On April 15, Gargi Shindé, a 43-year-old nonprofit executive, logged onto Zoom at 5 a.m. From her home in Charlotte, North Carolina, she watched her relatives huddle around a bright-yellow body bag at a crematorium in Pune, India. They were performing the final rites for Shindé’s aunt, Vijaya, who had just died from COVID-19. All she could do was watch. The bag was almost fully zipped, revealing only Vijaya’s face, which appeared tiny and blurry through Shindé’s phone. “The only contribution I had was writing an obituary,” she told me, “and I’m scared I’ll have to do another one soon.”
On top of the grief and anger she’s feeling, Shindé has been struggling to comprehend the “surreal, stark contrast” between her own safety in Charlotte—where restrictions are loosening—and the catastrophe upending life back home. Then, on Thursday, Shindé emailed to tell me that another one of her aunts had just died from COVID-19.
Over the past two weeks, tragedies like what Shindé experienced are becoming a horrific new reality for Indian Americans. Many are glued to WhatsApp through the night, checking in on relatives as India confronts one of the world’s worst coronavirus surges. Every day, India is breaking grim global pandemic records, and even these numbers may be dramatically lower than the actual toll. The situation has become so dire that it verges on apocalyptic: Hospitals are running out of beds and oxygen, and people are dying while waiting for treatment. Crematoria are so overcrowded that workers are building makeshift funeral pyres in car parks, where grieving families wait for up to 20 hours for access.
Meanwhile, although the pandemic is very much still not over in the United States, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about where things are headed: Almost a third of all Americans are now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, allowing people to return to some semblance of normal life. If vaccination rates hold, President Joe Biden has promised that by July 4, the U.S. will “begin to celebrate our independence from the virus.” But for Indian Americans, a majority of whom are immigrants, the widely divergent realities unfolding in India versus the U.S. is disorienting and even guilt-inducing. Seeing your loved ones suffer is hard enough, but when your own situation is so full of hope, it can be tough to know how to feel.
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In early April, Akanksha Cruczynski, a 31-year-old filmmaker, was excited. She had just received her second vaccine dose, her graduate-thesis film had just won an award, and Chicago, where she lives, was slowly opening up. But her celebration was cut short: New Delhi, where she grew up and her family lives, went on lockdown as cases started to soar. A cousin in India tested positive for COVID-19. On social media, her high-school friends pleaded for medical supplies, ventilators, and oxygen. All the excitement was suddenly gone. She told me that she “felt ill” seeing Americans walking around without masks and dining indoors at restaurants. “I felt like I was betraying my country by being here,” she said. Cruczynski has been depressed, compulsively following headlines about what’s happening in India, tweeting requests for help, and FaceTiming with her mother and sister every chance she gets. “I feel paralyzed by powerlessness,” she said.
Ghazal Gulati, a 32-year-old who lives in Pasadena, California, has spent the past year worrying about what would happen if a family member in India fell sick and she and her husband needed to travel home. After she got vaccinated, she eagerly began planning a trip to visit her parents in Noida, just outside Delhi Now she has put that dream on hold indefinitely. Then last week, a close family friend, just 35 years old, died from COVID-19. “We relived 2020 in one week, all over again,” she told me. “On the flip side, to see everybody else around you be so normal—it feels so unreal.”
As family members in India face the catastrophe, relatives who have lived through waves of the devastating pandemic in America are trying to offer emotional and psychological support for what lies ahead. Shindé, who was based in New York last spring, has been remembering the weeks when the city became the world’s epicenter. Days before her aunt Vijaya’s death, Shindé texted her: “You’re going to get better and dance at our wedding party 💃🏾💃🏾💃🏾!!” On the same day, she texted her mom in India that Vijaya might not pull through. “We saw this in NYC,” she wrote. “There were signs of improvement, and they just slipped.”
In some instances, sheer government negligence is compounding the feelings of déjà vu. Shindé’s anger toward the Trump administration, which downplayed the threat of the virus, has been replaced by rage over Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response, which she calls “a mirror image of what we went through last year.” In February, India’s ruling party claimed that the country had defeated the virus before Modi plowed forward with massive preelection rallies.
Out of the guilt and confusion of this moment, many in the diaspora are searching for ways to help. Indian Americans make up the wealthiest immigrant community in the country, and have been using their clout in tech and politics to push the U.S. government to act. The Biden administration, which was initially slow to respond to the growing crisis in India, this week promised to immediately begin delivering AstraZeneca vaccine doses, ventilators, coronavirus tests, personal protective equipment, and other materials to India. The outcry from the Indian American community has had “an enormous” impact on the government’s response, says Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who has been among those pressuring the Biden administration.
Although no Indian is spared from this virus, marginalized communities such as Dalits—the low-caste workers who are keeping the country’s crematoria and other essential services running day and night—are facing the brunt of the disaster in India. By contrast, many Indian Americans come from middle-to-upper-class and privileged upper-caste communities. Sruti Suryanarayanan, the communications and research associate at the nonprofit South Asian Americans Leading Together, hopes that the crisis will become an inflection point for Indian Americans to confront difficult questions about privilege, home, and belonging.
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Like everyone I interviewed for this story, I too am oscillating between waves of emotions—anger, helplessness, and guilt—as reports come in from my family in India. In recent weeks, at least two relatives have tested positive for the virus. Although I can look forward to picnics in the park this summer, India’s parks are becoming grave sites. All the justified optimism around me now feels unjust and even irresponsible. For many of us with friends and family around the world, the trauma feels like a never-ending loop: When your immediate situation improves, another loved one enters a crisis.
Shindé is mourning the loss of her relatives, but she is also mourning her homeland. As an immigrant, “you’re always living half in nostalgia,” she said. “In a state of having lost your home, you carry a sadness with you. And I think there’s these moments that just heighten that in a way that is powerless. Everything that has shaped you as a child is there. You feel just lost; your family is lost.”