[O most valued Reader, of late I’ve been feeling that everything’s going to the dogs… the world, the environment, politics, society, and of course my writing. An appropriate time, then, to present this short essay – published in May-June 1995 by my dear friend Uma in her magazine ‘Small Change’]
We’ve at last come to realize that humankind is not the sole intelligence in the universe.
Consider the tick.
Now, anybody who owns a dog or who’s ever had anything to do with dogs will certify the truth of the following statements:
1. Ticks love dogs.
2. Ticks feed on dogs.
3. When full, ticks drop off dogs and crawl up walls.
A tick not only crawls up the wall; with grim determination etched upon its face, it continues to crawl (upside-down) across the ceiling till it reaches some predetermined spot. And there, it settles down and waits.
The question that arises naturally is: waits for WHAT?
We asked the vet. He looked surprised and immediately replied: “For a dog, of course!”
We were nonplussed. We sought urgent clarification. Surely, we stressed, ticks might not have our levels of intelligence, but even they would know that dogs preferred to walk on the floors and were in fact rarely found scaling the walls of a room, forget the ceiling?
The vet chuckled and said we’d missed the point.
“It’s like this,” he said. “The tick, having fed on a dog, falls off the dog and on to the floor, right?”
“Now, then, the tick naturally needs to rest awhile and digest its food. But at the same time, it must be in a position where it can find a dog at short notice…so it doesn’t die of starvation, right?”
We nodded again.
“Now, if the tick remains resting on the floor where it’s fallen, two serious problems arise. One: even if a dog passes it by frequently, it’s not going to be easy for the tick to get back on board the dog; after all, the dog will be moving pretty fast compared to the tick, and so there’s not much chance for the tick to hop on to a passing paw or tail. Two: while the tick remains lying there, there’s every chance that it will be stepped on by a careless boot, or swept away or swabbed or vacuumed into oblivion.” He paused for breath.
“You mean…the tick knows all this?”
“Of course it does! Believe me, that little tick is mighty sharp. And so, what the tick instead does is, it heads for the nearest wall as fast as it can. Then, it crawls up the wall all the way up to the ceiling, and it crawls across the ceiling till it reaches a spot from where it has an uninterrupted view of the floor below. And there it waits…for a passing dog. Sooner or later, a dog will walk beneath it; whereupon, the tick judges the dog’s velocity, matches it against the estimated distance to the floor, swiftly launches itself…and lo! There the tick is, safely back upon the unsuspecting dog’s back for another enjoyable season of feeding…”
We were awestruck. “So….that explains why we sometimes find a tick or two crawling about on our arms when we visit people who own dogs,” we muttered. “The ticks must have fallen off the ceiling on to us; they must have miscalculated their launch angles and velocities, maybe leapt too soon or late…”
“You’ve got it all wrong!” the vet spluttered. “If and when a tick lands on you, it does so deliberately. You see, the tick knows you like dogs…or at least it knows that you know the owner of the resident dog. And so, the tick knows that sooner or later you’re going to meet the dog, or the dog’s owner. And what better launching pad could the tick have to board its dog from, than your shoulder, or arm, or neck, or hair…”
At which point we fled.
Yesterday we read a news item headlined: ‘Search for Intelligent Life Continues in Outer Space’.
Everything seems to have changed. Nothing has changed.
Watching Taliban take over the last few remaining bits of Afghanistan, and the live footage of tens of thousands of terrified Afghans still trying to flee the country (some killing themselves or getting killed in the process), brings to mind the identical scenes from 1989-90 when Taliban first swept to power and began their Reign of Horror in Afghanistan – under the benign watch of Pakistan and the US.
Remember: Taliban is a creation of the USA and its then-stooge, Pakistan.
Remember: Osama bin Laden was a creation of the USA and its then-stooge, Pakistan.
It’s a good time to remember these things. It’s very important never to forget these facts.
We must not waste energy screeching ‘foul’ at USA or US President Joe Biden or his GI Joes for ‘abandoning’ Afghanistan.
Because, for the USA, its entire involvement in Afghanistan , Iraq and other regions of Central Asia and the Middle East from the 1980s till 2021 has been nothing more, nothing less, than a long-term project aimed at securing the USA’s long-term energy security: specifically, USA’s command and control over the region’s vast oil and natural gas reserves.
After all, in statecraft there is no ‘morality’; there is no ‘good or ‘bad’, there is only Supreme National Interest.
And Taliban, Jihad, Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 attacks, the ‘War on Terror’, Hamid Karzai, Zalmay Khalilzad, Saddam Hussein…all these have been just actors and components and phases of this wonderful American-led project that has spanned several US Presidencies, both Democratic and Republican: from Reagan to Biden.
This is a project that never ends.
Bear with me, O tolerant Reader, as I dust off and present two of a few articles I’d written on this theme for Indian Express from nearly two decades ago. I do hope they jog thy memories as they did mine, and help discern hazy outlines of the unchanging truth from the ephemeral peta-tonnes of post-truths, half-truths and plain lies that now fill our media and numb our minds.
Saeed Naqvi’s criticism of India’s apathy and lack of vision in dealing with the post-Taliban Afghanistan (‘Mindsets with Manacles’, IE June 14) is timely, because Hamid Karzai’s coming to power has deep implications for India’s economy and long-term security.
If the USSR invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s to secure a strategic gateway on to the Arabian Sea, the US-backed mujahideen war to evict the Soviets was driven by the Americans’ desire to wrest control of the vast reserves of oil and gas in the (then-Soviet) Central Asian nations.
There were two fronts to the US campaign. On the one hand, the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI set up a vast operation to recruit, arm and train Islamic radicals from all over the world to fight a jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the $ 6 billion American oil company, Unocal, drew up plans for a giant pipeline that would transport LNG from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan, and thence, to Southeast Asian markets by sea.
Throughout the war-torn 1990s, then, Unocal busily lobbied with various ethnic factions in Afghanistan to secure its proposed pipeline. In 1995, it strongly backed the Taliban regime. Its efforts were openly endorsed by Robin Raphel, then US assistant secretary of state (South Asia), and by Tom Simmons, then US ambassador to Pakistan, who encouraged the Pakistan prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, to grant Unocal exclusive transit rights for oil and gas across Pakistan.
One of Unocal’s most able executives in Afghanistan during this period was Hamid Karzai.
On February 8 this year, Pakistan’s General Musharraf and Karzai agreed on a $ 10 million deal confirming the pipeline arrangement.
There is another strange and murky twist to the Unocal tale. The company is closely associated with Saudi oil giant Delta; and Delta is closely linked to Turki bin Faisal, who until 2001, had headed Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service Istakhbarat.
In the early 1990s, Faisal promoted the image of Taliban as ‘liberators’ to the US, thus endorsing Unocal’s stand. But Faisal did much more (as recorded by Pakistan journalist Ahmed Rashid in his book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia).
At the urgings of Pakistan’s ISI, Turki bin Faisal provided a ‘royal prince’ to inspire and lead the Saudi contingent of mujahideen in Afghanistan
This ‘prince’ was none other than Osama bin Laden.
In the absence of any credible alternative, Hamid Karzai has now been chosen by the Loya Jirga as leader of Afghanistan for the next two years. Hopefully his election will bring a measure of unity and peace to the shattered peoples of Afghanistan. But his ascension to power also means that the US has finally have achieved the goal it has sought since the early 1990s — absolute control over Central Asian oil reserves.
Iraq’s tragedy is symbolized by the fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismael Abbas. A Coalition missile strike killed Ali’s mother and father, sheared off his arms and destroyed his home. Ali has now been shifted to a hospital in Kuwait; there is talk of his being sent to the UK for advanced medical treatment. Surely this innocent child deserves the best care and assistance to start life anew.
But there are a thousand other Iraqi children like Ali: maimed, orphaned, homeless, nameless. What did they have to do with issues such as the removal of Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, or terrorism, issues cited by the US and UK to justify the Coalition campaign?
The military strikes are all but over. The Coalition forces have not captured Saddam or any key figures of his regime (unless an estranged ‘half-brother’ falls under the category). They have not found any WMD. The only ‘terrorist’ they have found is an ageing Palestinian who hijacked an Italian airliner 19 years ago, and against whom even Israel dropped all charges long ago. As for liberating the Iraqis, the irony is that the Coalition faced far fiercer resistance in Basra populated mainly by Shias, who were brutally oppressed by Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Ba’ath regime, than they did in Baghdad or even Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit.
So what has the Coalition campaign achieved?
The plain truth is, the US has secured its long-term strategic interests by paving the way for the installation of a regime that will allow it control over Iraq’s vast oil reserves.
In an energy-starved world, control over energy resources is the key to global dominance. Iraq has proven reserves of 115 billion barrels of oil (compared to Russia’s 49 billion and the Caspian states’ 15 billion barrels).
Significantly, US President Bush has appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as his special envoy to Iraq.
Khalilzad was earlier special envoy to Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and both Karzai and Khalilzad were key advisors to US oil giant Unocal. Karzai’s installation in Afghanistan has enabled US oil majors to finalize plans to access Turkmenistan’s oil resources via a trans-Afghanistan pipeline to Pakistan. With control over Iraq’s oil resources, the US has in effect acquired a stranglehold over two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves. America will now use energy costs to wield global economic influence.
Today, the US and UK media strive to project their forces as saviours providing drinking water, medical assistance and electricity to Iraqis. Conveniently overlooked is the fact that the water and power infrastructure was destroyed in the first place by Coalition air strikes. Like little Ali, surely the Iraqi people need all the help they can get. But they know and the world knows that the Coalition campaign was never about saving the Iraqi people; it was about their oil.
[P.S.: Spare a thought – though perhaps little sympathy – for the Pakistani establishment: with Taliban at their gates, and no USA any more to turn to for dollars or for refuge in the short-term, they will soon learn the bitter truth of the old maxim: “Sow the wind, and thou shalt reap the whirlwind.” Of course, there’s always China...]
Of late I’ve been experiencing a strange mental turmoil.
Days and nights have been passing in a timeless, rather pleasant blur—nothing unusual about that, as the passing of days and nights in a blur has pretty much been part of my philosophy and lifestyle since 1963, when my Class 2 teacher recognized and highlighted it with a vitriolic comment or three. But in the past few months, the blur has been interspersed with short but incredibly vivid interludes of fantasy that are as engrossing and disturbing as they are impossible to wipe off the cerebral slate.
Last night, I actually experienced intense déjà vu within dream. The weird thing is (or was), in my dream I was not myself—meaning, I was not this dusty old bandicoot who even now sits in a dusty corner of East Delhi on a sultry mid-August night writing this crap. Instead, in my dream I was a dusty old historian from South Delhi in body, mind and soul, a part-time heritage walk mentor specializing in ancient Sultanate and Mughal monuments. I was walking through the Mehrauli Archaeological Park area on a grey, misty, bitterly cold January day with a small group of men, women, children, and a few other creatures including a squirrel wearing bifocals and the crafty look of an avaricious advocate. The walk was going quite well in my dream, though I was mildly irritated by the squirrel which kept asking me searching and intelligent questions about squinches, domes, arches and other such architectural things that I knew very little about, and that chuckled and chittered loudly and derisively whenever I fumbled for answers.
All at once, without warning, the swirling mist intensified into a white-out fog. Alarmed, I froze in mid-step and called to the others to stop …even in dream I remember noting how flat and muffled my voice sounded. And then, like the clouds of moisture-laden air that wander amidst the deep gorges of Sohra and Pynursla, the dense fog magically thinned into great billowing columns that parted like pearly curtains and evaporated into blue nothingness, and I found myself bathed in brilliant sunshine, and that’s when I realized two things:
One: I was no longer with my group in Mehrauli but standing alone, utterly alone on a vast, treeless sweeping slope strewn with scree, surrounded by incredibly tall snow-streaked mountains;
Two: I knew for sure I had never stood on that slope or ever seen those mountains in my life, yet I knew I had been there before, experienced that experience before…just as I knew exactly and fully what I would think and see and hear and smell and taste and feel at the very next moment and at every moment from then onward, for ever and ever…
…And that’s when, even as I clutched on to that timeless déjà vu, it slipped away and vanished with the growing awareness that I must be in the coils of dream, because there was no way in which I, a heritage walk mentor, could have transported myself from Mehrauli in south Delhi to what appeared to be a steep mountain-side amidst the high Himalayas…leave alone experience déjà vu in that desolate place. And with that awareness that I was dreaming came a tidal wave of terror that I might awaken to find myself not the historian/heritage walk mentor that I actually was, but as someone else…perhaps even as a decrepit old writer lying in bed in east Delhi. And at that thought a great abyss of dread opened up deep within my mind as the tidal wave tossed and turned me hither and thither and eventually flung me, battered and bruised, on to the shores of consciousness where I lay trembling, awake at last.
How could I possibly have dreamed such a dream, in which I was not only someone else but had actually experienced déjà vu as that someone else?
I have no answers; only questions, that sound so demented I am almost too scared to voice them.
Yet I must.
Have the global clouds of angst and anxiety, spawned by Covid-19, finally overcome my cerebral defences? Do they now wait, like monsoon clouds in their brooding and silent enormity, to pour forth their giga-tonnes of fluid insanity and wash away what remains of my cognition in a raging neural flood?
Have I waded for too long in the limpid pool of Mann Ki Baat, to now be flushed away and drowned in the foaming toilet of Monsoon ki Bath?
Have I finally achieved the position grimly foretold for me by my class 2 teacher, and become quietly yet indubitably insane?
In the sacred name of Bakasura the Ravenous, will I ever be able to escape from this realm of Guiche into which I have wandered wonderingly and now wonder wanderingly?
These and other troubled musings kept me tossing and turning till dawn; whereupon, after a few cups of healing tannin and caffeine solutions, I went up to the terrace and put a load of clothes to wash. Watching the sheets and pillow cases tossing and turning in the washing machine just as I had tossed and turned half the night, I began to feel better. Slowly but surely, that familiar old timeless and rather pleasant blur of being returned to soothe my frayed neurons, dendrons and rhododendrons. The washing machine hummed contentedly; the birds chirped happily as they hunted bugs in the foliage; a squirrel streaked across the tiles, sat on its haunches a few feet away, chirruped a series of questions and stared at me through shrewd eyes, waiting for a response. I stared back at it, wondering why its accent seemed so familiar…but the moment passed, as did the squirrel.
My questions may have no answers; I realize that now, as I write these words.
Indeed, my answers may have no questions.
Yet I find some blurry comfort in the immortal lyrics of that great and little-known Tamil bard of yore, Konal Kuttilingam (c. 644–596 BCE) whose octrain ‘Ode toCalavai-Pen‘ was translated and soulfully rendered by Irish blues singer Anne O’Nimus at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, 1963 shortly before her tragic demise due to an accidental overdose of pandemonium nitrate.
Wash’d like a garment might thou feel, O beloved, in this Kaveri of Life
Beaten and scrubb’d by Great Calavai-Pen* on Her adamant stone
Yet despair not! Only by this Bath of Anguish, this Path of Strife
May’st thou for many Muttal-Thanams@ of the Past atone…
Be joyful, then, as She cleanses thee, wrings thee
Spreads thee to dry: do not moan and groan
Behold! the Vapours of Illusion leave thee, pure and free
To ask: “Dog without bone, or bone without dog…who is more alone?“
[(Tamil) *Calavai-Pen = washerwoman; @Muttal-Thanam = idiocies; boo-boos. Translation by the late lamented & lamentable Periachandu Dorai II of Mayiladuthurai (1946 – 1997)]
I extend my fervent thanks to the authors for this entertaining study. I do believe it is hilarious enough to make a coronavirus cackle in delight.
I say this in all seriousness and sobriety, and with all my authority as a science scholar of international disrepute from the prestigious North Eastern Hill University, who has plumbed unique and unparalleled depths of non-achievement in the most obscure and abstruse disciplines.
The Introduction to the study begins with a most earnest declaration: “We want to emphasize that we are not estimating Covid-caused deaths as CPHS has no information on cause of death. Rather, we focus on all-cause mortality, and estimate excess mortality from the onset of the pandemic relative to a pre-pandemic baseline, adjusting for seasonality.” [emphasis mine]
Alas, the study proceeds to do exactly what it declares it does not aim to do. It estimates Covid-caused deaths in India.
In fact, it concludes that while India’s official Covid death count as of end-June 2021 was 400,000, the actual death toll ( ‘excess deaths’) in India are between 3.4 million and 4.9 million.
To put it plainly, the study concludes that India is hiding dead bodies. Millions of dead bodies.
How does the study arrive at this conclusion?
For its first estimate, the study blithely extrapolates death data from just seven Indian states to the whole of India to estimate under-counted deaths or what it calls ‘excess deaths’. In other words, the study decides that the averages of death data from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh must be applied to the whole of India— comprising 28 states and 8 Union Territories—to figure the actual ‘excess deaths’ in India. And it arrives at the estimate of 3.4 million excess deaths.
For the second estimate, the study applies “international estimates of age-specific infection fatality rates (IFR)” to India. To translate this gobbledygook into English: the study assumes that because the infection fatality rate (IFR) is incredibly high in USA, EU countries and so on, then that incredibly high fatality rate must be the norm that India must obey too. And so, it blithely extrapolates IFR from USA, EU and other high-Covid-fatality nations to India to estimate around 4 million excess deaths.
For the third estimate, the study analyses data from the Consumer Pyramid Household Survey (CPHS). With admirable candour, the study admits that “There is reason for caution when relying on the CPHS for mortality estimates though. While CPHS has become a critical source of timely information on labour market and consumption trends, especially in the absence of timely and reliable official data, its representativeness has recently been questioned.” But that admission has not prevented the authors from relying on CPHS data to accuse India of hiding an estimated 4.9 million excess deaths.
In a nutshell – a very old and shriveled peanut shell – this study rests on the three very shaky pillars of incoherence, irrelevancy, and plain immaturity , reinforced with a strong foundation of meaninglessness.
The kindest thing I can say about this study is that what it lacks in scientific rigor, it more than compensates with deep-set rigor mortis.
In passing: I wonder why the learned authors did not apply their IFR-based logic to the People’s Republic of China where the Covid-19 virus was actually born (or created), and whose Covid-related data is rather questionable to put it mildly?
Especially when China, with a population of 1401,000,000 (give or take a few million Uighurs and Tibetans), officially reports a mere 4636 deaths out of a minuscule 92,364 cases – thus finding itself placed at 103rd position in the Worldometer’s country list —below countries such as Montenegro at position 100 (pop. 628,150; total cases 100,755; deaths 1623) and Cyprus at position 102 (pop. 1,216,583; total cases 93,247; deaths 391)?
I place below a simple table, with an accompanying graphic, that I hope will inspire Abhishek Anand, Justin Sandefur, and Arvind Subramanian to take a long and very hard look at China’s Covid-19 data and assess the People’s Republic’s ‘excess deaths’ with the rigorous rigor mortis they’ve applied to India. Please note that I have renamed the ‘serial number’ column as ‘Rank of Shame’ to mirror the spirit of this Olympics season and the spirit of Abhisekh et al.’s study: ((all data from Worldometer as on 22 July 2021, 1000 hours IST) :
Rank of Shame
..and many many countries later…
In conclusion, I am grateful to the authors of this study for underlining two extraordinary and enduring Laws of Credibility that are adopted instinctively by vast swathes of Indian academia and Indian media.
Law 1. Scholars, especially Indian-born scholars, are far more capable of discerning ‘facts’ and analysing ‘data’ on India when they are sitting 11,000 kilometers away from India, than if they based themselves in India and did hard data gathering and field work in India.
Law 2. The credibility and worth of any academic research focused on India is directly proportional to the distance of the researchers from India; and the credibility and worth of the research increases exponentially if the researchers are located in a generally Westward direction from India.
How is the weather in Beijing? It is quite sultry here in Delhi, with a lot of mosquitoes.
I hope you are not troubled by mosquitoes in Beijing? But then, considering the Great Scientific Leaps Forward achieved in China under your glorious and lifelong Supreme Leadership, I am sure Chinese virologists from Wuhan will have developed variants of the bats of Yunnan that will eat any mosquitoes that dare disturb your equanimity.
Comrade Xi, I am so happy that you have called on your Chinese officials to “create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable image for China…and to improve the way China tells stories to the global audience”. Indeed, China is getting a lot of abuse and bad media coverage across the world about this terrible coronavirus Covid-19; the abuse continues even after that foul-mouthed Donald Trump of USA was kicked out of US presidential office.
Oh! Comrade Xi, I used to feel so very sad for you and for China whenever I heard ex-US President Trump abuse you last year. I used to tell my friends: “Ah! If only Trump had been Chinese! He could have immediately been sponsored by the Chinese government for a Re-Education Program under Short-Term Plan in some convenient Province—say, Uighur— and without doubt Trump would have emerged a better, quieter, more gentle and tolerant man, for such is the wisdom and benign humaneness that marks all educational and re-educational institutions of learning and unlearning under the leadership of Comrade Xi.”
But apologies for digressing, dear Comrade Xi. My main purpose in writing is to tell you that I fully endorse and whole-heartedly support your call on your officials to present a better image of China and to tell better stories of China to the world.
In this regard I am proud to declare that I am a regular reader of The Global Times, which is aptly described as being a Mighty and Virile Organ of the People’s Republic of China. Not only do I read Global Times, respected Comrade: I also contribute an occasional Letter to the GT Editor, and it is with delight that I present my latest letter below. You will note that it was published barely a day before your ringing call for improving China’s image. I trust my letter will encourage and inspire Chinese officialdom to take one small step forward in their Long March that lies ahead.
In conclusion, dear Comrade Xi, may I narrate, very briefly, this magnificent old Chinese folk tale that has so much relevance and import for China’s image in the world, and indeed for the future of China and the world:
There once was a fine young nobleman from the kingdom of Chu, who set forth on a journey across the country. Upon a day the nobleman reached the bank of a wide river, whereupon he engaged a boatman to row him across to the far shore.
As they were crossing the river, the nobleman accidentally dropped his sword into the water. Displaying great intelligence and swiftness of thought, the nobleman at once drew his dagger and made a notch-mark on the side of the boat where he’d seen the sword go overboard. As soon as the boat reached the far shore, the nobleman plunged into the shallows and scrabbled around in the muddy waters beneath the notch-mark, looking for his sword…
May I respectfully and sincerely suggest, dear Comrade Xi, that China’s diplomats, other government officials, and in particular the senior officials and cadres of the People’s Liberation Army, draw inspiration and lessons from this folk tale as they obey your call and embark on their quest to locate and restore China’s lost respect and honour?
Strength to the People’s Republic of China! Jai Hind!
Ram Yagya called just when I’d finished yoga yesterday morning – May 4th that is. He told me he’d reached home, safe and sound.
I’ve known Ram Yagya for over 25 years. His home is near Ayodhya, 615 km from Delhi. He and his brother have some ancestral agricultural land there; but that’s barely enough to support their joint families. And so, he and his brother take turns in travelling to Delhi each year, between the sowing and harvest seasons, to supplement their household income by ironing clothes. They’ve been allotted their own workspace in our little residential colony; they’ve also taken a little room on long-term rent to stay in— in Trilokpuri, a couple of kilometers away.
Ram Yagya’s had a tough time since the first week of April this year, when he came back to Delhi to take over the reins and steam iron from his brother who returned to Ayodhya. With the complete lockdown ordered by Delhi government in mid-April following signs of a resurgent Covid-19, most people in the colony stopped giving him clothes to iron, reducing his income to a trickle. As during last year I’ve done my little bit to help him along these past few weeks: a bit of working capital, help with the rent, and so forth. But when he came to see me on the morning of May 1st, Ram Yagya was understandably anxious; the lockdown in Delhi had been extended again till May 10th, and with this year’s virus attack being far more vicious than even last year’s, he was worried there might again be nationwide lockdown. The horrific memories of 2020 were still raw and vivid in his mind; he was scared of falling ill while alone in Delhi; he was worried for his wife, who suffers from a chronic respiratory ailment; he wanted to return and be with his family…
He wanted my advice.
I totally empathized with him. Delhi was no place for him at this awful time; it was best that he return home to his family. Ram Yagya had had one vaccine shot—but that, we knew, was no guarantee of immunity against the virus. We discussed options. An overnight journey by fast train seemed a much safer and quicker option for him than a series of uncertain, back-breaking mofussil bus journeys across the width of Uttar Pradesh, that too with day temperatures above 40°C. Besides, social distancing norms were being enforced quite strictly by the Indian Railways, at least on their long-distance trains.
The trains were running full—there were lakhs of people in the same predicament as him, desperate to get home to their families. Luckily, we managed to get a berth on the 3rd evening’s train to travel from Delhi to Ayodhya-Faizabad.
I’m glad Ram Yagya has reached home safe and sound.
And I write this because during our chat on May 1st, he reminded me of something that I’d forgotten about: something that I believe has so much relevance, so many lessons for us even now.
We were discussing the indescribable anarchy that’s swamped Delhi, with Covid-19 cases spreading as fast as a poisonous rumour; the panic among people intensified by hysterical 24/7 reportage in mainstream and social media on lack of ambulances, lack of hospital beds, lack of oxygen, lack of medicines; the frenzied rush among people to self-diagnose and self-medicate, to pay black-market prices and stock up on Remdesevir and other medicines that are being touted as ‘miracle cures’ by quacks and affiliated crooks; to chase and buy and hoard cylinders of medical oxygen and even industrial oxygen at astronomical prices from assorted scoundrels, irrespective of whether they need oxygen therapy at all – even while hospitals are running out of medical oxygen and patients who really need the oxygen cannot get it. A situation where hospitals are turning away patients seeking admission because they don’t have oxygen and/or medicines— further spurring the mad public frenzy to buy oxygen and medicines in the black-market in a vicious cycle that neither governments nor judiciary seem able to even comprehend, leave alone control.
Ram Yagya had chuckled grimly and murmured: “Phir woi namak ka kahani!”
Phir woi namak ka kahani. “It’s that same Salt Story again.”
Ram Yagya had reminded me of something we’d experienced over twenty years earlier, in 1998. The Salt Story; the Great Salt Rush.
On a November day in 1998, a bizarre rumour suddenly surfaced and spread like wildfire across northern India that salt—yes, salt, namak— was disappearing from markets. In 1998 there were no mobile phones, leave alone social media; laptops were a luxury, dial-up connections were the norm, Mark Zuckerberg was still in school, and Google had just been created. But within hours of that first whisper, the rumour about an imminent salt shortage spread across the entire cow belt, and tens of thousands of good honest patriotic Delhi citizens were forming kilometer-long queues outside every kirana shop, every supermarket in the city, to buy salt. They were buying namak as though there were no tomorrow. And as stocks of salt disappeared from shop-shelves and shopkeepers turned people away, their panic and anger only grew and grew and the rumours only gained traction even as the government called the rumour baseless and appealed for restraint and sobriety; and people started fighting over salt, buying salt at ten times, twenty times the usual rate…
We —my father and I—heard the rumour too mid-morning, from a kindly neighbor who expressed concern that we hadn’t gone out yet to stock up on salt. “I’ve sent my son early morning to buy twenty kilos to start with,” she informed us, and added kindly, “If you can’t go, don’t worry…I’ll give you one or two packets.”
We thanked her much for her generosity, politely declined her offer, and assured her we had a kilo of salt which would last us at least till the following summer. Over the next hour dad and I stood at the window and watched in awe and disbelief as dozens of respectable residents streamed out the colony gates, market-bound—some on foot, others in scooters and cars—and others streamed in through the gates triumphantly bearing great treasures of salt. I’ll never forget the sight of one salt-laden rickshaw that nearly teetered over as it rounded the corner, the driver straining at the pedals, his passenger virtually invisible behind walls of salt packets stacked all around him.
It’s quite possible there are hundreds – maybe thousands – of families across north India, still consuming the salt they hoarded in 1998.
Phir woi namak ka kahani.
So when Ram Yagya recalled the Great Salt Rush I chuckled grimly too, and recounted a story about how the British people had responded during the mahayudh (Second World War) when their prime minister Churchill went on radio (1942?) and appealed to citizens not to buy eggs as these were needed the most by British soldiers. Within hours of Churchill’s radio broadcast, British citizens had formed long lines outside every kirana in England, just like we Indians would have …but the difference was they’d lined up to return eggs that they’d bought earlier.
They were English; a people with wisdom, discernment. Our people will never improve.
I’m no cynic, I’m no pessimist. I recognize the wonderful, selfless, tireless efforts of countless Indians in Delhi and elsewhere who are doing all they can to help those in need at this terrible time.
I know the fear of not having salt or eggs is on an entirely different plane from the fear losing one’s life or a loved one’s life from Covid-19. Like you, I too have loved ones in hospitals, fighting to recover from Covid-19. I too have dear friends who have lost loved ones to the virus.
But I have to agree with Ram Yagya on this. Hamare log kabhi nehin sudhrega.
We are a nation, a people in denial.
Since last year’s Covid ‘slowdown’ we’ve all slackened from top to bottom. We paved the way for this so-called second wave; we invited it.
We’ve had millions gathering without a care (leave alone masks or social distancing) for religious (and secular!) rituals and festivities: Ganesh Puja, Onam, Id, Durga Puja, Christmas, New Year, Pongal, Holi, Easter, Baisakhi, Bihu, Vishu, Ramzan prayers.
Add the utter madness of allowing – nay, encouraging – millions from across the country to gather earlier this year in Haridwar for a week-long Kumbh Mela.
Add the insanity of holding and participating in lakh-strong political rallies from Bengal to Kerala, Assam to Tamil Nadu, addressed by the very netas – Right, Left, Communal, Communist – who preach to us ad nauseum on the importance of observing Covid-related precautions.
Add to that the mind-numbing idiocy of permitting, nay, egging on lakhs of mandi commission agents, assorted dalals and farmers to gather all around Delhi for over six months in a kind of great floating population from across the country, to ‘protest against farm laws’. [Even as I write this, ‘farmer-leaders’ in Punjab are calling for a boycott of lockdown and yet another march to Dilli].
Surely these countless millions of idiots aren’t sheep? Surely they knew what they were doing when they flaunted their ‘no mask and up close’ bravado, they knew how they were endangering not only themselves but all those around them and back home?
Yet, we don’t recognize ourselves among these people, we don’t admit their and our own collective stupidities. Because it’s always someone else’s fault: it has to be. Not mine, not People Like Us.
Bear with me, O gentle reader, while I tell you of an experience as horrific as this Covid-19 virus that plagues us all.
I do not speak lightly or frivolously. I fought and overcame this Wuhan bug last year— in home isolation, with no fever, no headache, but racked by a pneumonia with a cough so awful I injured my back. I would not wish that painful cough on anybody. Strong nutritious soups, the goodness of tulsi and mulethi brews, yoga, and above all the moral support of a few dear friends—these were the weapons with which I fended off the virulent attack. Now, even with equanimity restored and a Covishield vaccine done with one to come in a few days, I keep these weapons ever at hand.
Like you I fight a daily battle to combat and disperse these clouds of depression that descend on us from the great Mountains of Ignorance, that are borne on the strong and ceaseless Winds of Media-Reinforced Hysteria and Panic, and that constantly threaten to deluge our minds with doubt, dilute our self-confidence, enervate our bodies and destroy our equanimity. For this purpose I have strengthened my arsenal with a reinforced immunity to social and main-scream media messages; with music, gardening, writing, reflections on a life of blissful abandonment, and plenty of walking.
But yesterday, I nearly succumbed. Even amidst this resurgent wave of mass infections and lock-down, all my Covid-tested weapons proved futile against a new and deadly horror that assaulted the very core of my being at precisely 10:35 a.m.
I was at work when the cacophony began, without warning. My fingers froze on the keyboard in a hideous rictus; all thoughts of work, all ideas and rationality fled as my brain instantly assumed all the awesome cognitive power of a slightly deranged cricket. But only for an instant was I paralysed thus. Like a deranged cricket galvanized into action by the sudden approach of a lizard, I leaped to my feet, ignoring the coffee cup, reading glasses, mobile phone and three books that I swept off the table and on to the floor, and rushed to the living room window.
There, on the road below, was a yellow ‘sanitizer’ tanker-truck with a loudspeaker mounted on its bonnet. Two men had already leaped out of the truck and were unwinding a long, thin hose as the truck slowly reversed. The truck came to a halt…but the cacophony from its loudspeaker didn’t.
The cacophony was a voice. And what a Voice it was! It had depth, it had passion, carrying power, it had three octaves. Again and again the hideous metallic Voice screamed its inspirational message at 220–280 decibels (dB) for the whole campus – nay, the whole of East Delhi to hear.
You can listen to it here: [Suggestion: please do listen to it at full volume…the effect and impact will be about .003% of what it was here.]
The Voice’s message was precisely 20 seconds long, including the Voice’s throat-clearing noise. But it repeated itself non-stop, dear God in Heaven it never stopped.
I listened to the message nineteen times before what remained of my sanity fled along with my hearing. I flung the window open and yelled at the men for approximately six minutes continuously, not counting the more incendiary verbs and adjectives in Tamil, Assamese and Khasi with which I complimented Shri Bipin Bihari Singh-jee, Municipal Councillor from Patpadganj, whose generosity had brought this ‘sanitizer’ truck to us.
In rough U-rated translation, what I yelled was:
“Stop that racket! Turn that &&$$#%** noise off! Are you &&%^$$# insane? You are doing good work, I thank you much for that. I thank Shri Bipin Bihari Singh-jee much for that. Thank you, thank you Singh-jee for your generosity…may you live long to misrule us and misguide us. But we are already going nuts with isolation; some of us are already suffering from Covid; and now you are driving us closer to the gates of Yama with that infernal &*##!*& racket! What sin have we committed to deserve this punishment? We might, God willing, survive Covid—but your noise will surely kill us. Turn it off! Please please, shut that &&^^%%** voice up!” .
About thirty-seven neighbours opened various windows and doors and peered out on hearing my demented yelling. All thirty-seven stared at me and then at the tanker-truck, looked at each other meaningfully across their respective apartment blocks, shook their heads resignedly and then shut their various windows and doors.
Alas, such is my reputation and stature in the campus.
But I digress. I ran out of energy and words, and my lungs ran out of oxygen, just when the Voice screamed out its message for the thirty-eighth time and cleared its throat for the thirty-ninth time (I am being accurate when I say this: because I have a drum-player in my mind that starts counting repetitive things without being told to…and often doesn’t stop counting even when I tell it to stop.)
All this while, the two men with the hose had been gazing up at me with keen interest. The driver had leaped out of his cab at my first yell, and stood leaning against the truck, smoking a beedi. As I wheezed a final “Bandh karo awaaz!” and paused to gasp in a lungful of healing air, the two men with the hose turned away and proceeded to spray the walls of the opposite block up to a height of twenty feet with a foamy liquid; the faint whiff of chlorine identified it to be sodium hypochlorite solution.
They were spraying bleach! On the outside of the building, up to the second floor!! They were spraying bleach…against a virus…against Covid-19!
Even through the din of the Voice, my foggy mind told me that sodium hypochlorite solution was utterly useless against viruses; that the only sure thing that damned hypochlorite would do was to eat away all the limestone in our building walls, leaving them perfectly corroded for rainwater to seep in during the monsoon.
Of course, it was possible that the hypochlorite might work on the coronavirus’ spike proteins like peroxide on hair, and give the lurking Covid-19 viruses a fashionable golden blonde hue …
And then again, the hypochlorite might help in driving away any ticks, fleas or lice that resided on the coronavirus’ spikes…
Angrily I shook off my mad reverie and drew a deep breath. “Abbe oye, kyon hypo…hypochlo…” I began yelling again, but broke off as I was overcome by a spasm of coughing The driver removed the beedi from his mouth and politely conveyed to me, by a series of gestures accompanied by facial contortions, that I should close my window because (a) the hypochlorite fumes might make me cough more; (b) my coughs might possibly infect him or his men standing below with the Covid-19 virus.
I gasped a bit, stared at him awhile, and then shut the window. The Voice continued to pursue me as I went to my bed and lay down. The shut window didn’t help block the Voice. In fact, in a weird way it amplified the bass notes, especially the throat-clearing bit, as the Voice roared its immortal incessant message on the kindness of Shri Bipin Bihari Singhjee, Municipal Corporation Councillor, in protecting us from the mahamaaree Covid-unnees, Jai Hind Jai Bharat.
Two pillows over the ears and a blanket over the face reduced the Voice’s power to a comparatively bearable 120 dB. I dropped off after some time, awakening from a fevered dream only when three mosquitoes assaulted me in concerted surgical strikes on my left wrist, right elbow and nose.
It was 11:55 a.m. The Voice was fading away; its ‘Jai Hind Jai Bharat’soon became a barely audible murmur that blended harmoniously with the distant cawing of noon crows.
The drum-player in my mind informed me helpfully that I had heard the Voice and its blasted message two hundred and forty-three times.
May the Creator of the Universe protect our young from this awful pandemic.
May the Great One bless us with the strength and equanimity to cope with the initiatives of well-wishers such as Shri Bipin Bihari Singhjee, Municipal Corporation Councillor, Patpadganj.
In case you’ve forgotten, here is the Voice and its inspiring message again: