For nearly as long as she was alive, Sushma Mane worked.
At 8, she helped out with her family’s wedding decoration 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 she retired as its administrative head. Then she became an insurance agent, making sales calls and visiting clients for 15 years. Along the way, she raised three children, separated from her husband, supported a daughter whose marriage broke down, and became a second mother to a grandson.
On Aug. 30, 2020, she died from COVID-19 in a Mumbai hospital. She was 76.
“When you think of grandmothers, you have a certain image in your 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 Mumbai suburb, clinging to a middle-class childhood. The family hustled to put food on the table. His parents divorced when he was 12, and it was Mane who took both him and his mother under her wing.
While Mane’s daughter worked 12-hour days as a school librarian, she stepped into her shoes, ferrying Pradhan to school, attending PTA meetings, serving on school committees, supervising homework, and cooking meals — in addition to working full time.
“It was basically just me and her,” Pradhan said with a wistful smile. “When I wasn’t in school, I used to tag along with her on sales calls. We were inseparable.”
Mane was the oldest employee at the insurance company where she worked. It didn’t matter. She trudged around the city, preferring to take public transit instead of expensive cabs to visit clients; she’d carry a heavy bag full of documents from each shoulder and frequently turn down offers to help 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 anyone like her in my life again,” Mittal told BuzzFeed News. “She always used to say that she will work as long as she was alive.”
The first cracks in Super Granny’s armor came in 2017. A routine medical checkup revealed an unusual electrocardiogram. Soon after, Mane began to lose blood internally, and her hemoglobin levels plummeted. Doctors were never able to diagnose her underlying condition. “Every few months, when her hemoglobin levels went down, she became weak and found it hard to breathe,” Pradhan said. “She was too tired to even walk around the apartment.”
Eventually, Mane had to be hospitalized every few months. Hospital staffers drew blood samples so often her skin became as thin as paper. She frequently 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 her blood reports used to determine what our next few weeks would look like. Anxiety became a permanent part of our lives.”
Still, that crisis made their bond stronger. Mane spent her days in the balcony of their tiny apartment talking to her plants, which she called her kids, listening to old Bollywood songs, and posing for pictures that Pradhan took on his phone. Like most Indians, she was hooked to WhatsApp, frequently forwarding jokes, funny videos, and “good morning” messages to her grandson. She texted him frequently, her long messages tapped out like old-fashioned letters:
Did you eat?
Did you reach on time?
How was your meeting?
Stay cool and positive.
Take your medicines.
I am fine.
What time will you be back?
Have a good day, child.
— Aaji (“grandmother” in Marathi)
At the end of 2019, Pradhan quit his full-time job at a digital media company and went freelance so he would have 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 that.”
Thanks to his grandmother’s condition, COVID-19 appeared on Pradhan’s radar long before most of the world took notice of it. He read reports of a strange illness in China, and then in Italy, with mounting dread. “Despite our frequent hospital visits, I was used to being in control of things,” he said, “but I thought that if this virus ever came here, I would not be in control. I was terrified 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 pull through. Within days, her hemoglobin levels had dropped again.
During the first three months of the country’s lockdown, Mane had to be hospitalized three times, something that proved to be a lot more challenging in a pandemic. Her symptoms — coughing, low blood oxygen levels, and fatigue — resembled those of COVID-19 so closely that doctors often refused to examine her without a COVID test, which was hard to get at that time. Later, as hospitals in the city overflowed with COVID-19 patients, just getting admitted was tough; there weren’t enough beds available.
On Aug. 25, Pradhan arranged for a COVID-19 test for his grandmother at home. Results would take 24 hours. That night, she had no appetite, and she was so tired that she needed help walking the few steps from her bed to the bathroom. Pradhan slept a little, 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 were in. He spent the rest of the night frantically going to different medical centers until the next day, when Mane was admitted to a government hospital, where treatment would be massively subsidized, unlike in a private clinic.
That good news was followed by two pieces of bad news: Her hemoglobin levels were still plummeting, and, later that day, she tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Crying doesn’t come easily to me — but the first time they put her on a ventilator, I broke down,” Pradhan said. When he and his mother got tested immediately afterward, they came up positive for COVID-19 too. They had no symptoms.
“I try to not think about where and how we got infected and whether I infected my grandmother,” he said. “Thinking like that will probably make me feel that I could have somehow prevented it from happening.”
Their final conversation over the phone — right before Mane was put on the ventilator — lasted 45 seconds. Pradhan’s uncle had managed to send a phone to Mane in the intensive care unit through a nurse. Pradhan told her to stop worrying about hospital bills, get well, eat, and come back 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 freaking deathbed!” Pradhan said).
When that call ended, he said, he “somehow had a feeling that[he’d] probably spoken to her for the last time.”
Mane had never wanted a big funeral, and the pandemic ensured 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 couldn’t attend; she was quarantining at the hospital after testing positive for COVID-19.
Like all other people who had died in hospitals due to the coronavirus, Mane’s body was sealed shut in a bag. It was handled by staffers who were clad from head to toe in personal protective equipment, and nobody 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 her feet, thanking her for everything she had done, along with flowers and a sari.
“The thing that will always bug me is that she went away alone in a hospital,” he said. “She always wanted to go in her house, on her bed.”
Mittal, Mane’s manager, said she was stunned to get the call. “My breath stopped,” she said. “She used to be in the hospital a lot, but we were used to her coming back every single time. We never thought that this time she wouldn’t come back. Wherever she is now, she is spreading happiness. Of that I am sure.”
Months later, Pradhan's phone keeps surfacing pictures and videos he’d taken of Mane. He said he can’t look at them, because it’s too painful.
In his WhatsApp sits an unread message from his grandmother. It's the last time she texted him. It's been there for months, and he hasn't yet opened it.
“It’s probably something generic, like a ‘good morning’ forward,” he said. “I haven’t checked it yet. I don’t have the courage.”