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A Glimpse of a Distant Mountain

A Letter From India

Last week, my daughters teacher forwarded a short video on how to grow microgreens and suggested the kids try it at home as they wait out the coronavirus lockdown. My daughter enthusiastically followed the instructions and watched every hour to see how her little plants were faring. The promised one-week time frame was over today and she was disappointed that the stalks were nowhere near as grown or as lush as the video promised.

Wait for a few more days,I suggested, pointing out the little tendrils with their tightly clenched fists that were sure to open up into bright greens in just a few days more. But she had lost interest in the endeavor because the plants had not adhered to the deadline. But then, that is what the world in the “normal” days trained her for — discipline, structure and, yes, a sense of hurry. Nothing in nature, except for humankind, has the kind of impatience we live with on a minute-to-minute basis.

And yet, over the last two months, we have learned to pause. And wait. Wait for the pandemic to pass. Wait for the world to heal. Wait for life to return to what it used to be.

As I write this, around four million people worldwide have been infected with the dreaded coronavirus and more than 250,000 have lost their lives. In my own state of Kerala in India, early adoption of stringent measures have kept the numbers fairly low and for the last week, the numbers of newly infected patients has stayed in the range of zero to three. And yet, as United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said last week, In an interconnected world, none of us is safe till all of us are safe.

“We have learned to pause. And wait. Wait for the pandemic to pass. Wait for the world to heal. Wait for life to return to what it used to be.”

Never before has the entire world been united in disaster on this scale. Never before has the world ground to a stop like it has now. The impossible has been revealed to be indeed possible. From sporting events to international expositions to trade, travel and entertainment — there is nothing that cannot take a breather,is the startling revelation this period has thrown up. Is the universe offering us a chance to take stock of our choices and clean up our act? By showing us what our world could look like — from work-at-home to online schooling to roads unburdened by vehicles — is it giving us the opportunity to shape a new normal?

In an ordinary year, this month would have been all about preparing for the new academic year that starts in June. While making sure books and uniforms were purchased on schedule, we would also have sneaked in a mini-vacation before school reopened and spent time with the grandparents. Instead we are discussing the pros and cons of online classes, video-calling family to stay connected and making furtive trips to the terrace to get some fresh air when we are sure there arent too many others around.

As we made our first foray in over 40 days to a supermarket today, there was a sense of shock at how oddly distant the neighborhood looked — as though there was a face mask right across our sense of familiarity. At our usual store, there was the newly introduced routine of waiting in line as only five people are allowed in at a time. But what struck me with a greater sense of shock was how cold and distant the staff seemed. Perhaps it was because their nerves were wrought by the strain of working in an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. Perhaps they felt that with the masks covering two-thirds of their faces, there was simply no point in social niceties like smiling. As with the handshake, are smiles, too, disappearing gently into the shadows?

When I talk to my children about life after COVID-19, I would like to tell them about a world that is still smiling — however else the shape of our new normal might look.

Five young men, several wearing masks, gather to pore over books.
Students in Kerala wear protective masks while preparing for an exam. (photo: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

As the numbers first started to rise in our country and we wrestled with our tenuous understanding of social distancing, a couple of young filmmakers in our state took upon themselves the task of making short videos to educate the public on how to conduct ourselves in the face of the pandemic. One of those videos showed a young lawyer telling her domestic help she need not come in to work any longer. As the dismayed worker looks at her with anxiety, she smiles and tells her it is safer to stay home in the present climate and pays her wages in full for the rest of the month too before sending her on her way. This struck a chord, not just with me, but a lot of people in Kerala who depend on domestic workers to run their households. For many women from economically stressed backgrounds, offering their cooking and cleaning skills in the multitude of apartment complexes that throng the city had become their lifeline to securing a sense of financial independence for themselves and their families. The prospect of losing this income would have scared them far more than the unknown virus.

I dont know how many people took up the suggestion in that video but I am fairly certain most households did, not only because of empathy and personal equations, but also because we understand what it means to be faced with unexpected loss of jobs and incomes.

Among the states of India, Kerala has among the highest percentage of expatriates in all corners of the world. Currently, the nation is involved in a massive operation to bring home over 500,000 of them, many with health issues and many more having lost their jobs. These workers, who have contributed immensely to the economy of their home state, now stare at uncertain futures with mountains of debts to pay off and families to look after. Everyone in Kerala has a close family member or friend working abroad. Which is why we watch with growing concern the headlines from around the world, hoping and praying for everyone to be safe, not only from the virus but also from loss of livelihoods.

And as we keep our fingers crossed for our own people abroad, we are also witnessing the tragic exodus of thousands of migrant workers who were lured here by higher pay and better living conditions. As a state that relies hugely on migrant labor for our day-to-day existence, we will be looking at a huge vacuum in the days ahead unless they find it in their hearts to return. We must learn to treat them with more respect than we ever have and acknowledge how their efforts have made our lives easier. Of necessity, we will hopefully step into an era of more respect for our fellow beings and more appreciation for all that they do!

a medical worker reaches through gloves extending from a pane of glass to administer a virus swab to a seated woman..
A medical worker collects samples from a patient at a new COVID-19 testing kiosk at Ernakulam Medical Collage in the city of Cochin in Kerala, India. (photo: Str/Xinhua via Getty)

With life in suspended animation all around us, we feel, with more power and depth than ever, the very human emotions of pain, fear and compassion. And when we allow ourselves to feel, it is only natural that it makes us more caring and generous. The newspapers spoke about a Hindu family in Kerala observing the Ramadan fast to show solidarity with a Muslim student they had taken in during the lockdown. In a densely populated state with a serious shortage of space, the Catholic Church was the first major institution to offer the use of hospitals, schools and colleges under its control for use as quarantine and treatment centers for COVID-19 patients. In the coastal city of Alappuzha, a local church decided to utilize funds collected for renovation to help out the fishermen of the region who had been left jobless by the lockdown. A group of 17 young priests donated blood to encourage others to do the same so the health scenario in the state would not come to a standstill. These are the instances that make one truly believe that it is a beautiful world we live in — one that deserves to be cherished with all our heart.

There is a whole new vocabulary that has entered our daily interactions. From social/physical distancing and lockdowns to social bubblesand travel bubbles,what awaits is a life quite different from what we have known and experienced thus far. If we retain the best of what this prolonged pause has revealed to us, there is no reason why we cant make it a better version of what we are used to. In the new era of emerging social mores, we may need to smile more with our eyes than our lips. We may need to express more with our words and actions than through physical contact.

There are reports that villagers living more than a hundred miles away can now see on the horizon the outline of the Himalayas, Indias sentinel to the east. An entire generation has grown up in these villages, never having been aware that once upon a time their grandparents or even their parents woke up to that amazing sight every single day. Nature has shown us the difference that 40 days can make! There is much to remind us that we are but a small part in a larger — much larger — scheme of things. This is not just humbling; it is also a deeply spiritual experience.

As our world has been reduced to the size and shape of a tiny cartoon-like sphere covered in spikes, our vision has grown more global than it has ever been. In the true Indian spirit of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” or “all the world is a family,we stay anxious for Europe and Africa, pray for America, look with relief on China and Japan and cheer for New Zealand. For the first time in human history perhaps, we can truly say, we are all in this together.

Let that be the measure of our new normal.

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