Hyderabad: Sunil Vuppula, a media professional, reports from New Jersey, New York, one of the hotspots of COVID 19 outbreak on how Telugu speaking people are bonding to support each other.
Oak Tree Road is a long stretch that connects Edison and Iselin in New Jersey. This two-mile stretch also comes to occupy a special place in the hearts of the Indian Diaspora. Its culture, marketplace and even religion have come alive over the years. Right from high-end jewelry stores to groceries, from temples to movie halls, from Chat and fast food to Pan Dispensers, almost every aspect of life in India finds a manifestation here. Traffic snarls and jaywalkers create a homely feeling. In short, we have made a `Mini India’ here for ourselves.
Since the lockdown, this bustling street has become empty. Otherwise thriving food courts are desolated. Groceries, which were the nerve centers, have become demure with occasional shoppers wearing masks. The throbbing roads are deserted barring the occasional ambulance or a police car. An eerie silence pervades.
With trepidation, we drove to Oak Tree Road because two young girls who are fresh college graduates sent an emergency request to my wife. “Akka, we have run out of groceries. Every time we make an Uber booking, they cancel it after a long wait. Please give us a ride,” said Sunisitha, who works on Oaktree.
Understandably, the epicenter in NYC has shifted to New Jersey (NJ). On April 2, the casualties doubled in NJ from 500 to 1000 and the situation is looking grim. With masks fully adorned, we raided the grocery store and dropped them on the curbside in front of Sunisitha’s home.
“Life has become hard”, said Suraj who works on an hourly basis at one Indian restaurant at Oak Tree Road. “With only occasional take-out orders, the business has dropped to 20 percent.”
The gas stations and other mall parking lots wear a ghostly look as folks are rarely venturing out. Metro Park and Edison train stations that ferry most Desis into New York City are staring back at you.
The transition to work from home was complete within 2 weeks. Anyway, most of IT engineers were used to the model of remote login. What were both delightful and stressful were seven-year-old boys and girls taking to virtual classes. Selva’s 7-year-old son goes to nearby Woodbrook Elementary school logged into a google classroom.
“I feel these boys and girls are getting fast-tracked into the workplace of the future. Earlier I used to ask him to be quiet during my conference calls. Now he is gesturing me to be silent when I try to talk to him during his class,” Selva said
It was endearing to eavesdrop on little boys and girls innocently gush about how these technologies are allowing them to connect. Even though they miss the running, yelling and other touch and feel activities that mark their pre-corona school days.
Most parents are now spending their time switching screens between phones, computers and children’s activities. Trideep, a confessed foodie has now taken over the kitchen. “It’s allowing me to experiment and make fusion cuisine. I thrive on social banter and since I am unable to go to NYC and connect with my colleagues, I do it on WhatsApp and engage with my many friends,” he said.
WhatsApp is the official communication channel for all of Desis. Whether Edison Costco has all the essential supplies or which Indian grocery store is shutting down for real-time customers are the pivotal questions asked in the group.
Some grocery stores are putting out information about Sanitizing and within minutes information percolates to all relevant groups. Local community leader Rajeev Trivedi recently posted how few Indian grocers became hotbeds of Coronavirus. Soon after it became viral prompting him to quickly backpedal and delete the post.
Indeed, Edison area has now become a hotspot in the Corona trajectory. “We are yet to see the peak of the spread. Since elective surgeries have been postponed, the entire infrastructure is now dedicated to emergencies and even that is not enough. People used to think only senior citizens are getting infected but now we are seeing even people from younger demographic being admitted. The whole hospital is being converted into an ICU,” said Dr. L, who works at JFK hospital.
“Till recently it was a headline. Suddenly it has become personal” said Mrs. Prafulla, a high school teacher who lost two of her colleagues to Coronavirus earlier this week. “One of the teachers and I shared a class last year and she was not even a senior teacher. I am praying and hoping that all my students and their families are safe.”
Amidst this, the weekly routine goes on, except it moved online. Church services have moved online. Members dialed into these online video conference sites and the entire order of services.
“It is our faith that keeps us going even in the middle of this deadly pestilence. Our Indian church has more people dialing in from wherever they are as it gives them comfort and assurance that things are going to turn around fine,” said 80-year-old Dr. Chigurupati.
Every community is affected, particularly families of senior citizens, single parents and those whose lives depend on essential services. A bunch of Indian men formed a volunteer task force and stuck flyers around the complex urging folks to contact if they need any essential supplies. Gestures like these demonstrate that when we overcome this battle, we would emerge stronger and kinder.