What happened to you O India, My India?
As yet another year passes by, we’re getting ready to wish everyone with the stereotype ‘Happy New Year’. Except that, am not so sure if the word ‘happy’ fits anymore in a realistic sense.
A month before the rise of the sun on 2021, this image below popped up on my Twitter feed (from starecat.com) summing up the fears of a world staring at an uncertain future. I shared it with a number of people as a matter of laughter more than anything else. The Delta strain had not yet hit India. But it is a telling image of a technologically, liberally advanced world afraid of what lay behind the partially open door, in a dark room.
At the fag end of 2021, going through all what we have, it is even scarier to open the door. I could never have imagined what all would have to be seen over a period of 390-odd days.
As I took an RT-PCR test to go to Mumbai from Bangalore (end-February), I was trying out for the first time, the Covid-era travel protocol. No one bothered to check the report either at the entrance to the airport (of course, no one bothered about ‘Arogya Sethu’), nor on arrival at Mumbai. Karnataka’s rules stipulated that a negative RT-PCR test was a must on return from Maharashtra and Kerala. Spending Rs. 800 in addition to the Rs. 1200 in Bangalore, and “armed” with another negative certificate, I headed to the beautiful Mumbai airport that can easily be mistaken for an elegant art museum.
At the entrance, as usual they just checked the identity card. At C/in, when the courteous airline staff handed over my boarding pass saying nothing at all. Going past the gate, no one bothered to check. While the de-boarding exercise (only one airline in India has got that right) at Bangalore was so orderly - a few rows at a time - on entering the terminal building, no one checked the negative certificate even here.
That was the evening of February the 28th. On the way home, I thought to myself if this was a fatal error. News about the Delta variant was hitting the headlines, numbers were on the rise and doctors across online platforms like Barkha Dutt’s @Mojostory and Faye D’Souza, and on good TV networks like @NDTV, particularly with Sonal Mehrotra Kapoor, kept warning people, and the government to be careful.
Instead, people were already discarding their masks, election rallies were in full swing, crowds milled around in the malls and at tea shops. Just as the onset of summer brings off those sweaters and woollens, this summer of 2021 started to erase any pretensions of care - masks, tests and hygiene (I was at a vegetable shop where the guy standing next to me removed his mask, and sneezed all over the local vendor’s stall, who gave the sneezer a look - he never bothered!). An elderly person in our locality stood by the roadside of our layout asking people to wear masks properly - some snarled at him, others shouted, and most just continued on their journey.
Within no time, like petrol prices stop going up as elections get announced, every state started imposing Covid-Protocol measures (lockdowns) the day voting ended - it was too late by then. Couldn’t our leaders just not care for people’s lives earlier?
There, in early April, a big full stop to the happiness we wished each other, appeared. It was a big black stop. Hospitals started to fill up like jugs under a full flowing tap. News of ‘serious’ cases started to frequent Whatsapp groups. The sound of ambulances speeding across the city one after the other, began to fill the air. The frequency was fearful. And, we found out that we had not ordered vaccines in enough quantity for our own countrymen and women.
Distressing scenes of people running for oxygen began to flood social media. Boards outside hospitals announcing lack of beds or oxygen started to appear all over.
In the meanwhile, early one morning I found my wife (positive for Covid-19) labouring to breathe. Our doctor said, it’s better to do a lung scan immediately. But how do you go? Will they allow me inside the hospital? How about an ambulance - well, they charged 15k to take you to the scanning centre. The Baptist Hospital then agreed to let me take her for the scan, but not before 8pm! A wait of over 10 hours, before a scan could be done.
Clad in gloves, double masks, face shields and almost bathed in sanitisers, we reached the Bangalore Baptist Hospital. Along the way and while waiting there, ambulances continued rushing patients. The old and young struggled to get off these vehicles, strutted towards the emergency room, went in, and in a few minutes disappeared behind the green curtains of the emergency ward, one by one. Around 10 at night, the quietness of the waiting area was disturbed by 3-4 young ladies running in from the main road, about 100m away. From different directions they ran in, bags swinging wildly, with frightened faces and attempting to shout something out, they hid themselves behind the pillars inside the ward. “This is a Covid ward, don’t you know”? - the security guard yelled at them. Shivering in fear, not able to utter a word, their eyes scanned the premises. It turned out, they were escaping from a group of men who attempted groping them! They were nurses from a nearby clinic returning to their hostel.
Even a deadly Covid virus did not stop some men from attempting to molest young nurses whose job at the time was to breathe life into those infected with Covid.
In the aftermath of all that happened from that morning, and the exhaustion of just seeing hospital staff struggling through their PPE suits, I spent an entire night awake. Almost at every turn and toss, stressed at the kind of scenes I witnessed, including that of a young woman who could not reach the hospital bed from the doctor’s cabin a few meters away (she collapsed onto the wall and was later helped onto the bed). Many of these kinds of people must have thrown caution to the wind, and are now gasping for a bit of oxygen to hang on to dear life. Many of these may have been victims of irresponsible behaviour of others, like that veg shop sneezer!
Needless to mention, Covid got hold of me. Between my wife and I, we took a whopping 365+ (I counted them!) tablets according to the then medicine protocol. The impact of those medicines lingered on for several months, why, even now!
Later we read from newspapers, that these protocols were changed, and many hundreds of those tablets we took were actually not required. Those of us who swallowed them wonder, what kind of protocol that was, when even at the time, doctors from various countries were saying they weren’t needed. Being a Covid patient in India was a money spinning festival for pharma companies and hospitals.
But unlike my dear friend Robin, a very dear client Bala, another loveable associate Prasad and many others, we both managed to cross the dangerous sea. In the words of another friend: “many have fallen, by God’s grace you have survived”. How true that was. At a time when having to send my wife for a lung scan again (few days after the Baptist Hospital episode), there was no way to go. The city was under lockdown. No one could help, taxis wouldn’t come when we say about Covid-infected, and Ambulances (many of them that were no more than ‘rickety carts’, in the words of Barkha Dutt) were charging monies that had already been sucked up by Predmets, FabiFlus and the like. How would she go? I shared this with a friend. With prayers on his lips, he dialled another friend, whose driver himself was rushing to get scanned. He was just around the corner and would be able to take Janis to the scanning centre. No, this cannot be a mere coincidence or a matter of chance. The all-knowing God of the heavens had to intervene, and He did!
The massively destructive wave of Covid showed the world how helpless it was in front of a virus. In hindsight, it was a mistake to have thought then, that people would have learnt some lessons and would turn out better. A big mistake.
Countless acts of brazenly inhuman behaviour followed in our beloved nation. One after the other, like things falling from a cupboard during an earthquake, they manifested in our society in various different ways.
Local city corporation officers came to our apartment building to ascertain the charges to be paid for getting the sewerage outlet and the government water supply inlet, connected (after many years of perennial digging that already left the local population beset with multiple health issues). First, they just drew up an unscientifically gigantic figure which none of us could afford. Later it was corrected when mistakes in calculation and the basis of that calculation (mis-interpretation of the norms) were pointed out. The amount still being higher, the engineer (around 60-65 years old) who built the building questioned it, and this was the shocker that came back in local language - “you have a basement also right? Is that your father’s property for you not to pay up”? We have forgotten how to behave with elders. Remember the jeep that mindlessly sped over an elderly, green-turbaned farmer? Never mind the levels of corruption; we were recently reminded that it is a way of life!
In another state, the police insensitively dealt with a poor woman selling fish, throwing her fish onto the road in full sight of a ‘watching society’ (citing covid protocol, much like how scores of vegetable vendors in another state were turned upside down). Even as the incident was caught on camera, the police went on to deny and then justify the same. A celebrated woman minister in charge of health and family welfare was not even prepared to acknowledge this in the state Assembly, despite being asked repeatedly. Blind followers of the political party she belongs to turned their faces away when this was discussed, and changed the topic to football! Even compassion has a political colour to it now. Am sure Barkha Dutt’s new, soon-to-be-out book will shed more tearful insights on this aspect.
A classmate of mine ran a ‘mini-supermarket’ in a small town, near a larger margin-free store. As the second wave hit the state, shops were allowed to open based on certain strict yet unscientific conditions. Whenever the shop opened, the police arrived, objecting to opening the shop as the board had the word ‘supermarket’ (next time choose your business name carefully!) on it (in reality, it was a slightly larger kirana shop, with parallel shelves). At times they forced customers to get out leaving stuff inside the shop, and downed shutters. Every time the shop would open during ‘permissible times’, the police swiftly arrived and the shop had to be closed. Now those shutters are permanently shut. My friend tells me, “At least I am happy, when they (the police) come around, they’ll not be able to ask money from me any longer”. Just this much, is a matter of comfort in our country.
The same police couldn’t stop multiple gruesome murders that took place nearby, though. Even a recent one where attackers attacked and stabbed a person, cut out his leg and ran amok with it on the streets terrifying people, before leaving it on the middle of the road. The same police elsewhere in this state looked on helplessly when two youngsters belonging to rival political outfits were killed within hours of each other, leaving a trail of uncontrolled tears, fears and an uncertain future for their young wives and children. But in front of unarmed women, shopkeepers and protestors they are active, dutiful, and at their best. In the end washing their hands off by announcing - ‘mistaken identity’.
Some friends with whom I grew up with from childhood and studied in the same classroom have turned bigots. They blindly believe poisonous propaganda tastefully served to them on social media (and they enjoy it). I cannot recognise some of them who have an altogether different (unmistaken) identity now. Those who follow supposedly Christ’s noble ways threaten to burn a state for a movie that apparently ‘hurts’ sentiments of believers. Before cracking a joke or naming a movie one has to first do a check if they are anywhere close to potentially hurtful!
On the other side, for three days, a few hundred people participating at a religious convention were given hours of lectures on hating, and killing people of another community. I wonder aloud, how my fellow-Indians can sit, listen to and agree to this? More than a few times this year, mobs took law into their own hands and lynched (killed) fellow-humans. Many justified the act; voices if any that opposed this phenomenon were drowned out in noisy TV studios. Online platforms valiantly gave voice of concern and protest, and when they did, trolls pounced on them with threats and nauseatingly vile comments. As we forget that we are human beings, there is hardly anyone to collectively remind us that we are indeed humans.
Thugs march into churches armed with swords and clubs, desecrate prayer and worship meetings that are in progress, yell at believers, threaten leaders and create mayhem. Enter the police, the pastor or leader is arrested and taken away, while the perpetrators go free. The one place where many look for peace, is itself turned into a street side fist fight avenue. We don’t even leave those who are engaged in sacred religious rituals, alone.
At an airport last week, waiting for a delayed flight to arrive, I sat on a chair next to a charging point. After an hour or so, I got up to help myself to a cup of coffee. Returning to the seat, I was stunned that someone else was sitting right where I was. My bag, phone and book (Vir Sanghvi’s ‘Rude Life’) was put across to another chair, and a young bloke sat there happily yapping on the phone! There were easily a hundred other chairs in that area, unoccupied; at least 5 or 6 near the charging point. As I stood there with coffee in hand attempting to signal to him that ‘you’re sitting where I was’, I realised, by the time I get to tell him that, coffee would go cold. So, I collected all my things and went to another place. This guy went past me to his boarding gate, but not even attempted to say sorry! Worse, a friend with whom I shared this asked back: “why should he apologise; what manners; you’re racist”!! This is what? - When we forget even basic manners, life indeed gets rude.
The ICCR has now called for Indian music to be made mandatory to be played in Indian airlines and at airports, as often airlines only play foreign music “which neither one can enjoy nor understand”! After raiding our kitchens, bedrooms and classrooms, are we now going to be told what to listen? (I love and enjoy Indian music… the combination of the ‘veena/sitar’ swaying its strings to the beat of the ‘tabala/mridangam’ is irresistible; a flute to accompany is like coffee powder atop a Tiramisu!). We are now being told that in order to choose a religion or deity, we need a District Magistrate’s permission to do so! Recently in another city people from a particular religion were disallowed to open a restaurant. Around the same time, an order was issued (taken back later) that no non-vegetarian food must be sold on the street. A school girl chose to publicly challenge a group of seers on the issue of having eggs included in the school mid-day program. Our most basic freedoms are under threat.
Aryan Khan had to get heaven and earth moved, to see the skies outside a prison cell. Fr. Stan Swamy was mercilessly denied a lot of things any human being would be graciously allowed, when fighting for life.
Looking at all this, instead of wishing people a ‘happy new year’, I ask: What happened to you O India, My India?
Yet, the words of Peter the Apostle offer hope: I look up to heaven, for an “abundance of grace and peace”. May my India experience a year of peace. May the many crying hearts seeking justice experience the grace to go through what we are witnessing, and perhaps are about to witness - the set of upcoming elections are indeed a frightening prospect.
Cartoon image: https://starecat.com/year-2021-people-afraid-to-open-door/