Oxygen concentrator (Representative image/Shutterstock)
As India struggles to provide oxygen for Covid patients needing urgent care, over 50 writers and artists from South Asia and abroad have banded together under the Artists for India initiative to raise funds for oxygen concentrators.
Led by Goa-born, London-based writer Sonia Faleiro, they have tied up with Mission Oxygen, “a not-for-profit, non-political group” of Delhi NCR-based entrepreneurs running a campaign to bring these machines to India to save lives.
Faleiro, author of the book The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing (2021), says, “I wanted to channelise my grief into something effective. I didn't just want to respond emotionally to the images I saw and the stories I heard; I wanted to be of use.” She roped in Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Jodi Picoult, Viet Than Nguyen, Fatima Bhutto, Curtis Sittenfeld, Ali Smith, Kamila Shamsie, and Alison Dunlop, among others.
Artists for India directs people to donate to Mission Oxygen’s campaign on Ketto, a crowdfunding platform. Each person making a donation of £100 (Rs 10,237 at the current exchange rate) or more must email their receipt and mailing address to receive a signed copy of a work from one of these writers and artists. Only donations made between April 29 and May 6 are eligible for these.
Rahul Aggarwal, founder of Designhill, an online marketplace connecting designers with clients, says that Mission Oxygen grew out of a small effort by his own family to donate oxygen concentrators when they noticed a big gap between demand and supply. More people joined in when he told his friends and they, in turn, told their own friends.
He says, "We are getting help from all over the world, and this will help us source and supply life-saving equipment of high quality to over 200 public and private hospitals as well as nursing homes not only in Delhi NCR but in 13 states across the length and breadth of India.”
Shikher Gupta, founder of Cuttlfish, a company that provides self-defence and fitness training to corporates, is one of over 250 volunteers driving Mission Oxygen. They have already raised Rs 22 crore, and they keep donors informed via social media about how the money is being used.
Gupta says, “It has been helpful to have celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar, Taapsee Pannu and Abhishek Bachchan endorse us. With international writers joining us through Artists for India, we hope that more people will feel encouraged to donate. That will assist us in scaling our efforts and adding more machines to save lives.”
Aggarwal says that they have placed orders for 3,900 oxygen concentrators, all of which are coming in from China. They plan to raise the number to 5,000, and get more if needed. “We have also donated money towards setting up an oxygen generation plant at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital in Delhi,” adds Gupta.
Artists for India is backed by Aruni Kashyap, Lisa Ray, Megha Majumdar, Avni Doshi, Susan Abulhawa, V.V. Ganeshanathan, Molly Crabapple, Angela Saini, Prayaag Akbar, Mira Kamdar, Nikesh Shukla, Janice Pariat, and Mathangi Subramanian, among other writers and artists.
“When a few hours of breath are selling for several thousands, this is but a token gesture of what we can do from afar to support the distribution of oxygen to hospitals in need. We need a revolution of sorts to transform a democracy that has been hollowed out,” says Alpa Shah, associate professor-reader in anthropology at the London School of Economics, and author of the book Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas - also part of the Artists for India initiative.
London-based Shrabani Basu, whose most recent book is The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer, says, “I think all of us watched the scenes on our television screens and felt a sense of despair and helplessness. For me the horror was real, as I grew up in Delhi and have family there.”
Her extended family was adversely affected. Her sister's in-laws were struggling for oxygen and hospital beds. They could not save her sister's brother-in-law. “This was the story playing out in every family in Delhi. Everyone was mourning a friend or relative who could have been saved. Oxygen was the life-saver everyone was crying out for,” she adds.
This is not the first time that artists are raising funds for a major public health crisis, of course. Live Aid, a set of two benefit concerts held simultaneously by singers at London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium in 1985, famously helped collect money for victims of the famine in Ethiopia. In 1992, after singer Freddie Mercury died of HIV/AIDS, his band mates and other singers organized the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness at Wembley. The proceeds were donated to a charity focusing on AIDS-related research.
Diksha Basu, who divides her time between New York and Mumbai, and has written the book Destination Wedding most recently, has been feeling “a combination of grief and helplessness watching India from afar.” Karachi-based Saba Imtiaz, author of the book Karachi, You’re Killing Me! joined Artists for India because she finds the crisis “absolutely horrific and horrendous”. Both were looking for ways to help, and are grateful to Faleiro.
Artists for India builds on the reach and influence of participating writers and artists in addition to their generosity. Many of them are located in countries that practise vaccine nationalism and vaccine apartheid, blocking universal access to vaccines for people in less economically advanced countries through deals with pharmaceutical companies.
Kalyan Nadiminti, assistant professor of English at Northwestern University in the US, who researches global literary markets and South Asia’s engagement with US empire, says, “The politics of solidarity that seems to emerge with Artists for India is that of an unsurprising humanitarianism that leverages the language of exclusivity in the service of charity—consider how the copy emphasizes, 'valid while signed copies last', so please donate early.”
They caution against “the limitations of liberal gestures of compassion and care” because “Indian creative economies and literary prestige (stewarded by figures like William Dalrymple and Rana Dasgupta) have been quite happy to work along the grain of, rather than against, both right-wing nationalist and multinational corporate interests for a while now, as indexed recently by Sushil Sivaram in his excellent work.”
William Dalrymple, the Scottish author who lives in Delhi and is co-founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival, is also part of Artists for India. In the last few days, he has received flak from numerous followers on social media for posting an idyllic photograph from Sri Lanka on his Instagram page, accompanied by a note detailing his “great escape”
from India “as casualties mounted and Facebook filled with funeral pyres.” Dalrymple apologized later for “being tone deaf and reeking with privilege.”