Bhuvana Srinivasan can often be seen with her headphones in, talking down the line through the little volume toggle on the right-hand cord. Whether she is just walking around, at the stove, or over her dinner, there isn’t a single day in which you don’t see her talking for one hour straight. This time,. however, she’s waiting a bit. She watches over her phone at dinner, her Whatsapp screen open. “Must be because of the jet lag,” she said. “After 18 months, she finally gets to go back home and yet she still suffers from the effects.”
That woman in question would be her aunt, Radha Venkatesh. The 68-year-old math teacher and grandmother of three was meant to visit her relatives for six months before returning to her home at Shyamala Gardens, a small apartment complex in the west end of Chennai, India. Instead, that stay lasted for another year, and what was meant to be a visit to care for the grandkids became a limbo-like period of quarantine.
Mrs. Srinivasan checks back into her Whatsapp messages before finding a reply from Radha Chitti (a respectful family term for “aunt”). The responses were brief: “Ok, wat should I do? Shall I do video call?” The timestamp read 8:07 p.m., or in Chitti’s case, 5:30 in the morning.
By 9 p.m., a link to a Zoom conference pops into the Whatsapp chat. Mrs. Srinivasan plops down in the worn-out swivel chair behind the grandiose wooden desk in the study as she pastes the Zoom link into her browser. The waiting room screen appears for ages before the figure of a tall, bespectacled woman appears in the video frame, lit up slightly by the LED tube light hanging on her wall. She bellows into her microphone despite Mrs. Srinivasan telling her she heard her clearly. “My jet lag has gotten worse, dear,” she croaked in her native Tamil. “You only got back just a few days ago, that is normal,” Mrs. Srinivasan said.
The pair began to look back on the past year since her return ticket home got canceled. “I remember Emirates canceled my tickets for the 19th, I think it was?” Radha Chitti slowly attempted to recall the details of what kept her from going back. “They announced the Texas emergency, yes?” Mrs. Srinivasan asked. “Yes, yes,” Chitti responded promptly, “then India announced on the 24th.”
She was referring to when the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown in March, giving less than four hours notice before suspending all transport services and leaving Chitti stranded with her relatives in Austin, Texas. “I was reluctant to extend my stay, you know? Since I missed my sweet home,” she said of Shyamala Gardens. “But the closing of airspace left me with no choice except to stay back.”
At this point her year-long limbo began. As Radha Chitti was an Indian national stranded in a foreign country, she was legally required to register for an extension of stay (EOS) to prevent any issues with immigration officers amid the pandemic. “For six months, I extended my stay, I think until September 11th,” Chitti said. Mrs. Srinivasan leans to her left side and whispers, “She was staying in Austin with Ajith.”
Ajith is Mrs. Srinivasan’s cousin; Radha Chitti was staying at his home in Austin during her time in the country. “It gave me the opportunity to spend more time with my family and grandchildren, thank God,” Chitti said.
But even with the kids to keep her company, September came in a flash, and the horizon was still yet to be in sight.
By September, cases in India were at their peak following the easing of lockdown restrictions to revive the economy. “There was no improvement in the situation, so I had no choice but to extend my stay for another six months,” Chitti said. She remembered missing her home in Chennai, her frequent trips to the local temple and the prayers chanted on the TV in the background as she would look out to the dusk covering the skyline. “There was no improvement in the situation, so I could not do anything but extend my stay for another six months,” Chitti said.
“And the rest?” Mrs. Srinivasan asked her, quizzingly. “Oho… the rest was very rough,” she responded.
The next six months would culminate into her final trial: a Texas winter. Austin saw one of the most sudden and severe winter storms in mid-February, leaving millions of homes without power and others submerged in freezing waters.
Radha Chitti’s homestay was one of them.
With a storm on this scale, Chitti knew she was in for something far worse than the torrid rains in her home country. “I had to manage through the lack of water, electricity, and the freezing temperatures,” Chitti explained, “by the grace of God, we were able to manage through bottled water and meager groceries that we had gotten at the last minute.”
Their conversation began to trail off as they continued to deepen the bond between one another. “Every day, it has been like this,” Mrs. Srinivasan whispered again. “We have always talked to each other every day. We talk about each other and the people in our lives. We talk about the world around us, as it is. We talk about what we’ve missed over the years. And even when there is nothing, we still talk. We help each other seek normalcy in a new type of world, and she really needed this.”
She leans back toward the computer as she asks about how her Chitti felt all this time. “You know, not once, did I bother worrying about myself,” she said. “The last few months have left me very thoughtful. Every day, I was only thinking about the kids, or offering prayers when I could.” As she spoke, a wide grin slowly overtook her glowing visage. “I hope to spread love and kindness to everyone around us, and most importantly, to do it with a sweet smile.”
A chuckle escaped Mrs. Srinivasan as she heard those words. “Don’t you already do that?” she asked.
With the months have flown by, and having finally reunited with her humble apartment overlooking the streets, Radha Chitti keeps looking forward. Her thoughts are ever so strong for mankind, even if it means forgetting about her own troubles.