The poet knew that the world was going to end in a whimper and not in a bang, but who could tell that it would be a kind of sniveling, meek whimper as common as a cold? The scriptures talk of mountains being tossed around like little orbs of cotton, but they fail to warn us about a little spherical virus that is now terrorizing the world. Maybe failure is a misguided word here. Perhaps the Holy Book did not caution us on purpose; ignorance being the secret ingredient of more delicious end times.
Cooped up in a little apartment in New York, Mir Suhail, Koshur (Kashmiri for the uninitiated) artist extraordinaire, has been struggling, like the rest of us, to make sense of the arcane pandemic. Perhaps the talented cartoonist’s art ensures that he has better tools at his disposal in this endeavour than most of us. On the other hand, he shares a burden all Kaesher (Kashmiris) must bear—the India occupation of Kashmir and the utter lack of compassion for and solidarity with Kaesher by most of the global community. That probably balances out any advantages his art might supply.
For more than seven decades, India has been the soreness in the throat of Kashmir. It has manifested itself in dry fits of violence and made the very act of breathing difficult for Kaesher. But last year, it passed the final death sentence on the people of Kashmir as a people by declaring that they were not a people but merely an appendage of India. The vestiges of recognition of Kashmir’s unique identity were surgically removed from the Indian constitution by a thorough reading down of Article 370. The social distance between Indians and Kaesher, vital for the continued existence of the latter as a people, was ended through the abrogation of Article 35(A). Not that the Indian constitution matters to Kaesher per se. We reject it in toto. But these constitutional changes are ominous signs of the demographic flooding that will inevitably follow, drowning out the language, culture and legacy of Kaesher in their own homeland. Bragging about these steps taken by the Modi government, an Indian diplomat in New York succinctly summarized India’s plan thus, “Kashmiri culture is the Indian culture, it is the Hindu culture.” About 97 per cent of Kaesher are Muslim, with deep cultural affinity and historical bonds with Central Asia.
To prevent Kaesher from reacting to this event, Kashmir was put under a total lockdown. All forms of communication were barred, so that the Indian government’s declaration that Kaesher were happy with this latest assault on their identity (which left them with far less rights than before) could go unchallenged. Kashmir’s economy was left to rot. Its people were forced to simmer in blue rage as Indian TV channels barraged them with lies about their own lives, their feelings and emotions, even as the communication blockade handicapped them of any response.
With some notable exceptions, the world remained oblivious to this dooming of Kaesher. Over time, some forms of communication have returned to Kashmir but high-speed internet has still not been restored, even under the current unprecedented global health crisis. A new domicile law has been introduced making Indians Kaesher. The BJP government and large sections of India’s media and civil society are adamant that Kaesher must come to terms with their loss, because India is absolutely justified to exercise its will to power over them.
Into this world has Covid-19 entered.
How does an artist struggling against the disease of ignorance that is going to kill 100 per cent of his nation engage with a disease that is projected to kill 2 per cent of the world? Well, by not behaving like the world; by refusing to succumb to the contagious malady of apathy.
Over the last couple of months, Mir Suhail’s work on the coronavirus crisis has been suffused with understanding and empathy. Almost half of the total number of cartoons underline the concern for a common humanity and the fate of the planet. The rest are split evenly between cartoons on the situation due to—or despite—Covid-19 in Kashmir, and Hindutvirus in India. Woven intricately into these three broad themes are other complicated threads; how the crisis is a shot in the arm for authoritarian regimes all over; how liberal Indians are quick to jump the gun and identify themselves with Kaesher at the slightest opportunity so that they can fulfill their destiny of being victims; how the ecology of the world might not really agree with us on coronavirus being such a bad thing; and how Indian media cannot get any sicker due to any virus—novel or ancient—because it is already the very definition of sickness.
Presenting before you Mir Suhail’s astonishing compositions from the heart of darkness.
1. The pandemic and global response
A cry for help
Suhail’s first cartoon on the coronavirus crisis appeared on 5 February 2020. COVID-19 had wrecked havoc in China, particularly in the Wuhan province, and was set to turn into a pandemic as cases in Iran and South Korea multiplied.
An elegy to Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who had correctly identified “SARS-like” symptoms in patients and warned the local medical fraternity. He was admonished by the provincial government for “spreading rumours”, charges for which they offered a “solemn apology” after he contracted and died of Covid-19. The medical fraternity is at the forefront of the struggle against the novel coronavirus, even as governments have dilly-dallied—a sentiment also expressed in three other cartoons.
The story of Dr Wenliang’s final days foreshadowed how Covid-19 was going to strengthen authoritarian rule in particular (and government control in general) all over the world. The Tiananmen reference speaks to this theme. Government after government announced a “war” against coronavirus. The near-universal use of the term should not be lost on anyone. Why could it not be a “revolution” against coronavirus? Well, governments fight wars, people engender revolutions. A clear pecking order is sought to be established. It is governments’ war and people are required to participate, by offering unconditional and unquestioning support for unprecedented administrative measures. And participating they are. In the age of surveillance capitalism, this is a major paradigm shift.
David in trouble
As the situation in Italy got out of hand—and quickly—David had to cover his mouth and nose to protect himself. The sanitizer may or may not come in handy though, as the medical fraternity is divided on whether washing hands properly (for at least 20 seconds) is the better method to prevent Covid-19. But sanitizers smell good, and help manufacturing companies make money by mixing chemicals, so one really can’t argue against that, can one?
Suhail made use of European art in two other cartoons to get across the point. There is even a Game of Thrones reference thrown in, which you can check online.
The Creation of Sanitizer
Continuing the Michelangelo theme, this one proves that the spark of life consists of a spray of a sanitizer. We can safely presume that God does not touch Adam because social distancing is divine.
The Son of Virus
Magritte said of his painting, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” As the Covid-19 crisis spreads its tentacles, we want to know how it spread and why. Was it just force majeure—an accident—or are there deeper political motives at work here? Biological warfare between the world’s two biggest economies or a massive social engineering project to usher in a new age of public docility?
Notice that in Suhail’s version, the green virus completely covers the man’s eyes, as if saying that we do not have the time to ponder over questions.
The next four cartoons underline the enormity of the existential challenge humanity faces at this moment.
Underninepinning the crisis
Death flies in, thin bureaucrat, donning a pheran and carrying a red-hot bowling ball like a kãger.
Pop goes another one
Suhail had invited tweeple to give this one a caption. My humble attempt, hasti apni hubaab ki si hai, yeh numaish saraab ki si hai. For what now seems like a brief moment, western governments and media ridiculed China and Iran for their handling of the novel coronavirus, but when chickens came home to roost, there was nary a soul to laugh.
Marking nuclear territory
Covid-19 started in and laid waste to vast swathes of China. Eventually, it made its way to Europe and even though Italy, Germany and Spain are the worst hit, Britain and France also have had to bear the brunt of the infectious disease. Russia, India and Pakistan are struggling to contain the outbreak, and Trump’s United States were caught with their pants down. A tiny virus is giving the world’s nuclear superpowers a golden shower.
Pursuit of toilet paper
Cases in United States rose fast, but were outpaced by panic as people rushed to hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizers. Ugly scenes at US supermarkets of people fighting over toilet paper mildly amused the rest of the world amidst the widespread terror. A few weeks earlier, commentators like Bill Maher were calling Chinese people primitive for eating bats and endangering the whole world. Alas, no one was around to commentate when United States went batshit crazy for toilet paper. Use a bidet, people.
But the global crisis has its advantages too. With manufacturing, and aviation and the rest of transportation industry badly hampered, the air has not been cleaner in a long, long time and the world’s ecology has acquired a much needed rest, as depicted in the next two cartoons.
The skies are clearer and forgotten mountain ranges have reappeared over the horizon. Conceivably, a better world is possible and we can reverse the tragedy of industrialization and climate change.
2. KASHMIR & CORONA
In Kashmir, Covid-19 is a mere distraction in the context of the larger existential threat— the Indian occupation—a theme clearly visible in Suhail’s treatment of the subject.
Chairman Mao once remarked that a peasant made a better guerilla than an industrial worker; the latter was trained to work daily and regularly, but the art of guerilla warfare is to lie in wait and then act quickly and decisively at the opportune time. Working in the fields, peasants are trained to take decisive measures in short bursts (most of the time determined by the weather) and then enjoy long periods of relative inactivity. Viruses too feign death outside living cells, and remain dormant till they get inside a new cell of power, where they act rapidly and conclusively. If only the guerilla virus could save Kaesher from the terror of the Indian state!
Modi sneezed due to the Covid-19 crisis and out came Farooq Abdullah, former Head Henchman, out of a smaller prison into a larger one.
Speaking of prisons, Suhail deals with the idea of lockdown in a cascading manner in three separate cartoons, as the story itself first took a left and then a right turn.
On 18 March, Suhail saw elements of divine justice in the lockdown due to Covid-19. India has had Kashmir under a lockdown for eight months (this time around, historically and cumulatively, it must be years), and now coronavirus has put India under a lockdown. It was sweet jingles and holy Khizr; and nothing else.
Yet many Indians took it personally, declaring that now India will know the pain of Kashmir, albeit briefly; of life under a lockdown, and that too without internet. The internet comment gave it away. Not having internet is the least of Kashmir’s problems. The more fundamental issue, the jaan ki qeemat, is that we are living in a temporary lockdown under a chronic occupation without freedom. So no, being under a lockdown due to Covid-19 is nothing like being under a lockdown due to Colonization-47. The former is just a shadow of the latter, not the real deal.
The square root of cages
Some Indians still refused to get it. So Suhail had to break it down further. Kashmir is inside the cage of the lockdown due to Covid-19 crisis inside the larger cage of Indian occupation. India is only inside one cage. Get it now?
As a Koshur, it is inevitable that Suhail’s work will be alert to the creeping control governments will seek to establish using Covid-19 as an alibi. How should people respond to these attempts? That might be a question for later, but the first step would be to recognize these measures for what they are—and with caution.
Trust a Koshur to teach the world to view government action with suspicion.
The next four cartoons illustrate how the Indian government is using the Covid-19 crisis to strengthen its control over Kashmir.
But when it comes to actually controlling the disease, the government is found wanting, or, as we say in Koshur, with zange ze hoer kun karith.
While we struggle against the coronavirus crisis, India introduced new domicile laws in Kashmir, making foreigners Kaesher.
Coronavirus may be deadly, but it has got nothing on Hindutvirus. For starters, the novel coronavirus does not have a Grand Plan, it does not think or discriminate, it does not kill for an ideology born of and for hatred.
Coronavirus also does not have the willing and able support of the Indian media. From “ab Pakistan marega corona ki maut” to the coverage of the spread of the infection at the markaz of Tableeg-e-Jamaat in Nizamuddin, Indian media revealed its true colours once more.
All the sanitizers of Arabia…
A hundred thousand dead, thousands raped and disappeared, and millions tortured; and that is just in Kashmir. What they have done to the marginalized in India in the name of religion, caste, region, language, culture and gender requires much bigger ledgers. Lady Macbeth may wear all the saffron in the world, but she cannot wash the red off.
The Brits have a shadow cabinet in opposition. Indians just do it better by transmogrifying its incumbent cabinet itself into a phantom one. Why do you need a separate shadow cabinet when you can combine the two into one deadly concoction?
Some poor Muslim in Mewat or Meerut trying to eat beef, Kaesher demanding freedom, Dalits demanding equality, all the different nations trapped within India demanding respect and recognition of their languages and cultures, mandirs demanding masjids, and adivasis demanding rights over their land, are all issues for the real cabinet.
The poor demanding food and shelter, the economy demanding resuscitation, and the health crisis due to Covid-19, are problems that can be dealt with by the shadow cabinet.
The Great War
India, too, has declared a “war” against Covid-19, so people must beware and tread carefully. These will be dark and defining times.
On the one hand, India will use all the great tools at its disposal, including cow urine.
Remember how the coronavirus is pissing all over nuclear superpowers? Well, India is not going to take all that piss lying down. It is going to fight piss with piss and outpiss the virus.
However, taking into account the woes of the common people, specifically the migrant workers who want to return to their homes in this stressful time, cannot and does not form a part of the strategy to fight the virus, apparently. Maybe later.
Brings to mind the Kashmiri expression, akki kan boazun, bae kann kaddun, but kaan par jeon tak nahi rengna is a close enough substitute.
Obviously, utensils and cutlery form a vital part of the fight against the virus.
Burning a candle at both ends
And so does burning candles and oil lamps. The poet said it: “Kahein deep jaley kahein dil.”