Published in Countercurrents.org, May 4th, 2020
To dream of uniting mankind, pieced and classified into multiple nations, religions, sects and sub sects is a mammoth, impractical and ideologically impossible task — but this time a little virus has taken it on and united us with its virulence.
It was interesting to come across an imagined interview with the virus, in which the interviewer questioned the virus about the diversity of the human race which to us seems an unbridgeable barrier. The interviewer goes by the acronym of ARA.
“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 all are 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.”
And while we like the Big Endians and the Little Endians in Gulliver’s travel (1726), ponder on the right way to crack eggs and create different classifications and sects of thought, at least three books that have been published within India from November 2019 to March 2020 that have focused on the commonalities of culture between two groups who think they stand massively divided — the Hindus and Muslims. The three books are Avik Chanda’s Dara Shukoh, the Man Who Would Be King; Aruna Chakravarti’s Suralakshmi Villa and Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan.
Chanda has shown his perceived truth through the history of the Indian sub- continent in his book on Dara Shukoh published in November 2019. He wrote this book because he felt it was a need of the times. In an interview he says, “The biggest relevance of Dara Shukoh is that of his ethos. Call it by what name you will – Ganga-Jamuna Tahzeeb, syncretism or modern secularism – the fact remains that a holistic, inclusive approach works best when governing a highly complex, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation such as India.”
The next book, a novel by Sahitya Akademi winning author, Chakravarti, focuses on a similar syncretic issue and was launched during the communal Delhi riots of February 2020 in the same city, just preceding COVID. While the novel takes us on a syncretic journey which emphasizes that violence and hatred does not see cast, community or religion, it has a feminist streak too that has been explained by the author in an interview: “Like all my other novels Suralakshmi Villa focuses on the lives of women. It is about two sets of sisters. The first belongs to a wealthy, modern, enlightened, household of Delhi. The other, a goatherd’s daughters living in a slum in Malda, comes from the dregs of society. But close inspection reveals that there is not much difference in their lives and fates. There is emotional violence in one world…both physical and emotional violence in the other.” The goatherd’s daughter is from a Muslim background and the modern Suralakshmi after who the book is named, is a Hindu. The novel clearly shows that family violence and bad attitude existed everywhere, irrespective of religion or caste, and it is an individual trait to react with courage and positivity or to accept it meekly. Both kinds of women have been drawn to contrast in the novel. Taking it a little further, one would observe that while we pipe about family violence heightening during COVID lockdown, it has existed all along — it is for humans to choose tolerance or intolerance — irrespective of the situation. Do we blame the world wide lockdowns for it or the social systems that preach hatred, intolerance, inaction and acceptance of evils as the norm?
The third book, published in March 2020 just around the onset of COVID, spoke of syncretism and tried to create a bridge of humanitarian tolerance against the much-critiqued nation that was torn by the Radcliffe line, The Other Side of the Divide. Senior journalist Khatlani discloses in an interview, “Based on my interactions over the years with those Pakistanis who call themselves liberals, I can say they have been among India’s strongest supporters. They always tended to be hostile to the Kashmir cause and allergic to any sense of ‘Muslimness’. The turn of events in India has left them embarrassed. They really do not seem to know how to react.”
The attempt to create a bridge between these differences drawn out by rituals of religion and nationality continue. Why? And why have three writers, who are unconnected and writing in different genres, addressed the same issue? Have these issues become so big that they loom over all our existence in the battle between groups divided by different ideologies and rituals?
United we stand and divided we fall — an old adage that comes to one’s mind as we try to struggle our way out of a pandemic that had been mentioned as a likely threat by Bill Gates five years ago and we chose to ignore his wise warning. Do we want to be distracted by these issues, these fissures in our society, again in the face of surviving as a race in our biological battle against the virus whose origins to date remain uncertain?
In the humorous interview I mentioned earlier the Virus tells ARA. “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… Really, not sure who I am…”
The important question here is not how the virus originated but how do we survive its onslaught. To the corona virus, we are all the same. It crosses barriers and borders to level out mankind. In this battle, one has to rise above divides and unite as Yuval Noah Harari says: “Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”
COVID has also brought into focus other battles mankind will have to unite to win if we are to survive as a race and emerge as a humane planet— Gobal Hunger, Homelessness, Poverty and Climate Change. We will have to stop thinking of marginalisation and divides and unite to see ourselves as one.
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