August 2020

Daughter of None: Searching for Home in the Pandemic Era

For one international undergraduate, COVID-19 forced an unexpected and a trying search for "home."

by Ankushi Mitra

Dear Ankushi,
I’m writing to let you know that we will not be able to accommodate you on campus. As you know, this is a time of rapid change, and it is important that you make arrangements to return home as soon as possible, and no later than Sunday, March 22.

My ears are ringing, drowning out the faint drone of the zoom lecture I’m engaged in, as I read an email from the office of Jeanne Lord, Georgetown University’s Dean of Students. Out of the corner of my eye, my vision stinging with unwanted tears, I see my roommate trying to ask me if I’m alright…

***

Georgetown is beautiful in the springtime. Hemmed in by the Potomac river to its west, cobbled streets and colonial townhouses slow the march of the ribbons of concrete and asphalt that connect the neighborhood to downtown DC. I first arrived here right as the summertime leaves were turning red in the fall of 2016, fresh-faced and over 7,000 miles away from New Delhi, the city I lived in for my first eighteen years. This marked the fifth year of mass displacement induced by the ‘Arab Spring.’ The crisis in Myanmar was sending displaced Rohingyas streaming into northeastern India. It was the year of Donald Trump, when so many of the creation myths of liberalism seemed to be breaking down across the world.

Perhaps, then, it is only natural that I spent most of my undergraduate career thinking about, writing on, and working with immobile populations — refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants — convinced that I would always be guaranteed a mobile future. After all, that was the irrevocable promise of a powerful passport and financial security, wasn’t it? Indeed, that’s how I arrived in the United States in the first place.

Photo by Ankushi Mitra of the Hotel Le Meridien, the location of her quarantine,New Delhi, July 3, 2020.

Home can be an elusive thing. I, however, have always been able to conjure up a sense of it in all the places I have lived, and in all the lives I have imagined for myself. In DC, I enjoyed living all my four years on campus. I liked the idea of the university watching over me, some silent limestone guardian, at a time when all my family was an ocean or two away. And I took comfort in the knowledge that my passport could carry me home and back — and to interesting places in between — and my campus would still be there, sheltering me in this adopted city.

And then, on March 14, 2020, Georgetown abruptly shut down its campus. Four days later, on March 18, I was blindsided by the demand that I “make arrangements to return home as soon as possible, and no later than Sunday, March 22.” An inimical demand handed down by a university administration scrambling to formulate a response to a fast-moving crisis. Only a few weeks before, the Government of India had shut down its own borders, and the possibility of a safe return seemed more stunningly out of reach than the well-worn DC-to-Delhi route had ever been for me. 12,025 kilometers. 7,472 miles. 14 hours.

The eviction seemed capricious after the university had spent the past week assuring those who could not return home, for whatever reason, that they would house us. The next few days were spent in a tangle of nightmares, my profound panic bouncing between silent administrators, concerned professors, and an embassy staggered by the sudden dereliction of its international students.

Facing the threat of effective homelessness in a place where I no longer really seemed to recognize anybody or anything, I moved into an expensive last-minute, short-term rental in the district. Meanwhile, the anticipated romance of graduation — tinged already with a kind of nostalgia before the caps and gowns had even been bought — unceremoniously faded away, and the Class of 2020 simply disappeared.

***

Before I knew it, the idea that I would always have the fundamental right to move, which brought me here to begin with, had dissolved into days lived out of suitcases and boxes as I waited week after week for some desperate update. I lived the months of April, May, and June as though they weren’t quite real. On the way from something, and onto something else. Sure, I had had plans. Lots of plans. In the spring, I was to travel to Cambodia as part of a class focused on post-conflict transformation. After graduation, I was going to go home and see my friends and family. I was going to work at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees over the summer. In the fall, I was to begin my graduate studies in Ireland.

As my plans were disappearing, I began organizing my life around three webpages that were now constantly open on my sterile computer screen — the “Response to COVID” page produced by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Indian embassy’s “Announcements” page, and the flight schedule for Air India. None ever really calmed me, but they did seem to concretize my desire not to unpack anything but the bare necessities in this temporary home. Still, I had a sense of wonder about DC, and I felt somewhat certain that all things would just work themselves out. They always had, hadn’t they?

By June, the Indian government and Air India had finally devised a working collaboration to get Indian citizens stranded abroad home through a series of ‘repatriation’ flights (what they are calling now the ‘Vande Bharat’ mission — literally, ‘Respect/Praise India,’ an irony that will reveal itself in just a moment). DC had done a better job of handling the COVID-19 crisis than many other parts of America, but in my little corner of the district, a different sort of upheaval was exploding. I was seeing in equal measure Americans beginning to live their lives as ‘normal,’ protests driven by a communal anger long overdue, and an inchoate national political response to these dual crises. I decided then that I should put fears over my health, my safety, and the steep financial cost out of my mind and simply take a chance, head to Delhi, where I would at least have a kind of familiar permanence — something I didn’t think I had been craving until my last few weeks in the city.   

That last week in DC, for the first time in four years, I spent a lot of time in Georgetown University’s Dahlgren Chapel. There, as the stained-glass windows and bronze sculptures looked curiously over this atheist crying in front of a Catholic chancel, I found my private goodbyes to my mentors, my friends, indeed the university itself, to be a strange and lovely thing. On June 29, I arrived at Dulles International Airport, suitcases overstuffed with four years’ worth of my life and my mind disquieted by how strange the terminal seemed with airline counters shuttered and TSA lines empty. At 10PM, as I boarded AI-104 to New Delhi, I could not help but stare at the flight crew clad head-to-toe in personal protective equipment, passengers wiping down their seats with an uncertain kind of desperation, and in front of me a plastic container filled with self-serve meals and hand sanitizer. I had wished for this moment, imagined it on long, lonely walks by the Potomac — the taste of homecoming within reach — but now that it was here, I was not at all certain I wanted it after all…

***

Navigating Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, after our arrival at 10:30PM, was an exercise in Kafkaesque absurdity to which no words I can muster would do much justice. Winding through the cavernous terminal, stopping for hours on end at six separate checkpoints and waiting areas at which nothing really seemed to happen, I was called upon again and again to state my name, my contact information, and provide a form certifying that I was not ill. Dutifully recorded in little analog notebooks, none of this information ever seemed to filter past the checkpoint at which it was collected. At each stage, officials quarreled with each other about the correct protocols to follow as they processed arrivals.

As I found myself jostling for space with a steady stream of disembarking passengers, I felt, I think for the first time, genuinely afraid that I might contract COVID-19. I remember thinking somewhat deliriously around 1AM that I might never again feel totally comfortable touching my own passport after it had been handled by countless airport officials who were missing masks, or gloves, or both. A friend to whom I recounted these details as they were unfolding that night said to me yesterday, half-joking, “I’m legitimately surprised that you don’t have COVID.” I am too.

The “medical screening” in the makeshift “COVID Triage Center” at the end of this long-winded journey across the terminal did not involve thermal scans or a COVID-19 test, but simply another round of forms and the collection of contact information already given at earlier checkpoints hours ago. It dawned on me then, around 2 AM, that I was encountering the very edges of a bordered world I had heard about and written about clinically, one that everyday travelers (particularly from the global north) rarely experience in full force — a bureaucratic machine tasked with regulating the privileges of movement and spatial access that usually only appears in this form to the vulnerably mobile, those less fortunate travelers on a road paved deliberately with uncertainty and regulatory opacity.

Eventually, we were provided with a selection of hotels in which to quarantine, our luggage dumped on public buses headed to disjointed corners of the city, our passports confiscated till the end of the isolation period. At 4 AM, rattling around on an ancient city bus — my very first time on a public bus in Delhi — with five strange men, I began to think about the thoroughly grotesque, even comedic complexity of the modern Indian state and its self-sustaining bureaucratic fictions. After all, I should know — I grew up in this world. I’m accustomed to the privileges of ‘knowing the right people’ in government. And I’m accustomed to the many ways the Indian officialdom reinforces itself through convoluted webs of policy, procedure, and internal hierarchy. Only now, I was colliding with this world in a way I never had before — from a position not of power, but of vulnerability. How much of this charade was about protection and how much of it was some surreal struggle for control, surveillance, and power? I don’t believe those answers will truly begin to reveal themselves for months and years afterward. Around 5.15 AM — a full 7 hours after landing — I finally arrived at my Central Delhi hotel, a 500-room, 5-star experience, where ghostly figures clad head-to-toe in white protective gear glide through the hallways and the only “guests” are more or less held against their will, from where I write this now.

***

These past few months, I have been trying to string together some cohesive story of this time, of my time. I wanted very much to close this story with a happy ending; the prodigal daughter returns, a minor miracle for my city and my family. But, as I reflect on the long weeks that have passed since that fateful March 18 email, I’m beginning to realize that incohesive times make for incohesive narratives. The ending — which I didn’t realize was an ending at all as it was unfolding — seems more senseless than happy.

I am writing this now to the tune of Schubert’s Ave Maria, D.839. A summertime thunderstorm is lashing against my hotel window and beating down on pavement superheated by 110 degrees of subtropical daylight. I fear for my own health, and that I may make my family ill after my quarantine. I have no idea how or when I will begin my graduate program in Ireland. I have negotiated the pandemic-induced incoherencies of one mobility regime in my travels from the US to India, but I am just embarking on the process of navigating the next one for my studies in Europe.

This is the year, my twenty-second, I realize that I have lost completely my sense of home. Was it the house I left behind in Delhi in 2016? Was it my campus, or the short-term rental where I never unpacked my things? Will it be my apartment in Dublin? My future mortgaged to the moment, my plans span continents, and my story has been flayed open on someone else’s terms. I feel now a tremendous sense of dislocation, and of immobility. And for someone for whom the ability to move, to come and go, has always been the fundamental refuge, I have no sense at all of how to adapt to the rhythms of this new chaos.

Ankushi Mitra risa recent graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and an MA candidate at Trinity College, Dublin’s Development Practice program. Her research focuses on bordered hierarchies, im/mobility, and spatial justice in Africa and the Middle East. She owes this piece to those who stood up for her when she felt as though she had no one in a foreign land — Cynthia Schneider, Derek Goldman, Fida Adely, Joel Hellman, Kendra Billingslea, Lahra Smith — she will be forever grateful. 

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