The dystopian times have arrived, riding on the back of a deadly virus. Nobody knows how it will go away or whether or not it will ever go away. Half of the world’s population is in a lockdown. We are quarantined in our homes, afraid, distancing ourselves from our friends, family and lovers, while dolphins, peacocks and sparrows take back their portion of the world in our absence. Probably this is what the Urdu Poet Jaun Elia envisioned when he wrote :
Ab nahin koi baat khatre ki,
ab sabhi ko sabhi se khatra hai
There’s nothing left to be scared of,
for everyone is scared of everyone
Not everyone is at risk equally. In my country, India, the homeless, the factory workers and labourers have been the worst affected from the 21-day lockdown announced by the Prime Minister. Thousands of them are still walking to their villages located hundreds of miles away, and in the way, got beaten up by police, assembled like a herd and disinfected by harmful chemicals. One man was lynched because of the fear of the virus.
I live in the old town in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh, an area populated by lock workers and daily wage earners from the informal sector. Many of my lesser privileged neighbours have given themselves the number of days that they can last – most say they won’t last if the lockdown is extended. The ones who do odd jobs like play rickshaws or e-rickshaws have already run out of stocks and depending on the mercy of others. Few are depending on slightly well-off relatives and neighbours, others are selling cycles, tools and refrigerators. The government deposits of mere Rs. 500 in bank accounts of women aren’t helping them.
But I think the poor also need the lockdown. If the virus eventually spread in India as fast as epidemiologists point out, they will suffer the most – self-isolation or quarantine is something they can’t afford. But it’s their more privileged counterparts who need it more. The elites, the entitled and the intellectuals, who though vastly outnumbered, wield more power and vastly influence the course of their nations’ destinies – the politicians, the bureaucrats, the corporate honchos and CEOs, the B-school passouts who work in swanky offices, the judges and the lawyers, the actors and filmmakers, the academicians and scholars, the journalists and the writers.
People who dictate policies and the ones who implement them, those who create the propaganda and the ones who carry it, those who make art out of ordinary men’s miseries and the ones who lecture the world from comfortable TV studios, those who pretend they care and the ones who remain apathetic, those who put their individual interests above the collective benefit and the ones whose rationality borders on cruelty.
I myself fall in the same group – among those currently facing an epidemic of anxiety, loneliness and mental health issues. Long been shielded by our economic and social status, we now need to loosen our purses and our egos. As we find us and our loved ones to be as susceptible to the vagaries of the unkind world, we should do some soul searching. Here is what the elites of India, and the world, can do in our spare time.
One, familiarise ourselves with what is probably going to be an oft repeated word in the 21st century: privilege. Oxford dictionary defines it to be ‘having special rights or advantages that most people do not have’. We can start with just the five common ones: male privilege, white privilege, majoritarian privilege, class privilege and caste privilege. Get a vague idea of how it works in the real world around us. You’d soon begin to find patterns. ‘Oh, I have probably enjoyed class privilege and male privilege all my life’.
In some time, you might begin to notice things you never did before: how living in your apartment and travelling by app-based taxis was an act of privilege, how driving up to the shopping mall even to buy the cheapest denim or having an ice cream was an act of privilege, how going to silly parties that you didn’t even enjoy was an act of privilege. We might also ponder whether or not electing leaders that talk of supremacy of one section over another was an act of majoritarian privilege and just going for a walk in late afternoon without thinking of rape was an act of male privilege. Make the list of all the privileges that you think that you enjoy and it might turn out a mighty fun exercise.
Two, try to develop a quality getting excessively rare in these times: empathy. Start with listening more to everyone – your family, loved ones and friends you haven’t talked for a long time. Communication works best in the world when it’s both ways. This will have two benefits: people will like you much, much more and you’d find out more knowledge about people around you and the world in general.
Mahatma Gandhi once gave a talisman to inculcate empathy in ourselves. With many saying they might starve in the days to come, it might become even more relevant. He said: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.”
The third task is to comprehend oppression. An easy way to begin this by reading books about people who have faced oppression in recent history: Jews under the Nazi regime in Germany, Blacks and Indians in USA, aborogines in Australia, Dalits in India and women almost everywhere on the planet. If reading looks too boring, there are many Hollywood movies and TV shows on oppressed communities you can binge-watch on video streaming websites.
Slowly but surely, you will find parallels with the world around you. Even sympathising with those whose alienation you might have ignored, or worse, actively contributed to: the immigrants leaving their lands and carrying their children to safe places across vast seas in small dinghies, religious minorities, Shias and Yazidis facing persecution in Middle East, Indians Muslims fearing uncertainty over their citizenship rights and Kashmiris living through a six-month long version of this lockdown (without the internet) under an increasingly hardline Hindu government.
Fourth step is familiarising ourselves with the patterns in human civilization by basic understanding of world history, which we’d find hauntingly relevant to the times you live in. Start with reading about how the 1918 Spanish Flu nearly infected one-third of the world’s population, destroyed the economy and changed Hollywood forever. Then you can focus on the rise of nationalism and fascism in Europe – how it thrived by portraying minorities as ‘vermin’ and used propaganda to make civilised men and women into a bloodthirsty lot.
Five, invest in things other than money. The urban elites are facing an epidemic of loneliness. We need to realise it’s sometimes fine to keep in touch with old, not-too-sophisticated friends even when they are unlikely to benefit you in some way in the future. It’s not a bad thing to be slighting more accepting of the faults in others and be harsh on that of our own. Look for nuance in a world more comfortable with black and white. As we battle loneliness quarantined in our apartments, the importance of a stable relationship and friendships stare us in our faces. It is actually not that outdated to fall in love, build a relationship and have people in your life to weather tough times like the present. Also, try to talk to your parents and siblings, however hard it may seem.
Lastly, connect with yourself. Realise there is a life within and the importance for the need to have a conversation with your own self. It will help you understand your place in the world. If you survive the virus, you’d probably save this world from silently collapsing in its own misery. If you don’t, you’d die a much more compassionate human being than you have been.