Reflections on a Diwali cancelled

Updated: Apr 07, 2020, 07:08 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

We are not used to being helpless like this. We never thought we’d light candles to fight a virus. Yet we are also seeing bluer skies

There was a sort of wishful Diwali at 9 pm on April 5, showing India at its, well, dimmest. Pic/Bipin Kokate
There was a sort of wishful Diwali at 9 pm on April 5, showing India at its, well, dimmest. Pic/Bipin Kokate

C Y GopinathOctober 31, 2020, No one was surprised to hear that Diwali 2020 would not be celebrated this year. The government didn't cancel it; they just announced that any group of more than three would be arrested and that only selected shops and supermarkets would be open. No firecracker shops. Till the end of November.

There were other reasons, not mentioned. The majority of the country, especially its poorest, had not been earning for months. Many had returned to their home villages, many had died of COVID-19 while making the long journey. Even the country's richest people were poorer, ravaged by infection and collapsing markets.

No one could really afford to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. Most were not even sure that good had put up much of a fight against evil. COVID-19 has scorched India like a conflagration.

There had been a sort of wishful Diwali at 9 pm on April 5, showing India at its, well, dimmest. Looking back, I think it may have been the most beautiful image we have of a moment of national solidarity and resolve. Themoment before the carnage began.

At exactly 9 pm for 9 minutes, 1.3 billion Indians switched off their lights just as the Prime Minister had instructed them and lit candles.

While the candles flickered, India had 4,314 officially confirmed COVID-19 deaths, 25 new cases and 188 new deaths. The figures might have seemed rosy and optimistic until you saw the other numbers — only 1,40,293 people out of 1.3 billion had been tested. India then had only 102 tests available per million Indians. The official numbers meant nothing.

No wonder candles had seemed like a good idea. The Vedic contingent jumped into the fray, claiming triumphantly that 130 candles lit together would raise the temperature by 9°C — that number again. The virus would not survive it.

The true science emerged shortly after on WhatsApp. Apparently it was all about the power of 9.

The date April 5 (05.04) totalled 9 (5 + 4), and the start time was 9 pm.

9.09 pm, the end time, was also a 9 (9 + 9 = 18 and 1 + 8 = 9).

The four 9's total 36, and 3 + 6 = 9.

To top it all, after that morning's breakfast, I had exactly 9 eggs left in my fridge. Coincidence?

Based on this impeccable reasoning, WhatsApp scholars concluded that the coronavirus would die all over India at 9:09 pm. They called it a Modi masterstroke, except that he never said any of this.

I've often wondered how a species behaves when it is being rapidly eliminated while it looks on. As we approach the cancelled Diwali, with funeral pyres wherever candles had burned on April 5, I know the answer. They amuse each other with silly jokes.

I have received more friend requests from more utter strangers than ever. People are playing word games, Blockudoku, sharing recipes, poems and dad jokes, just like normal. Some are bored, some are boring and others post alarming conspiracy theories.

Idris Alba, being interviewed by Oprah after testing positive for coronavirus, said that when an animal is attacked, it defends itself. The earth is defending itself, he said, and we are its attackers. We have burnt its forests, looted its seas, filled its air with poisons, killed each other indiscriminately in wars and pursued enrichment with greed.

In 1929, the Italian Antonio Gramsci, incarcerated in a fascist prison, wrote that the world was going through an interregnum, that chaotic and destructive time between stable governments when anything can happen.

"The old world is dying," he wrote, "and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters."

Coronavirus came to humans from a pangolin in a Chinese animal market, born of our appetite for eating all other species. We invited the monster in.

A poem making the rounds, called From Coronavirus to Humanity, has these words:

Now I am here.

I've made the world stop in its tracks.

I've made YOU finally listen.

I've made you take refuge.

I've made you stop thinking about materialistic things..

Now you are like the earth...

You are only worried about YOUR survival.

How does that feel?

It feels bewildering. We are not used to being helpless like this. We are not used to being devastated as a species. We are not used to seeing our lies laid bare. We never thought we'd light candles to fight a virus.

Yet we are also seeing skies bluer than ever before. Pollution is suddenly over. Wars don't seem worth fighting. At the frontline today are healers and caregivers, not soldiers with guns. We are discovering neighbours and neighbourhoods.

I know there will be Diwali and Christmas next year. And it will be in a world chastened and reborn from its ruins. It will be normal again — but a new, unfamiliar normal.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com
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