Sushmita Pathak

India imposed a strict COVID-19 lockdown last year, and tens of millions of poor day laborers lost their jobs. In a massive exodus from megacities, migrant workers sought safety in their native villages. One of the most harrowing stories to emerge from those months was that of 17-year-old Jyoti Kumari, whose father drove a tuk-tuk in New Delhi and was recovering from an injury. Kumari had come to care for him.

When Chetana Madavi, 29, gets her period, she gathers a few clothes and makes her way to a kurma ghar — or menstruation hut — a few blocks from her home in a tribal community in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. It's a mud shack with a broken door and no toilet. When it rains, water leaks through the mud-tiled roof.

How many people have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began?

The official global total as of this week: 4.1 million.

But everyone agrees the true toll is far greater. A study released on Tuesday looks at how much of a disparity there may be in India, one of the epicenters of the pandemic.

MUMBAI — The slightly rusty metal gates of a single-screen cinema creak as they open to reveal a nearly 100-year-old white building whose curved contours and ziggurat roofline hark back to its Art Deco roots. Big silver letters proclaim its name — Central Plaza — but the letter 'T' is missing.

A placard outside the building says "House Full." The theater has been empty for more than a year, though.

The coronavirus has silenced even Dhaka's cacophony.

The notoriously traffic-clogged streets of Bangladesh's capital were eerily empty Thursday, save for soldiers on patrol on the first day of a national lockdown imposed after daily tallies of new coronavirus infections nearly quintupled over the past month.

When Asha Gond first started skateboarding, neighbors in her village of Janwar in central India were aghast. They urged the teenager's parents to keep her busy with housework or get her married. When she walked through the village, skateboard in hand, they would sneer at her and make disparaging comments. Skateboarding is for boys, Gond, now 21, recalls the villagers saying.

Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. This week, we look at some of the questions being posed by children in India, which is in the midst of the world's worst outbreak.

MUMBAI, India — Watching horrifying scenes in India's big cities, where COVID-19 patients have been unable to get ambulances, and even the best-equipped hospitals have run out of oxygen, Saurav Kumar shuddered to think what this wave of the pandemic would do to his hometown.

Sohini Mitter is a huge cricket fan. Normally, she would never miss the Indian Premier League (IPL), a glamorous, action-packed cricket tournament held every year during the months of April and May — and one of the biggest in the world. But this year, Mitter had other things on her mind.

"My parents' illness coincided with the IPL," Mitter told NPR.

MUMBAI, India — Sanchi Gupta was running around, trying to get her hands on an oxygen cylinder — even an empty one.

Her mother was one of 140 COVID-19 patients in Saroj Hospital, one of the best-equipped hospitals in India's capital, New Delhi. She was on a ventilator in intensive care. Then the hospital told Gupta and other families that its oxygen supply had run out. So they had to go out and find oxygen cylinders to bring to the hospital to keep their loved ones alive.

MUMBAI — Santosh Pandey's wife is the head of their village, population about 1,600, near the holy city of Varanasi in northern India. He sometimes answers her phone. So he's up to date on what's happening in town.

And what's happening these days, he said, is horrific.

Fifty people from his village, Ashapur, and a neighboring one, Tilamapur, have died in the past two weeks. Most died at home, gasping for breath, with fevers. But only five or six of them were officially counted as COVID-19 deaths, Pandey said.

HYDERABAD, India — One of the largest gatherings of people in the world continues in northern India amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases and a weakening supply of vaccines.

In a narrow lane near Mumbai's docks, commuters on bicycles weave through the crowd as workers push wooden carts loaded with heavy burlap sacks into warehouses.

Thirty-eight-year-old laborer Mohammad Yaqoob unloads sacks full of marbles from a truck. When he gets tired and thirsty, he walks to an ornate stone structure in the middle of the bustling street. It's a drinking fountain, or pyau (sometimes spelled pyaav), as it's called in the local Hindi and Marathi languages.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

India's commercial capital, Mumbai, has some amazing architecture - gothic towers, art deco buildings. But there's another part of Mumbai's cultural heritage you probably won't find in any guidebook - colonial-era drinking fountains. Most are in disrepair, and there's an effort underway to change that. NPR's India producer Sushmita Pathak has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

In a mud-walled house in rural northern India, Meera Devi sits across from a woman who recounts how four men broke into her house and raped her.

"They [people in positions of political power or of a higher caste] can do anything. They can even kill us," the victim tells Meera, who's recording the interview on her smartphone. The woman's husband sits on the floor on the side, listening to the interview with a pained expression. He later says, "We don't trust anyone except Lahariya."

India is seeing a substantial number of coronavirus variants. But it is unclear whether these are contributing to a new surge in cases there.

On Wednesday, India reported 47,262 new cases, the highest jump since November. Coronavirus-related fatalities are also increasing with 275 deaths reported on Wednesday, the most India has seen this year.

On a leafy uphill road in Mumbai's Bandra suburb, a fire burns at a Catholic shrine. Garlands adorn a cross and idols of saints below it as pedestrians walk by wearing masks. A nondescript sign at the back of the shrine tells visitors that the cross was erected in 1897 when the city was battling another pandemic.

A court in New Delhi delivered a verdict Wednesday in one of India's most high-profile #MeToo cases. But it was the accuser herself who was on trial, not the man she alleged had sexually harassed her.

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In 2010, Indian teacher Ranjitsinh Disale heard that one of his teenage female students was going to marry a man in his 30s.

India's drug regulators gave the country a gift on New Year's Day: a vaccine against the coronavirus.

An Indian minister confirmed reports that an expert panel had authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine for emergency use in India on Friday, making it the first coronavirus vaccine to be authorized in India.

"Last year began with corona, but this year is beginning with a vaccine," Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters Saturday.

With more than 10 million coronavirus cases, India has the second-highest infection load in the world after the United States. Nearly 150,000 people have died in India after testing positive for the virus, the third-highest death toll in the world after the U.S. and Brazil.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A lot will be missing about Thanksgiving this year. It's a holiday that's celebrated on a bedrock of bringing family and friends, near and far, together for a big meal and lots of catching up, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges: "As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with people you live with."

New Delhi's air quality has already reached its worst level this year. And the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, which starts this weekend, is likely to make things even worse as the traditional rounds of firecrackers add to the air pollution.

During the five-day festival, revelers set off smoke bombs, sparklers and aerial fireworks that spew clouds of noxious gas.

"It's a very critical, dangerous week ahead of us," said Delhi-based environmental activist Vimlendu Jha.

Sometimes the call comes from a teenage girl.

She is pleading for help, "saying her parents are trying to get her married but she wants to stay in school," says Vijay Muttur.

He's the child protection officer in the town of Solapur in south-central India. After India went under a coronavirus lockdown in late March, his phone has been ringing off the hook. He's hearing from girls under the age of 18, from village elders, from social activists and child-care workers.

India has surpassed 8 million confirmed coronavirus cases, making it the second country to reach that milestone after the United States.

Daily new cases in India are continuing to drop after a record high in September, and a government-appointed panel of scientists has said that the country is past its peak.

But the Hindu festival season, local elections and seasonal air pollution are raising concerns that the virus could surge again.

India's recorded coronavirus case total has surpassed that of Brazil, making India the second worst-affected country in the world after the United States.

India overtook Brazil on Monday after registering 90,802 fresh cases — the highest single-day increase any country has recorded so far during the pandemic. India's total cases are now more than 4.2 million.

V Unbeatable is a Mumbai-based acrobatic dance troupe whose members range in age from 12 to 28 and come from the city's slums. NPR wrote about them after they won America's Got Talent: The Champions this February. They'd hoped the win would help improve the financial situation of their families and open doors to new opportunities.

A picky 25-year-old from Mumbai whose unwillingness to marry raises his mom's blood pressure. A headstrong 34-year-old lawyer from Houston who says she doesn't want to settle for just anybody. A cheerful 32-year-old Guyanese-American dancer with Indian roots who simply wants to find a good person to be her husband.

India's confirmed coronavirus infections have surpassed one million cases. The country crossed that threshold on Friday after registering nearly 35,000 new cases — its biggest spike so far in a 24-hour period.

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