Sushma Mane worked almost as long as she lived.
When she was 8 years old, she was helping her family with wedding decorations. In her twenties, she found a job as a junior librarian in Mumbai, where she was born. She worked in the public library for 32 years before retiring as administrative director. Then she became an insurance agent, phoned and visited customers for 15 years. Along the way, she raised three children, separated from her husband, supported a daughter whose marriage had failed, and became a second mother to a grandson.
She died of COVID-19 in a hospital in Mumbai on August 30, 2020. She was 76 years old.
“When you think of grandmothers, you have one picture in mind – rocking chairs, knitting needles, books,” said Viraj Pradhan, Mane’s 28-year-old grandson. “She was nothing like that. She was super grandma. “
Pradhan grew up in a suburb of Mumbai and clung to a middle-class childhood. The family hurried to put food on the table. His parents divorced when he was 12 years old and it was Mane who took him and his mother under their wing.
While working 12-hour days as a school librarian, Mane’s daughter followed in her footsteps, taking Pradhan to school, attending PTA meetings, serving on school committees, supervising homework, and cooking meals – in addition to full-time work.
“It was basically just me and her,” said Pradhan with a wistful smile. “When I wasn’t at school, I accompanied her on sales calls. We were inseparable.”
Mane was the oldest employee of the insurance company she worked for. It didn’t matter. She trudged around town, preferring to take public transportation rather than expensive taxis to visit customers. She carried a heavy bag full of documents on each shoulder and often turned down offers to carry it.
“At this age they help me to balance my body,” she once said to her manager Swati Mittal.
“I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone like her again in my life,” Mittal told BuzzFeed News. “She always said she would work as long as she lived.”
The first cracks in Super Granny’s armor were in 2017. A routine medical examination revealed an unusual electrocardiogram. Soon after, Mane began to lose blood internally and her hemoglobin levels decreased. Doctors could never diagnose their underlying disease. “Every few months when her hemoglobin level dropped, she would become weak and difficult to breathe,” said Pradhan. “She was too tired to even walk around the apartment.”
After all, Mane had to be hospitalized every few months. Hospital workers drew blood samples so often that their skin became paper thin. She often needed an oxygen machine to breathe. “We had a pulse oximeter long before it became commonplace with COVID-19,” said Pradhan, “and oxygen masks were a normal thing for us. The results of her blood tests determined what our next few weeks would be like. Fear has become an integral part of our lives. “
Still, this crisis has strengthened their bond. Mane spent her days on the balcony of her tiny apartment chatting to the plants she called her children, listening to old Bollywood songs and posing for pictures Pradhan took on his cell phone. Like most Indians, she was enthusiastic about WhatsApp and frequently passed jokes, funny videos and “good morning” messages on to her grandson. She often texted him, her long messages knocking like old-fashioned letters:
Did you eat?
Did you reach on time?
How was your meeting
Stay cool and positive.
Take your medication.
Do not worry.
When will you be back?
I wish you a good day, child.
– Aaji (“grandmother” in Marathi)
In late 2019, Pradhan quit his full-time job at a digital media company and freelanced so that he had enough time to look after his grandmother. Their roles had reversed. “She was used to being the person people depended on,” he said, “but now she was dependent on me. She wasn’t ready for it. “
Thanks to his grandmother’s condition, COVID-19 appeared on Pradhan’s radar long before most of the world took notice. He read reports of a strange illness in China and then Italy with increasing fear. “Despite our frequent hospital visits, I was used to being in control of things,” he said, “but I thought if this virus ever got here, I wouldn’t be in control.” I was afraid of what would happen to my grandmother. “
In March, when India imposed a strict nationwide lockdown with little warning, Pradhan prayed that his grandmother would get through. Within a few days, her hemoglobin level had dropped again.
During the first three months of the country’s lockdown, Mane had to be hospitalized three times, which turned out to be much more difficult during a pandemic. Her symptoms – cough, low blood oxygen, and fatigue – were so similar to those of COVID-19 that doctors often refused to examine them without a COVID test, which was difficult to come by at the time. Later, when the city’s hospitals were overcrowded with COVID-19 patients, it was difficult just to get admitted. There weren’t enough beds available.
On August 25, Pradhan arranged a COVID-19 test for his grandmother at home. The results would take 24 hours. She had no appetite that night and was so tired that she needed help walking the few steps from her bed to the bathroom. Pradhan slept a little and then called an Uber to take her to the nearest hospital in the middle of the night. It refused to admit her until her COVID-19 results are in. He spent the rest of the night hectic at various medical centers until Mane was admitted to a government hospital the next day, where treatment was massively subsidized as opposed to a private clinic.
That good news was followed by two bad news: her hemoglobin levels were still dropping, and later that day she tested positive for the coronavirus.
“It’s not easy for me to cry – but when you were first put on a ventilator, I collapsed,” said Pradhan. When he and his mother were tested immediately afterwards, they were also positive for COVID-19. They didn’t have any symptoms.
“I’m not trying to think about where and how we got infected and whether I infected my grandmother,” he said. “When I think like that, I probably feel like I could have prevented it somehow.”
Their last conversation on the phone – just before Mane was put on the ventilator – lasted 45 seconds. Pradhan’s uncle had managed to use a nurse to send a phone to Mane in the intensive care unit. Pradhan told her to stop worrying about hospital bills, get well, eat, and return home as soon as she could. She told him not to worry about her and to eat his meals on time (“when she’s on the goddamn deathbed!” Pradhan said).
When that call ended, he said, “He kind of felt like that[he’d] probably last spoken to her. “
Mane had never wanted a big funeral, and the pandemic made sure of her wish. Only three people attended her cremation – Pradhan, one of her sons, and a close family friend who was like a son to her. Mane’s daughter could not attend. She was quarantined in hospital after testing positive for COVID-19.
Like everyone else who had died in hospitals from the coronavirus, Mane’s body was sealed in a bag. It was handled by staff dressed from head to toe in personal protective equipment and no one was allowed to touch them. Pradhan said he couldn’t bring himself to see her. He asked his uncle, Mane’s son, to put a letter at her feet and thanked her for everything she had done, along with flowers and a sari.
“The thing that will always bug me is that she went to a hospital by herself,” he said. “She always wanted to go into her house, on her bed.”
Mittal, Manes manager, said she was stunned to receive the call. “My breath stopped,” she said. “She was often in the hospital, but we were used to her coming back every time. We never thought she wouldn’t come back this time. Wherever she is now she spreads happiness. I’m sure. “
Months later, Pradhan’s cell phone keeps popping up with pictures and videos he took of Mane. He said he couldn’t look at her because it was too painful.
There is an unread message from his grandmother on his WhatsApp. It’s the last time she texted him. It’s been there for months and he hasn’t opened it yet.
“It’s probably something generic, like a ‘good morning’ striker,” he said. “I haven’t checked yet. I don’t have the guts.”