For Manas Ray, the distance from his home in Massachusetts to India, where his extended family lives, has made the coronavirus pandemic feel like a nightmare.
At least 12 friends and family members close to the biochemist have been infected since April 2020, including his mother, Bandana. Reports earlier this spring from his friends and relatives were especially bleak as the second wave devastated the country he left 33 years ago.
"It's very hard on me because I'm so far away from them and cannot help," Ray tells Morning Edition.
COVID case numbers are coming down but just a month ago, India was experiencing record infection rates, topping over 400,000 cases in one day. There have been days when hospitals ran out of space and crematoriums were at capacity. Only about 3 percent of India's 1.3 billion population has been fully vaccinated. More than 350,000 Indians have died.
"I walked through a long nightmare" is how Ray starts off his submission before describing the drama of getting news from India of relatives, including his 83-year-old mother, Bandana, struggling to function in a health system under collapse. Coveted oxygen cylinders, for example, were useless without a neighbor who knew how to set them up.
The Morning Edition team working on the callout found his poem especially haunting and vivid, and invited him to read an excerpt on air.
And though it's a poem about a living nightmare, Ray also finds hope in recovery and appreciation. "Praying From A Distance" is Ray's first poem written in English. He says he frequently writes poems and songs in Bengali.
"Praying From A Distance"
I walked through a long nightmare
Has my journey seen the light of day?
I am not sure.
But, still I rise!
The first wave passed the world
Affecting us all
It has taken away my friend
It has decimated some neighborhood
There were no vaccines,
There were no perfect pill
We suffered one and all
But, still we rose!
Then came the variants
The double mutants
The Indian variant, they called it!
When people were relatively relaxed
After a year of lockdown
The vaccines are here in USA
Some have taken it
Some were not so sure.
I am vaccinated with both doses
I am safe!
All of a sudden
Everyone hears about someone infected
I get news - bad news - every day from India, Kolkata
From my small town, Bardhaman
From my friends
From my family
My cousin called from Ranchi, Jharkhand
His mom, my aunt, is infected
She's not talking
She expired quickly
Then again my uncle, her husband,
he's taken ill
Saturation down, down to 65
They needed hospital support
None were available
They're desperate to have oxygen
They didn't find one!
My uncle gasped for 24 hrs without oxygen
When they got a cylinder
It was too late.
He's too weak to be even helped
Oxygen saturation didn't go up above 85
On 13th day my uncle joined my aunt
Leaving us behind
I can't think anymore
I need to breathe
I need support
But, still I need to rise.
Then came news my mom is infected
It was devastating
From 8,000 miles what could I do to help
My niece left her work and came to her help
She didn't get her vaccines yet
It was not available for her
She's not even 30
And here I am with 2 doses of vaccines
Living in a safe haven
But I can't help!
What I can do to help my mom
How I can guard my niece from infection
First week went by with fever, body aches and diarrhea
There's no help available outside
Hospitals are open but no doctor,
Clinics are open, but no nurse
Those who taken the loved ones there
They had to attend themselves
This I hear
We cannot sent Ma to any clinic or any hospital now
She may not come back!
It's eighth day
Is Ma doing well
Yes, she is better.
I went to bed with some relief
Then a call came in the midnight
She's in convulsion
Her oxygen level went down to 50!
WE NEED OXYGEN IMMEDIATELY
Who can help
A neighbor came as a life-saver
With a cylinder of oxygen
a technician helped setting it up
My mom's oxygen level went up to 90
She's OK, she's OK
She's still here
She's with us
Next 48 hrs one cylinder after another
Became her life and death.
She still can't walk
Saturation level goes down if she tries
But she's living.
So I see hope
So I see light
Then my niece got infected.
But still, I Rise.
I see the world
Where air is purer
The blue sky is little more brighter
Our neighborhood is cleaner
Our children are safer
Seniors are healthier
And friends are out of danger
My mom can walk again without
This is what I pray for
This is what I wish for all.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
With COVID case numbers coming down in India, some of its major cities are reopening. But just a month ago, India experienced its highest daily infection rate, topping over 400,000 cases in just one day. There have been days when hospitals ran out of space, and crematoriums were at capacity. Only about 3% of India's 1.3 billion population has been fully vaccinated. More than 350,000 Indians have died. Rachel Martin spoke to Manas Ray of Cambridge, Mass., about his family in India. He wrote a poem about what's happening there as part of our recent poetry callout.
MANAS RAY: Sadly, last four weeks, I'm hearing so many infections including in my home and family and friends. We've got some family members actually expired. And my Mom got infected. My niece got infected. And some of my friends, family also got infected and expired. And it's very hard, also, on me because I'm so far away from them and cannot help personally to be there.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: How often are you able to get updates from your loved ones there?
RAY: Yes, actually, the social media mostly - the WhatsApp is very useful. We have a friends group, Whatsapp group where we communicate among friends to be each other's support.
MARTIN: What are those conversations like?
RAY: It was mostly around how long that they can survive, they can keep their composure. It's pretty hard when you do not have any infrastructure where we can go and get some help. People have to get the help at home. In our case - you know, in my friend's case, we have seen that they're looking desperately for an oxygen cylinder to bring home and find a the technician who can set it up at home because they know that going outside in a hospital, in a clinic, you know, there is no way that they can get that help because either those infrastructure is totally not there, or those doctors are not available to take care of them. So it's totally an impossible level. The healthcare system has become your own responsibility, totally, at home.
MARTIN: Well, we so appreciate you putting all of your thoughts into a poem that you sent to us. And I'd love if you could read just an excerpt for us.
RAY: (Reading) What I can do to help my mom, how I can guard my niece from infection. First week went by with fever, body aches and diarrhea. There is no help available outside hospitals are open, but no doctor. Clinics are open, but no nurse. Those who taken the loved ones - they had to attend themselves. This I hear - we cannot send Ma to the clinic or any hospital now. She may not come back. It's eighth day. Is Ma doing well? Yes, she's better. I went to bed with some relief. Then a call came in at midnight. She's in convulsion. Her oxygen level went down to 50. We need oxygen immediately. Who can help? How can I save my mom? A neighbor came as a life-saver with a cylinder of oxygen. A local technician helped setting it up. My mom's oxygen level went up to 90. She's OK. She's OK. She's still here. She's with us. Next 48 hours, one cylinder after another became her life and death. She survived. But still, she cannot walk. Saturation level goes down if she tries. But she's living. So I see hope. So I see light. Then my niece got infected. But still, I rise.
MARTIN: Well, that was just beautiful. Your poem is so haunting and important. And I so appreciate you sharing it with us.
RAY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR'S "PRAYER IN PASSING")
MCCAMMON: That was Manas Ray of Cambridge, Mass., speaking with Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.