Survivors of war and Partition, Sikh ‘aunties’ settle into coronavirus isolation

Risking nosy questions about my marriage prospects, I reached out to the Sikh ‘aunties’ at my grandmother‘s gurdwara to ask how they’ve been coping with the threat of a deadly virus.

(RNS) — Every Wednesday for the past 15 years, my 82-year-old grandmother has had a standing date. She and 30 of her closest friends would celebrate birthdays, play cards and talk politics during their weekly sessions at the Sikh Center of Orange County in Santa Ana, California.

Today the cold, marble langar hall (community kitchen and dining area) of the center, or gurdwara, sits locked up and untouched. And the women, most of whom are over 70, are staying home waiting out the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s quite hard,” said my grandmother, Manjit Bedi, whom I lovingly call Nanima. “At the start, I could not believe that this is what we’re doing — just sitting at home and doing nothing. No more playing cards. No more going out for lunch.”

As a 21-year-old, I wouldn’t usually choose to embed myself with Indian aunties who often have never-ending questions about my “unconventional” career choice and life plans: How much money can I expect to make in this profession? When do I plan on getting married?
But I’ve also seen the important role these women play in Nanima’s life. For her, this weekly affair is a chance to spend time with her second family — a supportive group that has helped her through various ailments and the passing of my grandfather.

So, against my instincts, I reached out to some of the aunties to see how they’ve been coping with canceled plans and the threat of a deadly virus.

Before the outbreak, most of these women had packed schedules. Between classes, lunches, trips and family obligations, my grandmother and her friends rarely found themselves “just sitting at home.”

“It kept us going and active,” said Namina. “We would plan everything. We would go to the movies, go out for tea. Sometimes we would go to somebody’s house and sit there and talk, laugh, tell jokes. It was keeping us young.”

Her friend Hardip Sibia started attending the weekly meetups a decade ago, after her husband died. She said she found comfort in knowing other women in her community were going through what she was.

“I think that’s very essential when you grow older. You want to meet people who have been through the same experiences as you have,” Sibia said. “In the last 10 years that I’ve been going to this ladies’ group, so many of the ladies have lost their husbands or have had breast cancer like me.”

Another regular, Rumy Sohi, said finding others dealing with similar issues increases her sense of independence. 

“Being at home can be pretty boring for people our age,” Sohi said. “So sharing ideas with everybody else, seeing what other people are doing, gives me an understanding that it’s not just me. We all have the same kinds of things going on in our mind.”

Manjit Bedi with her grandchildren Simrin Singh, left, and Nimarta Singh, right, in Southern California in 2002. Courtesy photo

Nanima and I are close. When my sister and I were in school, she would pick us up, treat us to a homemade snack and play rummy with us until our parents would return from work. Living just a mile away from my childhood home, she would also come over most evenings for dinner and to spend time with the family, a tradition that continued until California’s shelter-in-place order began March 19.

Missing out on these dinners and gurdwara meetings hasn’t been easy for Nanima or her friends, but everyone’s biggest concern right now is remaining healthy. 

“It is worrisome because people are not 100% well. And I think as soon as we came to know that coronavirus is growing, we stopped meeting,” she said. “That has some people really depressed now. They don’t know what to do.”

One auntie, Jagdish Singh, said she’s been spending most of the day in her bedroom because she can’t risk exposing herself to so many family members for extended periods of time.

Coronavirus “has really impacted me very badly because I am diabetic and my lungs have failed,” Singh said. “My son told me to stay in my room because there are 13 of us now. All day long there’s cooking and drinking tea, but I am sitting in my room all by myself. So you can imagine what life is like.”

Since the outbreak, my grandmother has been on the phone for hours every day catching up with friends and family. The tight-knit group of women now only interact through phone calls, WhatsApp and Facebook. The group has recently started experimenting with Zoom, the popular videoconferencing platform.

Manjit Bedi in 2018. Courtesy photo

“We have a WhatsApp with all our ladies. So whoever finds out anything, they pass it over to us and everybody’s being informed by that,” Nanima told me. “Someone was telling me they are trying to organize Zoom so that we can have some kind of small meeting once in awhile.”

One of the women, Savita Rajwani, said she’s had to use technology to continue some of her normal activities, but some options are not easily accessible or user-friendly for senior citizens.

“For some of my exercises like my yoga, my instructor was able to get it up on Zoom. So we do it online,” Rajwani said. “But not all gyms are geared for that. And not all groups are geared to do that.”

Some of the Sikh women have found solace through their faith in God. My grandmother said she has made more time for prayer since the outbreak to help her cope.

“I am doing well because half of the day I’m doing my prayers and that keeps me very peaceful,” Bedi said. “If you have faith in your religion, if you have faith in your gurbani (Sikh prayers), then you can really tolerate everything.”

Sibia sees the emergence of coronavirus as a chance for humans to be kinder and more aware of how their actions affect others.

“Whatever happens, it’s in the hands of God now. I think it’s a way of God teaching us a lesson,” she said. “Clean up the earth and help each other in times of crisis.”

While coronavirus definitely poses a threat to these women’s physical health, the lack of frequent social events could be detrimental to their mental health over time.

Nanima survived World War II, India’s violent 1947 Partition and tough financial losses as an immigrant to this country, but she’s never had to put aside her entire support system.

“I haven’t been through anything like this before,” she told me. “This is the first time I’m experiencing something like this — not going out, not being able to see relatives.”