A Golden Carpet and other (Covid) Conversations

“What the lockdown teaches us is that we have much less control over the external world than we realise, but much more control over our internal world than we suspect.” Pico Iyer, April, 2020

Times have changed

A lot has happened since we last posted an essay on Masala Chai. It has taken us a while to get back after adjusting to a new work schedule, additional tasks and uncertain times. Many things have changed in our lives, and there is enough coverage of these in essays from around the world. One important transformation has been the sudden and significant reduction in urban populations. The rural/urban ratio must have altered in the last several weeks, although final figures will be available only once the crisis is over. In attempting to comprehend the rearrangement and its impact on our lives, we came across an interesting thread on Twitter, Dr. Sanjay Arora writes that this crisis has brought home many important lessons, some extracts of his long list is presented in our own words. The original can be accessed here: https://twitter.com/chiefsanjay/status/1247144384077815809.

  1. Even a strong nation can be brought to its knees by a wrong leader
  2. Family is more important than anything else and our homes are the safest
  3. The real cost of living is very, very low
  4. Work from home works for many. We need to review unsustainable investments
  5. The planet repairs itself pretty fast, once human intervention stops
  6. Over-consumption can be treated by a brief quarantine
  7. You don’t need a fortune to be fortunate

To this list, we added some more from our perspective:

  1. Children learn even when they’re not in school, let us resist pushing for a school schedule as if it is business as usual. We all need to register, absorb and adjust to the fact that that we are living through a crisis and children need to be included in this exercise. In fact, acting as if it is ‘business as usual’ can communicate unrealistic expectations. No heavens are going to fall if children do not attend school for a while
  2. From our conversations with children, we find that many of the children we talked with want to go back to school. They want things to return to normal. We’re not sure how this is for others who may not enjoy school as much. Yet it seems that school attendance signals normalcy, and children’s desire to return may be a longing for a familiar routine
  3. With or without help from others, children will find ways of engaging themselves, they realise that since schools are shut, this is a serious emergency, and they are coping with the situation just like all of us. Being either dismissive or overanxious can be disturbing for children. In fact, our experience has been that children have surprised us by their resilience in these last several weeks
  4. The focus should NOW, finally, shift away from TEACHING to the capacity and capability of children to LEARN, even under difficult circumstances. Our task right now is to explain the situation in developmentally appropriate ways and demonstrate responsible conduct. For that, we have to ensure that we ourselves are well-informed and accurate in our information. When there is doubt and uncertainty, this too needs to be openly discussed with children. We need to keep in mind that children follow more what they see rather than what they are told
  5. However challenging, for those who are available and able, this is an opportunity to participate in children’s learning, one on one, and for that one doesn’t ned necessarily to reconstruct the school environment. Children will enjoy unconventional ways of approaching topics as they emerge
  6. This also an opportune moment for schools to realise that they are in operation BECAUSE of children and families, and are not independent, sacred spaces
  7. In most circumstances, children are happy with spending time with their family members
  8. Children are comfortable and happy with a slower pace. Running around madly to keep children engaged in different activities is not needed, what is needed is attention, care, affection and engagement
  9. This is a repetition of an earlier point, but important to assert. Children are more resilient and capable than we imagine them to be. See notes section for podcast about teens
  10. The future is likely to look very different, so, talking with children about future possibilities through stories and discussions is a favourable way of opening up discussions even about the present situation. Pooja found an interesting story by Isaac Asimov, The Fun They Had, thought could provide an interesting springboard for discussions about alternative ways of living, learning. Link to the story: http://web1.nbed.nb.ca/sites/ASD-S/1820/J%20Johnston/Isaac%20Asimov%20-%20The%20fun%20they%20had.pdf
  11. The one thing children will be missing is outdoor activity and peer companionship, especially if there are space restrictions and no other children around. Exercise is critical for everyone, and it is important to make provisions for this by activities. Dance is one possibility
  12. This is a time when village life is far more conducive for children than urban spaces. This is important to realise so we can give rural and tribal ecological environments due respect for what they can provide for children
  13. We invite you to add to this list

The urban-rural divide

It is possible that this pandemic will impact the unchecked urbanisation cities have experienced in recent times. As many of us display our privileged confinement on social media, thousands of migrant workers have been displaced from their livelihood and the full impact of the slow down will slowly emerge, the impact on world hunger is predicted to be serious. On the other hand, we find that nature is healing itself, but the cost has been high. As John Harris remarks in a recent article in The Guardian, “If you are able to work from home, relatively free of anxiety about your job and so far untouched by either illness or death, isolation might come with compensations: you may, indeed, be living the Sunday-supplement lockdown dream of craft projects with the kids and demolishing your backlog of novels. But that is the experience of a tiny minority, even if it is informing some of the media’s apparent neglect of what so-called lockdown actually means for millions of people.” (Link to the article in the Notes section).

Announcement of the sudden and severe lockdown has kept us all safe at home, but the large number of people on whom our cities depend were left stranded, neither was there any work, nor were they ‘at home’. Most migrant workers live with bare minimum resources, focussing on earning money. Many are single men with families in their native place, while some move with their families. It was these migrant workers who were the hardest hit during lockdown. Housing, health care, schools, water, and other basic facilities for the urban poor have never been a high priority for the State, but now they also lost their wages. Remarking that the rampant expansion of urban housing projects have failed to address the problem of low-cost housing in large cities, the Industrialist Ratan Tata released a tirade of criticism against property developers and architects with special references to Mumbai city (Link in the Notes section). Housing facilities for the poor have been completely ignored and thousands of families live in these “residue” areas, with poor ventilation, no outdoor space and unsanitary conditions. The recent spike in Covid cases in these areas is an outcome of this failure, Tata adds. It’s not surprising to find, therefore, that so many people have left.

Tough times can change people

For weeks, the Indian media was flooded with images of people with bundles and bags of essential belongings trudging endlessly to reach to their native places. Public buses and trains had all been suspended under lockdown, and no one anticipated this mass exodus. For the poor, the passage home was punctuated with obstructions and onslaughts, with law enforcement personnel at a loss about what to do with this moving population. Hopefully they have reached home, hungry, exhausted, but safe from the harsh reality of big cities where suddenly, they turned from support staff to potential threats once the lockdown was imposed. It was a tragedy, but the poor have always borne the brunt of such events, in this case, even though they were least likely to have been responsible for the spread. The scale of the problem was not anticipated and as the days have passed, we have had time to reflect on how and why this happened. Among several other articles, two authors (Pavan Varma and Paromita Vohra, links in the Notes section) shed light on the crisis. Varma argues that moments like this can show the true nature of people which is otherwise covered under “idealistic rhetoric or proclaimed ideals…….in a crisis like this….the gloves are off”. But as Hannah Arendt once wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, as a society, we will have to bear the consequences of this inaction.

The apartment complex in which I live in suburban Mumbai has around 800 flats, with roughly around 90 percent occupancy. Post-lockdown, the numbers seem to have dwindled, although some of the silence could be attributed to the curfew-like conditions. It appears that several occupants have left, either to larger family homes in the city or further away to smaller towns and villages. This change was noticeable after offices, schools and colleges were closed indefinitely. This desire to ‘return home’ in times of uncertainty seems quite universal. Whereas car-owners could drive to the desired destination, those dependent on public transport were left stranded. In conversation with a physical trainer in our area, who chose to leave for his village in Satara district for an indefinite period, it emerged that the village was considered much safer and more secure during this period. Furthermore, there is direct access to food from local farms, and he was close to his mother. “Not only is my mother relieved that we are with her at this time, we are much better off in the village, and there is no problem of food”. His two young boys who are already under training to become body builders have much more opportunity to keep fit, along with his wife and himself. We didn’t discuss access to health care in case of need, but all things considered, this was a better option for the family than being locked down in a small apartment in Mumbai.

Witnessing the scenes of people walking hundreds of miles with their families, with barely any money and possessions seems to have touched the hearts of many of us. Somehow, we have become more aware of the injustice of our cities and the conditions in which the many citizens live, This has spurred acts of support and generosity. Perhaps our own vulnerability has shaken us out of the comfortable we have been able to arrange for ourselves. As Reshu noted, someone in her neighbourhood has always been quite hostile to construction workers, constantly yelling at them for trivial issues. Since the lockdown, he has been an enthusiastic participant in community support for those in need. “Before this happened I don’t think people really thought much about the poor and their hardship. It seems that they now feel responsible and are trying to do their best to help. For me personally, not a single day passes when I do not think about the poor. I even worry about animals on the street much more than I used to. I have tried to do my bit and will continue to do so, in whichever way possible. I have seen similar changes among my friends and relatives. I also feel that people around the world are coming together, perhaps realising like never before, how closely we are all connected. The Sanskrit expression ‘Vasudev Kutumbhakam’ from the Upanishads that means ‘The world is one family’ is an important mantra in these trying times. I believe that it is time to dissolve many boundaries between us as people.”

Nature heals itself

With one of the severest lockdowns in the world, people have vanished from the streets, and for Mumbai, where mornings start before the night ends, the contrast is staggering. Those who have homes stay inside, and those who lived on the streets left. Mumbai is a hard working city where money can be earned, but it can also be harsh and unforgiving. For those of us who longed for silent moments and accessible streets, the current situation wasn’t quite what was imagined. Each time of day had it’s specific sounds and smells, morning chants, school bells, impatient drivers, noisy machines, screaming children, small industries and barking dogs….each time of day has a dedicated orchestra of noises that can be intrusive, but their complete absence lends an air of creepy uncertainty to the prevailing unease. The ‘sounds of silence’ have come alive. One realises now how comforting these noises are, with their familiar busy-ness and friendly life-affirmation. Whatever miracles we encounter, with nature repairing itself, there is this strange unease about the cost at which this recovery has happened. Yet it is hard not to take this opportunity to speculate on how we have ravaged our surroundings. In India particularly, the clearing up of the air has itself created a dramatic difference in the air we breathe, and we clutch at these little stories to help ourselves feel better by focussing our attention to the clear moon, reading about unusual sights and unlikely visitors. In one bit of news, it has been reported that the families of Flamingos, who persist in returning to Mumbai’s dying waters annually, have shown a 25% increase in numbers. The video footage of their congregations in this news update is truly a cause for celebration. Link: https://theprint.in/india/over-1-5-lakh-flamingoes-put-up-spectacular-show-in-locked-down-mumbai/405375/

A golden carpet

The Golden Carpet
Municipal garden, Chandivali, Mumbai

As I took my daily walk around the permitted track in our Society the other day, I noticed an unexpected flash of yellow towards the West. Looking more carefully to check if it was some light from the setting sun, I became aware that there was this sheet of bright yellow covering the grounds of a local municipal park. The space has a packed pattern of constant use, early morning walks, mid-day strolls, afternoon embraces and evening games, extending well into the night. Around ten, the park is closed for visitors. As a result of this daily dispersal, this annual flower-fall has never been able to collect to form this thick luxurious golden carpet that completely transformed this shabby space. The flowers come from the peela gulmohar tree (Peltophorum pterocarpum) native to this region. In the Garden of Evening Mists, a book imbued with thick memories of an occupation, Tan Twan Eng’s Malayan protagonist addresses her companion, an eminent Japanese gardener thus, “A garden borrows from the earth, the sky, and everything around it……but we borrow from time…..You bring [your memories] to make your life here feel less empty. Like the mountains over your garden, you can see them, but they will always be out of reach”. An encounter with this accidental beauty also brings home the realisation that this was possible only because of an absence of its daily companions. Tang again “The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life. That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life”. This unremarkable playground is no Japanese garden, but for that moment, it evoked very similar feelings. I felt both uplifted, and saddened. Saddened about the absence of the people: children, the youngsters and their families, and moved by the beauty of nature healing itself. One can only hope that our unprecedented absence from these spaces will provide time and space for us to reconsider our relationship with the environment.

Until next week, when we explore ‘The Lighter Side of the Lockdown’ please stay safe and well. Links to some references and other articles are provided below.

You will also find links to some interesting podcasts in the notes section, one deals with parenting and the other with couple relationships under lockdown.

Notes

Article by Ratan Tata: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/real-estate/developers-architects-should-be-ashamed-of-creating-slums-says-ratan-tata/article31390203.ece

Links:

John Harris in the Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/13/millions-lockdown-food-parcels-coronavirus-crisis

2.https://twitter.com/PavanK_Varma/status/1251712293471059968/photo/1 3.https://www.mid-day.com/articles/ten-years-of-looking/22736329?from=home-opinion

Additional sources:

An interesting discussion about American teenagers and their responses can be accessed here. These have some significant observations that could be relevant for some of us. Parenting When the Family is Locked Down… from The Book Review @Stitcher @nytimesbooks. Link: https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=68563573

Another podcast of interest is the potential impact of confinement on couple relationships in case you’re interested. Although the family circumstances and relationships are likely to be very different, this series is incisive. https://whereshouldwebegin.estherperel.com/ (Accessed from This American Life by Ira Glass, the three episodes titled Couples under Lockdown are insightful and instructive)

More pictures of the peela gulmohar

Peltophorum pterocarpum or Peela Gulmohar, a deciduous tree native to tropical southeast Asia
Schools have gone silent. Bombay Scottish School, Raheja Vihar
Occupancy is down as several residents have returned to their native places

4 Comments

  1. Enjoyed this issue so much!!! My two grandchildren miss school a lot, especially friends, some teachers / classes and of course the journey back and forth with friends. One of them has been memorising poems and also singing, the other one has become a bit insecure and clings to Mom… but books and stories are his refuge….

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      1. So much like my story. I agree with your thoughts on children. All the young children and adolescents in my family are missing school. Although they all are attending online classes but they are missing the fun that they have in classroom. Teasing, pushing, pulling, sharing & exchanging lunch boxes, bathroom breaks and a lot more!
        What bothers me more is parents’ getting fanatic about accessing the textbooks. Parents’ Whatsapp groups are full of irrelevant discussions about purchasing uniform, scans of book chapters and about how to physically access textbooks & books. Given my reluctant attitude towards hoarding worksheets and books rather than focussing on what the teacher is teaching in online session, sometimes they make me think if there is something wrong with me😅

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