Covid inflicted on us, people of a country of 1.4 billion, the strictest and the longest lockdown in the entire world. In a few hours’ notice, our lives screeched to a halt. We all suffered unprecedented effects from these remedial measures. But the tribulations visited on the daily wage earners, workers in the unorganised sector are beyond imagination. For most of us, a privileged people of our country, inconveniences were minor: cessation of outdoor exercise, loss of gymnasium workouts, curbs on social visits, shelving of travel plans, an unbearable ennui, and reduced savings for a couple of months.
I suspect, not a few of my countrymen at a later date – once the world emerges from these ominous time – would remember these languid days with a pang of longing, when they talk of old times over a glass of beer.
I wrote the following passages last year.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I have to face the truth. Corona, the most dreaded word in our lives today and the fearful virus at large in our lungs brought in my life, much inconvenience but not a little joy too.
I returned from Sri Lanka after a weeklong holiday in mid-March. My hospital advised me home quarantine for seven days. Sri Lanka then had fewer cases of Corona infection than our state. There were no quarantine guidelines in our country. I was peeved at this irrational decision. But it appeared, the hospital was keen on proffering me with a little furlough. I remonstrated but accepted the decision with appropriate forbearance. The next day I took off to visit a friend in a nearby city: two holidays, end to end.
Hospital’s corridors forever crammed with visitors, like the lawns of India Gate on sunny winter noon, became desolate overnight, like the grand avenues of Lutyens’ Delhi, lined with naked trees in peak autumn. Clinicians rued their fate. Hospital bosses pulled long faces. Human Resource cronies dropped hints about the hospital’s precarious health, worse than the pandemic-bitten nation’s. I awaited the salary cut which arrived sooner than expected like summer in the north Indian plain.
Dwindling business in the hospital brought long idle hours. Few colleagues bewailed the dreadful effects of prolonged ennui. I have for long evolved a convenient philosophy of work. My work at the hospital is to nourish my life that doesn’t begin or end with the hospital. In fact, it seems to begin when I reach home after work. I am fond of Anaesthesia that I have practised for close to three decades now. I practice it joyfully and sincerely, to the extent I am capable of. But I have been fortunate to know what is essential for a few bare joys in my life. Without these, my life would be sapped of all vigour and will degenerate into a mere mechanical act of living.
I remembered Bertrand Russel’s essay In Praise of Idleness. ‘I want to say, in all seriousness, that a deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work,’ he wrote. These are noble words and never fail to inspire me. I commiserated with my woebegone colleagues for this deplorable worklessness and quietly slithered to an isolated corner. I read and wrote much during these weeks, more joyfully and more intently. I learnt anew, that the Idle mind is not the devil’s playground but a nursery of many beautiful things.
Pandemic brought another gift in our lives: social distancing. Every sixth person in the world is an Indian, while our landmass is just two percent of the world’s. We live in a giant Chawl. Apart from constraints of space, we derive security in physical proximity of suffocating proportions. Corona gave sanctity to the need for solitude at work, on-road and in bazaars. I could boldly advise the person behind me in the billing queue, trying desperately to peep into my goods’ basket, to keep adequate distance. A loner could seek the comfort of a secluded space, without inviting derisory looks from colleagues. Social distancing came as a blessing.
I live in a city that has had an admirable past. It played an important role in the 1857 revolt. It was a thriving industrial centre for almost a hundred years, beginning mid-nineteenth century. The Communist Party of India was born here in 1925. City frittered all its past glories after independence and was reborn as the Paan Masala capital of India, it’s one stellar contribution to our culture in modern times. This deadly mixture of areca nuts and tobacco, addictive like opiates, brings much into the lives of its lovers. It endows them with increased chances of developing oral cancer. For the city it brings the jubilant citizen, chewing masala with a philosophical nonchalance, spitting all over the town with an enviable dedication and freeness of spirit. While cycling on city roads, it is a task no less skilful than of a trapeze artist, to dodge the forceful spittle of fellow cyclists, motorists and pedestrians. Corona enforced face mask and social distancing, while restricting the fundamental freedom of Masala devotees, permitted me to ride my cycle with a carefree roughness, I had never experienced before. The city is now lumbering back to its traditional ways. But I still hold dear to the Corona-bestowed-licence and occasionally vent my irritation at an innocent soul who unloads the endowments of his ballooning mouth onto the road.
The vibrancy of a North Indian wedding pageant, treading the busiest streets of the city, like the victory march of an emperor, has to be seen to be believed. The prudence, the reserve, the refinement of my millennia-old culture is on display. As fraught motorists look for an inch of space to move forward, men and women, young boys and girls, and kids gyrate wildly, waving dupattas, the loose end of their sarees, or their kerchiefs. Deafening vulgar music of this jamboree seeps through the walls of my house as I turn in my bed, trying unsuccessfully to dam the flood of the hurtful notes. The season of marriage seems to have passed me by this year; roads have been quieter, traffic smoother.
Spirituality of my fellow countrymen blooms like a thousand-petalled lotus on the days and nights of festivals. Earth is then agog with fashionable Bhajans; devotional songs are sung to the tune of popular Hindi film music. This arouses intense feelings of piety and religion. My quiet evenings have been spared the invasion of these cloyingly devout notes for some time, ala, Corona.
Our streets emanate not only the delicate fragrance of street food but also of effluvia which like food is an essential component of life, however detestable. Mandatory Corona apparatus protect us not only from the virus lurking in our breaths but from much more.
City roads were splendidly deserted for a short while. I will forever cherish those forlorn streets, as I zoomed past them on my cycle, ringing the bell frenetically, just to hear the peal of the rolling sound on the desolate roads, bereft of traffic din.
In these apocalyptic times, my ruminations on the joys of Corona, I suspect, would appear, outright criminal, if not the ravings of an unhinged mind. Winston Churchill, as he worked on the formation of the United Nations after WW II, said famously (it would appear Churchill never said anything unfamous), ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ A similar spirit of free enquiry applied to this disaster in future might then unravel these unintended by-products of the accursed pandemic.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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