We are living in an age of human meanness.
It is almost 50 days since the lockdown was first imposed on March 24. I hear people around me talking in terms of a pre-coronavirus and post-coronavirus world which will be as different as heaven and earth, but I do not subscribe to that view.
For if there is one thing that has emerged clear and sharp in Indian society during the lockdown period, it is the trait of human meanness and utter lack of sensitivity.
It has been said there is nothing permanent except change, but in the context of Indian society, this human meanness is unchanging – it is permanent. Its form and magnitude may vary, but its presence is a given.
The lockdown was immediately followed by the Navaratri. In one of the Whatsapp groups that I just happen to be part of, came the message:
“It appears as if Kaliyuga is over and the age of Satayuga has dawned. There is a pollution-free environment. Also, equality has been achieved – there are no servants anymore, everyone is helping out in household chores in a spirit of togetherness, there is fasting, bhajan-singing and Ramayana recital, and so on.”
This was precisely the period when hundreds and thousands of migrant workers, gripped by hunger and thirst, in fear of a dreaded virus and uncertain future, had descended on the streets of India’s metros in their worn-out slippers and tattered bags, to go back to their villages.
But the responses to those images were peevish, more than anything else:
“These are the same migrants who have not paid a visit to their villages for years together, so why are they not sitting quietly in their homes now? They should have bought rations to last them two months and just sat at home. Why this sudden pang for the village!”
One’s work as a journalist is such that one has to keep abreast of news even if one does not want to. I have lost count of the number of reports concerning the situation of migrant workers that I have read and edited in 50 odd days of lockdown.
Every one of those reports had just one theme, namely the rising challenges in already challenged lives – migrants eking a living by working in small shops and dhabas or as push-cart vendors were told by their employers to “come back when the situation improves.”
With no place to stay and no surety of food they simply started walking. In that milling crowd of migrants at the inter-state bus stand was a child labourer. He was weeping. I doubt if I will be able to forget the sound of his racking sobs.
On streets and highways, countless families trudging with newborns in their midst; some carrying babies in bags, others on their shoulders or in their arms. But those images do not evoke the slightest flicker of empathy.
In one of Delhi’s slum settlements, the pregnant wife of a migrant worker from UP waited with her children for her mentally challenged husband; he had gone on some work with his contractor and got stuck. She started getting contractions and her neighbours’ pleadings with the doctors at a hospital ensured her delivery. It was a touch and go affair.
Putting the newborn into the arms of a neighbour and using her shoulder as a support, the woman returned to a home where there was no food, no money, and no phone. Does her husband even know that there has been a new addition to the family, a daughter?
In that chaotic situation the administration had the workers taken to relief camps, except that the camps were lacking in basic amenities and there was not enough food to go around. Reports and images abounded of workers standing in lines from dawn for lunch; it would have been hard to miss them.
Elsewhere, a group of migrant workers started walking from Haryana for their village in Uttar Pradesh some 800 km away, with pinching hunger and thirst as their companions. Largely on foot, at times finding an auto, water tanker or truck to ferry them some of the way, they somehow managed to cover that vast, yawning distance.
What was awaiting the workers as they reached their village with blistered feet to show for their ordeal, was a quarantine centre set up by the administration where there was no arrangement for food and no usable toilet.
The professional healthcare workers tasked with looking after the returnee migrants had not been paid their salaries for one and a half years, let alone being given basic personal protective equipment (PPE).
There were those whose journeys abruptly ended as they collapsed and died. In some cases, old ailments had also reared their heads. Having died in complete anonymity, so far away from their loved ones, their last rites were dependent on the mercy of the officials in the area.
I edited one such report about a migrant worker who was taking his ailing brother in an ambulance to their village a thousand kilometres away. A few kilometres short of home, the worker saw his brother take his last breath.
As I looked at the photograph of the migrant worker, his face seemed familiar. But I had never travelled to that place and I was no acquainted with anyone who came from there.
Then I remembered. There had been a similar report about a man who had died of measles in a Delhi hospital, far away from home (Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh). Too poor to get his body transported to the village, his family conducted his last rites by cremating an effigy. He was a plumber.
In the images of the migrant workers in both instances, there was the same look of helplessness in their eyes; a sameness wrought by similar circumstances – of living away from home, apart from a wife and children.
While editing the story I tried to picture the face of the plumber who comes to my house and I remember thinking, this person can’t be him, and then being assailed by another thought – if I see my plumber, will I be able to recognise him?
I do not have a domestic help now, but I did call the didi who had worked for me earlier to ask how she was. At that time, they were getting some dry rations, but from whom she did not know. Too shy to stand in a line, she was accepting the help of those who were going door to door to distribute whatever they could.
Didi had no trouble accepting the fact – actually, she seemed absolutely fine with it — that she would not be getting any salary for the period she did not work, even if it meant going hungry.
I spoke to another domestic help who works for the ‘bhabhi ji with the big car’. She too, like didi, was not harbouring any resentful thoughts about not getting paid for the lockdown period – “Since I have not been going to work, why would anyone pay me for that period?”
“But Modiji said so,” I reminded her.
“You think anyone is listening?” she shot back.
There are about 300 jhuggis in the slum where she lives and most of them do not have toilets. “We go to the public toilet,” she said.
Thinking about social distancing I asked her whether people stood apart from each other when they formed a line and felt ashamed the moment the question left my lips.
In an embarrassed tone she replied, “There are three toilets and people from 300 jhuggis. I am sure you can figure it out.”
My eyes have tracked too many stories like these, and they are all lodged in my heart and mind like shards of metal and glass. Yet what keeps coming to mind is the fulsome message on the WhatsApp group which said, ‘Not Kaliyuga, this is Satayuga’.
In the relatively posh neighbourhood where I live, the shop ran out of milk packets in record time on two consecutive days around the time of the Janata curfew. The shopkeeper proudly announced he had sold 40 litres of milk in 20 minutes. I felt like calling up the Limca Book of Records to inform them of his ‘achievement’!
Our neighbourhood is a parallel universe which is characterised by the challenges of social media, Dalgona coffee, Netflix, Amazon prime, Hotstar.
The residents of this parallel universe get offended on hearing any kind of comment about their world. Their view: “Everyone has the right to live the way they want. You wait and watch, this will bring about some positivity. When there is such gloom everywhere at least someone is making an effort to be happy (I too am a part, albeit small, of this league).”
I am well stocked with rations and if things get worse, I have the wherewithal to stock up for another two months. I have the option of choosing among hundreds of books and films but crying about boredom is my privilege.
One day, during a conversation with a friend I commented that we belong to a generation that has fuc**ed up priorities. The friend was of the view that whatever one did for one’s happiness was not wrong.
As people of privilege, with the advantages of education that we have had, it is easy for us to justify anything we say with our specious arguments. We are argumentative Indians, after all.
But when I see people in serpentine queues lining up in front of volunteers distributing food, hands stretched out for that packet; or when I see humanity lying lifeless on roadsides, beneath flyovers or near rail tracks, I am gripped by a feeling of guilt.
Perhaps we do not even know how to feel the pangs of sorrow. To look for positivity at a time of unrelieved suffering and pain seems like a crime to me.
One of my teachers in M.A. used to say that an educated person was much cleverer than an unlettered individual not because he was well-read but because he had the sophistry to legitimise every statement he made.
For instance, a big preoccupation of a reputed senior journalist these days is about how words like quarantine should be written in the Devnagari script – क्वारंटाइन (the last four letters rhyming with ‘fine’) or क्वारंटीन (the last four letters rhyming with ‘teen’).
I go along with his concern but then I remember the report about the migrant workers who walked 800 kms to reach their village only to be placed in a quarantine centre that had no facility for food and unusable toilets. Imagine, after such a long journey largely on foot, to be confronted with a dirty room and dirtier toilet, an apology of a bedding flung in one corner, and no certainty about food or water.
Those migrant workers had experienced quarantine, or what passed for it. Do they know the meaning of the word quarantine? Would they know the meaning if it were written the ‘right way’ – as क्वारंटीन and not क्वारंटाइन?
Suddenly, the wrinkled face of the old grandmother in Asghar Wajahat’s story Lynching swims before my eyes.
She was of the view that all English words were good. She knew a few words.
In the author’s words, “The first was “pass”; she had heard it when Saleem had passed his first school exam.
The second word she had heard was “job”, and she knew it meant getting employed.
“Salary” was the third English word she had heard and understood; it always brought to her nostrils the smell of gently roasting bread.”
I realise that when it comes to sheer vocabulary or clarity of language, I am nowhere near the veteran journalist who has been preoccupied with how quarantine should be written in the Devanagari script, nor do I presume to offer any words of criticism. I do want to understand his concerns.
It is just that the images from far away districts of the ravaged faces of migrant workers in quarantine centres, the yellow brackish water coming out of handpumps, the lump of jaggery being passed off as a meal by the administration, nullify my ability to comprehend the senior journalist’s immediate concerns.
The one thing that has not abated during the pandemic-induced lockdown – in fact, it seems to be happening at a feverish pace – is the act of writing. There is a deluge of writing. But I have also noticed that many people who are extremely articulate and frequent in their writing, have fallen silent.
At some level it seems to me that their silence is symbolic of the present. I too feel this is a time for reflection, for recognising that regardless of what we can or cannot do in such dire times, the one thing we can do is learn to be empathetic.
P.S: I have some unsolicited advice to offer as well – perhaps it would be easier to find something meaningful in a scribble on a rock or a message on a hoarding than on social media. Searching for something effective and positive on social media would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.