Ten years of looking
Reading it, I was reminded of a moving lockdown story. The wife of a 65-year-old daily wage worker, needed chemotherapy, but there was no public transport
Today's column marks a decade of Paronormal Activity—10 years of the opportunity to look at the world with attention and traumatise editors with late-sending. I went back curiously to my first column. It was about a woman called Priya Zagade, whose fireman husband died in a work accident. She refused to deposit her compensation cheque, because she wanted someone from the administration to come meet her. She was paralysed and described how her husband had built a ramp for her, in their chawl, with his own hands. Perhaps it was this loss of love and kindness she wanted witnessed and affirmed.
Reading it, I was reminded of a moving lockdown story. The wife of a 65-year-old daily wage worker, needed chemotherapy, but there was no public transport. He put her on his cycle carrier, tied her to him with a towel and pedalled 130 km to the hospital. He cycled for 18 hours, including a short break for tea and nap. In times of hardship and uncertainty, you want to be near someone who will do what they can to care for and comfort you; in the presence of love, not at the mercy of bureaucracy. Money is not the only need humans have.
This is why we are repeatedly witnessing the desperate images of migrant workers trying to get home. They aren't agitating for work and money. They are saying again and again, "We are hungry, exhausted, we just want to go home". For all migrants, the endeavour for progress is laced with the vulnerability of separation. Home, however difficult and scant it might be, is our shelter from a storm. How hard is that to understand—wouldn't any of us want the same? Why couldn't the government anticipate and plan for that, as they do for middle-class students? For that it would need to see people in all their humanity with two eyes—the emotional and the practical.
We call India our home—and so do these fellow citizens of ours. But, is it designed like home? To care for everyone, at some basic level, to the best of its resources, to ensure their rights? Our healthcare system emblematises that inequality and that uncaringness. The precarity of the working poor in a month, the unseemly haste of corporate layoffs tell all.
Yet, such a big section of the comfortable classes is trapped in an unseeing gaze, identifying with a system where callousness is called pragmatism and indifference is called strength. Luckily, it's a very diverse country, despite fantasies of homogeneity. Every day we read about someone who, for the first time in their lives, started raising relief, volunteered at a kitchen, tried to make public toilets available to homeless people. On a friend's Facebook page, I read about his local dhaba feeding people every day, even though they surely aren't earning much right now.
I want to hold on to the belief in this helpful goodness, not for sentiment, but because co-operation and compassion are practical and effective things—as the volunteer work shows. I hope they trickle up. If it is spirituality we want, we need to see with both eyes, the inward and the outward, and create and defend systems based on human need and the human capacity for altruism, instead of constantly feeding our worst side with fake news and fake rituals.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at email@example.com
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