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The Human-ness Project by Tanvi Salunkhe

HUMAN-NESS: The essence of being human.

This project (inspired from Jamie Hawkesworth’s documentation on COVID-19 frontline workers for the British Vogue) was born out of my curiosity to understand the people who continued to work during the COVID-19 lockdown so that the rest of us could stay safe at home. To shift focus from the circle of expectation and responsibility and rather to know more about their emotions, thoughts, motivations, hopes, apprehensions and vulnerabilities that make them most human. So when the lockdown restrictions were lifted for a brief period, I went around my hometown Pune in search of these stories. Some of these people I met with intention while some I bumped into by chance. But each of them shared thoughts that made them feel more real to me as humans and not just characters that we observe from afar.

The Human-ness project is a series of photo essays that documents honest raw accounts of my conversations with these ‘humans’.

Story 1: Dr. Surekha Shinde

I met Dr. Surekha Shinde on a late Sunday afternoon hoping to catch her considerably free. But when I reached her home, I found her sitting in the living room buried in notes and paperwork, while balancing a phone to one ear. “It’s been like this for the past three months”, she said, greeting me warmly. Ever since the first patient of the Coronavirus was admitted in Pune’s Naidu Hospital on 9th March 2020, her life has taken quite a turn. She has been working for three months without a break, carrying paperwork home every day and answering calls from the hospital almost every minute. “Many a times, I barely sleep for a couple of hours in three days at a stretch. I hardly feel like myself these days.”

Dr. Surekha Shinde (56) is a Professor of Anaesthesiology at the Sassoon Government Hospital, Pune and is currently in-charge of the Covid Suspect ICU at Sassoon, which is a designated Covid-19 critical care centre in Pune.

Dr. Shinde loves being out in nature. With the restrictions to step out for a walk these days, she finds peace in the garden area of her home.

“This situation is very peculiar. The disease is so new and unpredictable; you can never know how the patient will progress. One day he comes in looking hale and hearty and then suddenly, his oxygen levels go down and he has to be put on a ventilator. What haunts me most about this pandemic is that once the patient is tested positive, he is completely cut off from his or her relatives to avoid the risk of a spread. He is continuously surrounded by us, the medical personnel who look like aliens in PPE kits. The morale of these patients is already very low and our gear makes them all the more confused and lost. If he gets critical, the relatives cannot be with him to offer any kind of support. When my mother passed away recently, I had some solace that I could be there with her throughout her emotional journey. I can only imagine how hurtful it must be for the family of these patients to be grieving at home far away from their loved one.  Many a time, they are not allowed to touch the body during the funeral. It’s a very different affair.

Everyone at the hospital is working tirelessly in their maximum capacity serve the patients. There are so many of us doctors, nurses, sanitary inspectors, Class 4 workers who are sharing the responsibility of fighting the pandemic. So it’s not just me alone. I am only thankful that my experience and capabilities can be of some help to combat this pandemic. The thought that our small share can make a difference, keeps me going.

My family has been my strength through all of this. My younger daughter (24) has taken over the responsibility of the entire household. She takes such good care of me, makes my tiffins every morning just like I would do when she was in school. It’s a complete role reversal. And in return, I don’t even have the time to talk to her but she understands. My husband (a doctor as well) doesn’t allow me to drive to work. He drops and picks me up whatever time it may be so that I can get at least that much rest. They have supported me more than I could ask for.”

Dr. Shinde enjoying a good laugh over a cup of tea with her younger daughter and her husband.

Learnings and takeaways from the pandemic:

As anaesthesiologists, we call ourselves ‘saviours’ you know. We resuscitate patients. So we are not used to seeing such a high mortality rate. But now, being at the forefront and seeing so many deaths, it’s very disheartening. Nothing seems very permanent. Seeing all this, I realise that nothing can be taken for granted. Not your colour, creed, country, relations, wealth. COVID has spared no one.

-I think what I’ve learnt is to just be in the present. To nurture your good health and value your relations. That is the only thing that will take us a long way to keep us healthy and happy. The rest doesn’t matter at all.

What do you really long to do after all this is over?

I read all these memes and jokes of people longing for the lockdown to be over and desperately wanting to step out. It’s the exact opposite for me.  Once my last patient gets discharged and we declare Pune to be a COVID-free zone, all I want is to take a few days off, just stay at home and be with myself and my family. No more calls from the ICU. Just like the good old days. I want to roam around in nature without a mask, enjoy the morning breeze & take in the smell of oxygen. I miss these little things.


Story 2: Manoj Mishra

The Pune Railway station looks oddly silent to me today. The pacing vehicles and long queue of auto rickshaws outside tall metal gates tell me I’m in the right place. And yet something seems different. There is a suppressed noise in the air that’s not quite loud enough. People in masks stand outside closed shutters in not more than twos, speaking in hushed voices. Rickshawalas don’t seem to be on a desperate lookout for passengers.

A drive past the red-bricked Council Hall building nearby looks pristine. There’s hardly anyone wandering the street. Garbage collection vehicles barely leave a mess behind. There is absolute order in this part of town. But take a right turn from under the Sadhu Vaswani statue and that’s when reality starts kicking in. As I approach the station, I see sidewalks spotted with men and women roughly between ages 18 and 60 years. Some squatted next to big potlas (luggage tied in pieces of cloth) and some with just a torn plastic bag for belongings. They sit in line with their backs rested against the walls of the station. Some squeeze themselves on the narrow metal seat of the bus stand, adjusting their positions from time to time. Some sleep, some look into their phones, some whisper news updates, and some just stare at nothing. If they’re lucky, they even make a friend or two over a game of Ludo. But they all just wait. 

Just then, a man on a bicycle passes by. He is dressed in plain clothes and has a handkerchief tied around his mouth. There is a worn out black duffel bag attached to the backseat that doesn’t seem quite heavy. I see him casually cycling around observing the same people I’ve been looking at all this while. Some people sitting on the other side of the road catch his eye. They are all young, decently dressed men carrying big sacks, sitting on the parapet aimlessly. The bicycle man goes ahead on the roundabout and comes back right towards them on the other side of the road. He asks them something while indicating towards his bag, but they refuse, and so he moves on. Through my rear view mirror, I notice him repeat the same with another bunch of people. By now, my interest has piqued.

I drive back down the same road that he has taken hoping he hasn’t gone too far. And there I see him, right outside a fancy hotel, pouring a handful of dal-rice out of plastic bags onto little pieces of newspaper and serving them to the hungry of the street.

Meet Mr. Manoj Mishra- previously a courier delivery man, currently unemployed. He has been distributing meals among the stranded and homeless people around Pune Railway station ever since his income stopped due to the lockdown. He had moved from Mumbai to Pune in search of work and soon, started delivering parcels and mail for many of the jewellery and saree shops in the city.

"I was doing fine, till the lockdown started. All the shops shut down so I had no work, no money. Slowly, I started falling short of food too. Luckily, I came across the Brahmakumari Ashram where they were serving food for free. There was a lot left in surplus so I packed it up and started distributing it to the people on the streets."

He opened up his bag and showed me a stack full of pending courier deliveries, along with packets of dal- rice carefully tucked away next to them. “When I started facing food scarcity myself, I realised what the people on the street must be going through. For the past 15 days, I have been coming here twice a day to distribute meals to those who I feel need it the most. If the person really is in need, he will accept whatever is available that day. But if they seem too picky about what they want to eat, one understands their priorities. So I make a judgement call and make sure that the food reaches the ones who truly need it.”

If you happen to pass by the Pune Railway Station in the afternoon, you might spot him making rounds on his bicycle carrying a black bag full of mail and food. He eagerly awaits the end of the lockdown so he can resume his deliveries.

Until then, he continues to serve.


Story 1: Priyanka Kaswa

Priyanka Kaswa is a 33-year-old medical professional who works in the Intensive care unit of a renowned hospital in Pune. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been working in rotational shifts between the Intensive Care and the Emergency units, and the COVID Isolation ICU. 

Priyanka lives with her mother (59), two siblings (younger sister and older brother), their partners and her five-year old niece. While the rest of the working members of the family have adopted the Work from Home policy, she is the only one stepping out of the house for duty.

“At first, my family was worried that I had to work during the pandemic, more so because I have to travel one hour everyday to get to the hospital. But they also understand that this is part of my duty. I love my profession. I could work for 24 hours at a stretch and not mind. We can’t stop just because of a pandemic. This is what we are built for.”

While people were scared to go outdoors, many doctors were worried about coming back home after a long day of work in the field. Although they take all safety precautions, Priyanka was more concerned because she had an elderly mother and a toddler back at home. She didn’t want to put them at any risk and so she decided to stay in the hospital itself. “I tried to rent a flat close to the hospital but there is so much fear and stigma associated with COVID-19. At first, owners were ready to give me their flat but as soon as I told them I was a doctor, they refused to help out. So I had no choice but to live at the hospital.”

Priyanka has been living in a private room at the hospital she works at for almost two months now. 

Views of her hospital room (Picture courtesy: Priyanka Kaswa)

“I have always lived in a joint family. Our doors were always open, so anyone could walk in at any time. Now, even after my shift ends, going back to yet another hospital room…it gets quite lonely. And sometimes, even claustrophobic. All I wish for is some fresh air and Mumma chya haatcha chaha!’ (a cup of tea made by her mother).” Every day after work, she eagerly looks forward to a phone call with her family, her only source of relief. 

“I don’t really have a coping mechanism. The only consolation is learning to accept that this will end. And till then, we have to fight it out. I used to think I couldn’t be good at anything but medicine. But now, I am discovering new things about myself. I’ve started reading, writing and painting. I feel more peaceful and strong to deal with everything that’s happening.”

Artworks created by Priyanka

“I feel more worthwhile and privileged to be able to serve my patients, especially at this time. When I speak to relatives on the phone, some often say, Doctor, please take care of yourself too. It is such a good feeling.” 

Learnings and takeaways from the pandemic:

Just a few months back, we were all regular people living normal lives. But suddenly the pandemic has changed the way we see things.  We used to live like immortals and not be careful about our day-to-day actions. The one thing that COVID has taught me is to take care of what I have in the present and not take anything for granted. Not my family, relationships or health.

I have always been a rigid person, wanting things to be done a certain way. But now, I feel myself becoming more understanding and compassionate. When you have no other choice but to accept your reality, you learn to deal with things differently. I think I have become calmer and more accepting now.

Priyanka was on a four-day break when I met her. Soon she will be returning for duty and won’t be back for the next few months. She hopes to come back home soon.


If you were moved by Tanvi Salunkhe's powerful photo essay, do follow her work on her blog / Instagram.


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