To all those who serve quietly, without fanfare
We are, all of us, prisoners of the planet today. We are captives of the unnatural that nature cannot explain or master. The human condition, for that very first time since the appearance of Man, has pushed us all, in these bizarre times, into an inexplicable form of unity that we did not expect and certainly do not covet.
But, then, there are the mysteries of life and death it is not in our power to understand. A world, our world, has been felled by a force we do not see and we cannot track. But it kills, and kills without remorse.
We are in lockdown, everywhere. At dawn tomorrow there will yet be a new, sinister landscape littered with human remains. Death is on the rampage. We inform ourselves, as we hit the bed in worrisome sleep, of the death that may be approaching people we know. And then comes that tug at the heart, to whisper to us that tomorrow’s casualties could well include us.
Never before has life been more precious or more precarious an experience. Never before has death been an imminent possibility. Those forlorn streets, those curtained windows behind which families pray hard to hold on to life, those skies where birds flying home to their nests is nostalgia, are reasons for fear. Today has been spent in prayer, and tomorrow may not be.
And yet there are those of our compatriots we celebrate, here in our republic. They do not tell us that all will be well, but they do enlighten us on that particular affluence we know as basic human decency. The man who has spent a lifetime seeking alms from door to door in the urban regions of existence gives away his tough-earned money for those who need it in these times of creeping agony.
He does not beg today, for today he has turned benefactor, holding forth his heart and all his riches in offering to his fellow citizens. To this man, this pure symbol of humanity who has plodded through life stretching out his hands for alms and today can only give of his munificence we say “thank you” with folded hands and bowed head.
Our world may not recover. Perhaps, in that Biblical mould, we are finally headed toward the apocalypse. But we do read the Qur’an and the Bible and the Torah and the Bhagavad Gita and the Granth Sahib. These deaths around us, these exponentially multiplying graves dotting our world have renewed our collective sense of belonging with God, for it is in these dark moments that we come across the young student who gives away the remuneration he has acquired from tutoring students younger than him to the cause of humanity.
He thus becomes larger than life and because he does, we celebrate him. He reminds us that idealism is not dead, that the human touch in parlous times is still warming.
Heroism defines the man who takes it upon himself to feed the dogs that have been bereft of the means of survival on city streets. In a society that looks away from animals, that considers dogs and cats as vermin to be shooed away from every door, this man rekindles our faith in the power of humanity to care for everything that lives and breathes and moves. He buys food for those hungry dogs, goes looking for them, dealing with them as he would with one of his kind.
As the invisible enemy strikes down men and women with careless abandon, it is this individual who re-engineers our souls. Wherefore should we not celebrate him?
The doctor from Sylhet felled by the virus even as he went around keeping the virus away from those in his care teaches us that beyond politics, beyond the parochialism of the mind, life remains a blessing we cannot do without. We celebrate him as we celebrate the young couple, both doctors, who leave their baby in the hands of a child minder every morning as they go out to the world to save the lives of those rendered vulnerable by the invisible enemy.
These doctors and all those nurses and health workers, not those who run away from hospitals when infected individuals approach them for help, are true representatives of the Creator. The light that shone bright, through the spirituality of prophets and saints and preachers aeons ago, shines in them. We are humbled in their presence.
And humility is ours again when a restaurant called Maaza, here in this city on Tajmahal Road, gathers around it the middle class philanthropists we do not see and have not heard of, to feed the hungry and the destitute. Our gratitude flows when that police officer, morally troubled by the sale of their baby by a couple unable to meet hospital expenses, buys back the infant and takes him back to his teary-eyed, grateful parents.
All these individuals are repositories of our faith in Creation, for they have not asked for stimulus packages from the government. They will not rob banks. They will not steal food sanctioned for the poor. They will not launder money and build homes in foreign clime. They will not be politicians mouthing hollow slogans and making lofty promises. They have served quietly, without fanfare. They will serve, for their eyes have seen the light in the all-encompassing darkness.
Death, as Tibetan wisdom enlightens us, is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.
We look into that mirror. Beyond life’s impermanence, we spot the transcendent nobility in those who respect life, who have no quarrel with death even as they struggle on to keep life breathing.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.