Covid Stories: Ritam Bhatnagar

Covid Stories: Ritam Bhatnagar

When ‘unprecedented’ has become the new normal, each day seems like a fight with no end in sight. However, for as long as turmoil has existed, so has existed the will to resist it and rise above it. And so, the story of the pain of a country fighting for survival is interspersed with stories of love, of kindness, and most of all, of perseverance. In light of all that is happening today, we endeavoured to reach out to some people who have personally been affected by COVID-19 and have successfully overcome it, in an effort to share their story and provide some hope, relief and support to others who may be going through the same.

Ritam Bhatnagar, Founder, India Film Project
I really don’t know how to put my experience with COVID-19 into a single word. I was on a trip to my hometown to meet my grandmother and the day after I returned had fever. The first day I had fever, I wasn’t aware that the COVID situation was exacerbating. The second day I took a paracetamol and my fever came down. The third day in fact, I went to the office. It was a Saturday and hence it didn’t matter since no one was around. But I did go to office thinking I had some pending work which needed to be completed, and I was fit and fine. But by the evening I had a sore throat and it was extremely painful. The sore throat persisted even the next morning when I woke up, and I went to get my RT-PCR done. While I was going for my test, I was using a sanitiser and I just couldn’t smell it. So I was very sure that I was down with COVID. In the next four hours I had a report which told me I was positive. This was still late March, when COVID hadn’t spread like wild fire. So I was in a slightly safer zone, is what I thought. 

The first two days of isolation were mostly good, I had mild symptoms and was taking medicines to manage them. Things started going bad from the third day, not because of my health but because between me testing positive till the third day, there were more than 40 cases which came out to be positive within my society. We believe it was the elevator through which all of us contracted the virus. We are around 500-550 residents, and 40 of them testing positive within two days. The municipal corporation sealed our entire society. The moment they did that it became all the more difficult because neither me nor my wife know how to cook! We don’t usually engage ourselves in household chores, and our maids and cooks were not coming since I tested positive. Now that the society was sealed, there was no way that we could even go get our groceries.

By the time I was on my fifth day, I think the larger trouble was that we were out of groceries, we were not allowed to go outside and no one could come in. It became a kind of nightmare because we had to cook for ourselves. We both know how to do some basic cooking but we’ve never cooked meals three times a day, and that too continuously for a couple of days. By the time I reached the seventh day, my energy levels had gone down tremendously because of the medicines. One of the bad things that happened was that my wife also tested positive and she had a lot of weakness. So both of us were down with weakness, and we had to clean the home, safeguard ourselves and others in whichever way we could. We had to try to arrange our groceries and milk from outside and somehow manage to keep our supply going. And because we were low on energy, doing everything became much more difficult. Two people in a home, both of them down with COVID, with almost no energy, having no supplies, groceries or milk, no vegetables in the home and still having to cook three times a day. Especially at a time when you need to feed yourselves nutritious food. 

Thankfully, something good did happen. I live in a society full of Punjabis, next to a Gurudwara. A lot of people in our society are really kind and they sent across a WhatsApp message saying incase you have COVID and are not able to cook, other people and households in the society who are not infected can provide a tiffin service. And that was a boon because for the next ten days we kept on received tiffins, and the only thing we were required to do was to keep the house clean. And somehow we managed. 

Meanwhile, one of the worst things that happened personally for me was that in the week that I got COVID, probably on my fourth or fifth day, I had scheduled more than 13 pitches. One pitch itself requires almost more than a day or two days’ worth of work, plus an hour of continuously pitching and getting the idea across to the client, and then following up. Thirteen pitches is something which you can’t even imagine. The moment we were scheduling, it we had thought that even if we were in the best of our health, it was still going to be a very difficult thing. And suddenly now, you have thirteen pitches to do in five days, plus I had three workshops that I had committed to, which were happening right from the second day I tested positive until the sixth day. And each workshop was somewhere between 60-120 minutes. So I had to gather the energy to complete my pitches and take out the time to prepare for my workshops, and also do the household work and make sure that our food is sorted. 

By the time I completed my fifteenth day, you won’t believe that those two weeks were probably the most productive work weeks for me. Two reasons for that. One, I made sure that I isolated in my room with just a television and AC and all I had to do was stay there with no other distraction that I had. I was working close to 8-10 hours without any distraction, creating pitches and finishing all other work which was pending. Two, I also had a lot of me-time. In the evenings I was watching some shows. Even if I was working, I used to put up some movies or random fun series to run in the background. That made me feel like I wasn’t isolated and there was some kind of movement happening around me. Plus it gave me a lot of good vibes that I had to recover, I had to watch these fun things because it kept things light. I didn’t realise I was going through so much in those weeks. It’s only now that in retrospect, and while I was preparing to speak to you that I realised that actually those weeks weren’t as easy for me. But the good part for me was that they were still very productive. I could generate a lot of my work and business in those weeks. 

By the time I completed my quarantine which was somewhere around the12th or 13th of April, things got worse outside. So the next thing we could do was to help a lot of other people. We were ourselves in slight trouble because we were still trying to learn how to cook and how to manage ourselves. Probably for me, the best part was that two things happened. I now have a very good belief that simply overcoming this entire pandemic is something to be grateful for. I always felt that if I got COVID, I probably might be in a much serious condition. Thankfully for us, our healths were not affected so much. So that entire idea and belief that I am strong and I could come out of this, and more than that the larger idea that I could be independent and not depend on my maids and cooks all the time, that was a belief that was brought about very strongly. 

Another thing which I realised towards the end of my COVID days was that it is very very important to have hope in your life. All of us in the end, are people who survive by hope. When you are in the middle of trouble, something that you should be doing is looking at how things are going to be better and how things are going to be normal. If you’re struggling in the middle of the water right now, you need to be thinking about how you’re going to reach the shore soon. I think for me, that is what kept me going. Whenever I had any negative thoughts, I used to plan where I would travel to, what I would do, whom I would meet. So that definitely made a lot of things easier for me, because of this hope. I thought that someday this is going to be over and someday I am going to get to do these things that I want to do. I had the guilty pleasure of watching a lot of travel related shows and videos on YouTube, for random locations and I even created a collection of places I want to visit. That is something I would do when I was on social media. And hope, something I learnt for the first time, is so important to cling to, to get out of trouble. And when you have that kind of thought process, then things probably will not seem as hard as they would otherwise. 

One day on Instagram I just shared a couple of things that I thought people going through COVID would like to read and I received a lot of love. Usually I’m not a very active social media person, but for the first time there were something I was trying to write and people were also resonating with it. One thing that saved the day for me, and I would suggest it to anyone going through this, is that video calls are a boon! I think my life became much much easier during those days and even in the successive recovery days because there were people who were continuously video calling and it was so nice to see faces of those whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of months or years, or even people with whom I would’ve spoken on call but not seen them for a long time. My office Zoom calls were a boon because I could see so many people, and so I think video calls for me were a great saviour during that entire time. 

The other thing I would want to add is that positive thoughts are a very crucial thing. As I told you earlier, every time I had negative thoughts I used to stop myself and then think about things I wanted to do once I recovered. I realised that positive thoughts do matter a lot and it is those thoughts that work. I don’t know scientifically how they work but they really make this entire pain much more bearable and easier. I think this has been one of my key takeaways from COVID as well. Now that I have recovered, I have made an entire list of things I want to do and of course travel is a part of it, but that’s still going to take a couple of months. Once the world is out of pain, I would love to do it, but of course right now I don’t feel like travelling, especially during these times. But a lot of the other things that I had thought about I would do as soon as I get well, I did accomplish a few, and I’m going to accomplish the other few in the weeks to come. So that is how hope works, and that’s what’s kept me going.


Text Devyani Verma and Ritam Bhatnagar
Date 18-05-2021