“Haan ji Mumma,” Shivani Charak exclaims during our conversation on the phone. It takes her a second to realise that it was her father calling for her from the other room and she laughs. “Because I was talking so much about Mumma, it just slipped out of my mouth,” Shivani says.
Shivani—India’s top-ranked woman sport climber, a sport that is slated for debut at the Tokyo Olympics—has not seen her mother for nearly two months, though they are only 20km apart from each other in Jammu. That’s because Shivani’s mother, 45-year-old Berodevi Charak, is one of the frontline warriors in the ongoing pandemic, working as a nurse in the Covid-19 ward at Jammu’s Government Hospital in Gandhinagar.
Shivani, 18, wears the honour of being her mother’s daughter like a badge, alongside all the other medals that she has won since taking up the sport in 2015 —such as the Asian Youth Championship bronze that she bagged last December— and the fact that she survived cancer.
Because of the high risk nature of Berodevi’s job as a nurse and the close proximity she keeps to infected patients, the nursing staff of the hospital has been put up at a hotel that’s a 15-minute drive from the hospital. It’s a 20km long journey from the Charak household, but it seems like an insurmountable distance for “Laddu”, as Shivani is called in the family. Berodevi left home on March 26; uncertain, tense and in tears while packing her bags. Shivani gave her a shoulder.
Shivani: Nothing will happen, Mumma. Everything will be fine and you’ll be home soon.
Berodevi: Yes, Laddu…I don’t want to come home and put you all at risk, even though I really want to be with you all in these scary times.
Shivani: Yes, Mumma. We understand. You don’t worry. The more you get worried, the more difficult it will be for you. Just relax, we’ll be fine.
Berodevi: Haan beta, take care of your brothers and Papa.
Shivani has an elder sister and her twin brothers are a year younger than her; all four siblings are sport climbers, each of them having participated in the Nationals earlier this year. But with the elder sister caught up in Delhi during the lockdown and her father (a lab assistant in the government women’s college) reporting to work since the end of the third phase of the lockdown, Shivani has suddenly found herself running the household, like her mother did before the pandemic.
During these last couple of months, however, Berodevi’s been responsible for more lives than a single household. She works seven days a week that includes a one-night shift, followed by 15 days of break—where she can’t step out of the hotel room—before the next round of seven working days.
“I’ve stayed away from my mother during competitions, but never has it been that she is in Jammu and I don’t see her even for one day, let alone two months. Even when I was ill and Mumma would be away, she would still come and meet me at least once a month,” Shivani says.
Shivani was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of nine, and spent a large part of the next three years in Chandigarh for her surgery and chemotherapy sessions. She remembers the time when doctors required two bottles of blood for her operation; when her father’s donation fell short, her mother stepped in.
“My parents’ support during that period was massive. If my father had work, my mother would stay (with me), and the other way round. Someone was always there with me—they never left me alone even for one minute,” Shivani says.
Little did Shivani know then that years later it would be her turn to play the unwavering support system for her mother fighting a unique battle.
The 15-day break between shifts requires Berodevi to undergo a Covid-19 test herself, the results of which have returned negative so far.
“When the result of her first test was to come, I remember all of us were so nervous. And when she called saying it was negative, I said, ‘All the future tests will come negative the same way, you wait and watch. You don’t worry at all, just take good rest’,” says Shivani.
Cooking it right
Barodevi calls her daughter every day. She has never stayed in a hotel, so she speed-dials Shivani for all her doubts—from operating new-look bathroom taps and switchboards to understanding the instruction manual.
In almost all her calls, Berodevi asks Shivani about the condition of the house and the status of her cooking skills. Shivani has learnt to make rotis and quick-fix foods like egg rolls. Daal, rice and curry still remains the responsibility of the father.
Berodevi would always insist on Shivani learning how to cook—more for being self-reliant than anything else—but the teenager rebelled at the suggestion. “When I won’t be home, what will you do?” Berodevi would ask Shivani.
One day last month, Barodevi found out from an excited Shivani over the phone.
Shivani: Mumma, I made two makki ki rotis.
Berodevi: Stop joking. You can’t make makki ki roti! It’s not easy.
Shivani: No Mumma, believe me.
Berodevi: You’re lying, Laddu. Make it and show it to me on a video call.
Shivani: No way. I’ve made it once with such difficulty. I can’t make it again.
Waiting for reunion
Shivani is used to scaling walls for a living. Before the lockdown, she would spend hours training at a nearby school, which has a small wall for beginners (this is where she had first picked up the sport). Closer to competitions, she would shift base to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi. But during the lockdown, she has had to make-do with home equipment—a training board for pull ups and a neighbour’s brick wall for light climbing activity. When normal life resumes, she is certain that she will rise to her next challenge. She is equally confident that her mother will do the same.
“I feel proud that she is working to save lives and fighting against this enemy—only a few people get a chance to serve the nation,” Shivani says, “But I also feel tense. Mumma’s away, right in the middle of it all, what if something happens to her?
Shivani seeks strength in her training. “Whenever I really miss her or feel worried about her, I start working out. I try and keep myself busy with whatever that helps me stop thinking about my mother,” she says. “It’s been so long since she has been away from home. I’m tempted to at least go and see her once from outside the hotel. But that’s also not allowed.”
The wait has felt like an eternity, and Shivani expects it to stretch further. But she’s already made reunion plans: a long hug, no matter what protocol dictates.
“I’ll also try and make something new for Mumma, which will surprise her,” says Shivani. “Maybe I’ll make that makki ki roti again. She will then have no choice but to believe me, right?”