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Covid's Widows: Susan

/An Indian lady going for an early morning run on the road

In April 2021, India was beset by a brutal second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. An already overstretched healthcare system buckled and families across the country, irrespective of their social or economic status, were propelled to the frontlines to save the lives of loved ones. Susan fought hard and furiously to keep her husband alive but Shashi passed away from Covid-19 mid May. For so many across the country, Susan’s story is hauntingly familiar. Lest we forget those who have loved and lost in this horrific time.

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Woman and her seven-year-old daughter reading a book together.
Susan and her seven-year-old daughter Seher read together.

On a hot August afternoon Susan takes her daughter Seher climbing. They start from the base of the Aravallis, once majestic mountains on the outskirts of the Indian capital, New Delhi, today worn down by centuries of wind and rain.

It’s an hour’s climb to reach a vantage point. The rocks are hot to touch and the sun is belting down. “I asked Papa to make the sky cloudy. Why didn’t he?” seven-year-old Seher asks her mother, her little feet trying to find stable ground. Susan doesn’t have an answer.

And rock by rock, boulder by boulder, Susan hoists her daughter up, determined to reach the top. Turning around isn’t an option for this 45-year-old.

This is Susan’s first time out of town with her daughter since her husband Shashi died in New Delhi’s second Covid-19 wave in May 2021. And it’s the first time this mother-daughter duo has ventured to an emotionally and psychologically foreign place.

Circa April 2021, when they were a unit of three with Shashi, weekends were code for exploring, outdoor adventure, parties and family time. The pandemic has taken all of that away, leaving Susan and Seher to redefine the idea of family and unity.

Susan and Shashi – their names had an inseparable ring. Married 17 years, Susan likes to say, “We grew together.” They met in 1999, in their first jobs at the same IT company in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru. They went on to live and work across India and overseas. From the outset, the couple were posterchildren for a modern, progressive and better India.

As was the case for many families, the Covid-19 pandemic – which had officially killed more than 200,000 people across the country by April 2021 – didn’t really hit home for Susan until Shashi was infected. By late April, his oxygen level was falling rapidly and within days, she was frantically searching for a hospital bed.

With the city’s healthcare system buckling, Susan, like countless others, was left to fend for her family on her own; the burden of keeping her husband alive rested squarely on her shoulders. She spent two hellish weeks procuring oxygen cylinders, concentrators, blood plasma, steroids and even Tocilizumab – the elusive immunosuppressive drug which, by then, was being peddled on the country’s pharmaceutical blackmarket.

In those weeks, beyond the headlines of the nation’s capital beset by acute medical care shortages and mass deaths, Susan, a mother and a wife, was propelled to the frontlines of her family’s private hell.

On May 14, the couple’s 17th wedding anniversary, a critically ill Shashi sent Susan a dire text message: I’m not going to make it. By this time, a day in the calendar they’d usually mark with love and joy, Shashi’s WhatsApp messages had been reduced to emojis, a sign that he wasn’t even able to type. That night, as their anniversary clicked over, Shashi Rajan passed away.

“Do you have a least favourite month?” Seher asks me, out of the blue. “I do. It’s May,” she says, softly.

In May 2021, this little girl’s world was torn apart. The virus had claimed her father and in many ways, it was dragging away her mother, too. After Shashi’s death, Susan crashed. Unable to get out of bed, living life, let alone parenting, was unimaginable. Susan’s chest hurt, her hair fell out in clumps (a brutal post Covid-19 symptom), her hands trembled and she feared seeing people.

While Susan’s family stepped in to deal with the immediate aftermath – Shashi’s last rites, the growing mounds of paperwork and caring for Seher – she, like so many other women, was left with little choice but to limp back to life.

It took three months for an epiphany to shatter the monotony. Susan used to be afraid of death and the impermanence of things. But after Shashi, that fear disappeared. “I feel that as long as you’re alive, you need to be alive, you can’t just go on thinking about dying and things ending. When it comes, it comes. As long as you’re alive, you just cannot give up,” she says.

In time, putting one foot in front of the other, as a woman navigating a whole new world, every morning Susan began running again. And with that momentum, she reclaimed her life: cutting through India’s notoriously discriminatory laws and ensuring financial stability for herself and her daughter, leaping back into the world of big tech with a new job, and reconnecting with people she seldom made time for years earlier.

From never being particularly aspirational about her career, Susan is now determined to grow and achieve, looking beyond the mixture of compassion and pity she receives from colleagues.

“I would tell Shashi I’m so fit that I’m going to live to 90 and take care of you,” says Susan, laughing in disbelief.

And of course, Susan agrees.

People often remind Susan that she now has to prioritise her daughter; that raising Seher and keeping her safe is her primal calling.

Nothing could have prepared her for this moment.

But there’s someone else who’s just as important.

Bravely, Susan speaks a truth so many women in her shoes don’t have the agency to utter: “I have my life, too.”

Back to ProjectCrisis, India’s Reckoning.See Next Covid's Widows: Rajubai