Thursday, April 30, 2020

Marvelous Meenakshi Amman of Madurai

The husband was watching 'Storage Wars' the other day and I was grumbling as usual and asking what was so great about that show when the endless argument over who gets to wield the remote was interrupted by an ad for a show about Madurai Meenakshi Amman to be aired soon. It captured my interest at once since the promos were fantastic and it was obvious that a lot of love and attention to detail had been lavished on the project. More importantly, the temple is about a a few hundred hops, skips and jumps (or an hour and a half's drive to be precise) from where we live.

For all of us who live in 'Pandya Nadu', the temple has an especial significance. Apparently it was built as far back as the 1st century by Kulashekara Pandya after he was informed by the merchant, Dhananjaya that he had espied Shiva himself at Kadambavanam (Forest of Oaks) and witnessed the rest of the celestials worshiping him. Later, Shiva visited Kulashekara in a dream and gave him explicit instructions on building the temple and the city which would be called Madurai (after Shiva drenched it with the nectar of immortality or Madhu). And it was Indra, the king of heaven who installed the suyambhulinga he had discovered there in the sanctum sanctorum.

I have been visiting the Goddess ever since I was a child on innumerable occasions. What never fails to fascinate me is the abiding love folks have for Meenakshi Amman, the mother Goddess, former Queen and eternal guardian deity of Madurai. Millions throng to visit her throughout the year and not only during the famed festive season of Chithirai when the occasion of her marriage to Lord Shiva (Sundareshwarar) is celebrated with great fanfare over a period of ten days (Thirukalyanam). There is such a tangible bond between the Goddess and her devotees. I have even heard some of her ardent devotees casually saying that Amman will get upset if they don't go visit her often. There is so much affection in their voices and it is really sweet to note that they feel she is such an integral part of their lives and not merely a distant deity they feel compelled to worship.

Legend has it that King Malayadhvaja Pandya performed a sacrifice to obtain a son but was rewarded instead with three - year old Meenakshi who gave them quite the jolt, since she had three breasts. The King was less than overjoyed with this 'blessing' but a divine voice assured him that she would achieve things that no man  or immortal ever could and added that her extra breast would disappear when this jewel among women met the one she would give her heart to. The Princess was a mighty warrior and conquered the three worlds at the head of a great army. She made her way to Kailasha and defeated the butaganas led by Nandi when Shiva emerged to check out the cause of the disturbance in those lofty, serene heights. Meenakshi fell hard for the Destroyer and he reciprocated her feelings. The two decided to marry each other, making the sensible decision to make love not war!

It was a wedding for the ages when Shiva arrived in style to claim his gorgeous bride. Vishnu, gave her away as a good brother should and Brahma took over the officiating duties. All the celestials, noble sages and everybody who was anybody, including the somebodies and nobodies made sure they were present to witness this heavenly spectacle and it was a truly joyous event. The memory of this epic coming together of equals has been kept alive over the centuries with annual celebrations to mark the triumph of divine love.

The crowd which throngs to the temple for Thirukalyanam has always proved daunting for me as I have an unholy horror of being elbowed aside by folks with sweat - slicked arms, having my bare feet trod upon and being shoved and jostled while standing in lengthy queues that move at a snail's pace. I prefer to visit when the temple is not too crowded, so that I can walk around freely soaking in the spiritual ambiance, bask in the tranquil vibrations, pause to admire the brilliant architecture, study the interesting inscriptions at leisure and stuff my face with the yummy Prasadam sold within the precinct. The puliyogare (tamarind rice), vadai, appam, laddoo, murukku, sweet pongal are seriously delicious and served wrapped in fragrant banana leaves. The place is beautifully maintained and clean. The amount of care that has gone into its upkeep reveals how much historical, religious, cultural and sentimental significance the temple has not just for the denizens of Madurai but all who drop in regularly to pay their respects to Amman and her consort. After all, it must be hard for all who love the great Goddess to forget that in the distant past, their beloved Amman's residence had not been defended very effectively from marauding foreign invaders.

In the 14th century, Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khalji's infamous general swung by after plundering the fabled riches of the famous temple at Srirangam. Veera Pandyan, the then king had grabbed the throne from his half - brother, Sundar but only after intermittent fighting between them which had depleted his army and resources. Consequently, he was not really able to mount a decent defense against such a ruthless adversary. There are some versions, which claim that Veera Pandyan was advised to retreat to the hill fortress of Paramkunram and he did so without evacuating the city first or making arrangements to safeguard the treasures of Madurai.

For Kafur, it was a piece of cake to capture the abandoned city and help himself to the vast stores of wealth stored in the temples, pausing only to do as much damage as he could to the city, its temples and massacre those who had been left behind. Kafur ultimately came to a gruesome end when the men he had commanded to kill one of Alauddin Khalji's heirs - Mubarak Khan turned on him instead. Many attribute the fall of Kafur, the eunuch who had risen so rapidly to power and fell even faster, to the wrath of a vengeful Amman, whose residence he had desecrated with his many depredations.

Fortunately, restorative work on the temple was undertaken during the reign of the Nayakars with Thirumalai Nayakar proving to be a great benefactor. Later, during the British rule, there was further damage done to the temple but repair work was undertaken post Independence and many devotees made generous contributions to ensure that its former glory and splendor were fully restored.

There are many such beautiful stories and legends associated with this magnificent temple. Hope to revisit them asap. It is sobering to realize that no thanks to Coronasura, the Thirukalyanam will be impossible to celebrate with customary pomp and fanfare, for the first time in forever, this year. Even so, I am sure Amman's legion of devoted fans will not be deterred from celebrating their great love for her, in whatever small way they can. Or you could just tune into History TV18 and watch 'Meenakshi Ammanm, the Marvel of Madurai' at 8 pm, Monday, May 4th. Like I plan to!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Post - Corona Possibilities and Probabilities

Post Corona will our world regain its natural splendors?
I am no expert, but thanks to Corona, life will never be the same. Ever again. Or will it? Most of us have been holed up at home for an inordinately lengthy period. We have learned to appreciate the little things. Like the drumsticks growing in your mostly neglected vegetable patch. Precious jars of Nutella, the sweet grocery store guy kept aside for you, because your face fell when there weren’t any the last time you stopped by. Spouses and kids who help with household chores (and all it took was a little grumbling and a lot of persuasion, maybe even extortion when you threatened to dump their handheld devices in the compost pit near the veggie patch). Less demanding hours which you are free to fill with anything at all that captures your fancy. Even if it is doing nothing at all in particular. Because you can.

We appreciate the big things too. Like those who have gone out of their way to help those in need. Whether it is feeding stray dogs, using your fancy hotel’s kitchen to prepare and send out healthy meals for cops on duty, caring for the sick, or volunteering to make sure that essential items, staples reach the ones who need them the most. The fact that despite cynical predictions that India will be the worst hit during this crisis, thanks to quick thinking and judicious methods we are holding our heads above water at present. There is always the dreadful possibility that things could take a turn for the worse though. Besides life in India isn’t exactly amazing at the moment. The spectre of economic woes, unemployment, grinding poverty, starvation and mass death confronts us all. But even so, we are holding firm and we are doing it together. Even if we can't help but moan and groan or whinge and whine about how everybody else is being as stupid and useless as the government. 

Some of us are making resolutions about the beautiful, meaningful lives we are hopefully going to lead after the lockdown is lifted, while ignoring the voice in the head, truculently wondering if that will happen in the immediate future or at least in this century. A simpler, more old – fashioned lifestyle is called for we tell ourselves where we refrain from our consumerist excesses and boundless greed, even as we wonder if we should reduce our employees' salary or cancel the bonus. Perhaps we can buy a patch of land in those rural areas and take up farming, so we can be closer to nature. At the very least, we will no longer obsess over nail polish, lipstick or the perfect outfit guaranteed to make us Instagram worthy, or shell out hard – earned money on umpteen vacations around the world, so we can join queues at amusement parks or gaze at a monument in order to tweet about it.  Most of us have made a virtual pinkie promise with like-minded buddies, to always respect and care for Big Momma Nature. Perhaps we can even sit out the rat race for a bit and give something back to society because we were recently made aware of the fact that money amounts to squat if you aren’t going to be around to enjoy it. We intend to stick to these pure minded intentions. We do. For as long as the economy remains languishing in the doldrums and Coronasura stands poised with a club over our collective heads.
Will we learn? Or reduce our planet to a post apocalypse wasteland?

Too many among us are haunted by our fears though. Among other assorted worries. That this is just the prelude to an apocalypse from which there is no return unless we can mutate overnight into evolved beings with virus proof hides and invincible immune systems. That even if the improbable happens and life goes back to normal, we will revert to the old destructive ways. If not immediately, then shortly after. Polluting the environment and despoiling nature every which way we can. Buying stuff we don’t need and gorging relentlessly on the limited resources offered by the planet. And fighting with each other about everything from politics to religion and why my favourite celeb or God is superior to yours. Wait! Did we ever stop being this way? Is there hope for us to somehow metamorphose into half way decent human beings who will learn from the mistakes of the past and live right? Maybe. Maybe not.

An edited version of this piece was carried in The New Indian Express.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Lessons from a Pandemic: Quit Pressuring People into becoming Parents

Why pressure people into contributing to the population problem? 

Whenever possible, I try to watch a movie on Saturday night. Nowadays, a lot of time is spent in indecision as I wade through the countless choices, wishing I would just hurry up and make up my mind. Should I watch one of those award winning movies? This one is tricky. Highly feted movies like Parasite, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Marriage Story, to name a few, are well worth the laurels heaped on them. But there is also the risk of watching criminally overrated garbage like The Shape of Water which has exquisite visuals and little else or something like the Irishman, adored by critics who are determined to like anything at all Scorcese makes but which turned out to be an extremely tedious saga about ageing bulls which put me right to sleep.  Horror is usually a safe choice but there are hardly any standouts in the genre. The latest releases throw up some interesting options and I enjoyed War and Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo recently, which is why I settled on Dharala 
Prabhu, the tamil remake of Vicky Donor as last night’s viewing choice with less than my usual indecisiveness.

Is Harish Kalyan TN's answer to Ayushman Khurrana and Vijay Deverakonda?
It is a lovely movie made by Krishna Marimuthu with dignity and a fine sensibility. Films on sensitive topics such as sperm donation rely on clumsy humour which is extremely cringe – inducing. But this film was refreshingly different. Aided by great performances from the promising Harish Kalyan, evergreen Sachu and Vivekh as well as the delightful Meera Janaki Krishnamurthy, the film goes about the business of telling a story with minimal fuss and fanfare while being hugely effective. It does weave in messages about how there is still so much stigma attached to non – traditional methods of childbearing, adoption and even squeezes in a same – sex couple, but without being preachy or self – righteous. All of this works beautifully.

But since, I was born a contrarian, I felt that a few more issues need to be addressed when it comes to these things. Dharala Prabhu is very sympathetic towards people who are desperate to have children and are hounded by practically everyone in their lives and of course, society at large for imagined failures in this department. Many childless couples are pressured into spending truckloads of money to somehow pop out the little ones via sperm donation, in – vitro fertilization, surrogacy etc. Of course, I sympathize too but isn’t it high time we eased up on the pressure, quit idealizing parenthood and pretending that babies magically fill our lives with love, happiness, fulfilment and meaning while erasing all cause for complaint, sadness or despair?

Let us be honest. Parenting is one of the most high – pressure jobs out there. Raising children takes its toll physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. As for babies themselves, it is true that some days are magical and your children light up your life. But in the interest of full disclosure, let me tell you that there are also many more days when your precious boos or moos are perfectly capable of being jerks not above throwing tantrums, engaging in emotional manipulation, being extremely demanding of your time, attention and rights to the remote, and fully capable of provoking you into tearing out entire chunks of your hair and running out into the streets towards the nearest Covid – 19 positive patient.  

Not everyone is cut out for this and if folks decide they are not suited to be parents and would rather do other things that don’t involve poop filled diapers, we should stop judging them and making them feel bad for their eco-friendly choice. And no, please don’t tell them ‘If your parents had been this selfish, self – indulgent and unwilling to wipe your nose and bum, you wouldn’t be here.’ As for those, who want to have kids but cannot for various reasons, it is imperative that we leave them alone and stop piling on the hurt even if it is inadvertent or well intentioned. The last thing such couples want is ‘friendly advise’ about the ideal temples to visit in order to be blessed with a bundle of joy, rituals to perform that are guaranteed to ‘cure’ childlessness, fertility doctors and treatments, ancient remedies and what have you. And do me a personal favour, STOP asking newlyweds if they have ‘sweet news’. A little sensitivity goes a long way folks.

Finally, as the second most populous nation in the world, Indians are all too familiar with the perils of population explosion. In fact, if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that social distancing is next to impossible in a country as thickly populated as ours with its history of unfair and unequal resource management. It is high time we re-examined our overzealous commitment towards faithfully contributing to the national as well as international population problem.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Condensed milk and Corona induced blues

‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ Or so we have been told. My mum keeps telling me to watch my mouth, so I will refrain from cussing out the idiot who came up with that particular idiom. Probably one of those curmudgeonly football coaches during a particularly rousing pep talk where everyone in the immediate vicinity was sprayed with saliva as the grunting, heavily perspiring players were exhorted towards greater exertions. Anyways, I keep repeating the damn thing like a mantra, during rough patches, determined to forget that I am nowhere as tough as I would like to be.

Initially, I told myself to make the best of this lockdown. Work out twice a day. Master all the difficult yoga poses like the handstand, elbow stand (pincha mayurasana), crow pose (bakasana). Write every single day. Stay ahead of the chores. Learn something new – perhaps a new language or sign up for one of those online courses. Teach the kids something. Try and work on the vegetable patch which I have always been meaning to have (The drumstick tree is thriving and so are the curry leaves, in addition to my faithful cactus, so yay!) Practise my adavus, perfect my araimandi and blow my Guru’s mind, when dance class resumes. Stay as positive as possible given my naturally cynical bent of mind, try to limit the panic attacks to one a day in the privacy of my mind, etc.

The first two weeks weren't too bad. I was physically active and somewhat productive. I can do the handstand with wall support and can hold the crow for 5 seconds on good days. Nowadays, though, I spend a good chuck of my time trying to think up excuses to skip my work out, then settle for a quick half – hour session and spend most of it in the corpse pose (shavasana). On the writing front, I have managed to put up a few blog posts, though mostly I stare at a blank document and wonder why nobody has come up with an instant fix for writers block yet, before giving up.

As for the chores, I like to think there is a smoothly functioning system in place for getting things done with a degree of efficiency. Even as I kid myself, I can’t help but think it is too damn bad, I didn’t get a letter inviting me to join Hogwarts. It would have been fun to learn a few domestic spells and magic the drudgery away (among other things)! My brain and mind rebel every time, I try to urge both to sign up for an online course or attempt to learn a new language. Apparently both would rather go ‘tsk tsk’ over the trolling on Twitter, depressing newsfeeds determined to make us feel worse about the Corona situation or idly browse through pretty pics of celebs on Instagram who are positively glowing after 4 hour workouts,  guaranteed to make us feel even worse about ourselves.

I did do a few storytelling sessions with the children, taught them some simple recipes as well and harangued them into doing something besides plonking themselves on the couch to play games on the computer and watch the telly simultaneously. I even managed to dance a little, though it feels like wading through treacle on some days. And I did not get around to practising the adavus unless you count the two minutes when I rehearsed the Nattadavus with the kids. As for the araimandi, I quit before I even began, telling myself that the knees would grumble loudly in protest and I ought to protect them at all costs. 

Over the past few days, my energy levels have been dipping in earnest. I have a wicked case of the blues and it is hard to summon the will to get out of bed and do anything at all. The only reason, I managed to get through the daily routine today was because I was terrified that if I don’t, the dishes will pile up in the sink and eventually manage to break through the roof where they will join hands with the dust monsters to kill me. Even so, the temptation was strong to cower under the covers and tell the family to have cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Or whatever they find in the fridge. (As for me there is Nutella in my secret stash, but I left it there because I tormented myself with images of myself ballooning to grotesque proportions).

Thanks for the laughs Modern Family!
It wasn’t all bad though. I whipped up dessert, and comforted myself only with the leftover condensed milk, even as a bullying voice in my head informed me that the sugar demons are definitely going to get me before Corona does. And I watched the series finale of Modern Family. Like most formerly great shows, it seemed to have run out of steam a few seasons ago, but the finale was nevertheless worth a watch. A heartfelt end to a beloved show, it was particularly moving to watch it in these days of fear and unease, when so many of us are near and yet so far away from loved ones. 

One of the things that was great about the show was that it tackled so many sensitive subjects with warmth and humour, without being political or militantly woke. It has changed the way, so many people look at LGBTQ rights, same – sex marriage, adoption and immigrants. A reminder if any were needed that few things have the power of art to bring about change in this complicated world where for every step we take in the right direction, we inevitably take two backward. Which is also why I will always have more faith in art than people.

Comfort food in the time of Corona!
Long story short, it made me tear up a little and took some of the Corona – induced blues away with it. My spirits lifted a bit when it rained for a brief spell in the evening, before it ceased altogether and left the atmosphere so muggy, it felt like a sauna. Moving on, if the newsfeeds are to be believed, the lockdown with be extended to the end of this month. At the very least. The good news is I still have a few tins of condensed milk left. Ammunition against Coronasura! Hope you are all doing okayish? Let me know if you need anything… Unless it is condensed milk. 

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Is the fight against Corona, jeopardizing our future?

Wish a superhero would show up and fix this already...
Most of us seldom have anything commendable to say about our elected leaders. And with good reason. It is almost as if being corrupt, ruthless, incompetent, ignorant, or downright criminal is the job description of a career politician. As voters, we are used to making the best of abysmal choices and we all fumble along, hoping against hope that a great leader will emerge out of nowhere to save us from all the things we need saving from. Or at least, not screw us over so badly that we are left unable to defend ourselves and safeguard our best interests.

Neither of these things seem to be happening as the world does battle with the Coronavirus and leaders of countries and states find themselves saddled with the task of dealing with an unprecedented crisis. There is sweeping condemnation for nearly all of them, no matter what they do or don’t. And I can’t help but be concerned about the fate of this nation and the world at large, which currently rests in the hands of those who haven’t given us much reason to trust or respect them.

All of us are running scared right now. The uncertainty and paucity of information is hard to take. The social and economic consequences of this complete shutdown of normal life is going to be long – lasting and possibly cause a lot more havoc than the virus itself. The initial data suggests that among those who have tested positive for Covid – 19 in the general population, the symptoms are mild and don’t require hospitalization. The more serious cases requiring intensive care, have mainly been seen among those above the age of sixty and higher. The fatalities have mostly been limited to the elderly and those suffering from chronic illness or compromised immune systems. Which is not to say the younger populace, under 30 years of age has remained unaffected or free from fatality. No doubt, the statistics will keep shifting and it will be months before a clearer picture emerges.

In the meantime, nearly all our resources are being expended on a confused, sporadic effort to contain the virus and flatten the curve without much thought being given to the efficacy of this approach or the collateral damage that is already taking a toll on the populace. The lockdown has crippled the entire workforce forcing thousands into an impoverished state left with no means to take care of themselves or their families. Forget access to a health care system that is certainly on the verge of being overwhelmed, many have been left without clean water, food, or a roof over their heads. How long can this pitiable state be allowed to continue? Even if this were to blow over, unemployment will be at an all-time high and small businesses may not recover. And let us not even begin to discuss the state of public morale after the staggering costs exacted by this catastrophe.

Hospitals have shut their outpatient departments and are focusing solely on this pandemic on government orders at the expense of those afflicted with far more life – threatening disorders and conditions since all surgeries and medical procedures barring emergencies have been deferred indefinitely. The plight of those diagnosed with cancer, HIV, renal failure and other diseases or disorders is worrisome as cops prowling the roads use any and all means to ensure that people do not leave their homes. Surely it is unconscionable to leave the sick and diseased not afflicted with Covid – 19 to get by as best as they can? What is the point of keeping some safe from Corona while leaving others to die or have irreparable damage done to their health by allowing serious ailments to go untreated?

The gnawing questions persist even as they send our anxiety soaring into the stratosphere. When will it be safe for us to leave our homes and return en masse to the workplace? Will schools be reopened soon? When will we identify the best treatment methods to beat this thing? How much time will it take to develop a vaccine? What about the costs we are inadvertently incurring both inside and outside the financial sphere? There are no answers available at present and I don’t think they will be forthcoming anytime soon. All we can do is hunker down and keep our fingers as well as toes crossed as we wait interminably for this thing to blow over, hopefully sooner rather than later.

As for the fight against Corona, it cannot be allowed to cause even more devastation than the virus is likely to cause. Therefore, it is to be hoped that our leaders, whatever their failures in the past may have been will redeem themselves by figuring out the best way to fight the virus and save those who are infected but not by putting the future of everyone else at risk. What we need are unlikely heroes, who will rise to the occasion and do battle with the forces of disease and despair, and deliver us safe and sound into a better future.

Monday, April 06, 2020

The silver lining in a cloudless summer sky

Look closely, squint a bit, summon your inner optimist, perhaps you just might spot the silver lining in a cloudless summer sky...
Summer is here. And it sucks worse than usual. Especially for us, Indians, who are placed uncomfortably close to the equator. I live in one of the hottest, driest places in the world. And believe me, when I say that after spending a single summer in Sivakasi, all the fire, brimstone, boiling vats of oil, rivers of lava, and the rest of the horrors of hell featuring extreme heat described in weighty religious tomes, fiery prophets and the poetry of Dante, will seem like a vacation in the snow clad Swiss Alps. I exaggerate not.

The heat is something else. You can cook eggs on any available service or even a fevered brow. Watermelon and tender coconut are sold at exorbitant rates and it is way too hot to bargain. All my plans to allow the excess fat to melt away in the heat, come to naught because I can’t walk past an ice cream shop without resisting the lure of a white chocolate and raspberry bar or a double scoop of the sinful palghova ice cream available at Puppy’s Bakery. Hence, though my mother refuses to buy it, the excessive heat of Sivadump is to blame for my weight issues (How is a girl supposed to survive the summer without ice cream and IPl damn it!). But there is worse…

Even those who are not as green – thumb challenged as I am, have trouble growing anything other than cacti, given the scarcity of water. ‘We need rain…’ we keep saying to each other unnecessarily, hoping Mother Nature or whoever is in charge of the weather will pay heed. Some brave the heat and crowds to visit temples and pray fervently for a few life-giving showers. I daresay, desperation drives a few to perform the rain dance which though it sounds improbable totally worked for Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother (If you haven’t watched the show, please do and then call me so we can crib together about the series finale which ruined the entire series.) But the brief showers are few and far away and invariably gives the impression of a medium – sized giant with a Urinary Tract Infection, pausing briefly above my town to take a reluctant piss only to change his mind and stop mid-stream.

This summer, I have been daydreaming uselessly about somehow meeting Tansen, (one of the nine gems in Akbar’s court who sang so beautifully and with so much command over the ragas, legend has it, he could actually light the oil lamps when he sang the Deepak raga) and begging him to teach me the Megh Malhar raga, so that I can summon clouds and rain at will. Wouldn’t that be swell? And why stop with rain… Perhaps I could learn to sing the blues away and heal the worst of injuries be they of the mind and spirit. It would be lovely to conjure up comfort with the power of your voice or soothe the hatred, pain and anger, simmering deep within the soul. Of course, I confess, it would also be cool if I could turn a few things to ash as well using that Deepak raga, like unwelcome intruders who have brought the entire world to its knees and then busted the kneecaps.

For all the non - existent people out there wondering about the extent to which I have succeeded in achieving my impossible daydream, allow me to inform you that Tansen saab hasn’t been very obliging so far, which hasn’t stopped me from belting out a few tunes with my painfully inadequate voice over the protests of husband dearest every once in a while. So there is hope. Or not.

Meanwhile, it is as hot as it always has been in these parts with every promise of becoming hotter still. With no sign of rain. But the silver lining in the cloudless summer sky is that it seems impossible that anything could thrive in this scorching weather. Not even a stubborn virus, or Coronasura as some refer to him (It is a him, of that I am certain!) So, perhaps there is hope after all.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

How to Feel Lucky during a Lockdown

It is an understatement to say that not many people are feeling particularly lucky at this moment but the truth is we are all fortunate to live in this particular age. For those wondering if I am writing this from one of those exclusive wellness retreats in the middle of the Sahara frequented by Hollywood hotshots or merely because I have my head firmly lodged up my backside, you couldn’t be more wrong. Like everybody else, I am in lockdown mode, thanks to the damnable pandemic raging across the world. Reduced to missing the Before Corona era while trying to keep up with mounting household chores which eat into all the time everybody else seems to be spending on Netflixing or vegetating on their couches. And worrying about the economic fallout from all this has ensured that I am not in the best or brightest of moods.

Even so, I cannot help but think we have it relatively easy, especially if we were to take a stroll through the darker corridors of a disease – fraught past and witness the devastation caused by deadly epidemics and pandemics that changed the course of history. It must have sucked real bad to be afflicted with leprosy in the middle ages when it was believed that the victims were being punished by God for moral failings. Consequently, they were ostracised and left to rot in isolated colonies. Multiples outbreaks of the bubonic plague also known as the Black Death are believed to have routinely decimated one – third of the population across large swathes of Europe, Asia, Africa and Arabia.

Let us not forget small – pox which originated in Europe but wound up being carried to and ultimately annihilating almost the entire indigenous population in the New World. In India, we are all too familiar with the evils wrought by cholera across the years. Brought to our shores by British soldiers, millions have died and it is to our shame that it remains a dogged killer to this day given our inadequate treatment of sewage, irresponsible garbage disposal, practise of open defecation and lack of access to clean drinking water. In all these instances, the sick seldom had access to decent medical care, were stigmatized and left to die on the streets even as the corpses piled up and no one had the strength left to dig up mass graves.

The Coronavirus on the other hand has a significantly lower mortality rate. More importantly, thanks to cutting edge technology that allows us to communicate instantly and constantly with each other, it is possible to remain well – informed and on top of the situation. We can help one another with money, medical aid and other resources. Even the poor and unfortunate, left stranded when public transport was suspended can make their plight visible thanks to intrepid reporters and social media with the ensuing outcry forcing the government to act. If we can stay calm in the midst of the senseless panic, fear – mongering and conspiracy theorizing there is no reason why we can’t beat this thing. All it takes is sense, strict sanitary measures and a willingness to refrain from blaming each other, Tablighi Jamaat, China or the government for our current predicament.

These are things we would do well to remember and feel grateful for in the middle of a lockdown, particularly when feeling somewhat cranky while knee – deep in dirty dishes and frustration. After all, it could have been so much worse. 

P.S: If my article has failed to make you feel lucky or even a little less lousy about the lockdown, I don’t blame you in the least. 

An edited version of this article was published in The New Indian Express.

Friday, April 03, 2020

A New Reality

Are we surviving Corona by feeding our addiction for the darkverse?

How many days have elapsed since the lockdown began? What is today’s date? How many days to go before a semblance of normalcy is restored? The weirdest thing is I don’t know or even care all that much anymore. In fact, for the first time in forever, I am not wearing a watch. Given the fact that a short while ago (though it feels like a long time ago), my life was ruled by a rigid schedule with the watch and calendar (where all my commitments were carefully marked) acting as enforcers, it is strange to have the days unwind with all the urgency of a slumbering sloth. In the good old days of yore, the sooner I took care of something demanding and time – consuming, there would be momentary relief and mild satisfaction, but the very next second, there would be something else I needed to work on.

Not much has changed and yet, everything has. There are still tons of things that need to be taken care of and yet, I no longer feel like I am on a treadmill with the speed set to impossible. Now it just feels like I am wading through a sweet and sour syrup. So I am counting that as a plus or a minus. But I am also wondering if going forth, abnormal will be the new normal. Having no choice but to remain locked away from the outside world, what if we lose all inclination to leave the illusory safety of our homes, especially once Amazon and Swiggy start delivering again and we have everything we will ever need a click away?

Can we even begin to contemplate a life independent of the internet?? After all, the only thing that is keeping us sane in the middle of a pandemic is the sickly sweet, sticky World Wide Web we have allowed ourselves to become hopelessly entangled and entrapped in, suckered in by its enchanting ways.

Forget surviving Corona, the real question is whether we can survive without the internet and its infinite pleasures… that marvellously murky space where there is everything for everybody. In a bid to foolishly persuade myself into thinking that I am not addicted to the internet, I try to incorporate a little old fashioned into my routine like reading, cooking and Yoga. And let us not forget the ever present chores. In addition to that, every evening, for an hour or so, the kids and I pry ourselves away from our umpteen gadgets evincing varying levels of reluctance for story – telling sessions. I just finished narrating the Mahabharata to them today, and the entire thing has been great, though the daughters had trouble keeping the names of the characters straight, forcing me to remember the plot of Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (how great is Allu Arjun in that entertainer?) which involved swapped babies.

But the thing is, once our brief sojourn into the glorious past is over and done with, ever so satisfying as it is, we go right back to surfing the web or watching shows and in my case, writing about it for my blog. Perhaps, therein lies the truth. Maybe, the day is not far off, when we will willingly step away from the real world and its messy issues featuring viruses, communalism, economic meltdowns, wars, etc. into a virtual nirvana where everything seems brighter, more beautiful and infinitely more stimulating. It is not even a scary thought is it? The Matrix was a dystopian futuristic fantasy when it came out decades ago, yet nowadays it is starting to feel like the only world we want to be a part off…

But Matrix or no, tomorrow the daughters and I travel to more exotic shores, because junior wants to explore the Thousand and One Arabian Nights and I am more than happy to oblige. As the chap whose first name was Agent according to Tony Stark, and who got killed off in the Marvelverse says, sometimes we might need a ‘little old fashioned’ in a rapidly changing world. And hope it is enough for whatever lies ahead.

PS: I am taking a break from horror movies and joining the daughters in exploring the delights of the extended Marvelverse. They love Aquaman too but who doesn’t? That Jason Momoa is too dreamy for words…
PPS: I recorded a video for #IRecommend with #ETimes, mentioning some good reads for the #lockdown. It was fun though it felt weird to wear something that wasn’t a fugly tee or harem pants which I consider the only suitable couture in the times of Corona.You can watch it here.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Covidiots are far more dangerous than the Coronavirus

I have been trying to avoid depressing news so I don’t really follow minute by minute updates on the whole Corona situation as a concession to my fluctuating sanity and blood pressure levels. Even so, unless you are committed to isolating yourself in a non – sensory environment which would entail burrowing into a hole in the ground and staying put, it is impossible to miss being bombarded with news items on the idiocy of human beings.

For the past few days, all people can talk about is the Tablighi Jamaat meeting which took place in early march at the Markaz Banglewali mosque in Nizamuddin and has since emerged as a hotspot for the dreaded virus with the dubious distinction of resulting in the cluster spread of Covid – 19 in India. Thousands from all over India and abroad have attended and the authorities are having the roughest time trying to track the movements of all those who were present.

Naturally there has been widespread condemnation of all those who attended this religious gathering but the situation has quickly turned ugly as the news reports continue to pour in documenting the worst hits states, with numbers spiking as many who were present at the Tablighi Jamaat meeting have tested positive. Now there is so much outrage and thinly veined Islamophobia out there, it is appalling. It is sick that no matter how sick the situation is we can always find a way to make it sicker by giving it a communal twist.

The internet is rife with hate – filled hashtags accusing all Muslims of bio – terrorism and what not. Those protesting against all the hatred and Islamaphobia spew hatred themselves by adopting a definitely Hinduphobic stand which is not okay either. It is just too awful for words. There have been reports of incidents where those quarantined for being present at the Tablighi Jamaat event have misbehaved (at Tughlakabad, some of the detained had spat on the medical personnel and that is inexcusable and indefensible) or failed to cooperate with the authorities. Even more have been accused of failing to step forward and identify themselves. But in the latter instance, I can’t say I blame them even though it is a social responsibility to get tested and self – quarantine if exposed to the virus.

There are big time hooligans and other antisocial elements out there who are using the pandemic to unleash their inner demons by attacking, doctors and other health – care personnel by pelting them with stones or refusing to allow them to enter their own homes. (These miscreants who have ignored government orders to practise social distancing and are prowling the streets like rabid dogs should be at the receiving end of police brutality and locked away for good.) And doctors are usually highly respected in our society and accorded a quasi-demigod status second only to Cricketers and Celebs. If this is how we treat doctors, how will those belonging to a minority religious group, currently abhorred and hated for being ‘carriers of infection’ expect to be treated? If their homes are marked with the quarantine stamp won’t they be exposing their families and neighbours to the ire of the mob? Unfortunately, it is a legitimate concern.

Of course, I am not endorsing the shirking of social responsibility but as long as we play the blame game and treat the infected with revulsion, it will be hard for anybody to do the right thing and cooperate with the authorities. And we only have ugly bias and our own selves to blame for that. Why do we even feel the need to blame someone or the other during a crisis? First, we blamed the Chinese for eating bats and now we have turned on our own. How is any of this helpful? What will become of us if doctors and nurses decide to return to the safety of their own homes, instead of putting themselves at risk and left us to fend for ourselves? It would actually serve us right for being so inhuman. And if we refuse to learn from the past and insist on fighting with each other over the countless Gods that have blessed and cursed this country, we will all end up in all the versions of hell described by various faiths. Again, it would serve us right!

Now more than ever, it is important to be kind and pay it forward by lending a helping hand to all who need it in whatever capacity we can. Or at the very least, keep a lid on communal hatred and violence. And it would not hurt to cease and desist being a covidiot.

It is not enough to criticize the government for not doing enough when we aren’t doing enough either as citizens of this great nation. I have said it before and I will say it again, this land belongs to all who call it home be they Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Atheist or tree hugger And yes, even those among us who have tested positive for Covid – 19 are citizens and it is our national duty to be supportive and non - judgemental. Only, if we can find it in our hearts to accept this and embrace all things good and decent in us, can we defeat this thing. And just about anything else.