April 30, 2021: I’m writing an editorial for Varta again after a few years. It feels strange to be writing now but there are responsibilities and obligations to be fulfilled and every day is an emergency and that’s perhaps never going to change. Pawan Dhall, who regularly writes this column, is in hospital, recuperating as the COVID-19 virus is being driven out of his body.
We’re all doing the best we can to care for our loved ones and some of us are also thinking of redistributing resources through fundraisers and other modes of caring for the society at large. However, in whatever little bandwidth I have at the moment, I wish to not write about State apathy, genocide, deaths and a mutating virus, and instead focus on a question that has been bothering me over some time.
To put it bluntly, it’s not really novel to ask, “How did we reach this moment?” However, a subtext to this very important question is, “What all have we normalized or stopped questioning that now we are here?” Let me elaborate a bit with a scene from the Bangla film, Dahan. A woman who works as a school teacher, along with many others, witnesses a woman being molested outside a metro railway station. None of the bystanders intervene except her. She goes and starts struggling with the men and later accompanies the survivor to the police station to lodge a complaint.
The teacher’s name is splashed in the newspapers and her school felicitates her for her bravado. Her family is extremely proud of her and the congratulatory phone calls can’t stop ringing but her grandmother seems to be not excited. She says that isn’t this what any human being supposed to do? What’s there to congratulate? Have we normalized apathy so much that when one individual does what one is supposed to do, that becomes an exceptional act of courage?
So today I ask myself and you what all have we normalized? What human acts or even the bare minimum seem exemplary and super human? What is the cost of such normalization? What are the questions we don’t pause to ask? Who bears the costs of our silences? If these questions seem a tad bit abstract, here’s a short and incomplete list:
1. Why do we feel thankful to cricketers, film actors and businesspersons if they donate a few crores of rupees to health? How do they make their millions, what are the tax cuts they get and on whose backs? What percentage of these earnings are those donations? Have we normalized wealth inequity?
2. Why do we feel thankful if a government announces that it’ll vaccinate the citizens at no cost? Or why do we not question parliamentarians when they use words like ‘donation’ during health emergencies? As bearers of public office, aren’t they supposed to allocate funds to their constituencies? Have we normalized the privatization of health so much that what should be termed rightful or bare minimum allocation of what’s due to us seems like a generous ‘donation’ to us?
3. To fellow academics, particularly those who teach the social sciences and humanities, how many webinars do you participate in per month? How much energy do you expend for your online classes? Is this new mode of pedagogy here to stay? Have we normalized academic productivity at any cost? Or else, why are conversations on access to the internet, college drop-outs in the last year, and student suicides (mostly from the Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities who constitute the majority of the population) still on the fringes? Have we normalized the fact that education is no longer a public good?
4. How quickly have the upwardly mobile (mostly the English-speaking dominant castes such as most of us writing here and many of you who will be reading this) adapted to life online? Clothes, groceries, medicines, books, gadgets, food, perishables, everything’s available online. What does it mean for the small traders, markets, local bookstores? Have we normalized the survival of the fittest doctrine?
This list can go on but I don’t have the energy to write more at this point. The moot point is that parameters of fitness are also extremely fragile and temporary. Most of India is gasping for breath today. I just saw a video where a Tripathi was crying on camera saying that his father had died and he had been waiting at the crematorium for five hours. There were no personnel available to cremate his father. So, he was scrambling for wood. But the mainstream media didn’t report the utter inhumanity of the Dalit employees of these crematoriums not being given PPE (personal protective equipment) kits, masks, sanitizers and not even their full salaries, all of last year during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, some Brahmins and upper castes are being forced to perform tasks which they would never in non-emergency times, simply because the crematoriums and their employees are too overwhelmed with the relentless rush of bodies. Will this churning change the order of everything we have normalized over the decades and over centuries? Or will gasping for breath get normalized eventually?
A government tried arresting someone because they asked for oxygen. How do we ensure that this moment does not become the new norm? For a start, can we stop complaining every time students, farmers and health workers shut down roads to demand what is their due?
Main photo credit: Pawan Dhall