Being as Echolocation: Some Thoughts on Community in the Pandemic Year

As we make our way into 2021, how we look back and read the thicket of signals spawned by the pandemic year is crucial.

Seventy-three-year-old Rajbeer Sandhu, a farmer from Punjab, remarked this morning,

 “Har raat son toh pehlan asaan chimkadadon di, kidiyaan di awaajan sunde ne. Phair phajaron panchi aa jaande aan. Eh chimkad, kide, panchi vi saade naal aais jaalim sarkar de khilaaf jāgaṇā kar rahe ne.

(Every night before going to sleep we can hear bats and insects. Then in the morning, the birds arrive. It feels as if just like us these bats, insects and birds are also performing a vigil against this brutal government.)”

Sandhu is among the thousands of farmers who have travelled to the Delhi border to protest against draconian anti-farmer laws that have been ramrodded by the government of India in the middle of a global pandemic. Imposed undemocratically without discussion with any stakeholders, these laws in essence threaten to destroy food security, public distribution systems and agricultural diversity. If not repealed, they will ensure a corporate takeover of agriculture, with millions of farmers eventually losing their autonomy, livelihoods and dignity.

The protest against these laws is only the latest in a series of mass horizontal mobilisations against the policies of the BJP government. Echoes of the outcry against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the scrapping of Article 370, the arrest of public intellectuals and young students under terrorism laws can be strongly felt at the Singhu border. Here, many like Sandhu are braving a bone chilling winter and government brutality to nourish the spirit of democracy. Nearly 54 farmers have already lost their lives in these protests that have been on since November 26, 2020.

While it is difficult to predict how this stand-off between despotism and democracy will ultimately play out, I return to the evocative portrait of life and resistance presented by Rajbeer Sandhu.

The bat which Sandhu hears as a co-protestor every night, and which is the only mammal capable of flying, became a symbol of death and suffering when COVID-19 appeared across the world in early 2020. This was because some early conjectures regarded bats as the source of the novel coronavirus. Due to the lack of definitive data and research, these conjectures soon took on a virality of their own. Social media was flooded with memes, videos and images that fuelled this association between the pandemic and bats. While COVID-19 is still believed to be zoonotic, the bat has since been joined by pangolins, civet cats and minks as possible sources of the virus that has arguably transformed our world forever.

Also read: Illustrations: 2020’s Persons of the Year

Hovering somewhere in the spectrum between enemy and ally, something about bats could perhaps hold the key for us to navigate this changed world. ‘Echolocation’ is the mechanism that keeps bats from flying into obstacles or predators in the dark. Apart from keeping them physically safe, it also helps them find communities, food and safe places to rest. A fascinating and precise dance, echolocation is enabled when ultrasonic sounds made by the bat hit surfaces and return to it. The duration of the delay, altered strength and frequency of the refracted signal helps the bat generate a detailed aural portrait of the environment it is in. Discovered first by a 16th century Italian priest, Lazzaro Spallanzani, echolocation or biological sonars have since been widely studied to understand how – in the absence of touch or vision – several animal species can thrive and communicate not just amongst themselves but also with inanimate surfaces, plants and other animals.

The experience of 2020 will forever be etched in the minds of those who lived through it. A time of great collective suffering and loss, it also saw new articulations of justice, community and intimacy. As we make our way into 2021, how we look back and read the thicket of signals spawned by the pandemic year is crucial.

Images of workers abandoned by employers and the state, walking thousands of kilometres with meagre belongings and infants in tow; citizens reaching out to help one another as tonnes of ammonium nitrate along with government apathy ripped out Beirut’s innards; statues of slave owners toppled in the West as the slogan ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ resounded across the world; the police murder of George Floyd and its raw horror caught in citizen videos; the glorious Shaheen Bagh protests continued from 2019; outrage against intellectual apartheid  and the proposal to block Libgen and Sci-Hub in India; the discovery of Homo Sapien fossils in the Bacho Kiro Cave that restructured our previously known evolutionary timelines vis a vis modern humans; unprecedented ecological calamities like Cyclone Amphan, Hurricane Laura, Aegean Sea Earthquake and the Australian bushfires; pro-democracy surges on the streets of Hong Kong, Belarus and Thailand; breakthroughs in COVID-19 vaccine production.

To regard these moments simply as events would be to miss the crucial suggestion that 2020 could have for our imagination of collective life. Even as most of us were under physical lockdowns imposed to contain the spread of the virus, our touch and vision restricted, we sensed and responded to intensities from a distance. This process, however, was not without its own share of interruptions. One such instance was on March 22, 2020, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked people to display ‘public spirit’ and thank medical workers fighting on the COVID-19 frontlines. He asked everyone to stay inside their houses for the day and at 5 pm in the evening, come onto their balconies to bang utensils as a token of their gratitude and support to “COVID warriors”. He christened this enforced retreat and orchestrated gathering as Janta Curfew/‘People’s curfew’. Less than 72 hours later he appeared on television again, this time with the news that the nation was going into a complete lockdown. Panic ensued and millions of workers found themselves stranded without food, shelter, employment and transport.

The cacophony of ‘nationalism’ and bullish demonstrations of ‘togetherness’ – duly amplified by television and social media – was an impediment to the possibilities of critical hearing.  The distress of medical, migrant and contract workers, made doubly vulnerable by the virus and state apathy, was being seemingly muffled by an arrogant, deafening clamour. However, there were also those who refused to participate in this republic of noise and held onto mutinous networks of solidarity and hearing. Quietude became a way to resist this swathe of sound. This quiet, was not an act of resignation or withdrawal from the world. Rather, it was a recognition of the tempestuous churning we find ourselves in. It was an echolocative act.

Also read: Here Are the Biggest Stories the Media Got Wrong in 2020

Similarly, many could say that images of adversity that flooded our screens produced despair. While this may be true, it is also important to place ourselves within the spirit of commonness that raged against and took on the mighty. To imagine pandemic media as ‘echolocating’ devices – which don’t burden us with testimony but equip us to move collectively towards safety and nourishment – may be key to a generative leap away from what looks like a wasteland right now.

Meanwhile, even as a government deaf to the pain of its people continues in office, Sandhu and his comrades await their nightly conference with bats and birds on a cold January night. My hope is that in 2021, we will all find ways of joining in.

Pallavi Paul is a video artist and a PhD candidate at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU.