Where the World has not been Broken…

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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Katsaridaphobia & COVID 19

I have to admit I suffer from acute katsaridaphobia —

My Kastaridaphobia is stronger than my fear of COVID19 or cows.

While COVID is being kept at bay with isolation, masks, lockdowns and quarantines and cows can be kept at bay by gates in India and can only be seen in restricted areas in Singapore, creatures that cause Katsaridaphobia cannot be kept at bay anywhere in the world. They have been around for 320 million years — much, much longer than our species — and are known to spread diseases like cholera, typhoid, asthma, polio, leprosy and plague.

A poet friend eulogised the panic caused in the hearts of people by these creatures, the culprits who cause kastaridaphobia. In fact, I learnt this intimidating word from him! While the verses were evocative, they sent empathetic shivers down my spine by their very description.

Have you as yet guessed what these creatures are? They swarm drains, eat faeces and carry filth — and yet we have learnt to live with them for the whole span of our species existence. These creatures are our creepy, crawly cockroaches!

I am more terrified of cockroaches than anything in the world, closely followed by cows and now, it’s corona virus. So, the three Cs that frighten me most would be — Cockroaches, Cows and Covid-19 — and I hope for a time when I will be able to laugh my fears off the face of this Earth!

You can of course call it wishful thinking!

Apposed to these are the three Cs that capitalism had ingrained into us as the life dream of all humans — credit card-condo-car — the very things that big C threatens with its fiery radial. While, we have learnt to deal with cockroaches and all the terrible diseases it can bring into our lives, while we managed to tame cows and keep them in pens, COVID still roams wild and free. The most hit are of course those who belong to the lowest income stratas. A Times report showed how in New York the poorest make up the largest percentage of COVID patients, eventhough they are not all tested because the tests are expensive. In India, one does not dare think how many deprived will be affected. The homeless migrant labour have been much in news in India and heart-breaking stories have found their way to the media. One of the reports I saw on this issue with some statistics was in Straits Times of Singapore. The report said: “The International Labor Organization warned last week that about 400 million workers engaged by the informal economy, which accounts for a staggering 90 per cent of the country’s (India’s) total workforce, risk falling deeper into poverty during the crisis. A report released by the World Bank on Sunday stated that the pandemic will reinforce inequality in South Asia, urging governments to ramp up action to protect their people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, including through temporary work programs.”

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The Big C

In the 1990s, the three Cs — credit card, condo, car — defined “status” among the bourgeoisie. Now, another C has overtaken all the three Cs, the Big C — Corona. A tiny virus has brought mankind to its knees with all kinds of stories, rumours and the threat of depleted numbers and economies. As with anything big, many narratives weave around the virus which we cannot even see with our bare eyes. One of the things that is going around the media is that COVID 19 is a rich man’s disease — is it?

I do not know if the first man to contract COVID in China on 17 th November 2019 in Hubei province was rich or poor. But I do understand that it got carried to different countries by travelers — are all travelers rich? In some countries they could be considered rich because the majority are too poor to afford travel. Perhaps, people who are thinking this way can answer why there are such huge gaps between the incomes of the “rich” and “poor”? And is it justified to continue having them? And how would they narrow this gap?

These would have to be real time solutions that can perhaps be worked out by social science researchers and economists and then implemented by the governments with the supports of citizens willing to generate jobs, invest and work hard. Perhaps, broadly speaking more employment and higher wages would help. More jobs might also mean more wealth for the country. But that is in the future!

Right now, we are all discomfited by different degrees of isolation, boredom and irritation in not being allowed to step out. But one thing that is very clear is that this virus has become a great leveler of mankind. And that is not because it chooses indiscriminately without glancing into people’s pockets. It has actually brought our earlier life style based on an exploitative system to a halt. We no longer think in terms of greed but in terms of survival and how to avoid falling victim to a tiny creature that unifies all mankind in its line of attack. All of us now live one day at a time and thank our stars for being Corona free. Like in Camus’s The Plague (1947), we hope the virus will suddenly disappear.

Despite all our medical advances, we have not yet found a way to tackle the corona virus, named after the outer rim of the life-giving sun. In 2015, when there was an Ebola outbreak, Bill Gates in a TEd talk said that now we needed to fear not so much of other wars that might involve nuclear weapons as combat against various natural and unnatural viruses. He suggested ways to battle this. But we had no time to get away from our lives and explore battling epidemics which, at that instance,  actually was contained in a small part of the world. Perhaps, that is why the corona has appeared to give us a warning that we need to invest more in healthcare, more in value-based learning which will help us respect all kinds of life on this planet — not just human or not just capitalistic or communist.  Pope Francis has said the Corona virus was ‘nature’s response’ to our exploitative needs. “I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world,” he elaborated. “We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion.”

One other thing that Corona exposed is that many people do not have homes where they work. They do not have money. Despite seventy-three years of independence, India has not been able to find housing for its migrant labour population. They live inside vacant drainpipes or on corners of streets on dirty rags, subsisting on very minimal food with no access to medical facilities, potable water, education or decent homes. They have no safety gear, like I see people wear in other countries when they do construction work. Till the advent of isolation during Corona, the middle class and wealthy found it convenient to ignore the existence of this part of the population. However, as corona levels mankind, it ignited the conscience of the inert when the recent mass exodus of the deprived, devoid of homes, food, potable water, medicines and any safety measures raised many brows at an international level. May one hope that in future, these sympathetic citizens will still find it in their hearts to look for a more balanced society — a society where people will pay taxes and generate more jobs that pay regular sustenance level salaries? That they will ensure money is used for the benefit of humankind and not squandered? That the money given to the unschooled migrants has the dignity of work and self-reliance — not be given to the deprived on an ad hoc charity basis or as a dole?

We do not need a society like in Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) where the pigs who take over mankind’s reign state, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Though written as a book critiquing the communist regime, this statement can also be used to critique the selected way of thinking exhibited by the highly educated — I cannot say communist or capitalist because I am bad at classifying things. I always feel my intellect matches that of the unthinking, unintellectual population because finding classification based on class or etymology terrorizes me.

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