The Covid-19 pandemic, California-based Shreya (name changed) said, has made her realise that she wants to learn Punjabi, her family’s language, “not as an insular nod to keeping traditional values alive,” but rather “for the pleasure of embarking into the present with a feeling of honour, responsibility, magnanimity, embrace.”
For Texas-based Aditi (name changed), one moment she would clearly remember from this time is when residents were told they should begin storing food. “My first instinct was to buy rice and salt at Gandhi Bazar [an Indian grocery store],” she noted. It was a reaction to a “historic trauma” – the Bengal famine of 1943 – when these foods were in scarcity in Bengal.
“I had heard stories of what my family went through. I was surprised that this deep-seated insecurity had surfaced,” she revealed.
These reflections and revelations, penned in the form of letters addressed to their future selves, will arrive at their doorstep a year from now as part of the South Asian American Digital Archive’s Letters from 6’ away project, referring to the 6 feet distance people are supposed to keep to prevent spread of the virus.
“Even though this is an incredibly challenging time, there are things that we are learning about ourselves and the world that we’ll want to definitely hold on to,” said Samip Mallick, the co-founder and executive director of SAADA. “In writing a letter to yourself, there’s an opportunity to do just that.”
The idea behind this project, to document and share the lived experiences of South Asian Americans during the pandemic, is the very reason Mallick helped found SAADA in 2008.
“You don’t learn about South Asian American history in school or college. It’s not reflected in textbooks, it’s not reflected in popular media – it certainly wasn’t when I was growing up,” he said. “We felt that not only were our community’s stories not being heard or shared, but moreover, that our stories were in danger of being lost.”
Mallick, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Kolkata in the 1960s, said not being able to see oneself reflected in the American story can have an impact on members of the immigrant community. “To not see people that look like you and people whose stories represent yours can be a damaging thing,” he said.
Lot of SAADA’s work thus is in ensuring that South Asian American voices are being represented in the American historical narrative. Over the last 12 years, the Philadelphia-based non-profit organisation has collected nearly 4,000 items of South Asian American history, all digitally archived and made accessible to the public.
The organisation also does several “participatory storytelling projects” in which they open up the archive and ask members to submit their stories. Among the first such initiatives was the ‘First Days Project’ which shared stories of over 500 South Asian immigrants of their very first experiences in the United States.
Another one, the ‘Road Trips Project’, collected stories and pictures of South Asians travelling across the country. “There is the great mythology of the ‘American road trip’ – how you can drive in your car and go across the country. But that narrative doesn’t include people of colour, including South Asians,” said Mallick. “So by sharing these stories, we attempt to reframe that American tradition as one that includes our community.”
‘Letters from 6’ away,’ which began in April, is their most recent project. “There’s no doubt that we’re living through a historic time, and it seemed really essential to move quickly to capture our experiences of this moment,” Mallick said.
While it was important for SAADA to have representations of the South Asian community in understanding what humanity is going through right now, Mallick said an added dimension is that our individual feelings about the pandemic are also changing day-to-day.
“How I felt a month or two months ago is so different than how I feel today,” he noted. “So we wanted to make sure that we capture those stories to reflect that changing and shifting emotion and the reality of what’s happening – especially in the United States.”
Among the over 100 submissions so far is a letter by a new mother. The pandemic, the South Carolina resident wrote, has made her realise that “I am stronger than I think… Being a new parent and being in isolation is very hard. It made me realise that I am able to find solutions during difficult situations.”
A New York City resident reflected on the difficulty of living in the present when “the present has no endpoint” and shared that she was most looking forward to riding the subway alongside strangers again.
“Being able to see their faces and imagine again, their lives – and maybe this time really trying to see and understand. To become more authentically connected to others – to know how precious this truly is and how it can be taken away within a moment.”
‘In this together’
Reading these letters, Mallick said, has been therapeutic for him as he’s been able to recognise in them a lot of what he’s been feeling: desperation, hopelessness, sadness, anger as well as a recognition of what matters. “Everyone is going through that same thing right now, so to read other people’s experiences is very reassuring that we’re in this together,” he said.
While the universality of this pandemic is undeniable, the experiences of the South Asian community are also unique in certain ways. People of colour in the United States, South Asians included, have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Several members of the community are also blue-collar workers who may not have the privilege to quarantine. Many of them work at gas stations, food shops or as taxi drivers and cannot physically distance themselves from everyone else.
A number of South Asians in the United States also work in the healthcare sector, and in the initial phase of the pandemic, they were the most struck by it.
“As a transnational community, many of us have connections to other places, whether it be India, Pakistan or wherever else,” Mallick said. “We’re not being able to see family and friends who live there, to have those face to face interactions or even know whether they will be possible again. So this is very difficult for a community that has been so mobile and transnational.”
From the initial days of the pandemic to where we are now, several months in, Mallick said there has been a change in the tone of the letters SAADA has received.
“There’s a tiredness to the situation that people are expressing. There’s also frustration that we haven’t dealt with it better,” he said. “There’s a lot of concern about schools being reopened soon. Some of our recent letters have been contributions from parents and their children, so it’s been interesting to see dual perspectives from one family on the pandemic.”
While there is growing frustration being expressed, the overarching reflections are still pretty much the same. “People are grateful for their friends and family and are reflecting on what they appreciate rather than dwelling on the worst parts of this situation,” Mallick said. “We’re all feeling very reflective and recognising what is important to us.”