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His Mom Was Sick In India During The Second Wave. He Wrote A Poem About It — And Hope

Manus Ray and his mother in 2019, the last time he was in India.
Manus Ray and his mother in 2019, the last time he was in India.

For Manas Ray, the distance from his home in Massachusetts to India, where his extended family lives, has made the coronavirus pandemic feel like a nightmare.

At least 12 friends and family members close to the biochemist have been infected since April 2020, including his mother, Bandana. Reports earlier this spring from his friends and relatives were especially bleak as the second wave devastated the country he left 33 years ago.

"It's very hard on me because I'm so far away from them and cannot help," Ray tells Morning Edition.

COVID case numbers are coming down but just a month ago, India was experiencing record infection rates, topping over 400,000 cases in one day. There have been days when hospitals ran out of space and crematoriums were at capacity. Only about 3 percent of India's 1.3 billion population has been fully vaccinated. More than 350,000 Indians have died.

So Ray wrote a poem about it as part of a recent NPR poetry callout that prompted readers with the words "Still, I Rise" from a Maya Angelou poem.

"I walked through a long nightmare" is how Ray starts off his submission before describing the drama of getting news from India of relatives, including his 83-year-old mother, Bandana, struggling to function in a health system under collapse. Coveted oxygen cylinders, for example, were useless without a neighbor who knew how to set them up.

The Morning Edition team working on the callout found his poem especially haunting and vivid, and invited him to read an excerpt on air.

And though it's a poem about a living nightmare, Ray also finds hope in recovery and appreciation. "Praying From A Distance" is Ray's first poem written in English. He says he frequently writes poems and songs in Bengali.

"Praying From A Distance"

I walked through a long nightmare Has my journey seen the light of day?I am not sure. But, still I rise!The first wave passed the world Affecting us all It has taken away my friend It has decimated some neighborhood There were no vaccines, There were no perfect pill We suffered one and all But, still we rose! Then came the variants The double mutants The Indian variant, they called it! When people were relatively relaxed After a year of lockdown after lockdownThe vaccines are here in USASome have taken it Some were not so sure.I am vaccinated with both doses I am safe! All of a sudden Everyone hears about someone infected I get news - bad news - every day from India, Kolkata From my small town, Bardhaman From my friends From my familyMy cousin called from Ranchi, Jharkhand His mom, my aunt, is infected She's not talking She expired quickly Then again my uncle, her husband, he's taken ill Saturation down, down to 65 They needed hospital support None were available They're desperate to have oxygen They didn't find one! My uncle gasped for 24 hrs without oxygen When they got a cylinder It was too late.He's too weak to be even helped Oxygen saturation didn't go up above 85 On 13th day my uncle joined my aunt Leaving us behind I can't think anymore I need to breathe I need support But, still I need to rise.Then came news my mom is infected It was devastating From 8,000 miles what could I do to helpMy niece left her work and came to her help She didn't get her vaccines yetIt was not available for her She's not even 30 And here I am with 2 doses of vaccines Living in a safe haven But I can't help! What I can do to help my mom How I can guard my niece from infection First week went by with fever, body aches and diarrhea There's no help available outside Hospitals are open but no doctor, Clinics are open, but no nurse Those who taken the loved ones there They had to attend themselves This I hear We cannot sent Ma to any clinic or any hospital nowShe may not come back! It's eighth day Is Ma doing well Yes, she is better.I went to bed with some relief Then a call came in the midnightShe's in convulsion Her oxygen level went down to 50! WE NEED OXYGEN IMMEDIATELY Who can help A neighbor came as a life-saver With a cylinder of oxygen a technician helped setting it up My mom's oxygen level went up to 90 She's OK, she's OK She's still here She's with us Next 48 hrs one cylinder after another Became her life and death. She survived She still can't walk Saturation level goes down if she triesBut she's living.So I see hope So I see light Then my niece got infected.But still, I Rise.I see the worldWhere air is purerThe blue sky is little more brighterOur neighborhood is cleanerOur children are saferSeniors are healthierAnd friends are out of dangerI wish,My mom can walk again without life-supportThis is what I pray forThis is what I wish for all. Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

With COVID case numbers coming down in India, some of its major cities are reopening. But just a month ago, India experienced its highest daily infection rate, topping over 400,000 cases in just one day. There have been days when hospitals ran out of space, and crematoriums were at capacity. Only about 3% of India's 1.3 billion population has been fully vaccinated. More than 350,000 Indians have died. Rachel Martin spoke to Manas Ray of Cambridge, Mass., about his family in India. He wrote a poem about what's happening there as part of our recent poetry callout.

MANAS RAY: Sadly, last four weeks, I'm hearing so many infections including in my home and family and friends. We've got some family members actually expired. And my Mom got infected. My niece got infected. And some of my friends, family also got infected and expired. And it's very hard, also, on me because I'm so far away from them and cannot help personally to be there.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: How often are you able to get updates from your loved ones there?

RAY: Yes, actually, the social media mostly - the WhatsApp is very useful. We have a friends group, Whatsapp group where we communicate among friends to be each other's support.

MARTIN: What are those conversations like?

RAY: It was mostly around how long that they can survive, they can keep their composure. It's pretty hard when you do not have any infrastructure where we can go and get some help. People have to get the help at home. In our case - you know, in my friend's case, we have seen that they're looking desperately for an oxygen cylinder to bring home and find a the technician who can set it up at home because they know that going outside in a hospital, in a clinic, you know, there is no way that they can get that help because either those infrastructure is totally not there, or those doctors are not available to take care of them. So it's totally an impossible level. The healthcare system has become your own responsibility, totally, at home.

MARTIN: Well, we so appreciate you putting all of your thoughts into a poem that you sent to us. And I'd love if you could read just an excerpt for us.

RAY: (Reading) What I can do to help my mom, how I can guard my niece from infection. First week went by with fever, body aches and diarrhea. There is no help available outside hospitals are open, but no doctor. Clinics are open, but no nurse. Those who taken the loved ones - they had to attend themselves. This I hear - we cannot send Ma to the clinic or any hospital now. She may not come back. It's eighth day. Is Ma doing well? Yes, she's better. I went to bed with some relief. Then a call came in at midnight. She's in convulsion. Her oxygen level went down to 50. We need oxygen immediately. Who can help? How can I save my mom? A neighbor came as a life-saver with a cylinder of oxygen. A local technician helped setting it up. My mom's oxygen level went up to 90. She's OK. She's OK. She's still here. She's with us. Next 48 hours, one cylinder after another became her life and death. She survived. But still, she cannot walk. Saturation level goes down if she tries. But she's living. So I see hope. So I see light. Then my niece got infected. But still, I rise.

MARTIN: Well, that was just beautiful. Your poem is so haunting and important. And I so appreciate you sharing it with us.

RAY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR'S "PRAYER IN PASSING")

MCCAMMON: That was Manas Ray of Cambridge, Mass., speaking with Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.