Home and Safety

Dorothy Spencer

3 February 2022

Outside the balcony of a one room flat where I was staying, the most densely populated city of India, Mumbai, lay sprawled– outwards and endless. Small streets and tall buildings hold together millions of people, the tide washing in on all edges of this sea-facing city. This is where I was when the virus reached us, and the panic drenched the subcontinent of India, where I currently live.

Jenine and I were visiting Mumbai. We had 6 days stay in a friend of a friend’s house, and a bus ticket back to Bangalore at the end. 6 days to find leads on a job, maybe a house– I was thinking of moving here. Jenine and I had a pretty nice time. There was a nice vegan fast food joint with chicken nuggets and we ate them on the beach at night. We kissed, smoked bedis, cooked food, and slept. It is easy to misunderstand when people start talking about a virus, especially when you’re so much closer to the sky than the earth. Maybe if Jenine and I had recognised the potential for this virus to be dangerous, gave credit where credit was due, we could have saved ourselves a lot of stress. But as anarchists, we have both become so accustomed to the lies and exaggerations of the government and journalism. So easily dismissive of a new ‘crisis’, that we boarded a 16 hour bus ride with a few changes of clothes just as others started wearing masks to leave their house. And it was while we were in Mumbai, admiring and afraid of this city, that the news of a possible lockdown became prominent. We were told to go home. To avoid people. That a virus specifically dangerous to people with heart disease (like Jenine) was spreading. Jenine (white british) was stared at threateningly and denied help from people, considered a foreigner and carrier of disease. We needed to get back, we needed to go home.

7 months ago, I arrived in India because I was forced to leave the UK — my visa expired. And within a day I needed to call a new place home. I needed to understand in my body, which couldn’t comprehend the sudden change, that home couldn’t be returned to, so its definition had to change. Home. Where we are safe? Welcome? Obliged entrance?

When all the billboards and ads of the world changed to respond to covid-19, I constantly heard it. Stay at home. Stay safe. For me, there was great pain in this advice. I was very far from where I would like to call home, and 16 hours from a home I could get to. In Mumbai, the absurdity of this request became very real. I thought, I’ll go back to Bangalore, where I am renting a room. That will be the home that I am being told to stay in. And while tickets for the very last bus to Bangalore were being arranged, I got a call from my housemate. Kirk called to tell me that Jenine and I were not welcome home. That she was not accepting anyone into our house, including me. She was afraid she was sick, afraid we were sick, and ultimately selfish for the safety of that house to be only hers. In a way, I could understand. But Jenine was going to run out of medication, we had no one to call for help in Mumbai. And Kirk told us she would report us to the Municipality, thereby the police, if we did come back. So I also couldn’t understand. I felt more pain. Home, then, was not mine.

And all over the world there are plenty of people like me. Who need to carefully consider what home is being referred to, what safety is meant, and how to carefully acquire those things in a growing climate of mistrust, where all authoritative powers are granted to the police.

I recently listened to a podcast where a medic warned not to mistake the enforced lockdown for government repression. And I agree — the word of a doctor and the word of a politician are two very different types of authority. One justified, one not. But the key word here is enforced. When the government decided, very abruptly, that lockdown needed to ensue, lockdown itself was not my enemy, I don’t mind staying at home with my partner watching cartoons and eating bulk bought rice. But it was the authorities who used force, intimidation, and violence to keep us all “safe”, to ensure the lockdown measures. In India it happened on the 24th of March. And it happened with the precise, swift, heavily militarized efficiency of only someone who’s really enjoying it.

A group of migrants working in Mumbai needed to travel long distances to go home, to their villages. The journey would have to be made on foot due to lockdown restrictions. The easiest course would have been to follow the highways and roads. But the migrants forsook this safer route for the longer, winding path home, following the railway tracks. The streets and highways were now cordoned off and patrolled by police, and they would not have been allowed through. They would probably have been harassed, as many people caught by police on the streets have been. Almost all the migrants in that group died on their journey to home, to safety. It was not a pandemic which killed them. The lockdown may have been the demand of a health crisis, but the oppressive forces of the state gained new power when they were able to decide what is home.

In my story, it wasn’t the state that directly told me what to do. The state wanted me to be indoors, away from people. And I was more than happy to oblige. If Jennie contracted the illness, statistics suggested she’d probably die. Especially in India with no health insurance. We wanted to lock away.. When Kirk refused me entry to my house, I became deviant of the state’s demands. And for once, not because I wanted to be. Jenine and I did catch that 16 hour, turned 20 hour, bus ride. Stopped at state borders and harrassed by police, fights erupted when they refused us entry to Bangalore. People feared being stuck between Mumbai and Bangalore, unable to enter either of these now locked down states.

I won’t waste too much time going into the details here. Eventually, the bus managed to sneak into Bangalore, and after a 14 day period of self isolation, to be sure we were clear of the virus, Jenine and I decided to go to the house I rented. We gave a little warning to our arrival, but not much. In my head it was my right to go home, and I no longer trusted Kirk with our whereabouts and plans. We did the best we could to respect Kirk even when we were violating her request.

In a version of this situation where Kirk doesn’t have the power to call the police (her father is also a high ranking police official), or, let’s go crazy, the police don’t exist, Kirk would have been forced to really listen to us. Forced to make space for our unique situation and, maybe this is idealism, find a compromise. She might have recognised that many of us in these times make the best decision we can out of a handful of very bad options. And in a way that is what the state fails, and has always failed to realise. Those of us whose definitions of safety are not equal to the state’s, are not welcome to make our best bad decision. And anyone who agrees, like Kirk, has the power of the state to support them. When Kirk did call the authorities, Jenine and I could only do our best to prove we were covid free, we were not intending to carelessly cohabit the house, and we were not a danger to Kirk. The police were free and encouraged to decide if that was true, for us and for many others. By brutally enforcing a lockdown for the safety of us all, the ones who seek their own version of safety will be endangered, a lot will probably die. But no matter. These people are often the worthless, the marginalised; poor, homeless, illegals.

When a charter flight took Jenine back to the UK but would not take me, it was clear whose safety they were aligned with. Whose home they were most interested in. In a way, the pandemic brought back to me clarity. Clarity on who my enemies are. On friendly terms with the state, I am applying for a new visa, hoping to get a new passport, looking for the embrace of the immigration authorities. And when the embassy opens after the lockdown, I will keep trying. But in saying goodbye to my partner, watching her fly to a place I call home, and seeing the borders seal airtight behind her — I remember the power that is held in their hands to take away everything they give. To leave me behind in a crisis. To deem my version of safety unimportant, irrelevant, just like Kirk did to us. Honestly, I didn’t want to cause any trouble. My version of safety would have been to the UK, back home. Just like everyone else. Just like I was told.

I am glad for all those who keep their distance, stay at home, and work hard to be safe to contain the dangers of the virus. I am glad for all the people who are not sick because of the lockdown. But it is the reality of the structures we have been living in for a long time, that not all of us are allowed this. That this safety is about the middle and upper class people, who are in their homes now, inconvenienced by those of us who are not. Able to use the authorities to keep us where they think is best. In Mumbai with no place to live, in my case.

A few weeks after Jenine leaves, I am on a volunteer drive, delivering vegetables. A fellow volunteer points out a man as we drive by. He is old, his beard and hair grown over his face. He sits at a run down bus stop, on the bench with a bag next to him. There is no one around on this street. He stares vacantly ahead. The volunteer tells me he has been sitting here since the lockdown began, three weeks ago. Waiting for a bus to take him home. Many other volunteers offer to drive him to shelters, but he refuses. He knows where home is, and has made a decision on his own wellbeing and safety. Maybe a bad decision, still maybe the best decision. Volunteers get angry when he won’t accept help. They considered reporting him, in the name of his and their own safety. People who want to make that choice for him, in the way Kirk did for me.

Although nowhere near this old man’s situation, I sat for 6 hours at a bus stop. Watching closely for a bus that had promised to be here but we had no idea would arrive or not, the only ride out of Mumbai. Jenine and I taking it in shifts to remain awake since we had been on the move since 5am. I remember a crowd of 5 security guards outside the door of the flat we stayed in in Mumbai, demanding we leave. We had been reported by neighbours as outsiders, as dangerous. This neighbour had no intention of regarding us as two people with nowhere else to go, staying at a friend’s house. We left early the next day, sat on the beach and watched the waves for a bit. I held Jenine’s hand because we were scared and tired. And if I had been able to go home, right now I would probably still be with her, in Bristol. Now, I don’t know when that will even be possible.