The new normal
As society sits still in lockdown and dreams of a COVID-19 free tomorrow, there is a new ‘everyday’ awaiting — one of excess caution, fear and suspicion
Let's talk tomorrow. Not the tomorrow that comes on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, but the tomorrow in post-COVID-19 India. Come that 'tomorrow', victory over this viral pandemic would have been achieved from the medical standpoint — we hope and pray that day comes soon. But regardless of this colossal achievement and the subsequent catharsis it shall kindle, the dawn of that shiny new tomorrow will be very different for everyone in India, in every which way. Economically. Socially. Emotionally. Culturally.
Enough has been written about the country's economic outlook and future, so let's leave the financial micro- and macro calculations aside for the more accomplished to delve on. Let's talk instead about what that tomorrow means for you, for me and 130 crore other Indians from the perspective of the softer, yet equally important personality traits and attributes that make up our daily lives.
This week, let's talk about what many other more skilled writers deem to be minor or inconsequential issues, especially in today's dire times. So, no fancy numbers. No futuristic predictions and scenarios. No GDP, GST, excise and fiscal extrapolations. No bright-spots or doomsday predictions. Only a glimpse of the new way of life that awaits all of us in India and around the world, starting 'tomorrow'.
Because tomorrow is going to throw up indelible and exacting changes in our approach and responses to everyday events that, till 'yesterday', were a way of life which we never gave a second thought to. For one, the tenets of social distancing we are following today to protect ourselves from Coronavirus will tomorrow subliminally see us maintain a physical distance from others. For a long time to come, we will not embrace or even shake hands with friends and extended family members, even when we meet them after weeks and months of forcibly staying apart. It is not that we wouldn't want to, we just won't. Hard lessons learnt through hard times, these will stay with us. Let's talk Suman Bala and Naveen Chandra Upadhyaya. Sure, they are but two little blobs in a cacophony of millions of nondescript Indian household workers suddenly uprooted but they are special to me. These two good souls have kept my home and hearth running for over 15 years. They are family. Around 20 days back, a week before the official lockdown began, I locked them down. Their salaries were paid in advance and they headed home to sit things out. Being given enough notice and leeway, they safely returned to their villages in West Bengal and Assam, respectively. But today, Suman and Naveen are a tortured duo — they want to come back to their home with me but they do not want to come back to Delhi.
These two only portray what millions of Indian minds are jostling with. Scared, they share harrowing tales of what is happening in the real India. People in villages are desperately worried about tomorrow. Nonetheless, only a handful plan to return to their once-safe jobs. Maids. Man Fridays. Drivers. Office boys. Support staff. Errand runners. Factory workers. Plumbers. Electricians. Home delivery boys. It is a long list of people who are now subjugating their erstwhile big city ambitions and are content with tilling the fields in the hinterland or doing any menial jobs they can find, to generate whatever earnings they can. But no, they do not want to return to India's glittering cities with their fancy lights and cosmopolitan shimmer. After all, we did make a whole lot of them walk back like paupers for hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes, taking days, even weeks, to get there. Where many of their own families turned them away as they came from Corona-land! These people will not forget this anytime soon or risk a repetition of reliving that horrific ordeal.
My helpers Suman and Naveen will probably return, provided they have safe passage. Most others will not. That is our new tomorrow.
Let's now talk restaurants and eateries, our oft-visited Sagar Ratnas, Pizza Huts, Café Coffee Days, McDonalds and Kake da Dhabas across the country, with tightly-ensconced tables and hundreds of diners squeezed into a tiny labyrinth. How many would like to savour burgers, pizzas, masala dosas and idlis, followed by an aromatic cuppa to rounds things up? Shoulder to shoulder and rubbing elbows with dozens of others, with another two dozen waiting outside for their turn at the crowded tables? An intrinsic Indian way of life but nada, this is not going to happen anytime soon. That is the new tomorrow.
Let's also talk commuting, to work and elsewhere. By buses. Metro rail. Trains. Airlines. Of being jam-packed like sardines during rush hour, which is most of the time in our country. After our one-square-meter COVID-19 education and hard-earned proficiency, having 8-10 people in that same space will not be very palatable. Result? We will avoid this as well, at least for the foreseeable tomorrow. Even the concept of car-pooling will be largely ignored now in our metropolitan cities and the impact on the environment be damned. Moral of the story —let's enjoy today's clean air and rivers, blue skies and starry nights, chirping birds and squawking peacocks while we can, before the new tomorrow dawns.
And whilst we talk commuting and trains and airlines, let's talk holidays, ergo tourism, hotels, resorts and hillside retreats. Nah! In the new tomorrow, comfortable night Volvo rides to Manali, Dalhousie and Gangtok will be out. As will rustic and romantic toy train rides to Shimla and Darjeeling, with people hanging on to each other outside the cutely ambling rail-carts. And the short but packed chopper flights to Sonmarg and Tawang. Cable car in Solang Valley and Timber Trail, Parwanoo, anyone? Come tomorrow, we all know the drill.
The contrarian flipside (that's two negatives making another negative, defying the basic principles of mathematics) is that hoteliers themselves are increasingly growing averse to hosting guests, even while they are worried about the future. Ashwini Kumar, the owner of a popular resort in Himachal Pradesh's Mashobra district, is already pondering on the steps to take once the situation gets better. "In the last few days of business before the lockdown, we received numerous queries from potential guests on hygiene and safety measures, asking who had stayed in the rooms they were being allotted and what sanitisation measures we had in place. We have no idea what will be asked of us after the lockdown ends. We are already preparing for lacklustre or no business for months to come. But more importantly, we are worried about the repeated entry of unknowns into our hotel rooms. Many of our staffers and cooks have left and we know they will not return."
In tandem, the social media pandemic rages on. Religious and cultural rifts are being spotlighted and showcased like never before. After the recent incident in Delhi's Nizamuddin area, this 'Chinese virus' has seen people being targeted on the basis of religion and caste in a blatant and callous manner. And the divide is fast moving from startling to menacing, with shrill and raucous calls being made for a new norm of distancing — from people of a particular caste and from goods manufactured by a particular country. That's a pre-determined blot even before the new tomorrow dawns.
If we dissect the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on the average Indian's mind, one can only wonder how long it will take to shake off the memories of testily walking down known streets, shrouded in masks and avoiding all oncoming people, known and unknown. Is he my friend? An enemy? Coronavirus-positive? This fear psychosis, embedded and etched in our minds, is not something that will be shrugged off anytime soon.
Views expressed are strictly personal