Sunday, June 23, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: The lost twelve months

Confronted with the monumental adversity of our times, it is the human spirit which eventually prevails

Update : 11 May 2021, 01:52 AM

Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate and daughter of America. Soumitra Chatterjee, favourite son of Satyajit Ray who evolved into the complete man of the cinematic world. Que Sera Sera, Doris Day, your dulcet voice will always resonate. Wajid Khan, decent, talented, prolific, already famous, and oh so young. 

Billionaire and political maverick H Ross Perot, dyed-in-the-wool Texan who dared to dream of a third option in the bi-partisan gridlock of American politics. Sushant Singh Rajput, tragic exemplar of the spate of unwarranted deaths in Bollywood. Lee Iacocca, the king of Detroit and turn-around artist of Chrysler Corporation. SP Balasubramaniam, immortalized by the Guinness Book for a stupendous forty thousand recorded songs. Diego Maradona, trapped in permanent adolescence but magic in motion on the field, for with him football has lost its greatest son.

Our roll call of sorrow is but a minuscule representation of those who have passed into the ether of memory but, when in our midst, strode through life as would giants. Dear reader, the omissions are glaring, and each name can be replaced with any score of persons who engraved their personality on this world. Then, again, they are illustrative. A collective obituary so truncated is ordinarily a foolhardy undertaking, but the extraordinary times, so marked by tears, that we struggle through sensitize us to the vulnerability of mortality as ever-present as never before.

The global crusade

It is now well over a year since the scourge of 2019 was formally acknowledged for the mass killer that it always was and the surface of the earth was brought to a creaking halt. Amidst the chaos sweeping the nations, a shaky consensus built on hearsay and imitation was constructed on the premise that the face mask, hand sanitizer, and social distancing were the first three commandments of the first global crusade to thwart the virus. 

While some nation-states seized the opportunity to introduce programs and monopolized headline and column space for their accomplishments, most governments ran helter-skelter, dithering between false bravado, a refusal to face facts, and desperately seeking scapegoats.

Thus, the unseemly drama of the leaders of the world ranged against a hapless World Health Organization, forgetting in their panic that the global medical watchdog, staffed with doctors and medical professionals and not soothsayers and magicians, was initially as handicapped by ignorance of the origin and treatment of the virus and as helpless in the face of the invisible tidal wave that threatened to sweep all before it.

Perhaps it is appropriate at this juncture to take stock of the situation of the year past and discern the prominent trends of the days since November 2019.

Month after month, we have occupied a ring-side seat to the miracle of medicine. Witness the breakneck speed at which the pharmaceutical mega-corporations have raced to get vaccines to market. Where it takes on average at least a decade to develop a new medicine or vaccine at a cost of billions of dollars, that process has been accelerated to a point where viable inoculations have been tested and even administered in their hundreds of millions in just a fraction of the time that it would ordinarily have taken. 

Millions of persons queue patiently every day in a new rite of passage, waiting their turn to receive the precious injection. At least where an understanding and appreciation of what modern medical science can achieve is concerned, the sense is that the pall of gloom and foreboding which shrouded the surface of the world appears to have lifted somewhat. 

The doomsday prophecies have abated, and humanity took King Corona in its stride. What appeared impossible yesterday is today not only possible but already achieved. We are now searching for the next quantum level of impossibility to conquer.

The face mask, that staple long since of the conscientious populations of the Far East, has been adopted by the rest of the world. It is now de rigueur and, more importantly, its value is now recognized and accepted. And where there is a face mask, that bottle of hand sanitizer cannot be far away. 

Entire industries and large swathes of commerce, which faced extinction as revenue streams dependent on traditional economies evaporated, have been reborn, and uncounted factories threatened with closure have reconfigured their assembly lines, to cater to these two erstwhile elements of exotica, and it is my belief that the balance of payments crisis of a host of nations could be remedied at one stroke by the cash generated through a neo-global industry engendered by the ubiquitous mask and the battery of scented germicides manufactured to cater to every whim and nostril.

The lowly mask is now a fashion statement

The band of synthetic fibre strapped from ear to ear was initially an awkward and claustrophobic sartorial addition. Now, it has become, equally embarrassingly, second nature, for I cannot imagine leaving the house without being covered up to the eyes. We have reached the psychological point where stepping out unmasked is akin to stepping out undressed. 

Where type and nature goes, I personally prefer the crude and effective, represented by the washed-out blue of the synthetic but light mask favoured by every compounder, ward boy, and dentist’s assistant. Although being en vogue should not necessarily be a priority while battling adversity, the more refined tastes of countless millions have ensured that the lowly mask has evolved into a strong fashion statement. 

I will simply just miss the familiar non-weight over my nose and mouth. And how will I handle the world when not a trace remains of King Corona? How will I conceal every grimace, every smile, and every other demon which plays across my features in the course of my daily walk?

Accustomed to enacting the frustrations of the day gone by through grimaces and furious conversations with the concealed self, I fear that basic behaviour and the art of walking deadpan in public will need to be re-learned. And yet, I shall not miss wearing my mask, because I am weary of squeezing the depths of my emotions through crinkled eyes in friendly response to a greeting, yet another Covid-imposed idiosyncrasy to be dispensed with at the earliest.

What to miss of Covid?

What will I miss if the world returns to the normal? Enough some times to make me almost hope that Covid-19 will linger in some form or the other for all eternity. Consider the tranquility enforced by an imposed sedentary existence. The streets devoid of traffic. The respect accorded to the next individual and the space that he and she rightfully claims for their own in a personal universe. 

Because, as the evidence so painfully establishes, no sooner was there a return to periodic semblances of normalcy than we promptly reverted to our callous and intrusive and profligate ways as the pristine sounds of nature once again receded into the distance. It is at these times that the respect for distance and humanity that was imposed on us became a chimera, to be discarded without second thought, precisely because it was an imposition and not taught to us from infancy. The little things which make life worth living, yes, those I shall miss.

I will miss working from home, and indeed being confined to the home, without option. The analysis of a year gone by in such confinement has demonstrated to me beyond reasonable doubt that house arrest suits the temperament perfectly. I will miss the frugal living, where one wants for nothing because one needs nothing beyond the warmth of three square meals a day and the proximity of one’s family. 

What will I do if in the months to come the trickle back to office becomes a torrent? If the slogan of “back to office” becomes so clamorous as to be unavoidable, I would be left with nothing but to wallow in self-reproach for having taken those halcyon days with the nearness of wife and daughter for granted and not having made more of what precious time was available. One can only wish for the perpetuation of the status quo.

And, yet, although the thought of physical attendance in office galls, I miss the conviviality of the team. I miss the capturing of a table, slouching in the cafeteria, the scrape of garish and comfortable plastic chairs, contentedly nursing a small cup of tea in the company of laughing colleagues. 

I miss my favourite spot at the window, unguarded and unfocused, one leg slung over the other, arms folded across the chest, suffused by the warmth of the evening sun trapped in thick glass darkening with the waning day. Perhaps the sooner we go back to the bricks and mortar the better, before the lack of human contact becomes not just a habit but is indelibly engraved on the personality.

The melancholy of children

Husband and wife shall not miss the melancholy that has settled on their daughter. Large areas of her reticent but cheerful personality would appear to have eventually succumbed to the insidious ways of King Corona. Tiya Basu was successful in weathering the worst of the pandemic. She handled the Zoom-driven routine with elan, breaking the monotony of the day with one-act plays in the evenings (strangely, always on the dot of ten) and poking fun at the father of the house in spontaneous conspiracy with her mother. 

We took her sangfroid for granted, and now we strive to retrieve her bubbling personality. Her transformation is as puzzling as it frightens. She remains confined for long hours to her room, occupied in a silent world of her own, and only if sufficiently inspired wanders wraith-like through the home, barely communicating with parents who anxiously follow her every step. 

Has the celebrated nightmare of the teenage years, brought into the domestic home by the endless juvenile programs on Disney, also inevitably befallen us? The offspring had overcome the inertia to spend a few days with the beloved aunty, and the few seconds that Tiya permitted us to speak with her revealed glimpses of the old personality whose return we now long for and is perhaps testimony to the temporary reprieve that has been won from the living reminders of her constrained world. 

But, alas, another year of Zoom calls beckons. I view with apprehension the continued remote “learning” through the laptop. I fear for the emotional and physical well-being of tomorrow’s future and hope that the human body and mind is so resilient as to shut out and override the worst effects of the pandemic. One shudders at the thought of the possible permanence of this “new natural” of the young and growing.

I will miss the enormous body of good clean humour which broke with the force of a friendly tsunami on a world cowering in the throes of pandemic. 

The videos, facial expressions, take-offs, parodies, captions, and punch-lines have insinuated themselves in the daily routine of a family and their grandmother. 

My favourite meme stars Joe Biden and Barack Obama, who are seen ensconced in plush interiors, with Biden sharing the breaking news that then-President Trump has contracted Covid-19. Obama, the picture of granite gravitas, leans forward with all the gravamen of a senior statesman and replies: “Let’s hope he stays positive.” What a hoot! 

Would you recall the halcyon days of March and April 2020, when the rule of law was overnight replaced by the rule of the lathi, and the constabulary took the stick to those who presumed that the call for lockdown was to be treated with the same suspicion and pinch of salt that all directives in the Republic deserve? 

Remember with fondness the battery of memes showing sets of images in all their variations, one each of a participant in a Zoom call with the video on and the video off. Recall the black-and-white cartoon of the interviewer who asked the hopeful prospective what he was doing in 2020, and the laconic reply: “Washing hands.”

The stately Mona Lisa is, frame by excruciating frame, subjected to the different themes and rigours of King Corona. What about the pooch prevailing upon his master to wear the funnel because no other alternative remains to prevent him from repeatedly touching his face? What happened when Chuck Norris, martial arts expert and yesterday’s poster-boy of American machismo, was exposed to the virus? What a silly question! Of course, Covid-19 was in quarantine for the next two weeks. Priceless! Can such creativity ever be replicated?

And I will miss King Corona for making me aware that we were all a part of something larger than us.

I cannot help myself, so here goes again. Kobe Bryant, the raison d’être of the National Basketball Association, next only to Michael Jordan. Irrfan Khan, Rishi Kapoor, and Sir Sean Connery, in peculiar fashion, have passed into lore. Legends of their genre, of varied age and vintage, they are fixed in our hearts and in the permanent constellation of the silver screen. 

Kirk Douglas, presence extraordinaire who ruled Hollywood with sheer beauty and explosive theatre. 

Pandit Jasraj, the custodian of Indian classical vocal music with a name that echoed on the world stage. John le Carré, the master of the spy story, who leaves me personally bereft. Basu Chatterjee, veteran movie director responsible for blazing the trail for Middle Indian Cinema.

 The maestro PK Banerjee, the forgotten hero of Indian football. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, liberal and Jewish and the second woman elevated to the rarefied atmosphere of the United States Supreme Court. Bejan Daruwalla, soothsayer of all soothsayers, India’s own Linda Goodman who brought the magic of astrology into every home. 

For those of our generation familiar with the phenomenon of Star Wars, the original Darth Vader in the guise of David Prowse, and the towering figure of Peter Mayhew who lent his personality and presence to the loveable Chewbacca. And Generation Next shall mourn Chadwick Boseman in his avatar of Marvel’s Black Panther.

As we speak, India is in the throes of the unprecedented crisis of a second wave of infection. Complacency and misplaced confidence in a nation’s abilities has, over the span of just a few weeks, turned buoyancy into despair. Hundreds of thousands of people are testing positive, and thousands are dying, by the day, a catastrophe underscored by the critical lack of essential supplies including life-saving oxygen. 

Mass-gatherings due to state elections and religious functions have only exacerbated the situation, the full consequences of which have yet to be experienced. We are on the back foot, and will remain so for some months to come. The frustration of the great unknown makes the situation even more trying.

But a glimmer of the resilience and positivism that radiates through the comity of mankind. Music composer Sajid Khan, surviving member of the Sajid-Wajid duo of Bollywood, changed his name officially to Sajid Wajid in touching tribute to his brother Wajid Khan with the hope that his brother be remembered for both who he had been and what his achievements were.

When confronted with the monumental adversity of our times, it is the human spirit which, eventually, prevails.

Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in India, and is a freelance contributor.

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