For almost as long as she was alive, Sushma Mane worked.
At age 8, she helped with her family’s wedding decor business. In her twenties, she found a job as a junior librarian in Mumbai, where she was born. She worked at the public library for 32 years before retiring as an administrative manager. Then she became an insurance agent, making business calls and visiting clients for 15 years. Along the way, she raised three children, divorced her husband, supported a daughter whose marriage failed and became the second mother to a grandson.
On August 30, 2020, she died of COVID-19 in a hospital in Mumbai. She was 76 years old.
“When you think of grandmothers, you have a certain image in mind – rocking chairs, knitting needles, books,” said Viraj Pradhan, Mane’s 28-year-old grandson. “She was nothing like that. She was Super Granny.
Pradhan grew up in a suburb of Mumbai, clinging to a middle class childhood. The family rushed to put food on the table. His parents divorced when he was 12, and it was Mane who took him and his mother under his wing.
While Mane’s daughter worked 12 hours a day as a school librarian, she put herself in her shoes, transporting Pradhan to school, attending PTA meetings, sitting on school committees, overseeing homework and preparing meals – in addition to working full time.
“It was basically just her and me,” Pradhan said with a wistful smile. “When I was not at school, I followed her on sales visits. We were inseparable.
Mane was the oldest employee of the insurance company where she worked. It didn’t matter. She trudged through town, preferring to take public transit rather than expensive taxis to visit clients; she carried a heavy bag full of documents on each shoulder and frequently turned down offers to help them carry them.
“At this age, they help me balance my body,” she once told her manager, Swati Mittal.
“I don’t think I’ll ever meet someone like her in my life,” Mittal told BuzzFeed News. “She always said she will work as long as she is alive.”
The first cracks in Super Granny’s armor occurred in 2017. A routine medical examination revealed an unusual EKG. Soon after, Mane began to lose blood internally and his hemoglobin level plummeted. Doctors were never able to diagnose her underlying condition. “Every few months, when her hemoglobin level was going down, she would get weak and have trouble breathing,” Pradhan said. “She was too tired to even walk around the apartment.”
Eventually, Mane had to be hospitalized every few months. Hospital staff took blood samples so often her skin became as thin as paper. She often needed an oxygen machine to breathe. “We had a pulse oximeter long before it became commonplace because of COVID-19,” Pradhan said, “and oxygen masks were a normal thing for us. The results of his blood tests were used to determine what our next few weeks would look like. Anxiety has become a permanent part of our lives.
Yet this crisis has strengthened their bond. Mane spent her days on the balcony of their tiny apartment talking to her plants, which she called her children, listening to old Bollywood songs, and posing for photos Pradhan had taken on her phone. Like most Indians, she was addicted to WhatsApp, frequently sending jokes, funny videos and “hello” messages to her grandson. She frequently texted him, her long messages typed like old-fashioned letters:
Did you eat?
Did you arrive on time?
How was your meeting?
Stay cool and positive.
Take your meds.
Do not worry.
What time are you coming back
Have a nice day, my child.
– Aaji (“grandmother” in Marathi)
At the end of 2019, Pradhan quit his full-time job at a digital media company and became self-employed to have enough time to care for his grandmother. Their roles had been reversed. “She was used to being the person people depended on,” he said, “but now she depended on me. She wasn’t ready for this.
Thanks to her grandmother’s health, COVID-19 appeared on Pradhan’s radar long before most of the world knew it. He read reports of a strange disease in China, then Italy, with growing fear. “Despite our frequent visits to the hospital, I used to be in control,” he said, “but I thought if this virus ever came here I wouldn’t be in control. I was terrified of what would happen to my grandmother.
In March, when India imposed a national lockdown with little warning, Pradhan said, he prayed that Mane would run away. Within days, his hemoglobin levels had dropped again.
In the first three months of the country’s lockdown, Mane had to be hospitalized three times, which proved much more difficult during a pandemic. Her symptoms – cough, low blood oxygen, and fatigue – so closely resembled those of COVID-19 that doctors often refused to examine her without a COVID test, which was difficult to obtain at the time. . Later, as the city’s hospitals were teeming with COVID-19 patients, just getting admitted was difficult; there were not enough beds available.
On August 25, Pradhan organized a COVID-19 test for his grandmother at home. The results would take 24 hours. That night, she had no appetite, and she was so tired that she needed help walking from her bed to the bathroom. Pradhan got a bit of sleep, then called an Uber to take him to the nearest hospital in the middle of the night. He refused to admit it until his COVID-19 results were known. He spent the rest of the night frantically going to various medical centers until the next day, when Mane was admitted to a government hospital, where treatment would be massively subsidized, unlike a private clinic.
This good news was followed by two bad news: Her hemoglobin levels were still dropping, and later that day she tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Crying doesn’t come easily – but the first time they put her on a ventilator I broke down,” Pradhan said. When he and his mother were tested immediately afterwards, they also tested positive for COVID-19. They had no symptoms.
“I try not to think about where and how we got infected and if I infected my grandmother,” he says. “Thinking like that will probably make me feel like I could have prevented this from happening.”
Their last conversation on the phone – just before Mane was put on a ventilator – lasted 45 seconds. Pradhan’s uncle had managed to send Mane a phone in the intensive care unit through a nurse. He told her to stop worrying about hospital bills, get well, eat, and go home as soon as she could. She told him not to worry about her and to eat her meals on time (“when she’s on the creepy deathbed!” Pradhan said).
At the end of that call, he said, he “kind of felt that[he’d] probably spoke to him for the last time.
Mane had never wanted a big funeral, and the pandemic secured his 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 couldn’t attend; she was in hospital quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.
Like everyone else who has died in hospitals from the coronavirus, Mane’s body was sealed in a bag. It was run by staff dressed from head to toe with personal protective equipment, and no one was allowed to touch her. Pradhan said he couldn’t bring himself to see her. He asked his uncle, Mane’s son, to place a letter at his feet, thanking her for all she had done, with flowers and a sari.
“What will always bother me is that she went to the hospital on her own,” he said. “She always wanted to go to her house, to her bed.
Mittal, the manager of Mane, said she was stunned to receive the call. “My breathing stopped,” she said. “She was in the hospital a lot, but we used to come back every time. We never thought this time she wouldn’t come back. Wherever she is now, she spreads happiness. I’m sure.
Months later, Pradhan’s phone continued to surface from the photos and videos he had taken of Mane. He said he couldn’t look at them, because it was too painful.
In her WhatsApp is an unread message from her grandmother. This was the last time she texted him. It’s been there for months and hasn’t opened it yet.
“It’s probably something generic, like a ‘hello’ forward,” he says. “I haven’t checked it yet. I do not have any courage.