come, but spring will follow, as will Christmas in the blazing summer.

If we behave ourselves, and follow the rules, we shall be permitted to be with our loved ones in near and distant lands again. Good things come to those who wait, we were taught in childhood. In our 70+ years we have seen enough to have faith. As Hamlet had said to his friend: There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

We’ll just carry on!

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Ranju Bhat April 12, 2021 - 1:18 pm

Hi Shubroto,

Thanks for describing life in Melbourne, in the pre-COVID and current era in such a crisp and delightful manner, full of optimism and hope. Great pictures.

Shubroto Bhattacharjee April 16, 2021 - 6:49 pm

Thank YOU, dear Ranju!
The menace left us near-despondent, but we’ve now gone nearly 2 months with zero cases.
If our government lifts the ban on overseas travel, we may even get to the golden reunion, and hug our friends and teachers again.
Hope arises anew!


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