Sushma Mane has been working almost as long as she is alive.
At the age of 8, she helped her family’s wedding decoration business. In her twenties, she found a job as a junior librarian in Mumbai, where she was born. Before retiring, she worked in the public library for 32 years as the administrative director. She then became an insurance agent, making sales calls and visiting customers for 15 years. Along the way, she raised three children, separated from her husband, raised a daughter whose marriage had broken down, and became the second mother of her grandson.
On August 30, 2020, she died of COVID-19 in a Mumbai hospital. She is 76 years old.
“When you think of your grandmother, a certain image comes to your mind—rocking chair, knitting needles, books,” says Mane’s 28-year-old grandson Viraj Pradhan. “She is not like that. She is a super grandma.”
Pradhan grew up in the suburbs of Mumbai and lived a middle-class childhood. The family was busy putting food on the table. His parents divorced when he was 12 years old, and it was Mane who adopted him and his mother under her wing.
Although Mane’s daughter worked 12 hours a day as a school librarian, in addition to her full-time job, she also assumed responsibility for sending Pradan to the school, participating in PTA meetings, serving on the school committee, supervising homework and cooking .
“Basically only me and her,” Pradan said with a eager smile. “When I was not at school, I used to tag with her on the sales call. We are inseparable.”
Mane is the oldest employee of the insurance company where she works. It’s ok. She trek through the city, preferring to take public transportation instead of expensive taxis to visit customers. She would carry a heavy bag full of documents on her shoulders, and often refused to help carry documents.
“At this age, they help me balance my body,” she once told her manager Swati Mittal.
“I don’t think I will meet someone like her again in my life,” Mittal told BuzzFeed News. “She always said that as long as she is alive, she will work.”
The first crack in the super grandma’s armor appeared in 2017. Routine physical examination showed abnormal electrocardiogram. Soon after, Ma Nei began to lose blood in the body, and her hemoglobin level plummeted. The doctor can never diagnose her underlying condition. “Every few months, when her hemoglobin level drops, she becomes weak and has difficulty breathing,” Pradan said. “She is too tired to even walk around in the apartment.”
In the end, Mane had to be hospitalized every few months. Hospital staff often took blood samples, and her skin became as thin as paper. She often needs an oxygen machine to breathe. Pradhan said: “Long before it became commonplace due to COVID-19, we had pulse oximeters, and oxygen masks were a very common thing for us. The results of her blood reports were used to make decisions. What will we look like in the next few weeks. Anxiety becomes a permanent part of our lives.”
Nevertheless, the crisis strengthened the bond between them. Mane spends all day talking with her plants on the balcony of their small apartment. She calls these plants her children, listens to old Bollywood songs, and poses for photos taken by Pradan on her mobile phone. Like most Indians, she is addicted to WhatsApp, often forwarding jokes, funny videos and “good morning” messages to her grandson. She often texted him, and her long message sounded like an old-fashioned letter:
did you eat?
Did you arrive on time?
How was your meeting?
Stay calm and positive.
Take your medicine.
I’m very good.
do not worry.
When will you come back?
Have a nice day, boy.
-Aaji (“grandmother” in Marathi)
At the end of 2019, Pradan quit his full-time job at a digital media company and became a freelancer so that he would have enough time to take care of his grandmother. Their roles have been reversed. “She is used to being the person people depend on,” he said, “but now she depends on me. She is not ready yet.”
Due to his grandmother’s condition, COVID-19 appeared on Pradhan’s radar long before most people in the world noticed it. He read reports about strange diseases in China and Italy, and became more and more frightened. He said: “Although we often go to the hospital, I am used to controlling everything, but I think if this virus does come, I can’t control it. I am afraid of what will happen to my grandmother.
In March of this year, when India implemented a strict Nationwide blockade Pradhan hardly warned, praying that his grandmother would survive. Within a few days, her hemoglobin level dropped again.
In the first three months of the country’s blockade, Mane had to be hospitalized three times, which proved to be more challenging in a pandemic. Her symptoms—coughing, low blood oxygen levels, and fatigue—are so similar to those of COVID-19 that doctors often refused to check her without a COVID-19 test, which was difficult to obtain at the time. Later, as the city’s hospitals were crowded with COVID-19 patients, it was difficult to just be admitted; there were not enough beds.
On August 25, Pradhan arranged a COVID-19 test for his grandmother at home. The result takes 24 hours. That night, she had no appetite, and she was so tired that she needed help from a few steps from bed to bathroom. Pradan slept for a while, and called an Uber in the middle of the night to take her to the nearest hospital. Before her COVID-19 results came out, it refused to admit her to the hospital. He spent the night frantically going to different medical centers, until the next day, when Mane was admitted to a government hospital, the treatment there would be heavily subsidized, unlike in a private clinic.
After this good news, there were two bad news: her hemoglobin level was still declining, and later that day, she tested positive for the coronavirus.
“It’s not easy for me to cry-but when they put her on a ventilator for the first time, I broke down,” Pradan said. When he and his mother were tested immediately afterwards, they also tested positive for COVID-19. They have no symptoms.
“I try not to think about where and how we were infected, and whether I infected my grandmother,” he said. “Thinking this way might make me think I can stop it somehow.”
Their last conversation over the phone-just before Ma Nei was put on a ventilator-lasted 45 seconds. Pradhan’s uncle managed to send a call to Mane in the intensive care unit through the nurse. Pradan told her not to worry about the hospital bill anymore, get better soon, eat well, and go home as soon as possible. She told him not to worry about her and eat on time (“When she is about to die!” Pradan said).
When that call ended, he said that he “somehow had a feeling[he’d] It may be the last time I spoke to her. “
Mane never wanted a grand funeral, and the pandemic secured her wish. Only three people participated in her cremation-Pradan, one of her sons, and a close friend who looked like a son to her. Mane’s daughter cannot participate; after testing positive for COVID-19, she is in isolation in the hospital.
Like all other people who died in the hospital from the coronavirus, Ma’s body was sealed in a bag. This was handled by staff wearing personal protective equipment from head to toe, and no one was allowed to touch her. Pradan said he could not visit her in person. He asked his uncle, Mane’s son, to put a letter at her feet, thanking her for everything, flowers and saree.
“The thing that has always troubled me is that she left the hospital alone,” he said. “She always wanted to enter her house, in her bed.”
Mane’s manager Mittal said she was stunned when she received the call. “My breathing has stopped,” she said. “She used to be in the hospital often, but we are used to her coming back every time. I didn’t expect she will not come back this time. No matter where she is now, she is spreading happiness. I’m pretty sure about that.”
A few months later, Pradhan’s cell phone kept showing up his photos and videos of Mane. He said he could not look at them because it was too painful.
In his WhatsApp, there is an unread message from his grandmother. This is the last time she texted him. It has been there for several months, and he hasn’t opened it yet.
“This may be something universal, such as’Good Morning’,” he said. “I haven’t checked. I don’t have the courage.”