• Gillian Keegan

India during the pandemic

Looking back, although it was the worst possible timing, India came at the right moment of our lives. We were both working, the Lawyer doing crazy hours and me doing a job that needed me to spend crazy hours on it, but trying to balance working with two children, a 65 acre property, starting an agistment business, two dogs, two horses, oh, and I was pregnant.

The move was traumatic, selling beloved horses at 9 months pregnant, brimming over with hormones, is not to be recommended. It felt like part of me was being ripped out, driving down our beautiful driveway for the last time, watching the gates close. I think I actually had to go slightly numb to deal with it all.

Our beautiful Lightwood

Fast forward a couple of months, and we were settled in Bangalore. At first, the change was quite unbelievable. I went from having absolutely zero free time, and an immense amount of stress, to a strange sort of gated freedom. We employed two maids and a driver, a notion that seemed ridiculously entitled to me in Australia, but something that is encouraged and, to be honest, quite necessary here. Managing everyday life here is frustrating and stressful in ways that it is difficult to describe. Employing people to help means that you are providing work for families who are in desperate need, and often much better working conditions than they might otherwise find here in India.

Anyway, with extra help in our home, I was effectively usurped from domestic duties which was life changing, really life changing. It also provided a very stark image of how much work goes into running a house in a'well oiled' 'in control' sort of way. We have two women working full time (although I must admit, the pace of work here is very different - not like my frantic pre-work whip arounds) keeping on top of washing, cleaning, cooking and errands. On top of that, I am here, not working, and dealing with the kids. It really brought home the societal expectations on working parents - the 'you can have it all' mentality. My expectations were more than flawed, they were impossible - I was expecting myself to do the work of more than three people!

So there I was, suddenly released from domesticity. Amazing, right? I am considered to be a 'trailing spouse' here, which is a delightfully empowering term. I am not able to get a work visa so I threw myself into managing the house, getting the kids settled at school, and riding. I started off in a pretty dreamlike state of being able to do things that I never had time for. I signed up for an Equitation Science diploma which has been life changing. I rode four times a week, I went swimming, I had coffees and date nights! As a person who enjoys work, and someone that is just a bit obsessed with learning and achieving stuff (I dream to get a Phd someday, and think Dr Keegan has a delightful ring to it) I knew that this life would eventually get a little dull, but making the most of it was absolutely delightful.

And then, of course, what else but a global pandemic? I will say, before I get into my experience of India during COVID, that I absolutely appreciate how many many people have been impacted in the most horrendous, life changing and cruel ways. We are so very fortunate to be in our current situation, and my heart breaks for those that have suffered loss and hardship. However, we are all entitled to voice our individual struggles, they are still very real.

So suddenly, back in March, TEN MONTHS AGO, schools closed, which meant three kids (8,4 and 1) at home all day with the Lawyer working upstairs. Holy moly. I had gone from having a huge amount of autonomy and actually being someone. I managed a team, I did a 'real' job, I looked after my own animals and land, if I wanted to go somewhere, I drove myself, and hooking up my float, loaded young horses, all on my own. I even got to the stage where I could reverse with the trailer, REVERSE!!!! I felt so capable and resilient, I felt proud of what I was achieving (despite the crippling tiredness). I had gone from being someone, to whatever this is that I am now.

My kids, I'm sure are normal kids, but dealing with them doesn't feel normal. My god, it has been intense, prolonged, suffocating and ridiculous. I feel that I am busier and more stressed than ever, but that I achieve absolutely nothing. I am a PA to three small beings and my highest accolades are from my 8 year old's class teacher on work that I have had to do for the 8 year old as he flatly refuses to engage in it. On top of managing the three headstrong kids, the riding school wanted to charge me (on top of extortionate lease fees) for exercising Buce during lockdown. I wouldn't have minded him having time off, but because he's stabled so much, despite my very vocal protestations, he needed to get out everyday. So I had to give up my lease and a huge part of my life, together with the horse I was completing the diploma on, was gone.

The kids trying to joyride in a golf buggy

Then, there is the backdrop of India. There are many many incredible, amazing, beautiful things to experience here, but being stuck with all of us in the same house for months on end only seemed to intensify the many challenges here. Just to get it out of my system, please allow me the liberty of listing but a few of these....

1) You cannot walk anywhere outside of the community. I have not stepped foot outside of the gate, EVER. To step foot outside of our gate throws you into rural India with stray dogs, cows, monkeys, mopeds and Indian villagers who think that any ex pat is wholly responsible for COVID. So I walk the dogs around a 800m lap in our housing estate. I know each paving stone and leaf intimately.

2) There are great community groups for delivery of food items, but to manage your weekly shop, you need to be on around 15 WhatsApp groups and order, pay and collect delivery at the right time. You miss the group message, you miss your fish, or cheese, or whatever is on offer. Managing food delivery and making sure you have enough in to make a meal is really hard! Every time you get a delivery you have to let them in through security - you are notified by an app on your phone. Then the dog barks, then they ring the door, then the dog barks more, then they ask for an OTP, which is invariably on the Lawyer's phone, and trying to get an OTP from him who he's working is like trying to take fresh meat from a tiger. Take the numerous weekly food deliveries and add Amazon deliveries to this = many many many deliveries, barks and tiger scratches.

3) Language. Many Indian people speak excellent English, which is incredible. However, many also do not speak English at all (and this is completely without judgement - why would you speak another language if you did not need to). So we navigate a huge language barrier every day. And not just a language barrier, a dialect barrier. Every time I see an Indian number come up on my phone I get prickles of dread along my spine as I know the conversation will be impossible. Every time I say my phone number to a shop assistant (you have to give your number for everything you buy - don't get me started on that one) I say double zero and they write double 7. Every time I explain something to the ladies at home, I have to say it three times. For example, 'The Monkey would like some chips please,' is likely to get a response of 'yes ma'am, the washing is outside,' or something similar. Now the fact that washing is outside and I didn't put it there will never lose it's fabulousness, it, however, doesn't solve the problem of the Monkey's chip requirements. To really highlight the issue, the other day, an Amazon delivery guy asked if I would speak English. I had to giggle at that one...

4) Phones. Indian people have much to say and do a much better job of keeping in contact with their family than my mum would say I do with mine. People use phones constantly, which is fine, but every time you call someone, they are on the phone. If someone tries to reach you and you don't answer, they won't leave a message, they will just keep on calling FOREVER, I mean like 20 missed calls. And over nothing. When you do get to speak to someone there are particular pitfalls. You should never say 'hello' as you will get stuck in an endless 'hello' loop. I think, because phone signal is often terrible here, if you say hello, you're not greeting someone, but asking 'hello, can you hear me?' so the person on the other end will say 'Hello?' then you say 'Hi" and get ready to start the conversation, but they are asking 'hello?' again. I honestly counted 23 hellos in one conversation recently. The trick, I have been told, is to say 'TELL ME' very directly, which cuts through a few hellos at least, but feels very rude to my English self.

5) Bureaucracy - wow, form filling, giving pointless details, creating lists of unnecessary information. Needing particular documents, in particular forms. IT KILLS ME!!! I once made the crazy mistake of ordering a shirt from the UK. To deliver overseas mail, DHL needs to fulfil KYC checks. This took me, no kidding, around 2 weeks of quite solid work. I had stupidly ordered using 'Gill Keegan'. My passport reads "Gillian Keegan". I honestly had to get an affidavit witnessed confirming that "Gill Keegan" was me. Guess how many phone calls, guess how many hellos??? Guess how many times I screamed? Then they charged me import duty of over 100%. And the T-shirt was dirty!!! That's for a T-shirt - you should try and set up a bank account. No, honestly, don't. You may not survive.

6) The roads. Now, the roads here are absolutely fascinating. Never a dull moment. Cows, dogs, pot holes, trucks. But THERE ARE NO RULES!!! To drive you have to shut your eyes and pretend there are no other cars or bikes. You have to force your way through, you have to just pull out, you have to weave, you can't stay in your lane, you've got to beep your horn. It's amazing to be a passenger and look at all the life and craziness out of the window, but I would not dream of getting behind the wheel here. Ex pat employers strongly discourage you from even attempting to drive, after learning the hard way, I suppose. So we employ a driver, who is great, and sounds very luxurious, and it is, don't get me wrong, but somedays I just want to decide to go somewhere, get in my own car and drive myself. Feel independent instead of useless, feel enabled and in control. It's not forever, and in non-covid circumstances, I think it would have been fine, but during the pandemic, not being able to drive has added to the sense of imprisonment.

Thanks for letting me vent, I do feel better, and we've just returned from our first real holiday in 2.5 years - a trip to Rajasthan. I have lots of plans for 2021 so I'm beginning again.

India is such a fabulous place, absolutely teeming with life, everywhere you look. I am so happy to be able to live here, and it wouldn't be fun without some challenges, would it? So I'm ok, really, I'm fine. Or I will be when the kids go back school. PLEASE GO BACK TO SCHOOL!!!


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