Death! It has always been around. Ever since we began understanding the world a bit, we knew death was a phenomenon; something, which happened only to others, mostly to the old. Of course, occasionally it happened to a few young also, in tragic accidents or illnesses, or in wars. Sadly, very often to the poor though, who had neither food nor medicines to survive. To which, we would shake our heads in momentary grief over their misfortunes. But, it was not immediate, not so near, not so insidious, not so invisible like today. Yes, ever since I crossed 60, death has been coming to my mind quite often with thoughts of writing my will or telling my children, how I would like to be disposed off. But, even then I have been procrastinating on these acts, as if there was still enough time. Today, when I wake up I am surprised at seeing a new morning and grateful too, which I had hardly found remarkable until now. Like most of us, it was another day of the mundane, the chores, and the grumblings.
So what has changed? What has brought home our vulnerabilities? What has made us confront our mortality like never before? At least, not like it has in the past one century, since the World War II ended. It is a tiny virus spreading across continents, raging like wild fire, making people drop dead like flies. It has brought home the fact that despite super powers, stockpiling on billions of dollars of weapons of mass destruction, they don’t have a drug to fight this tiny thing. No vaccine to protect even the most powerful. In that way it has been a great leveller. We are all afraid of it equally. When the prime minister of a country, which had ruled huge parts of the world once upon a time, contracted the disease, he was like any of us. At the mercy of trial and error of doctors, nurses and drugs. For some, the cocktails worked, while, for others they didn’t.
It has also brought home the fact, that despite all the money in our banks, clothes in our closets, cars in our porticoes, jewels in our lockers, there is nothing to protect us; except our desperate measures of locking ourselves in, washing our hands like someone with OCD and wearing masks like surgeons in operation theatres. And, this tiny killer called Corona Virus is not going anywhere soon. Experts come on TV channels and give all kinds of advice. But, after almost 7 million have been infected worldwide and 400,000 have died, now some epidemiologists have made the profound announcement that we just have to live with it. Or die with it if we are unlucky. So, the small and short of it is, you are a sitting duck. We have no clue how to get rid of it, at the moment.
The lockdowns for many have been astonishingly a time of reckoning, a realisation; that all this rat race was quite futile really. The endless desires for acquisition, the obsessive ambitions, the hedonism, the environmental abuse we were involved in, was vulgar. For me, the lockdown didn’t mean much, as for the past many years I have actually hardly moved out for anything. Ever since, I relocated to another city after the death of my husband and mother, to be with my expectant daughter, I have reduced my involvement with the material world enormously. It has happened naturally with no sense of loss or constraint. I realise I need so little. Even earlier, I was no hoarder but over the past decade the need to buy anything, save daily needs, has been virtually zero. But, now that it is a compulsion to stay in, it strangely feels claustrophobic; even the occasional walks to the ATM or grocery stores are no more now.
Being on the wrong side of 60 and an asthmatic, I am told every day I should not venture out. Suddenly, the breathlessness I lived with for almost a lifetime has become a clarion call for death. In it, I am not worried for myself as I am for the young in my family. Nevertheless, it has put a stop to meeting near and dear ones, to the occasional trips and that is strangely very restricting. More so now, for those who are past their prime and constantly aware of the lack of years that maybe left or even days for all you know, to do the things one has always wanted to do, but like eternal fools postponed it till now.
The lockdown enforced all over the world has also hit home the fact that we live in such an unequal world. While, the rich and famous talked of boredom, the poor struggled to get a meal. While, the rich got busy on their Instagrams posting selfies, and videos of their pretty homes, kids and spouses; the middle-class lost jobs and couldn’t pay rents or utility bills, and, the poorest got thrown out on streets. Millions were rendered homeless. We, in India, have helplessly watched the daily wagers who come from far off poorer states in search of livelihoods, walk hundreds of miles with pregnant wives and little children in tow. Horrifying visuals of deaths due to fatigue, dehydration, accidents on highways and even being run over by trains have pierced the hearts of even the most hard hearted. Women have delivered babies by the roadside, rested for an hour or two and again started on the trek back to their villages. We have created a terribly unequal world, that when a crisis hits whether caused by a pandemic, war or a natural disaster, the poorest are hit the hardest. There is no safety net for them. Not even a few days margin to survive on any kind of savings. So, this tryst with our mortality should wake us up.
The pandemic has also brought home, the hollowness of our leaders. Their hawkishness, their unbridled lust for power, their divisiveness, their racist supremacy, and their bigotry, all has been uncovered. The lies they tell their own citizens and to the world have been exposed. They preside over very important get-togethers: G-7, G-20, NATO, WTO, DAVOS, BRICS and so many fancy meetings, where they deliberate for hours but nothing much changes on the ground for the ordinary humans. The only thing of interest to these important people is how to arm rebel groups in already impoverished countries, keep wars simmering in some corner of the world to sell their weapons, and let human lives be damned.
Ironically, this little virus has endangered them too. So, a small glimmer hope is seen in some countries who seem to be having a rethink on how they have been conducting themselves so far viz a viz their own people, rest of the world and the environment. One can only hope, that some of those at the helm and others who have been privileged so far, will introspect and realise that death and disease does not differentiate. It will strike at will, whenever, wherever to any of us. Let us stop this disease of consumption and life of usurping more than what our bodies need; start a life of sharing, without harm to all living things around and stop producing mountains of waste by disposing off what is still useful, and which very well could have filled another’s need.
Preeti Tej Singh has written two books of poetry. The first was called ‘I’ . The second book is called Simantini (Boundless). She blogs at https://preetisinghpoetry.blogspot.com/
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