Posted by Kunal Kanase, Mumbai
It may sound shocking – but I am grateful to COVID-19.
Summer of ’98
For the first time that year, all of us went to our village and stayed there for more than a month. Those were wonderful days, as we were happy having a good time in a place full of trees, old shops, village people, rivers, cultural rituals. We got special attention from relatives and villagers, as we were kids from Mumbai.
I along with two of my siblings were born and brought up in a 8×12 feet hut in Dharavi, Mumbai – the largest slum in Asia. People come here from all parts of India to ‘survive’. We belong to the Scheduled Caste (officially designated group of historically disadvantaged people and depressed class in India). My Dad had also come to Dharavi from a rural part of Pune, in search of livelihood in the 80’s. He managed to get a job at a chemical company with the help of his elder brother who was already settled in Dharavi with his family.
My Dad was good at studies. He studied till the 10th standard but failed in his final exams. Thankfully, this much literacy was sufficient for him to get a job at Brihanmumbai Electricity and Supply Transport (BEST) as a lift-man in ’93. It was a huge upliftment for the family because he was the first one to get a government job in his generation at that time. My brother, the youngest, was born a few months before my father joined the government service. So my family considered him a lucky charm. He was also the one who got a lot of attention from all.
After his job at BEST, our standard of living improved. My Dad was disciplined and meticulous. He learned these qualities by observing officials at work. He tried to imbibe the same in us. I along with my younger brother and sister used to sit together for studies in the evening with my father. We all were excelling with more than 90% in each exam. My father used to be the parent representative at school due to his skills and discipline. He particularly took a lot of effort in improving our handwriting in the initial years, which helped me bag prizes in handwriting competitions. I was a proud son and my Dad was a proud father.
Start of the Millennium
At the end of the 20th century, life took a different turn when my father got involved in a fraud money investing scheme along with many of his colleagues at BEST. He lost large amounts and went into a huge debt. Consequently, all the salary he was getting from his service got withdrawn to recover loans. He used to get a salary of a few hundred rupees, and sometimes nothing.
We were then 11, 9 and 7 years old bright school-going kids. Due to the debt my father was getting stressed, which often resulted in quarrels with my mother. Lack of money was affecting our well-being. My father began to consume alcohol. He was also doing odd jobs after his service hours and used to bring some money each night to feed us. Every day, we used to wait for him so that we could cook and eat.
Gradually, he was getting into the habit of drinking. This began hampering our studies as he wasn’t able to give enough attention to us. He started to come home late, many times drunk. Domestic violence and quarrelling became part of our lives. We had no way to stop or resolve it. We used to just observe and get frightened. It was a downward spiral for us.
The Dark Phase
We siblings were growing teenagers and now getting more exposed to the darker life of the slums. My performance was not improving. My sister dropped out of school when she was in standard 8 and my younger brother left in standard 9. We also caught him drinking alcohol along with his friends when he was 13. It was devastating for us because he used to be good in studies and a topper at his school.
Over the years, my father became addicted and had no control over his life. We were now a dysfunctional family. Our relatives decided to arrange the marriage of my sister. She was a minor at that time and studying hard to get good grades in junior college (she had passed 10th despite dropping out of school). It was a shock for her. But she was a mature, understanding girl. I agreed to her marriage on the condition that she would be allowed to continue her studies. That sadly didn’t happen.
Despite the adverse situations at home, I was trying hard to excel in my studies. My father oddly remained concerned about my studies and believed in my caliber. He was upset when I passed 10th board exams only with 62%. I was luckily able to complete my ITI and keen to go out of town to complete university education. I thought that my family members will become more responsible in my absence and I will be able to focus more on my studies by staying in a hostel.
But, the situation got terrible. My younger brother who was 19 years old at that time, attempted suicide at home, when I was out and my mother was asleep The timely efforts of relatives and doctors saved him. After that incident, my father became horrible in terms of his alcoholism and my younger brother also got addicted to smoking and drinking. My Mom who used to be depressed, was now completely dependent on me. Consequently, I dropped out of engineering studies and returned back home. I was depressed, but came out of it by educating myself through online courses. I also got involved in a slum and rural innovation project called Dharavi Diary as a fellow and manager of their learning centre. [Check our earlier story Winds of change]
Thank you COVID-19
March 2020: COVID-19 was disrupting China and other parts of the world. I realised its destructive impact. By the end of the second week, I started to reach out to Govt officials to know their plans and readiness to combat the pandemic in Dharavi. I raised our concern on social media platforms and put the issues on Twitter. I reported incompetencies of the municipal authorities and got involved in distributing groceries to the poorest of the poor in Dharavi with student volunteers from Dharavi Diary.
During this time, my father was not serious about anything and kept on drinking relentlessly. On the morning of March 17th, he went out without having breakfast. People were already scared and confused in Dharavi but my Dad was oblivious of the critical situation. That time I got nervous, as my gut feeling was that my father had kind of crossed a threshold point. On the same day, I also informed my sister that our father is doing something strange and she may get some bad news. The whole day, we were worried. My father usually returned home in 5-6 hours. Almost 10 hours had passed, but Dad wasn’t home. We started looking for him in the bustling lanes of Dharavi. We were clueless.
After 12 hours, he returned home close to midnight. He was shivering and had roadside dust all over his body. He revealed, he fell down on the road after consuming alcohol in the morning. He asked for help from passersby but nobody helped. Few teenagers laughed and teased him by calling him a Corona patient. He was lying down for more than 8 hours on the roadside. He was in quite a bit of shock after that incident.
On March 23rd, India went into the first lockdown which shut all the bars and wine shops in Dharavi and all over India. I saw an opportunity to make my father sober in this lockdown period. I had previously studied about quitting alcohol cold turkey (abruptly), how to support a person during withdrawal etc. This helped me plan the process to make him sober.
During the pandemic, I took an online course called Psychological First Aid offered by John Hopkins University to help communicate with the vulnerable people of Dharavi. I learned techniques such as reflective thinking, use of compassion, etc. to deal with a calamity.
I applied these newly learned skills to support my father in breaking two decades of alcoholism and addiction. It worked wonders. I started to give special attention to him. I was aware of habit formation process, the role of rewards, acceptance, acknowledgment, etc. This helped me facilitate changes in my Dad.
He started to tell stories about his childhood, adulthood, his struggles, drought in his village, which brought him to Dharavi in search of livelihood. This was happening for the first time in our lives. I was feeling his emotions through his eyes and body language and he was getting empathetic response from me, his son. I knew the importance and power of listening. We started spending more time together during the lockdown. We were having hearty conversations that were unexpected and cheerful. My frequent and random hugs always annoyed him, but this time he started to receive and accept these gestures of love, care and respect.
He has been sober for 120 days. We have celebrated a few milestones by preparing and ordering his favourite food. People have now started to get access to alcohol in Dharavi and few of them also offered it to my father. But he proudly refused. He has changed and leading a better life after ages. Seeing him smiling from the bottom of his heart, his newly discovered joy, gives me immense pleasure. At such moments, I pray to nature to keep his smile and joy forever.
A task that seemed humanly impossible could be achieved by an invisible virus that has devastated many a lives. But it came as a boon to our family with my father turning a new leaf this monsoon.
Thank you, COVID-19.
Kunal had passed ITI and got selected as a technician trainee in L&T. There, he was inspired to go for engineering studies. He enrolled in an engineering school and earned a diploma in Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering with distinction. He also secured a seat in one of the best engineering colleges in Maharashtra. But had to quit due to family constraints. He then decided to create his own modular degree by taking online courses (from Coursera, NPTEL, and edX) on different subjects like AI, Design, Innovation, Problem-Solving, Positive Psychology, Architecture, Anthropology, Graphics Design, Soft Skills, Management, Programming etc. He is now working towards getting financial support for a formal engineering degree.
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