Story of travails from Italy to India

The Director of Shillong’s Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures and Museum (DBCICM), Dr (Fr) Manoj Churuliyil Abraham SDB, PhD, MA, MCom, BEd, travelled from down south up to the North East as a young boy to join the Salesians of Don Bosco. Fr Manoj wears many hats — he is a Council Member of Salesian Province of Shillong, professor at Sacred Heart Theological College, visiting professor to various institutes, a researcher and organiser of various cultural events in the NE. In an interview with
Dr Anjana Varma, he shares his near traumatic experience during the COVID lockdown in Italy and the struggle to be back in India.

Can you describe your journey as a priest?
I left home when I was 15, fascinated by the life of priests. My parents were averse but consented eventually. North East is unique with its various cultures, languages, food habits and even the physical features. The difficulty faced in adapting to cultural uniqueness, logic and learning the languages to work among them was no cakewalk. It’s been 28 years of priestly service.

What are the challenges in the life of a priest?
Priests face numerous challenges related to work, relationship, health, social and personal problems. Priests are not super-humans but normal persons who have taken the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience to the church authorities. The conscious decision in rejecting various pleasures is to render a specific and better service. The individual priests leave their blood family to form a special family of brothers.

What do you have to say about the scandals involving priests?
Priests go through the same physical and psychological processes as any individual. Committed to the church and congregation, he should be conscious to live up to the expectations. When a priest commits a mistake, people are eager to throw stones at them. What about a married person who makes mistakes? I am not justifying but looking at the human aspect. Their lives are demanding, not easy. Errors committed by priests tarnish the image of the whole church. Appropriate remedial measures are to be taken. Lots of negative publicity is given to scandals with a tendency to generalise it. Instead, we must focus on the good deeds of those priests who burn themselves for others.

Can you share your experience during the lockdown in Italy?
I had gone to Italy on the first week of February, for an international meeting along with fellow priests. We were 270+ representatives from all over the world. Shortly after the meeting commenced, we became aware of the rapid spread and dangers of the COVID. Italy was very badly affected right from the beginning. We had to cut the meeting short by a month on March 14. The return tickets for first week of April were preponed to March 17. Twenty-five of us reached Turin airport to fly to Delhi via Rome. After issuing boarding passes, the flights to India were cancelled. We lost the flight, the money of the tickets and had to go back to the institute to request for further paid hospitality. This continued till June 4 with paid services for food and lodging. This additional expense was hard to afford.
The streets of Turin became so quiet — public places were deserted, shops were closed and people locked themselves in their houses. The often heard siren of the ambulances and the news of high death toll, even up to 900 a single day, were frightening. Though the campus was safe, there was always the possibility of someone bringing in the virus. Two and a half months of uncertainty with no news of a flight to come back to India was traumatic. Extreme care was required for physical, psychological and emotional health. The prison-like situation was heavy but the company of peers helped us find some relaxation.
The institute arranged for blood and swab test and all of us were negative. We could hear at midday people clapping hands from their respective apartments, to say they were still alive and healthy. This communication was different from the banging of plates, ringing bells and lighting fire in India. Italian medical system works with health insurance. So, if any one gets sick, the expense of treatment could be enormous. With the cancellation of the tickets, we lost our insurances. A good number of people contracted the COVID 19 from the hospitals. Without playing blame game on anyone, couldn’t the evacuations have been done a bit earlier? Various European countries sent their flights to other countries to get back their citizens stranded right in the beginning, even with free airlift. I am sure many more Indians are still waiting to come back to the country, even with expensive tickets.

How do you see the process of journey to India?
We were asked to report to the Rome Fiumicino airport at 1 pm Italian time on June 4. Only the temperature was checked there. After two and a half hours of wait — practically standing due to the social distancing and unavailability of seats — began the long three hour process to check in. With a lot of documents submitted and after a long eight-hour process of boarding the flight, we left Rome at around 8.40 pm on June 4. The flight duration was around 7-8 hours. No social distancing was found in the flight as all seats were occupied. Gloves, masks, visors and tiny sachets of sanitisers were provided. The presence of any infected passenger could easily jeopardise the safety of all. The flight crew was well protected. Snack packets for Rs 5 and Rs 10, two sandwich packets with two bottles of water were kept on each seat. Having paid 682 Euros, I expected better. With the air condition reduced, I found myself uncomfortable and perspiring in a flight full of passengers. Truly, there was real social distancing by the flight attendants from the passengers. Were we mortally sick and to be feared? With not even a television in the flight, many of us found ourselves sleepless.

How hard it was to come back to India?
We had registered in the Indian Consulate at Milan in March. On May 21, the consulate contacted to begin the process of booking the ticket. Many details like passport number, the purpose of visit to Italy, the address, etc were to be furnished. On 23rd, we were asked to pay and purchase the Air India tickets. Though a government mission to evacuate the stranded Indians, we had to pay 682 Euros per head. This huge sum had to be borrowed. Critically thinking, who had the advantage? Not the passengers. We had to reach the previous day to catch the flight as we were far away from Rome. During the journey in an Italian train, social distancing and other guidelines were perfectly followed without extra charge.
I am incapable of understanding the real significance of the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ with just one company flying once a month. Evacuation should have been carried out with the help of other willing flight companies till all are brought home, with responsibility.

How was your quarantine experience in Delhi?
On June 5 at 7 am we landed in Delhi. Filling up of forms continued before being herded out of the airport and then to the hotels, pre-booked. The toilets could be used only around 9.30 am. A cup of water, coffee or tea was neither offered nor given the opportunity to buy from the airport. We were looked at as dangerous, contagious sick people but we were not! At 11.30 we were taken to the pre-booked star hotel accompanied by the Delhi police.
At the hotel in Dwarka, Delhi, our passports were confiscated by the hotel management till vacating the rooms. Each one paid approx. Rs 4,000 per day for 7 days from 5-12 June. Not allowed out of the rooms, we were given three hot ‘diet meals’, served in plastic plates, daily. The used plastic plates kept outside would be taken away to be dumped. Many of us disapproved the centralised air condition system and the frugal meal. No blood test or swab test was done. We were given a thermometer each to check our own temperatures and report three times daily; our honesty was the only measuring yard.
On the final day, on June 12, as we checked out of our hotel, we were called to the reception and asked: “Are you okay?”-“Okay”, “Any problem?”-“No problem”. Even if a person had symptoms, he or she could just say “no problem’ and get a doctor’s medical certificate. Not even the temperature was taken by the medical team on the last day. What purpose did the quarantine serve? What if one was found symptomatic and hid the truth? The doctor’s certificate issued at the hotel was not asked for anywhere. Someone named this as “corona tourism” and I am tempted to agree with it. Who benefitted from this quarantine? The hotel didn’t do anything to make sure we were safe and that we were not affected. We need not merely be ‘pocket’ oriented. Welfare of the society should be the priority and hence we need to shift our focus from ‘my gain’ to ‘our welfare’. Leaders and policy makers should exhibit altruism and work for the welfare of others, else people will be taught to be minimalists.”

How do you feel being back in Meghalaya?
There was neither social distancing nor person-oriented treatment in the flights from Delhi to Guwahati or in the airports. The flights were packed, strangers sitting close to each other, with a constant fear of sneezing or coughing. I just finished 28 days of quarantine in Meghalaya. On June 13, at the border Byrnihat, blood and swab tests were conducted. For the first 14 days, we were contacted twice daily to ask after our situation with an automated machine to record our answer. I felt the concern of the government was systematically exhibited by the visits and the calls. There was a serious effort to curtail the spread and to care for those affected.

Tell us about DBCIC? What has been your contribution to it?
It is one of the largest cultural centres in Asia and perhaps one of its kinds in the world. It’s a prominent institution in the NE projecting the culture and tradition of various tribes in the region. Visitors from all around the world are full of admiration about the way we have preserved and documented the culture of NE India which would help the world to understand about the region. We have various galleries spread across seven storeys, video shows and a skywalk where the visitors can have a bird’s eye view of the whole of Shillong.
I have been the Director of the museum for the last three years. A number of new galleries are added, old ones modified and new exhibitions inaugurated in these years. The Gandhi family has donated recently, a number of gifts received from NE. More are being prepared such as the “Don Bosco Community Information Project Gallery” supported by the NEC through the Art & Culture department of the Government of Meghalaya, the North Eastern Space Corner set up by the NESAC (North Eastern Space Application Centre), etc. Additionally, various new artifacts, procured and donated, are exhibited.

(The author is chairperson of CSA, and editor of The International Journal)

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