MY apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for using — or rather misusing — the title of his iconic novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, for this column. He was the originator of what came to be called “magic realism”, a style of writing that was followed by many others, including Salman Rushdie. With the coronavirus rapidly sweeping across most of the world, we are now living in that same realm of magic realism. We are facing something which seems unreal, yet it is right there in our faces, terribly real and terrifying. It is terrifying mainly because we do not know nearly enough about it. And like magic, it is fooling us. Our lives are being upturned in a way that has perhaps not happened since the Second World War.
At 8 pm, on March 19, our Prime Minister brought the ongoing threat of the mysterious virus into virtually every Indian’s home. In a half-hour riveting broadcast, he graphically outlined the gravity of the situation and what he proposed to do about it. For a start, he declared a self-imposed Janata Curfew the following Sunday, March 22, from 7 am to 9 pm: a virtual, but voluntary, shutdown of all outdoor activity nationwide, except for the running of essential public services. This was followed two days later with another broadcast, making the curfew much more severe, and almost mandatory. Three weeks confined to one’s home seems surreal. As I write this, it is almost two weeks since the lockdown. How have I coped?
Though my base is Mumbai, a little over a fortnight ago I was in Delhi, attending a couple of urgent meetings of a school society I am associated with. The day after the PM’s first broadcast, the two clubs that I frequent, the Delhi Gymkhana Club and Delhi Golf Club, announced the closure of all their eating outlets and sports facilities. In effect, they were shutting their doors until further notice. In Mumbai and other major Indian cities as well, the same closures have taken place. Restaurants were told not to take any customers but were allowed to sell takeaways. That, too, ended the following day, since the staff were unable to get to work as there was almost no public transport.
On the Janata Curfew day, I managed to book a flight that would take me back to Mumbai. My flight was due to leave at 9.40 pm, after the curfew was over. So, I should have no problem getting to Delhi airport, and subsequently from Mumbai airport to home. At least that is what I thought. I had another thing coming! No taxis were operating in Delhi, not even Ola and Uber. Luckily, a friend agreed to take me to the airport. On the way, the Delhi streets were eerily empty. The airport, too, was almost deserted, all its shops and eating places closed. At Mumbai airport, the pre-paid taxi counter was shut. However, I managed to get an Uber, though the wait was almost three hours. Again, we drove through streets entirely deserted. Police checks stopped us four times, wanting to quarantine me if I had entered India from another country.
So, how have I been occupying myself while confined to my apartment? I miss my newspapers the most. I used to get seven of them and spent much of the morning reading them. Unalloyed pleasure. I now have to read two or three online. But it is not the same thing. I am old-fashioned. I love the smell and feel of newsprint. I have also been spending much more time watching TV, particularly news channels. Sadly, my favourite sports channels have nothing “live”, hence they are of little interest.
The news channels have been doing a great job. From my home — the cameraman said he had been sanitised — I appeared on a TV discussion on the electronic media’s coverage of the crisis. What I found deeply disturbing was how so many of the panelists felt that scenes of the tens of thousands of migrant workers trying to get home on foot should not have been shown. Why? Because they caused “panic”, and showing those scenes was not in “public interest”. I vehemently disagreed. This was a real tragedy. Their stories must be told, even if it shows our society in poor light. Journalists should be responsible at perilous times like this, needless to say. But suppression of news is not the democratic way out.
Till just the other day, the virus was just a statistic: how many thousands had tested positive in such and such country, how many had succumbed, and so on. And then, it came home to me in a far more real way, with a sudden jolt, when I learnt that a dear friend, Mohan Shah, had died from the deadly infection in a New York hospital. As he was not feeling well, he had gone to a clinic for treatment. He caught the virus there and died a few days later. He was only a little older than me.
Mohan was one of the early pioneers of Indian garment exports to the US, which would become a huge business. Many others followed behind him, and India became a leader in the manufacture and export of garments, giving employment to millions. After garments, he saw another opportunity — linking the island city of Mumbai to its suburbs and its hinterland, via the sea, thereby decongesting the over-burdened roads and trains. But it was the usual Indian story. Politicians wanted bribes and bureaucrats stood in the way. Mohan gave up in frustration and the ambitious project never got off the ground.
— The writer is a veteran journalist
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