Anasuya Bhartakes us through 2020 — what kind of a year has it been?
We take Time for granted; we take our years for granted, dividing them into months and days of work and schedules of various kinds. We get lost in the maze of the small measures of time, the days, hours etcetera being our only counters of the great Hands. We forget the larger cosmic Time, which veers forward, with its own plan. In our break neck haste we, perhaps, only inch forwards to the inevitable end. The year 2020 began with the usual fanfare, banality, uncertainty and some trepidation for what it might bring. Some of my life’s uncertainties, incidences and vagaries usually keep me anxious and restless in an effort to secure some peace of mind. The first month brought in distress due to the misfortunes of a loved one. There were some other losses too, but what really put the fear of death among us, was Death itself, with the looming shadows of the Covid 19 pandemic.
Although I have not lived through any of the political or military wars, I felt I was going through some kind of a war in 2020 – a struggle for survival. I was unable to give a comprehensive shape to any of my thoughts. I could hardly account for anything that was happening and gazed at the rising pile of corpses in Europe and the other parts of the world. Poverty is a greater source of ailment where I live. Many succumb to it. As more of those who have less are out of work, poverty seems to be even more powerful an epidemic in this part of the world. There were many deaths, initially not from COVID19, but other instances of carelessness. But these too were passé for us who live in a country with an overflowing population. Things still happened to others in the remoteness of newspaper print.
That changed, however, and soon there were friends, cousins, and relatives getting infected. Doubt played hide and seek with a possible asymptomatic variety as well. There was always fear — fear that shook even the deepest layers of the consciousness and even allayed the strongest faith. There were children and aged parents. Death came stealthily and claimed its victim leaving no scope of any fuss or fanfare. The personal gave way to the public with invincible heroes succumbing to the virus. The list included many from our former President to actors, performers, sportspersons, poets, artists, and to academics. Even an icon as distinguished as Amitabh Bacchan was infected with virus, but he emerged triumphant. Many others were not as fortunate. We lost legends like Sean Connery and our own Soumitra Chatterjee in this year. In the case of the latter, it was a prolonged fight that the aged actor fought against the pandemic. With him, passed an entire era of Bengali culture that was more or less continuous in the spirit of the Tagores or the Rays.
The loss of both ‘Bond’ and ‘Feluda’ marked too much of a co-incidence in our lives. The lacuna that is left after the going of these stalwarts is not only felt particularly in their trade, but also to the entire global cultural scenario. We had just begun commemorating Satyajit Ray’s birth centenary, and Soumitra, the largest living icon of the former’s films and, perhaps, one of the greatest translators of his intellection, succumbed to the banal virus of Corona. The tiers in the uppermost rung of artistry and professionalism are being vacated; and perhaps, one may say, gradually making way, albeit reluctantly, for a new generation.
The year also had us think much about the dystopic and the apocalyptic in civilization, at large. There were also familiar prognostications of the ‘end of the world’ myth. The year, most definitely, marks the beginning of a whole new consciousness. We had stepped into a new millennium two decades ago, but one really did not feel any change overnight or even within a few days or years. Paradigm shifts happen over a period of time. The fault-lines take time to emerge and there needs to be enough distance, aesthetically and culturally, to perceive the changes with sufficient detachment.
For a particular century to emerge as the past, and the next to emerge as the present, one needs perspective. One also needs a new world view. People also succumb naturally to their deaths, especially those having seen most of the last century. A preliminary survey of each century usually shows drastic changes in the first two, three or four decades. The twentieth century saw most of its global events in the first four decades, after which there was reasonable calm and quietness. Equally interesting is the pattern of pandemics in the last few centuries. There is an uncanny similarity with them all dating in the 20s of each century.
The year 2020 seems to mark a new kind of beginning in various ways. While there is a most dystopic flavour to the times, one must acknowledge and also appreciate the spirit of resilience among humans. Newer modes of educating, connecting globally in the most unique and ingenious manners seems to be in vogue. The world of arts and letters has also perfected newer ways of expressions. The pandemic has, in many ways, proved to be a great leveller – the European, the Asian, the African or the American are going through a common crisis. There is, distinctly, a spirit of human solidarity that underlines the community, at large, keeping in abeyance the cultural, racial and political differences. Just like Picasso, Rabindranath, Einstein, and several others survived the last pandemic, the Great Wars or the holocaust, so did many of our grandparents. Would it be too presumptuous to count on destiny and chance, with the hope that we too would survive this, and have some stories to recount, perhaps, to our own grandchildren?
A philosopher had once said, that life would have lost all its meaning had there not been death; and that, we rush forwards doing what we do, because we know that there is a finite end for us. And Thomas Hardy had taken our minds to the chilling observation that our day of death lies skilfully hidden in the calendar year. We laugh, we cry, we continue through years with the nitty-gritty of life, but one particular year that day claims us, in an eternal embrace. Death is the only inevitable, irrevocable and irreversible truth and end in our lives. This year has taught us, among other things, the value of our lives, the value of relationships, the value of the world of nature, and taught us to value our time, before its ‘winged chariot’ gets hold of us.
Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and the Dean of Postgraduate Studies in St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata. Dr. Bhar is the sole Editor of the literary Journal Symposium (ISSN 2320-1452) http://www.spcmc.ac.in/departmental-magazine/symposium/, published by her Department. She has various academic publications to her credit. Her creative pieces have been published in Borderless Journal, Setu Bilingual and Ode to a Poetess. She has her own blog https://anascornernet.wordpress.com/.
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Title: The Other Side of the Divide – A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan
Author: Sameer Arshad Khatlani
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2020
Journalist Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s maiden book, The Other Side of the Divide – A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan, published end February 2020, seemed to, at the outset, suffer the fate that the India- Pakistan relationship has continually suffered – whatever could go wrong, did! COVID19 almost did the distribution of the book in. But like the legendary resilience of the people of the subcontinent, and because of the inherent quality of what his intrepid journey into Pakistan was able to produce, the book made it through alternative channels, and is sure to be talked about for many years to come.
Khatlani, a Kashmiri, is a Delhi based journalist. More than his bio, it is the dedication that caught my eye, “For my son, Orhan Ahmed Khatlani, and kids of his generation. May they grow up to live in a peaceful and prosperous South Asia free of bigotry and conflict.” Wonderful words! Also written with sincerity. As you read deeper into the book you understand one thing about the author: That he is a young journalist cut in the traditional mould, the type that is fast disappearing in an increasingly polarised world. The intrepidity of perusal and perusal, the cultivation of people across political and cultural divides, the search for objectivity and truth, the erasure of one’s own biases, and the courage and resilience of conviction that forces one to take positions when push comes to shove marks out an honest journalist. Khatlani ticks all these boxes.
To be frank, the book suffers from many editorial glitches and unnecessary typos, like this line by way of example: “Not surprisingly, the country (Pakistan) comes across as a hopelessly dark land because to its (sic) portrayal in the news media …”. The word ‘due’ has been carelessly substituted by the word ‘because’, rendering the sentence nonsensical. Enough to put me off and set a wrong note to the reading experience. But as I entered the heart of the book, even as Khatlani dived deeper into the other side of the divide, I realised nothing, but nothing could take away from the richness of the information it was unearthing, the depth of its historical exploration, the breadth of the issues and the personalities it was reaching out to, and most importantly, the chord of personal reflection and poignancy it was touching.
The last point is important. Pre-Partition, the author’s grandfather, of limited means, had fled the oppressive feudal rule of the Dogra king to seek a better life in Lahore. Ultimately, due to pressing circumstances the patriarch returned to Kashmir before 1947. Lahore always had a strong Kashmiri presence. These were people who abandoned the oppressive taxes and strong biases of the existing rulers in Kashmir to seek a better life elsewhere. This was a world when the Hindu rules of Kashmir were oppressing its Muslim citizens. Many ‘Punjabis’ settled in and around Lahore were of Kashmiri origin, though they now primarily spoke Punjabi or Urdu and had little of the Kashmiri left in them.
In fact, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s iconic politician traces his roots to Kashmir, though his family settled in Amritsar a long time back, and from there moved to West Punjab. The interlocking of the writer’s personal narrative with that of a general observation about a rather little known socio-cultural reality, and the search for those lanes where his grandfather might have roamed especially in the now drastically altered Anarkali Bazaar, present a storyline that is extremely catchy.
The conversational style (after all he is a journalist) comes off easily, as does the South Asian predilection for digressions when names and places are evoked. One name dropped becomes the point of departure to connect events and places from far away. One set of friends introduces him to another. Then the second set introduces new facets to his story, which essentially is to write deep pieces for the Times of India, datelined Lahore, as part of the ‘Aaman ki Aasha’ (the ‘hope for peace’ drive between India and Pakistan, during the last Congress Government) initiative. The excuse for the journey is to cover a Punjabi cultural event. Though to be honest there is enough mention of the Punjabi language and cultural predilections to justify the excuse!
As you read further into the book this particular aspect of the style quite catches you. What earlier might have appeared unnecessarily digressive, grows into you and you begin to realise this story could have been told no other way. The frenetic swamping of emotions, the bitter regret of missed opportunities, the cornucopia of details that mark the stories of both separation and oneness are as fervent as they are insistent – they can only be told breathlessly if they are to be shorn of artfulness. The writer must at times bow before the sentiments of the storyteller. The story is often so powerful that it almost takes over the storytelling. This is said by way of praise. When you have the book in your hands you’ll understand exactly what is meant herein.
Khatlani’s book is modelled around his discovery of Lahore and its people. Each discovery follows the hub and spokes theory. Every discovery is the hub. And the stories that emanate from these hubs are the spokes. In this he touches all the right chords. There is the Bollywood connection, the history of the army and its ubiquity in Pakistani life, the cricket connection, the stories of shared miseries and standout acts of personal friendship, there is the story of alcohol and conservatism, the liberals of Pakistan and their sentimental pro-India politics, and the special story of minorities, especially the Sikhs.
These stories slip in and out of the ten chapters, and in no particular order. In each of these particulars, Khatlani shapes his narrative with great background stories, provides rich historical accounts, and at times manages searching insights into the intricate sentiments that guide the existing reality between the two nations.
The Other Side of the Divide is an important intervention at a difficult time. The dateline is 2013 when things were better. Better despite the numerous setbacks, not in the least the attack on Mumbai in 2008 November, or the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers outside the Gaddafi Stadium in 2009.
In 2020 another world has overtaken us. We inhabit a world that is shriller than ever before, a world in which India is fast giving up its secular and liberal credentials, and instead turning sharply right. As some have observed, new Pakistan looks more like old India, and unfortunately, new India like old Pakistan. Bearing the cross of a fractured history we continue to inherit each other’s loss. Amidst this, Khatlani’s book is an invaluable source of solace and possibilities.
Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.
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As the world is teetering on the brink of collapse, we are collectively participating in a mass elegy for a lost world. The custodians of that world-security, stability-have receded into the archives of our memory. In Heath Ledger’s inimitable performance as the insouciant Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), he nudges a shattered Harvey Dent to “introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order.” It is precisely this order, a sense of clinging on to the last dregs of meaning that has gone for a toss in the wake of the pandemic. And yet, the trajectory of human evolution bears testimony to mankind’s relentless quest to forge meaning out of chaos, to seek an eternal consonance amidst the cacophony of dissonance and dissent.
This propensity to fall back on fragments and carve something concrete is the momentum behind the establishment of a new regimentation. Human agency strives, unabated, to discover measures and means in an endeavour to engage with this pathogen in a new way- it is the mechanism of co-existence. But such cohabitation involves the resurrection of a ‘New’ normalcy altogether. Currently, the pandemic has unearthed a fertile field of scholarly inquiry into this domain of the multiple “New” discourses that offer some semblance of a revamped normalcy in the post-Corona world. But what are the challenges encountered as we navigate through this? Are these measures available for and accessible by all and sundry? What are the prerequisites for activating such measures and who are the intended recipients of the ‘New’ normal?
The virtual space in the prelapsarian state (the pre-Corona world that is) was a universe of frivolous escapades; it offered us the much needed succour to unwind at the end of a long day. It was a space to visit and revisit in between the rigmarole of life. And yet, we were acutely aware of the disjunction between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. The lockdown phase has completely blurred that demarcation- the ‘virtual’ is now the ‘New’ real. Virtual classrooms on virtual platforms are instrumental in ensuring that quality education continues to be imparted without any hindrance. But here is the catch.
Conducting online classes is based on the presumption that everyone is equipped with the necessary amenities. In third world countries where thousands of people are knuckling under crushing poverty and falling prey to unemployment, education becomes a luxury that exists in imaginative spaces. Thus, in effect, the right to education becomes a prerogative of the select few, of the ‘privileged’ coterie who dictates the dominant ideology. While online education has become an imperative in the present scenario, it is equally necessary to ensure that it does not end up magnifying the digital divide and depriving a section of the “basic” right to education.
The pandemic has also aggravated, if not exposed, another kind of lethal contagion. Alienation and estrangement, as studies show, are no longer literary motifs that dominate the creative space — it has a tangible presence and form now. The attendant mental repercussions of being cocooned in our homes for long has escalated the sense of loneliness- the definitive offshoot being bouts of depression, anxiety, angst and a restlessness.
Many have succumbed to emotional meltdown during these volatile times. Ensconced in a world bereft of the comfort and sanctity of human “touch”, we are gradually being sucked into a treacherous whirlwind of monotony and repetitiveness from which there is no respite. Deliberating on mental health at a time when we are compelled to make a ‘world” of our ‘home” is slightly paradoxical.
Home makes for a good cameo appearance, retreating into oblivion for most of the time. The pandemic has catapulted the “home” from relative anonymity into limelight but such is the quirk of fate that we can longer acclimatise ourselves to such an orientation any more — as if, ‘home’ exists in contradistinction to the ‘world’ and has no existence outside of it. Needless to say, the pandemic is exposing before us the chink in the armour. Social distancing might be an imperative now, but a fundamental element of disconnect had long infiltrated the bond between the “home” and the “world” and ruptured it.
And perhaps, even when we are negotiating the unprecedented changes in our socio-cultural spheres, the greatest challenge is to be with our own selves. The hustle and bustle of life, as it were, had demolished the aspiration to confront the individual in us. The “Me-time” myth was an illusion. Self indulgence (to chill, as they say in common parlance) was never about rejoicing in the sole company of oneself but to unleash the beast in us in the company of others. But self-isolation had interrogated those deeply nurtured ideas. The lockdown had compelled us to shun our non-confrontational demeanour. Looking inward, forging a communion with our lost and suppressed identities had proved to be an art that takes time to master.
While our lives hang on a precarious rope of appeasement and adjustment, the gradual movement from a world dictated by chronological time to one bereft of it has proved to be unnerving. Life was an assortment of events, bound by minute strands of temporal gradations — our approach to life was economic and measured.
The Corona crisis had ended up shattering that temporal yardstick against which we would construct and consolidate the flux of life. Longing for a heartfelt interaction with your beloved in a different time zone can be accomplished through video calls no doubt; online teaching can be smoothly conducted by mastering a bit of technical know-how and yet, does it feel real? Can one accommodate the pulse and throb of life in the click of a button?
So, what are these “new discourses” advocating for? The protocols and maxims we had lived by before the pandemic can no longer contain the crisis we are now encountering. The “new” normalcy is a call to refashion ourselves. Perhaps it is time for us to embrace an emerging world order that will mould us to become better versions of ourselves. Like all the other epidemics, the Corona crisis will remain in the historical imaginary for transmogrifying the world into a dystopian wasteland; the resurgence of the “new” discourses will be a quest for and towards a different utopia.
Author’s Bio: Ria Banerjee is an M.A in English Literature (First Class First) from Shri Shikshayatan College, affiliated to Calcutta University. She is currently engaged as a faculty in Prafulla Chandra College, Department of English.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.
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Obinna Chilekezi is a Nigerian poet and insurance practitioner whose poems have been published in journals and anthologies. He has three published collections which are: Son Chikeziri too died, Rejection and other poems and Songs of a Stranger in the Smiling Coast. One of his insurance texts won the 2016 African Insurance Organisation Book Award. He can be used on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Ever since Hasan came to Cox’s Bazar, he noticed a child in a vegetable shop, close to his residence, sitting by her father. He always praised the child to his colleagues. He felt her eyes were the repository of all kindness in this world.
She was, maybe in between seven or eight, a thin, brownish girl with her hair in a bun. She wore an off-white T-shirt with night pajamas. Hasan always looked at her when he passed the shop, and she looked back till he merged into the distance.
One day, it was drizzling, and Hasan went to the shop to buy some vegetables, while the girl helped her father choose the fresher ones for him. All his purchases fitted into four polythene bags. It was difficult for him to hold all of them in one hand and carry an umbrella on the other.
“Would you mind if I carry two bags for you?” she asked.
“It’s fine. I myself can manage.”
“Sir, I’m used to, and not as young as you think.”
“Please allow her to take you home,” said her father.
“Okay, come under my umbrella,” Hasan responded.
They both were walking on the muddy road and Hasan asked her, “Do you go to school?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Which class (grade)?”
“Wow, is it? Really, you are not little at all.”
“How many books do you need to study?”
“What’s your name?”
The single word reply made him uneasy – Maya in Bengali meant illusion!
“Sir, we’ve already reached your flat; please take your bags.”
Hasan was looking deep into her eyes, not uttering even a single word. It seemed to him that within a fraction of a second, the child disappeared.
One week later, Hasan happened to meet Maya in Kalatoli beach, one of the most crowded spots in Cox’s Bazar.
“Why are you dabbling in this unclean water?” Maya asked as Hasan walked bare feet in the sea water.
“I love to wet my feet in the sea water, and what more I can expect in the beach; the water is the same in all the beaches.”
“True. But, haven’t you gone to the beaches in the southern part while commuting to the Rohingya camp through marine-drive road?”
“Yes, the water does seem bluer and clearer in those areas. Maybe because there are less visitors there. Would you mind walking with me?”
Both began to stroll along the beach strewn with wastes left scattered by visitors. The seawater was littered with polythene bags, coconut remains, plastic bottles, and chips packets afloat. Hasan was feeling sad thinking of the world longest sea beach’s potential to compete with Galle in Sri Lanka or Pattaya in Thailand– renowned beach holiday destinations– while passing a turtle that lay dead on the sand.
Recently, the Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf Sea beach had been declared an ecologically critical area by the department of environment. They had prohibited all sorts of activities that would adversely affect the water, marine life, air and sand of the beach — immediately after the publication of a recent study by Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute, which found the presence of micro-plastic in fish and salt collected from the Bay of Bengal.
Straight away Maya pulled Hasan’s baby finger and said pointing to some hotels somewhat away from the beach, “This area was a small forest of tamarix and just beside it there were hills, hilly forests and hillocks. Even the seawater you see polluted now was clean; fishes used to be seen jumping out of the water and doing somersaults contorting their body,” she added.
“But this is now a history only; how do you know all these?”
“My father said. He also heard them from his father.”
Taking a deep breath and with a tone of disappointment he replied, “I see.”
“Sir don’t get disappointed; nature is going to reclaim its space very soon. You will soon see what my grandfather or ancestors saw many years ago. No one can fight nature.”
It was March 2020; people were getting infected with a new disease named COVID-19, caused by a newly discovered coronavirus in China on December 2019. Being much contagious in nature, the government announced a complete lockdown of the country. People left the city immediately after the declaration; all the government and non-government institutions were closed, except a few working on emergency services.
Hasan was not on leave amidst the lockdown as he was a development worker in an emergency project for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, run by a Switzerland based non-government organisation– Fondation Hirondelle– in Kutupalong Rohingya camp, the largest refugee camp in the world.
In the afternoon, he ventured out wearing a mask to buy some daily necessities. He found the vegetable shop closed; Maya’s father left the city too in fear of the outbreak. Law enforcing agencies were patrolling the street to control people’s movement. People were told to stay quarantined at home to combat the spread of the virus.
On that beautiful March morning, Hasan was sauntering on the shore of Kalatoli, where there was no sign of human activity. All the seats installed for tourists were empty. The normally brownish seawater was looking blue; some turtles were crawling on the beach as if they had been playing with the crabs.
Hasan heard some sounds of splashes in addition to the roar of the seawaves and he turned his head toward the ocean. To his surprise, dolphins had returned to the beach at Cox’s Bazar and were jumping and doing multiple somersaults. The dance of these creatures with the multiple spiral shapes of the crystal water seemed to him like the smiling face of Maya.
Mohin Uddin Mizan is a Publication Officer at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) and the National Consultant at UNDP Bangladesh. He has published book reviews, poems, articles in The Daily Star, The Daily Sun, The Financial Express, The Daily Observer, The New Age, The Dhaka Courier, Indian online journal The Ashvamegh, and so on.
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The Ape was their chosen leader, as he was considered by the rest of the heterogeneous assembly, the nearest cousin of the people who had terrorized them for centuries but were now behind the bars, refusing to come out of their hide-outs, due to the pandemic.
Besides that, the apes were generally regarded as intelligent primates, almost rivals of the creatures that walked on the two legs. The apes understood the humans better but were repelled by their behaviour and action.
The meeting was essentially a stock-taking exercise in a locked- down city.
The animals were openly roaming the waterfronts and boulevards, earlier places of terror, capture and possible death. They enjoyed these outings, reclaiming the city from its architects. They were not afraid of being run over by the traffic or caught in a trap.
The Ape was young and confident. He was trained by a reputed scientist in a huge lab but had managed to escape captivity and gone on living in the woods that bordered the city, as a fugitive. The Ape was huge but gentle in demeanour, never hurting anybody in or out of captivity. He knew the ways of the “civilized” masters and was a painter and wore frocks in his earlier life in the camp, where labs were run by a crooked man — who owned half the burgeoning city — for developing serums for the biological warfare.
As an elected boss, The Ape was tasked to strategise and lead the campaign of the equality as the animals felt they were often mocked, called dumb in the zoo or hit on the streets, by the drunks and the kids alike.
He told the mixed gathering of different species assembled in the Central Park, “Friends, welcome to the New World Order. All the bipedal tyrants have been locked in their vertical cages, thanks to the COVID-19. What a joke! An invisible virus can stall the manic world of mad humans! We are free now.”
“And we thought the human masters were invincible, these spoilt and arrogant people, most ungrateful!” exclaimed an abandoned horse, in anguished tone, “Serves them right.”
“These guys called us animals! See their temerity. Always treated us as inferiors. Tortured us. In fact, they are the true animals,” an African grey parrot retorted.
“They kept us in the cages. For display. Fun. Small cages that almost killed us. Now they understand our pain,” a gold finch observed.
“And us, on tight leashes and muzzles,” joined in the German Shepherd Dog, barking ferociously. “Breeding us for business. Training us for their ways. Expecting us to obey their commands. We are their pets and slaves. Then shot dead by them. They must be punished.”
The elephants, lions, foxes, monkeys, squirrels that had escaped from circuses and menageries chorused a loud, “Yes.” And the wise wolf added, “Real brutes! Tormentors! Killers. They whip, starve and tame us for profits, always, everywhere. Keeping us all in cages and chains, the cruel raiders of the jungles. Shame on them! Now they are in the cages. Serves them right, the bastards.”
“Shh!Shh!” the old mama bear cautioned. “Mind your language, friend. There are many children and women here. We never curse like them. Bad manners!”
“The most cunning species in the world! They label us as cunning. Ironical! Is it not?” asked a hurt fox. “Always judgmental! Always treating those unlike them in dress, skin-tone, language, region and creed, as the perpetual Other. Never trusting each other. Killing their own for property or woman or money. We never kill our tribe.”
Everybody praised the fox for her “clever” observations and contrasts with the incarcerated humans that walked clumsily and dressed in outer skins and wore heads on their heads called hats!
“Now do not talk and act like the human masters,” cautioned the old bear. “Let us be ourselves. We must never imitate them. Never pretend to be like them, our oppressors. Mind it friends, we have our own code. Be natural. Be yourself.”
“Right. They term us as predators and kill us for hides and body parts and tusks,” said a senior tusker, towering over the gathering, trunk raised; one tusk missing, another broken. “Fact is they are the greatest predators on this crowded planet.”
“And looters and invaders,” replied the woodpecker. “They have destroyed nature and our nests.”
“Poisoned our rivers,” shouted an otter. “We cannot breathe regularly. We are dying along with the fish and other creatures. Plastic and garbage choke us. Oil spills worsen the living conditions. It is a watery hell!”
“Now,” commanded The Ape, “We must destroy their nests. Gardens. Streets. Vehicles. We must shake down the very ground underneath their feet. Show our strength to these brutes.”
The animals immediately agreed. They wanted to get even.
“Let us take back their spaces, as they did with us,” thundered the Orangutan, “Virus or no virus.”
The enraged animals first declared themselves as Free Species of the Quadrupeds and the Gentle Vertebrates and the city and woods as their New Republic.
Then, during the lockdown, they took over human habitats rising towards the sky like a hive of vertical columns.
The unexpected take-over by the animals filled the trapped inmates with fear and dread of another newly-arrived threat.
There were many scary encounters reported on the blogs or social media, with pictures or videos posted of the uncanny sightings.
One account said:
“Friends of the besieged city — here comes a fresh danger. Early morning, I opened up the French windows of my ground-floor bungalow…only to stare into the red eyes of a hungry tiger looking straight into mine! Believe me, I stood paralyzed, mind and body benumbed with cold fear, a trickle of sweat prickled down my spine, the bad hangover gone. I faced certain death. The tiger lazily yawned, baring deadly fangs, eyes glittering, this huge striped animal– one paw swung at me and I would be gone. My body stiffened. Never expected such a deadly morning guest on my porch! He saw my rifle and mounted trophy on the wall and emitted low roar. His eyes were filled with revulsion. Yes, I would never forget that look of hatred!
“Just then my grand kid walked in and smiled and said, ‘Hullo, tiger!’ She giggled and walked up to the ferocious beast, this six-year-old innocent. My old heart leapt into my mouth. I was reminded of a hunting expedition where, years ago, I had shot dead a tigress before her cubs! There was an instant transformation and the big cat dropped his head and did not growl.
“They played with each other and as her mom came searching for her, the tiger vanished! Disappeared into thin air. I thought I was dreaming the whole thing. The excited child said, tiger, tiger! Her mom could not understand her. She told the kid, ‘Okay, we will bring you a tiger soon.’ The poor child could not explain her joy of meeting a real tiger on the porch. Strange but true encounter with the beast, truly majestic—never thought it could happen and end like this, real time, in my house! Thank God we escaped death by mauling. It was Him who turned a ferocious beast into a lamb! A miracle only! Praise to the Lord.”
There were other interesting accounts of simian, reptilian and mammal surprise visits to homes. The most common experiences from the humans were utter shock, dread, intimations of mortality and a sense of deep disbelief from this unexpected rendezvous in most unlikely urban settings. Most narratives ended with the question: Was it real? Or, imagined?
As the animals gained confidence and COVID-19 pushed humans further into isolation, self-isolation and quarantine, the general fear of the animals spread like another contagion. People were bewildered. Infants wailed inside their little airless homes. The old and sick and the chained dogs were getting restless over the long summer days and hot-humid nights in that coastal city. Overpopulation did not help either.
And compounding their collective miseries was the daily appearances of animals in their midst, on their well-landscaped and maintained properties and other glitzy places.
The superstitious found indications in hostile stellar positions.
The religious chided the younger generation for abandoning faith and their dissolute ways — things that brought down the plague on a prosperous, modern city.
The youngsters called them hypocrites and blamed wars, famines and flooding to the older generation’s selfishness and indifference.
The city changed — an open-air zoo run by what they earlier called ‘wildlife’!
The only change: The previous spectators were behind the bars and the timings of activities. The new arrivals freely roamed any time of the day and the nocturnal ones, in the night, enjoying the sites.
The media blamed the virus and the country of its origin for this new mess. Others called it racism and dirty politics. Power blocks were formed. Politics played itself out along predictable lines.
Meanwhile, the capitalists sensed a good opportunity to fire half of the working population, citing recession and losses. Social scientists called it downsizing! Academia studied the development clinically and conducted webinars — mere sound and fury signifying nothing, as they used to quote often.
“One virus! It has overturned their world!” declared The Ape, during one of his meetings in the Central Park, now totally theirs!
As the days rolled down in flat succession — uneventful; dull; seamless stretch of darkness and light, and, one date followed another — the citizens felt breathless, stressed-out and despairing. They envied the freedom of the birds and animals moving around on the spaces once the privilege of the human race only.
And cursed foreign bats for the outbreak of the deadly virus!
It was a painful reversal of fortunes!
The masters were now slaves.
Slaves, new masters.
Each one of the citizens were afraid of the other and maintained social distancing. The class and caste persisted in the subtle play of power from earlier. It got more complex by the presence of this tiny virus that could not be seen by the naked eye. Corona — the general lament went on– had dramatically changed the communal life style of the people that were earlier unbeatable. Now, they cowered before the invisible threat. It was a leveler also. Elites were quarantined but were slightly better off than the others.
The Ape called his Council and declared, “We have no enmity with the masses. Our fight is with the Club that runs this city and the country. We will not spare them in case of a war against us. We will target the Club and its militia.”
“What is that Club?” asked the donkey.
“The Club is run by the wealthy and powerful– five-ten folks. Some of them are into drugs, weapons, prostitution, wars and other illegal activities. They enter politics and gain power, position and respectability. And decide the agenda for the rest.”
“The rogues. Ha!” exclaimed the donkey as the others of the Council hissed in sheer contempt for the shenanigans of the corrupt ten.
“The Club runs the politicians and public offices. Nobody can cross these raiders. Those defying get killed. It is a dirty world out there.”
The Council agreed with the summing up of the “civilised” by one of their best from the “wild” side of the divide.
“Be prepared!” The Ape warned. “These guys can attack us any time. Very deceptive!” “How?” asked the donkey again.
“They attack their own. Family. Community. Nations. They fight and kill each other. We never do that. We follow our herds and never kill for money, land or profit. Or sex.”
The donkey brayed in full agreement, “I have seen this with my mistress many times, this digression.”
The animals laughed at the un-satiated appetites of the humans.
Few days later, the fox woke up The Ape.
“The Club is meeting in the Town Hall. Planning to hit us. Let us give them a visit.” The fox said, “One of the humans sympathetic to the animals and their rights told one of our mutual friends. They are meeting after midnight.”
The Council agreed to pay a sudden visit.
The humans were completely taken by surprise as the animals entered the Hall by disarming their police outside. In fact, the cops quivered and ran away after seeing the real brutes coming towards them. They stood no chance.
“What do you want?” The Chair asked, surrounded by his body guards who cowered before the Ape and the Gorilla and Lion and Tiger. The quadrupeds could smell fear in the stale air of the large Town Hall—and relished it.
The Chair was tall, wiry with bulging eyes. He began aggressively: “Yes. What do you want, you a bunch of intruders?”
He tried to act brave, but the bluff was called-off in a minute; in fact, his raspy voice croaked and he gasped for breath, hands shivering, as the mighty animals surrounded his gilded high throne.
The other members of the Club hid behind the chairs, eyes closed as the Lion filled the chandeliered room with a blood-curdling roar that shook the silver ware and lamps and windows. The Tiger growled and the Gorilla screamed a waaaaaaah. That scared the entire assembly of the two-legged creatures. Many bipeds shouted and fainted, so terrified they were of their new guests and their controlled aggression.
The Chair got disoriented by the general racket but willful as he was, recovered fast and said in a softer tone, and with a false smile, “OK. What do you want? Tell me, pals.”
“You tell us, Boss,” mocked the Ape. “You run illegal mining and extortion and killing of wildlife operations. Tell us what do you want? A campaign to finish us off permanently? Finish off the jungles and the life there?”
The Chair grew very friendly, “No, Mr Ape. Never, ever. You are our distant cousins, remember? We are all related. Ha. Why would, er, should, er, I think of mass extermination?”
“Then, what is the problem? Why this clandestine meeting in the night?” demanded The Ape, hairy hands clenched tight, nostrils flaring.
“We want you beasts to leave our land, please. That is all. LEAVE us ALONE.” The Chair almost commanded.
That was a terrible mistake.
“Who is the beast here?” asked the Gorilla as he stood up and thumped his chest. “You are the beasts. Leave our land. You beasts of the two legs.” And the Gorilla did his chest-thumping again and released a wave of the classic sound: waaaaaaah.
The humans shrank further by this dual assault — aural and physical –in that closed space. Some searched for the exits but those were blocked by the animals that were enjoying the discomfiture of their former tormentors.
The air was getting thick with the stench of urine and sweat.
“And what land you are talking of? Is it not our land also?” asked the Ape. “It belongs to us as well. Not your monopoly. It is our land now.”
“But…,” whined the Chair.
“But?” asked The Ape.
“We have…I mean…hmm,” stuttered the Chair.
“OK, Mr. Ape. We have cleared the land and invested millions in developing the land, you know, the infra, you know…”
This time the Gorilla spoke: “Developing or destroying the land, hills, rivers? You call it development? You have totally ruined the planet by now. Understood? Time to payback now.”
“Made extinct many species. Destroyed rain forests. Created a hole in the Ozone layer,” added The Ape furiously. “And you capitalists and leaders never cared! Never listened to the saner voices!”
The Chair was taken aback. “How do you know all this, big and brainless monkey…I mean, Mr. Ape?”
The Ape stared hard. “I was trained by one of the top scientists in your labs only. One of the best minds. Later on, he went mad, feeling betrayed by you and your greed for more and more. In that notorious virology lab, he committed suicide for betraying ethics of science and applied research, that fine mind duped by your glib talk of patriotism and all that shit.”
“Oh!” the Chair grunted, going slightly pale. “The poor man! Most scientists are mad anyway.”
The Ape did not like this, “You are a bastard!”
Both the sides faced each other now.
“You speak our language well. Even the cuss words so well,” fawned the vice-chair, “How come?”
He sounded condescending, despite the efforts to be otherwise.
“Learnt your language but you have forgotten our language, you, the hunter with a rifle. The language spoken by nature. Sad! That is the cause of the present crisis, this imbalance.” retorted the Tiger. “You killed many of our species, but I spared your cub that day. Remember, hunter?”
The hunter said nothing. He was past that emotion of contrition or feeling sorry for his wanton acts of destruction and cruelty.
Killing gave him a libidinal high, as money did to the capitalists.
There were tense moments. The confrontation was becoming inevitable.
Both waited for the other to blink first.
Finally, the Chair coughed discreetly.
The Ape looked at him hopefully.
“We apologize, friends for our foolish acts of the past,” said the Chair. “We mean no harm. We can share the same spaces with you guys. Now leave the Hall as there are some women here who have fainted and need hospitalisation.”
The Ape agreed to withdraw, after seeing the plight of the fair and pale women, mere appendages of the wealthy.
Before leaving, the Ape said to the Chair, “If you break your promise, there will be mayhem.”
The Chair promised on his holy book never to attack friends who did not look like them, as the words beast and savage and brutes were found offensive by the guests radicalised by the human language, and therefore, banned.
“I do not trust them,” said the fox, once outside.
“Let us see,” said the Ape. “Let us give them a last chance.”
Three days later, the animals were brutally attacked.
A family of deer were sitting in the park when they were killed by the bullets of hunters.
More attacks followed on the animals roaming the streets. The Ape met the Council.
They launched a counter attack on the humans and destroyed their vehicles and labs and released animals from zoos, private and public.
Many humans were badly mauled. Some died of fright and shock and bleeding.
The pitched battle continued for the control of the territories during the day and night.
The hunters and the army used tranquillizers, guns and darts. But the primates were smart and dodged these tactics. Their agility was superb and might, matchless. They climbed the trees and buildings swiftly and could immobilise the militia by their screams and swinging fists and flinging trees at them.
Throughout the night, the battle went on.
The Chair was keen to trap The Ape, but the latter was as evasive as a trained assassin.
Next morning, the Chair and his goons adapted a new tactic to capture The Ape, the leader of the animals: They used a baby chimp from a private zoo as bait and asked The Ape to surrender or they would roast the baby alive on the live coals for its tender meat.
“Barbeque the babe!” That was their chant over the public address system.
“Surrender! Surrender, you beast!” They taunted The Ape.
Despite the Council’s reluctance, The Ape decided to surrender in order to save the baby chimp as he could not bear the hapless wailing of its young mother. The Chair was jubilant and put him in the shackles and lashed the big guy mercilessly and then something strange happened.
It began raining heavily. The skies darkened. As the hunter aimed to kill the shackled Ape before the mass of cameras — the ritual killing was to be televised live as some kind of reality TV, with the commentary by the triumphant Chair, as the vindication of the superiority of the homo sapiens over the dumb, witless brutes of the lower order before an audience of millions lusting for blood, as done earlier, in the Roman era, by the wild crowds— a troupe of baby monkeys sprang into view. The hunter was astonished to see his granddaughter, the six-year-old, leading one of the simian babies, and, hold your holy breath; the teenage daughter of the Chair and other school children formed a human chain and moved forward.
What the hell! The Chair shouted over the public address system.
The teenage daughter named Gaia by his third wife looked straight into the cameras and said, “Dad, shoot us before you shoot The Ape!”
And hundreds of uniformed kids and old women stood around the shackled Ape and shouted in unison, “Kill us! Kill us, first! We will not allow you to murder such a fine creature.”
The hunter’s grand kid shouted, “Tiger! Tiger!” as the same tiger came out of shadows and joined the human protestors, all unarmed. The kid said, “Tiger! Come here!” He did and nobody panicked. They all stood still, linking arms together, facing the hunter and his goons, as it rained.
The hunter and his killers were stunned by this turn of events.
Gaia said, “Today, it is a virus. Tomorrow, more pandemics will follow, if you kill the wildlife so brazenly. Learn to respect these creatures of God. Beware. We are wild, not them. If they are destroyed, we will be totally annihilated.”
“Kill us! Kill us!” The children and women shouted, daring them to shoot.
More animals joined the protestors in the main plaza as millions watched on their TV screens.
The children hugged the wounded Ape and patted him lovingly, applying turmeric and herbal medicines on his wounds.
The Ape cried for the first time in is life of struggles and humiliation.
The militia waited.
The chain of humans increased in length.
So did the chant: “Respect them. Respect Nature, our mother!”
There was thunder and lightning.
And the rain beat down furiously on the players on that open stage, witnessed by the rest of the world, on that memorable day…
Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html For more details of publications, please visit the link below: http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Globally, three million children a year die of hunger or malnourishment according to theworldcounts.com. The site also notes the number is dropping steadily. In a May 2019 editorial ,Voice of America reports, “Today, some 821 million people suffer chronically from hunger. And although this is significantly fewer people than the numbers we saw a decade ago, hunger still kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.”
Why then does the coronavirus, which has claimed more lives in the United States than other countries at 91,163 total deaths, offer cause for a global economic shutdown? Belgium hosts the highest rate of mortality in the world from the virus at 16.4 percent. In the United States, Cook County, Illinois records 61,212 cases of the virus as of May 17 according to John Hopkins University of Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center. There are 315,174 total global deaths attributed to COVID-19 so far, with the highest confirmed numbers in the United States. Transmission of the virus, says this Chinese study, is elevated by cooler and less humid climates. This possibly explains why areas such as New England and Chicago are heaviest affected, especially New York City.
This essay does not intend to question the lifestyle of American citizens or the policies of the global leadership. However, it may take that tone but I ask that you dig deeper. I propose a question to the reader: why does a mutation of the COVID bug command so much initiative from us whereas global hunger does not seem too much of a concern? How long before the equitable world we all wish to see appears before us?
Already the Coronavirus lockdown has an economic cost reported at BBC here. We are seeing oil prices in the negative in the USA, stock values declining, looming recessions worldwide, and massive unemployment due to the response. Industry is slowing in China where the virus is said to have originated. All in all, we are seeing global political conflicts ranging from who controls the narrative to what cure will work best while political leaders tell citizens “business as usual”, or in contrast turn to authoritarian measures. Richard Hoftstader writes of the paranoid leader in “The Paranoid Style of American Politics”, “He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”
In this work on social psychology, Hoftstader further writes: “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him.” Clearly the authoritarian and paranoid styles merge in conspiratorial logic. The Other must face blame, ostracisation, or anything to distract the populace. The paranoid leader in authoritarian style pins the fearful onto the opposition; it is that fear which he or she embodies in this action that makes the leader effective to others.
Authoritarians thrive on fear, hostility, and incomprehensibility so it is no wonder they are cropping up during these emotionally heated times. Regardless of whether or not coronavirus is indeed “a little flu” , Brazil’s president makes himself the central issue. He is the victim of a conspiracy. Even President Trump in the United States practices better diplomacy — he suggests that he has worked with governors in all the states, of both parties, and they are working together. He also notes in an April press conference that the pandemic shows why the United States must be an ‘independent nation’.
In spite of the media’s attempts at Paxicide and character assassination, the Global Happiness Report tells us that in 2020 more than half the world’s citizens are in urban areas and that “Cities are economic powerhouses: more than 80 percent of worldwide GDP is generated within their boundaries. They allow for an efficient division of labour, bringing with them agglomeration and productivity benefits, new ideas and innovations, and hence higher incomes and living standards.”
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx’s praise of the bourgeoisie speaks for itself: “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”
What is this pandemic and what is the panic around it? Returning to Hoftstader’s comments on the paranoid style, it seems the establishment has pruned and developed it. As the United States faces the worst unemployment rate in history since the Great Depression, and a study predicts a possible extra 75,000 deaths due to despair from the conditions imposed by the virus, there is no easy way to measure the economic costs of this pandemic.
Even now, Chinese officials say the virus may be changing as new cases show symptoms much later, and take longer to test negative. No one knows what the future harbors. The uncertainty itself is torturous as the Well Being Trust and The Robert Graham Center study relates its reasons for calculating higher numbers of deaths of despair, “unprecedented economic failure paired with massive unemployment, mandated social isolation for months and possible residual isolation for years, and uncertainty caused by the sudden emergence of a novel, previously unknown microbe.”
The human is a social animal. Imposing bizarre restrictions on our social lives seems unnatural, especially under conditions we cannot assess.
There are also socioeconomic factors that are emerging in this crisis. The chart shows that workers with less than high school education are suffering the highest rates of unemployment at 21.2 percent, and education level seems to even further reflect on one’s employment according to the chart. Perhaps it is time for a radical restructuring of the economy and tax policy, which may be possible suggests an article in MIT Technology Review. It’s not quite what you expect, however. For instance the article tells the reader that “The tax policy that the AI Economist came up with is a little unusual. Unlike most existing policies, which are either progressive (that is, higher earners are taxed more) or regressive (higher earners are taxed less), the AI’s policy cobbled together aspects of both, applying the highest tax rates to rich and poor and the lowest to middle-income workers. Like many solutions that AIs come up with—such as some of AlphaZero’s game-winning moves—the result appears counterintuitive and not something that a human might have devised. But its impact on the economy led to a smaller gap between rich and poor.”
Let’s not confuse this with flat rate or regressive tax rates that countries like Estonia or Russia used to build capitalist markets. We have capitalist markets in the United States, and do not need to build them. But will we have markets as rich and sturdy post-COVID? The uncertainty is mind-boggling, and the propaganda regarding the virus is frightening.
Janet Yellen of the Brookings Institute tells CNBC that GDP in the United States may be down 30 percent in the second quarter due to the virus. She said, “This is a huge, unprecedented, devastating hit, and my hope is that we will get back to business as quickly as possible.” This interview took place in April 2020. The first quarter already saw a drop of 4.8 percent according to the BEA.
According to a March 2020 Bloomberg article, China’s GDP is at -20 percent in Q1. The article quotes Michelle Lam, a greater China economist at Societe Generale SA in Hong Kong, “We expect infrastructure stimulus to be much stepped up to support aggregate demand and tax and fee cuts to cushion the COVID-19 shock, especially now external demand will be much dampened by the global pandemic.”
President Trump is also calling on infrastructure development, as reported in this CNBC article. When he first entered office, he wanted a two trillion dollar infrastructure package while interest rates were at zero but the Fed upped the rates.
Perhaps, the pandemic paxicide is also bringing some agreement.
The fact is we will not know what COVID-19’s inception into the world will bring until the future arrives. Have we seen any white horses yet? Or is the garbage mounting in sea? As government spending escalates, I think it is safe to assume we are running a course only our imaginations can dream. Meanwhile, migrant workers in India continue to suffer while people use their plight to further their reputations. In the USA, as mentioned we see a downward spiral in the future of blue-collar workers.
It is time we consider something new. While the entire system collapses, we must rebuild because if the future isn’t certain, one thing is: we must make the future. Possibilities are already emerging for us, such as this initiative in Portland.
“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson who also wrote “Will there really be a ‘Morning’?” Perhaps there will be. A more equitable world stands before us if we wish to make it.
Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Some of my best friends on Facebook aren’t my friends anymore
It was the post on Facebook, in the early days, before, you know, before it got really serious. “Does anyone know of anyone actually getting this virus?” The question behind the question was something like ‘this is all fake news, all made up, this is not real’. In the comments section, her FB friends and followers were quick to respond. No. No. Don’t know. No. No. Don’t know anyone. As if to confirm suspicions. So, the poster followed up. Wasn’t it interesting that no one of her hundreds, perhaps thousands of friends, had themselves or knew of anyone with the virus?
When I checked later that week, the denial and dismissal hit some bumps. People, from around the globe, added comments to the list. Yes, they knew of someone who had it. Yes, one of their friends got COVID. Yes, I have it.
So that conspiracy theory in the making was quashed. I selected first unfollow, then unfriend. And thought about blocking or reporting.
But like the arcade game Whac-A-Mole, more so-called Friends were re-posting ‘alternative news’, or penning their own takes on the virus. Sure, we are in a democracy. Sure, information is distributed. Sure, we can be critical of official sources. But when a friend posts, all in upper case, “THIS IS ALL CRAP” I am tempted to turn off the shouting. Because this is a sign that someone has been contaminated, just like in the horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead. Ironically, it is their shouting about all the unnecessary fear and overblown panic that suggests that they themselves are afraid and panicking and have chosen to find comfort in the thin veneer of insight that comes with conspiracy theories. Just that you can’t call them conspiracy theories. Non-mainstream views sounds nicer. Alternative news perhaps.
I’m told not to believe public health officials, political leaders, epidemiologists or scientists. Because, somehow, without educational qualifications, just with a little time using Google and YouTube, my friend is now privy to the real truth, and I am just a mere witless sheep, so naive, so unable to see that this virus hoax is actually a black swan event being used by the powerful elites and clandestine organisations to bring about compulsory micro-chipping, GPS tracking and vaccinations. Or is it really a white swan event, and we could have seen it coming?
So, who will achieve world domination through the pandemic and the recession to follow? The coronavirus itself, isn’t that its goal, aided and abetted by human carriers? All of this is a tad confusing. There’s an invisible virus which is wreaking havoc, it has almost closed down many nations and brought a halt to human activity. We can hear the birds singing, the water is clearer, the air is breathable again, and filled with smells and fragrances. It is an unexpected benefit of lockdown. In such a short amount of time, the Earth has started to heal. We’ve seen how a new world might look, with the kindness of neighbours, a sense of community, time to pause, linger, reflect.
There’s a psychological test, where you imagine yourself in a white room, with no way out. What do you do? Your answer is supposed to indicate your attitude towards death, specifically your own death. In a way, the lockdown has been like a mini-psychology test, to see how we do behave. Are we productive and organised, with full routines and self-care and connecting with others? Or instead, do we mope around, eat too much, binge on Netflix or entertainment as a means of escape, rather than use this time to sort out some things in our lives? Funny how a few months ago many of us were complaining we don’t have enough time with our families or that we are putting off doing things because we are too busy. Yet when the opportunity to spend quality time together or the freedom to do that home decorating task finally arrives, instead we find ourselves wanting to kill those we live with, lamenting over our lack of progress on those rainy day errands, or getting into a cycle of avoidance, regret, and guilt.
In these turbulent times, many things have been put on hold. Not just haircuts, or holidays. But many things have carried on too, though in ways that are not so familiar to us.
The first of my friends to get COVID-19 was in Canada, though she wasn’t able to be tested to confirm her case. One of my best friend’s mother died at the start of the lockdown, not from the virus, but from the kind of natural causes that sees you go out in your late nineties. Travel restrictions and prohibitions on gatherings meant a small service was held via video link.
A comedian and actor from my childhood, Tim Brooke-Taylor, died from COVID-19, on the other side of the world, but because he’d been in the living room when I was young, it seemed like it was close. Then, just a few days ago, a friend calls from China, bearing sad news. One of my friends, a Tibetan in her sixties who founded orphanages and schools across Tibet, had died in Switzerland. The cause of death, I check and re-check the translation on the article in the newspaper: the virus. Tendol was the kindest, big-hearted, loving person I have ever met. She was literally mother to over 300, having welcomed street children, abandoned waifs and orphans into her homes.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, it seems to have separated out those countries that have acted quickly from those who haven’t, or those lacking resources. The daily updates of confirmed cases, patients in hospital, and deaths seems to be too much like the Olympic medal table. We check on how we are doing, how others are doing, how we are doing in relation to our rivals. Self-proclaimed experts ponder exponential curves and possible projections, politicians casually dismiss that it might hurt tens of thousands of people, but they are standing in the way of economic growth.
I would like to go on Facebook and tell others about my friend Tendol, who more than once told me she was ‘the happiest person on Earth’. I would like to let others know that this pandemic is human, not mathematical. I would like others to know people matter more than money, that you can re-start an economy but you can’t bring someone back to life, that if you let go of selfishness and greed you may find your love extends beyond yourself, your family, even your country.
I would like to say this to all my Facebook friends, though the ones I’d really like to reach are now quarantined, unfollowed, unfriended.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
ARA: Well Mr Covid-19, it is said that you are born and brought up in Wuhan.
Covid-19: I don’t know exactly. Some say I was created by Zionists to reduce the world population. There is also an opinion that CIA has launched me to destroy Chinese economy, whereas USA blames that a Chinese lab has fathered me as a biological weapon. Muslims believe that Allah has created me to punish their enemies. Some vegans are of the view that I am an incarnation of God assigned to eradicate omnivores from the Earth. Really, not sure who I am? I remember that when I saw the world in my first encounter with it, I found myself stuck on a toilet wall in the Wet Market of Wuhan from where a lady vendor transmitted me to others and soon I have become almost omnipresent.
ARA: What is your mission?
Covid-19: I feel an internal urge to reform the world. I see how race, nationalism, religion and history are causing sufferings to vast majority of mankind. I see how a section of mankind is devastating nature, its own home. I am against divisive tendencies. Of course, I am against a mankind that failed to respect other kinds of the world. I don’t give value to nationalism. I don’t care for religious hypocrisy. I am not even bothered by masses who elect tyrants. I would like to teach them all a lesson or two.
ARA: You may perhaps agree that there is a natural diversity among people on the ground of race, geography, religion, history and the like.
Covid-19: In my view, they are all differently-one. A tree is a one unit though its roots, trunk, leaves, flowers and fruits appear differently. There is no doubt that mankind is one race with 99.9% common DNA. National boundaries are fictitious. All religions claim their origin from one supreme being. History is just a story book of the past. If they cannot be sure of a few months-long history of my origin then how can they passionately believe in their distant past, including prehistory. Alas! Man lives in his self-made illusion. I am forcing him to come out of this illusion.
ARA: How much you have succeeded in your mission?
Covid-19: First of all, I have prisoned the culprit – man – to further harm anyone or each other. Those who will unfollow my dictates, will suffer. With this global lockdown and two billion homebound prisoners, nature is reclaiming its space. Air has been purified. The rivers are clean. Animals are free to move. The green carpet of the earth is expanding. The ozone layer is healing. Crimes have come down. The shallowness of religious bigotry has been exposed. The ideological polemics are becoming redundant. So much so far.
ARA: But, millions of people are suffering, thousands are dying every day….
Covid-19: I am not to be blamed. It is their own chosen fate. They are free to adopt better system, better leader and better code of life. However, their greed is unparalleled in nature and almost insatiable, which distracts them from taking a right decision. If man is diminishing thousands of species with billions of life forms in a year, he has no right to claim mercy. There is no one to weep for men.
ARA: What is your advice to people who care?
Covid-19: Man should develop a global system based on justice, freedom, dignity, mercy, equality, knowledge and brotherhood, not only within human society but transcending to all life forms on the earth. Everything has its due share in nature and that should be respected. Greed is catastrophic. Let man learn during my reign the lessons of caring and sharing. Let him break his shell of greed or face the consequences, as I am not going to rest until I fulfil my mission. If I fail, there are more like me in store to join the onslaught. As I have said, whatever is occurring represents a human choice. Man has an option to choose a pleasant future. He will, if he is wise as he claims.
Abdul Rashid Agwan is a social activist, political analyst and author of many books.
COVID-19 lockdown continues. I am stationed in a small modern town, surrounded by rustic villages in coastal Karnataka. From some of the tallest buildings in the locality, you can see the mighty Arabian Sea in the horizon, far and wide like a steamy mirage. It’s dreamy!
As uncertain as the pandemic, the day kicks off with the thoughts of the “what ifs,” “What numbers?” and “What next?” Waking up to birds chirping, calm sunrise, though the sun’s the same — shining bright and ever brilliant — I wondered if today was going to be the same or any different. It was the same. It was a melodious morning with birds chirping and singing, except that I was missing the honking and bonking of the pre-office and office hours rush of children and people moving, waiting, walking, rushing, driving in or away, or embarking on their respective buses to work or school. My mind was not merry but having decided to ceremoniously spend some time in the garden before breakfast, I freshened up and invited my husband to join me. He isn’t always interested in garden stuff but agreed. In disbelief, he uttered, “COVID-19, it’s truly a Black Swan situation.”
I called home to find out their condition. Unsurprisingly, identical stories of the contagion loomed large enmeshed with gloom, grim and grimace. Feeling cynical, I asked my husband what would happen if things would get worse? Would we never go out again till some vaccine or a solution took the form of a saviour, or, if things got out of control, would we all fall sick and die — unable to get back to the old normal?
He just said, “Don’t be silly. It will be over soon. I mean, it has to …” Watering the plant leisurely, I was happy for those moments that I was able to spend tending plants, admiring the blooms and nurturing my garden. I wanted to think that this day was going to be a blessing in disguise.
As I watered the plants, I was greeted by a couple of sunbirds sucking the nectar of the multi-coloured variety of hibiscus plants that grew along the fence in a row interrupted by jasmines followed by a parade of Ixora flowers mostly red, a couple of tall jackfruit trees bearing jackfruits big and small, a middle-aged cashew tree, a budding chikoo tree, curry leaf trees with its young ones sprouting around it like little children gathered around to listen to stories and, an alternate of tall coconut palm trees and lanky areca nut trees in each corner.
In one of the corners, was a family of plantains with one out of the two bigger ones that stood out gracefully, bearing tender bananas. They hung like braided hair with a flower at its tip. As I reached the corner, I could look up to the coconuts that hung so bountifully with spiky leaves that stretched out fiercely and proudly against the azure sky. For a moment I felt I was wrapped in a blue bubble.
I thought the sky is the same as the one I had seen from the rooftop of my house in Imphal on certain days when there were no clouds and the sky was exceptionally clear. But as I continued to look up almost breaking my neck, I twisted my head a little and wondered that it was the same sky yet it was different like a picture with filters. Spellbinding both though, in their own ways.
Spotting a greater coucal (crow pheasant) taking a quick-short flight from the cashew tree to the bushes reminded me of the Hume’s pheasant (Nong-in), the state bird of Manipur, which too loves to utilise the early hours of the day for food and fun. It reminded me of the familiar and at the same time made me curious.
Atypically, I missed rava idlis for breakfast, which I relished on certain mornings in the canteen, and so I had made plans to finally try cooking some at home. I always thought that the people of the place made it best, which surely is the case, but I thought of giving myself a chance. I looked up for the recipes and the procedures and made some with the emblematic coconut chutney. As I gave the final touches and made ginger tea, I thought of friends and family in this cosmic crisis. I could not help but feel heavy in my heart. I poured the hot aromatic tea into my favourite cups.
We were supposed to be home at this time of the year. By home, I mean my home in Manipur. A time we always look forward to, as the summer breaks are long and it has become a luxury to spend time at my home with dear and near ones. Along with the idea of longing and belonging, the idea of home too, keeps redefining with the passing time. And each time it gets defined, I get redefined too.
I remember, the first time I saw the Arabian Sea, it breathtakingly blew my mind. At the first glance, I felt like I was on the moon. The sea was calm and teeming blue. On the contrary, during the monsoons, the sea is wild, rough and voluminous. The sea, the waves, the sounds and sights of the beach slowly, becomes more familiar, the more I visit, the feeling is the less of a surprise but more of an endearing one.
Precarious as it may seem, the pandemic injected a moment of retrospection on the accustomed and the unaccustomed.
I continue to hope. I looked out into the garden from my window and smiled contentedly. I picked up my cup, sipped my tea and thought of home and of homes, at home. It captivatingly dawned on me that it was quite the same, yet not the same.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copyeditor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature. When not reading or writing, she loves to indulge in Nature.