Lockdown diary by Mrinal Pande: Refugees with a balcony and a roof

It’s perhaps the curse of the homeless, that in cities we are destined to live in cages, just like refugees

Lockdown diary by Mrinal Pande: Refugees with a balcony and a roof
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Mrinal Pande

(The term *Idiot, used here is of Greek origin: the word ‘idiotes’ in Greek means an isolated or private individual, unwelcome to participate in democracy)

19.3.2020

We waited with bated breath for 8 PM. The Prime Minister was to address the nation and most Indians remembered a similar address by him on November 8, 2016. He had then stunned the nation by declaring that from midnight, just four hours later, all the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes would become illegal tender, scraps of paper.

Restrictions were imposed on cash withdrawals from banks and for the next four hours there was virtually a run on ATMs. What is Mr 8 PM going to announce tonight, people asked each other. And there was a collective sigh of relief when he ‘implored’ Indians to volunteer for a Janata Curfew between 7 am and 9 pm on Sunday,

March 22

It was essential to break the cycle of the Coronavirus, he announced. The mind went back to what he had offered to justify Notebandi. An end to black market and terrorism and paving the way to a ‘cashless’ economy. A year later there was more cash circulating in the economy than on November 8. In this backdrop, how seriously should one take him, friends wondered. There was light-hearted banter over the PM’s plea that Indians should come out on balconies and roofs at 9 PM, clap and strike pots and pans to express our collective appreciation for health workers fighting the disease on the ground.

The WhatsApp University went on an overdrive, suggesting that it was yet another masterstroke. The racket that a billion Indians would create for five minutes would kill the dreaded virus, forwards claimed. It came as no surprise, therefore, when many of the PM’s devoted followers were not content to clap. Especially those who didn’t have a balcony or a roof, and most Indians don’t, took out celebratory processions, blowing conch shells and gongs, singing and raising slogans and generally wishing death to the virus.

Though the PM had spoken of the need to maintain ‘ social distancing’, possibly because he couldn’t coin an equivalent phrase in Hindi, the Bhakts joyfully jostled with each other on the street, created a great racket and generally looked like a group of juveniles running after a circus when it came to town. Are we all juvenile? It is a young country after all. Perhaps the PM is right in treating us patronizingly as a bunch of idiots. The next day celebrities like actors Mohanlal, Rajanikanth, Anupam Kherand Amitabh Bachchan (the Big B) lent their weight and voice to the show and declared that the vibrations created by the din would have driven away the disease.

The Big B and others joined the President of India, Cabinet Ministers and other dignitaries in posting videos of their families clapping and banging pots. Very few noticed a bemused international agency report that the Coronavirus had died out of shock in India.

March 24

Another address by the PM at 8 PM? Now what? It was the ‘Ides of March’ moment again as Indians debated what the PM might spring this time. The Prime Minister looked grave, even grim. The pandemic posed a grave threat to India, he informed. It had not died evidently. The country needed to be placed in a ‘lockdown’ or curfew for 21 days, he declared. Yes, from 12 midnight. A country of India’s size going into a lockdown with four hours’ notice?

The PM softened the blow by reassuring people. Essential services would be open. There would be no shortage of essential goods and medicine. ATMs and banks would be open. While he did fold his hands in supplication and pleaded for Indians to stay at home for the next three weeks, there was no mistaking the menacing tone. Those who refuse to stay within the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ would be dealt with sternly, he promised. What followed for the next four hours was another mad scramble by Indians to stock whatever they could in those four hours. People drove long distances, jostled with each other (social distancing be damned) and fought with each other to get to the counter. My husband and I had decided a year ago not to buy new clothes any longer.

We had enough for this life or whatever is left of it, we had agreed. But as urban middle class went into a frenzy of buying, grabbing and hoarding what they could, I watched helplessly. Never a hoarder of anything, someone who has always been swift in tearing up letters and someone who believed in giving away books and clothes, I was dismayed, even distressed at what was unfolding. Couldn’t he address the nation at 8 AM in the morning, people fumed. But the Big Brother had spoken, and the oracle had to be followed. “Social Distancing” is the new Shibboleth. After such madness, what forgiveness? Manu, the first Divider-in-Chief and obviously the first to think of ‘social distancing’, it was quickly claimed, must be chuckling wherever he is at the moment.

Morning of March 26

Newspapers are not delivered. Nor milk. Nor bread, vegetables, or fruits. No handcarts are permitted. WhatsApp groups in posh South Delhi colonies are circulating information about a few Covidiots seen strolling in parks. Police is called! They come. The Covidiots quickly retrace their steps and retreat. Police thrash a poor vendor instead. Meanwhile on e-papers, corporate India is applauding social distancing like a mad horde of frenzied football fans. It is a very prudent move they say.

March 27:

No, nothing.

March 28

Milk has begun to be delivered. Online suppliers of essential goods say they will not be able to deliver just yet.

March 29

There are reports of mobile handcart vendors (Rehri Patriwallahs) and daily wage workers beginning to panic. Reports emerging of factories closing. Unpaid dues.

March 30

As Americans would say, shit happens. Excited phone calls report on the Great Exodus. In Haryana they call it “Bhaggi”, a great migration of people. The poor, millions of them, have begun to leave Delhi. Men, women and children, with their belongings on their head, walking stoically. Policemen gape at the silent, dignified exodus and stand aside. It is as if a dam has burst. The unwashed millions, who sold street food, tea at street corners, worked in eateries or at construction sites, who unloaded and loaded trucks on daily wages, are all out on the street. The curfew can go to hell. The police can stuff their batons up theirs.

They must leave immediately. Walk if there are no trains or buses. Even hardened journalists can’t believe there is this astounding, sea of humanity streaming out of the city. They don’t want to stop. They don’t want to talk. To persistent questions, some say tersely that without food, water and money, they had no option but to try and reach the villages from where they had come. With no earning and their sources of income gone, the sheer instinct for survival had forced them out.

There was no transport. But they would rather walk hundreds of miles carrying plastic water bottles and all their belongings in polythene bags. Women carry infants. Big siblings carry younger ones. Young girls support bent, old grandmothers. A few ‘lucky’ rikshaw pullers hope to pedal home on their rickety wheels. A few others make use of the push carts on which they sold fruits, vegetables, momos, tea, Rajma Chholey and Kadhi Chawal till the other day. Some have been thrown out by landlords. No rent, no roof. I was reminded of my music teacher who had presciently observed that Delhi had two kinds of people: those who owned roofs, and those who rented a spot underneath a roof.

March 31

TV and newspapers are full of photos of the exodus. Even the loyal Godi media cannot hold the news back. 136 million jobs at risk in post-Corona India, says The Mint. Lower growth will make new job generation impossible. About 28 million in India work without signing a regular contract. When even big brands begin pushing malls to waive rentals, it’s the end of consumerism that drove the industry that drove the profits that drove the world economy, dependent on so many nuts and bolts located outside national boundaries.

The post-Corona world is like a molten lava. And India is fast losing its native sense of humour, warmth and social intimacy that goes with it. April 1 Please do not post foolish first April jokes, a sedate tweet tells us. I remember my Nani (maternal grandmother), who would say “Jabra marey bhi aur roney bhi na de” (The bully will beat you but will not permit you to cry). April is the cruellest month. Baisakhi harvest festival for a bumper wheat crop looms. The mandis are shut. Serpentine queues of trucks laden with ‘non-essential’ goods stand still at inter-state borders. The truckers are being ordered to pick up essential items. But they have neither money nor mechanics, helpers or patience. To load fresh stuff we have to unload first, no? But tell us where are the loaders? All have gone back to villages, leaving truckers behind to guard the goods. Where are the unloaders? They too are gone. No mechanics are visible on highways for repairing vehicles that have broken down,truckers tell reporters. They too may have left for their villages after being forced to lock up their kiosks. No wayside eateries, no nothing! On social media in shared videos one sees women put in quarantine with their families right outside their villages. They are coping with shortages of all kinds and their hungry children. They appear worried and scared. Some have daughters-in-law with them, who are about to give birth.

Birth? Here? Their men squat with their stony faces staring into space as men will do when feeling powerless and clueless. Guards and policemen strut about looking important and useless by turn. A guard in my residential colony tells me he is from Assam. I do not want to go back, Ma, he says.

“They will put us in camps there. Here at least I can still earn and send money to pay for papers for my family. What is there in Assam for me?” Next door is a building under construction. It houses a clutch of labourers within. They sit and smoke beedis. The contractor sends them food. He wants to hang on to them, his work is nearly complete. In the evening the workers sing Chaitis, traditional harvest songs sung in eastern UP and Bihar, in their thin, reedy voices. Incredibly sad. “Chait Maase boleli koyaliya/Ho Rama Piya ghar aibey” (The koel sings in the month of Chait, announcing the impending arrival of my dearest.) I discover a few rupees in my purse and it cheers me no end. I suddenly feel rich. Tomorrow I think, is another day.

April 3

Wrong. Reports come about some 2,000 odd members of Tablighi Jamaat evacuated from their Nizamuddin headquarters. Among them several from Corona-stricken countries. TV news claims they broke curfew (how, indeed?) and have fanned out all over India, sending new infections up. But then the PM addresses the nation at 9 AM in the morning for a change.

We stare at the TV screen and watch the PM plead for nine minutes of our time on Sunday, and exhorts Indians to light earthen lamps and stand on balconies and roofs for nine minutes at 9 pm on April 5. This will be a show of unity, he says. No Indian is alone. Brave words. WhatsApp University again goes into overdrive. This is a masterstroke, we are told. There are nine planets, we are seriously told, and standing with nine lamps for nine minutes will send out energy that will destroy the virus. Others whisper that Indians had been conned. Monday, April 6, they say, is BJP’s foundation day and Narendra Modi got Indians to celebrate the ruling party’s birth anniversary. After dark, people look right and left and come out gingerly to fetch essentials from a shop across a street policed day and night. Standing inside their designated and ‘distanced’ spots in long queues, people appear more desperate now. On digital portals and messaging apps, those with access to Net and TV seem to be spending all their time in cooking and eating. Social media is full of their photos and recipes for what most of the time look rather unappetizing. City papers have dropped their city pull outs as ads dry out. Papers cannot infect you, the big news chains announce again and again. Numbers are falling fast. Everyone is watching lots of TV and streaming Netflix. Re-run of Ramayana on DD, we are told, is breaking all viewership records. In chat shows the glib spokespersons of the government snigger at the media and say repeatedly that anyone who puts up anything deemed fake news on social media would be charged with sedition. The Press Council agrees. Like three blind mice we, who thought we were safe in our invisible retired lives, are running with a Finance Ministry chasing our savings, those skimpy mutual funds with a carving knife. No one seems to know when our own tax deducted savings in banks will become available to us again. As medicines, masks and protective gear run out of stock, superstition and dharma do the rounds like horse whisperers calming agitated animals. An ex head of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences says that vibrations generated by clapping and clanging of pots chased away the virus. Italy did that and still has the highest death rate in Europe. Memes do the rounds. Cartoons jokes. It’s a world gone berserk. Truth is, more and more power seems to be exercised unilaterally. Gone are the TV cameras focussing on the desperate faces of farmers. Hirsute men in hoodies appear from nowhere and craning their necks into the camera apertures will no doubt lead the light brigade tomorrow. Power cannot block protests, but it can wait patiently for energies to be dissipated with enforced rationing of money, of food, of time. Then it strikes swiftly to guide lives into miserable alleys stinking of urine and unwashed human bodies.

The school chowkidar, who lives in a room in the school opposite the house, has left his family in the village and visits them when he can. Suddenly he appears to have lost his mind and has taken to getting heavily drunk in the evenings. He is neither a good man nor a bad one, just one of the thousands of those who voted for this government and must now subsist in the moral and physical decay of a bleak curfew compliant future.

Schools look derelict without lively children. The guard is lonely. Last night I heard him yelling on his mobile, maybe to a whining wife, why they cannot make do with the cash he sent last month? They, it seems, had stashed it for a wedding and the money lender had promised he would help get it solemnized, curfew or no curfew. But he has backed off. You bring me bad luck, you bitch, he yells and collapses. There seems little point in trying to explain to him that he must not create a row each night or abuse his wife and children in such a loud voice. He has also suffered. So, in the manner of most Indian males why should he not take it out on the only ones whose lives he controls?

April 4

A nephew in Mumbai has sweetly sent a link to an online NCPA festival. There are several such esoteric artistic dos going on somewhere or the other. One is sent links to connect to superb concerts, to village Manganiyars from Rajasthan, hear the symphony orchestras, hear readings of Kabir or some mediocre but popular poets. Outside, our trust, our roles , our history, everything is being falsified slowly. The old mali turned up this morning, his head wrapped in a gamchha, looking like a dakait. I was watering the plants. I have watered the terrace garden regularly. See how lovely the petunias are this year, I tell him.

‘Maanji, at your age you cannot stand for so long, so I came. I will come again whenever I can,” he assures me. Thank God for such simple acts of compassion from the poorest, for nameless birds that still sing their spring melodies each morning, loud and clear. Thank God for His small mercies in the midst of all the beastly beatitude, the clandestine criminal activities and death. The city has changed forever. One will no longer feel free or happy, secure in the knowledge that after a hard and long working life, one can happily retire anywhere with one’s savings. It is the curse of the homeless millions. All of us will now be eternal refugees within visible or invisible cages.

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“A country of India’s size going into a lockdown with four hours’ notice? What followed for the next four hours was another mad scramble by Indians to stock whatever they could in those four hours. People drove long distances, jostled with each other “

“Women carry infants. Big siblings carry younger ones. Young girls support bent, old grandmothers. A few ‘lucky’ rikshaw pullers hope to pedal home on their rickety wheels. A few others make use of the push carts on which they sold fruits, vegeta- bles, momos, tea, Rajma Chholey etc”

“In Haryana they call it “Bhaggi”, a great migration of people. The poor, millions of them, have begun to leave Delhi. Men, women and children, with their belongings on their head, walking stoically. Policemen gape at the silent, dignified exodus and stand aside “

“Some of the migrant workers have been thrown out by landlords. No rent, no roof. I was reminded of my music teacher who had pre- sciently observed that Delhi had two kinds of people: those who owned roofs, and those who rented a spot underneath a roof”

“WhatsApp University goes into overdrive. This is a masterstroke, we are told. There are nine planets, we are told, and standing with nine lamps for nine minutes will send out energy that will destroy the virus. Others whisper that Indians had been conned into celebrating the BJP's birth anniversary “

“As medicines, masks and protective gear run out of stock, superstition and Dharma do the rounds like horse whisperers calming agitated animals. An ex head of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences says that vibrations generated by clap- ping and clanging of pots chased away the virus”

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