When the history of a different war is written, tribute must be paid to Indian public’s astonishing fortitude
Sunanda K Datta-Ray | 10 Apr, 2020
(Photo: Saurabh Singh)
‘THE ANGEL OF death is near. I can hear the flapping of its wings.’ That was said on the eve of the First World War. When the history of the very different war now being waged is written, tribute must be paid to the Indian public’s astonishing fortitude, its unsuspected readiness to obey at a time of crisis and the trust it places in people in authority. The extent to which that trust is honoured will shape the future.
Americans suspect China of initially keeping quiet about the menace that threatens us all. Similar charges were also levelled in 2002. Sumita and I visited Shanghai, Beijing and Xian early that year and were surprised by the masks some Chinese wore. They obviously knew about the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) before it took Southeast Asia where we lived by storm.
March 14th: Masks have begun to appear in Kolkata. Are we on the brink of the Malthusian catastrophe? India has cocked a snook at Thomas Malthus’ theory of the forces of nature rising to counter excess population ever since ‘nasbandi’ cost Indira Gandhi a crucial election. They are renovating the rooms at Haileybury, my son Deep’s old school in Hertfordshire, where Malthus lived and taught. What about his message? Overpopulated Third World countries should pay heed.
March 15th: Narendra Modi will be remembered for his superb photo ops. But the slogan he flaunted—“Setting an Example for the World”—at today’s video conference of SAARC leaders was a trifle pretentious. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, a practising urologist, was more realistic, striking an ominous but prescient note. He stressed that we are engaged in a life-and-death battle with an unseen enemy. Tshering also warned of the economic fallout.
March 16th: Murli Manohar Joshi would have been delighted. The papers carry pictures of Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s ethnic Indian Prime Minister, and the German-American Donald Trump making namaskars to each other. Joshi deplores the ‘Hi!’ modern Indians affect. He says nothing about Modi bestowing hugs on only Western leaders.
Not that namaskars are always welcomed. Jawaharlal Nehru stared at me and walked on when I made him a namaskar at Harrow School when I was covering his visit there in 1960. Later, I heard about Monty Palit (Major General DK Palit of the 9th Gurkhas) finding himself face-to-face with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen-Mother, outside the Athenaeum Club in London. Palit made a namaskar. After a moment’s pause, the last empress of India slowly brought both her palms together and raised them in reciprocal courtesy.
March 18th: Rudrangshu (Mukherjee, Chancellor of Ashoka University) dropped in for a drink. I haven’t had a visitor since. Nor have I visited anyone. The lakshman rekha hasn’t budged.
March 20th: A case against me was due to come up in Alipore Court. The lawyer’s clerk says all hearings are suspended. Will the money I paid for today’s appearance have to be paid all over again when a new date is set? The litigation recalls James Branson declaring in Calcutta Town Hall in 1883, “What the stiletto is to the Italian, the false charge is to the ordinary Bengali.” Branson was a British barrister who roused Europeans against the Ilbert Bill designed to give Indian magistrates the right to try them.
March 21st: Sankar Ray, freelance writer with CPI links, has sent a long email about my column in the Calcutta Telegraph, accusing me of being “over-restrained” about the enigmatic RK Mishra who controlled Patriot, which floated the notion that acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was an American conspiracy. A Patriot veteran remarked when Nikhil Chakravartty introduced Mishra to the paper, “Nikhil da backstabbed himself!” De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Of the dead, [say] nothing but good. But Mishra, whom Sankar Ray nicknamed ‘Racketeer’, epitomised everything that is rotten in Indian journalism. Or, rather, with Indian journalists. Like many successful operators, he tried out many berths regardless of belief until he found a richly cushioned niche in the BJP. He probably didn’t join the party. Neither has Ranjan Gogoi, the latest Rajya Sabha entrant.
March 22nd: Why didn’t Arvind Kejriwal declare an aam aadmi curfew or Mamata Banerjee a grassroots curfew before Modi stole the thunder with ‘janata curfew’?
Conch shells blared, thalis clanged, shrill ululation pierced the clangour. Sumita clapped dutifully. Sprawling in a deck chair, I looked up and caught the disapproving eye of a businessman vigorously applauding two floors above.
Who thought of the clapping? Was it Publicis Groupe, the marketing conglomerate which owns several leading advertising agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, and whose chief, Maurice Levy, regularly visits India? He wouldn’t approve of a ban on government advertising to save thousands of crores for tackling Covid-19.
March 23rd: Our maid telephoned. She isn’t coming to work. Once I might have marvelled at maids telephoning, but not after Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s Prime Minister, spoke of an impecunious woman who expected the state to pay hundreds of dollars for her calls. Reproved, she retorted, “Must talk, lah!”
The ghee is fragrant but I can’t savour it. Dinner seems tasteless. The papers say ‘anosmia’ (loss of smell) and ‘ageusia’ (loss of taste) are coronavirus symptoms.
March 24th: Bengal’s first casualty. No one wants the 57-year-old man’s body. The terror of infection is a reminder that semi-educated India, confusing mythology with science, hasn’t progressed beyond 14th century England. The English didn’t prescribe cow urine for bubonic plague, the Black Death, but blamed it on emanations from the earth, ‘pestilential effluviums’, unusual weather, livestock sickness, the abnormal behaviour of animals, an increase in the numbers of moles, frogs, mice and flies, and a comet blazing across the sky.
Colonel Gawain Douglas once pointed out from the elegance of the Cavalry and Guards Club that Green Park across Piccadilly isn’t flat like Calcutta’s Maidan. The grassy undulations were plague pits into which bodies were unceremoniously tossed. Gawain had served until Independence in the 7th Light Cavalry—“Muchu Chaudhuri’s regiment!”—meaning General JN Chaudhuri, Chief of Army Staff. Green Park was used for burials because it was outside what then constituted London.
March 25th: It’s come at last. A total 21-day lockdown. We have just four hours’ notice to be petrified into immobility. It’s as abrupt and arbitrary as demonetisation. Or a “smack of firm government”, as Michael Foot, the Labour politician who might have been Britain’s prime minister, reportedly called Emergency. Foot flew into a democratic rage when I asked him about the comment many years later in his Hampstead house. But it was not denied in 1975.
The visible inaction recalls an uncle everyone called ‘Chairman’. Not that he chaired any meetings but white-haired and sedate, he sat bolt upright in a wooden chair all day, extending his bare feet for the visitor’s obligatory pranam. People agreed he was a brilliant scholar. I never saw him read even a newspaper. Would lockdown mean a similar permanent state of doing nothing and all the time in the world to do it in?
What about the wheels of commerce—the manufacturing, producing, buying and selling that sustains life? How would people, businesses, cities and even governments earn if everyone becomes a ‘chairman’? I am not complaining. But I wonder if the Prime Minister thought out the consequences.
Presumably, the experts think a closure of shops and offices strategically necessary. Who are they? Who does Modi consult? Is there any semblance of the collective decisionmaking and concept of prime minister as primus inter pares that is of the essence of democracy?
Ashok Krishna Dutta, the West Bengal Janata Party leader who defeated Indrajit Gupta, once said the only difference between Indira Gandhi and Charan Singh was that she was a successful dictator and he wasn’t. How would Dutta rate Modi?
March 26th: The sky seems more blue with scraps of woolly cumulous clouds. Closed factories and fewer cars no doubt. “Lord!” Samuel Pepys the diarist lamented during the Black Death, “How sad a sight it is to see the streets so empty of people.” In Kolkata, it’s a relief.
Delhi may not be renamed Modinagar. But the Central Vista project will so transform the capital that Lutyens’ would never recognise it.
The British journalist who says Modi has adopted the English phrase ‘social distancing’ doesn’t realise that social distancing is a way of life here. Only, it’s vertical, not lateral. The VIP who grovels before a superior kicks at those below him. Watch policemen thrashing lockdown violators. Independence changed the players, not the play.
No newspapers. Are they not printed, not distributed or just not allowed into our building? A neighbour demands that all mail must be left out in the sun to kill germs. Luckily, there is no mail.
March 28th: No TV. The screen says ‘No Signal’.
March 29th: TV’s back just as I was beginning to savour the calm.
March 30th: The Times of India says that Aditi (former Statesman colleague, Aditi Roy Ghatak) has launched an anti-spitting campaign. The plucky and resourceful girl might get the restrictive ordinance she wants. But who will enforce it? The policeman whose mouth is stuffed with the paan he is waiting to spit out?
March 31st: Horrible news from Uttar Pradesh. Those responsible for outrageously spraying migrant workers with disinfectant are no more intelligent than the men who died drinking aftershave lotion, thinking it was potable alcohol. Or they are petty bureaucrats upholding their social distance.
The migrants’ trek is like the 1936 Jarrow March magnified in misery and numbers. Two hundred men from a “a filthy, dirty, falling down, consumptive area” in northeastern England marched 300 miles to London because they had no jobs, no money and no food. Ellen Wilkinson, their MP, Labour naturally, marched with them. I have always felt the poignancy of that dramatic protest because Jarrow was in my reporter’s beat in the 1950s, and Wilkinson preceded me at Manchester University.
April 1st: Doctors and nurses are being criminally attacked. Perhaps people who obeyed the lockdown with surprising docility seek compensatory licence. Perhaps they are mistrustful of authority. Sadly, there’s no guarantee we will be able to keep the doctors we can’t do without. India’s senior bureaucrats, diplomats and politicians all hanker shamelessly after the American Green Card for their children.
April 2nd: TV anchors have worked themselves up into a lather over the gathering in a mosque in Delhi’s Nizamuddin West. The event was on March 13th-15th; Mamata Banerjee says the Union Health Secretary, no less, affirmed on March 13th that “there is no epidemic of Covid-19 in the country”. So why the fuss, I asked in my Telegraph column. My friend Manoj Mohanka answered me. On March 13th, the Delhi government ruled that ‘all sports gatherings, including IPL, conferences and seminars beyond 200 people are prohibited in Delhi for the purpose of prevention and control of the outbreak of epidemic disease’. The head count was reduced to 50 three days later when religious gatherings were specifically included in the ban.
That leaves me mulling over two points. First, if the media had been at all conscientious it would have drawn attention on its own to the Nizamuddin gathering’s violation instead of waiting for the Government to wag a carrot and then jumping, barking and yelping into the fray. Second, an elusive maulana and reports linking the spread of the coronavirus with his followers imply the organisation is suspected of waging bacteriological warfare against the state. If so, it’s too serious a matter to be left to TV anchors.
April 3rd: Attacks on girls from the Northeast make me feel many Indians just don’t deserve (with apologies to AL Basham) the wonder that is India. Their minds cannot cope with India’s rich diversity.
April 4th: Adversity also brings out the best in us. Babli Kalra in the flat above sent down a full cooked lunch. Unlike us, she has live-in staff but it was a kindly gesture—one of many—all the same.
April 5th Mamata Banerjee has disappointed me. No other chief minister matches her catchy jingle: “Bhir theke sabbai dure thako/ corona ke chhute diyona [Stay away from crowds, everyone/ don’t let corona touch you]”—even if “Bangla kokhono hareyna [Bengal never loses]” is wishful thinking. But what about the promised mishti? She said sweetshops would be open from noon to four o’clock, the time we like our siesta. The shops haven’t opened at all. Sweetmeat makers (haluikars) are stranded at home.
I had expected our condominium to twinkle with lights when Modi’s call went out.Only a few balconies sported lamps. Is it conceivable that even our rich Rajasthani neighbours share Shashi Tharoor’s scepticism about a nine-minute oration at 9 AM on Navami asking for lamps “on 5/4 at 9 pm for 9 minutes”?
April 6th: MPs’ wages have been cut. VIP jaunts should also end. A travel lockdown would save money for hospitals, feeding itinerant labourers and clearing slums.
April 7th: However it is presented, Modi has buckled in to Trump’s threat of “retaliation” if India doesn’t export hydroxychloroquine to the US.
April 8th: Wuhan is said to be limping back to life. For us the outlook remains bleak. The pandemic hasn’t peaked as yet. The social and economic reconstruction can come only after the medical challenge has been met. Philanthropic individuals here and there are doing their best to rescue migrant workers or donate food but it isn’t enough. Only immediate cash distribution can alleviate distress. The economy must be galvanised into life. The multitude’s lifestyle must change. No cure can be meaningful if people live cheek by jowl in insanitary bustees or are packed into the sweaty congestion of buses and suburban trains. Like John Kenneth Galbraith’s post office socialism, only governments can fulfil certain basic needs.Only a massive government programme can keep the angel of death at bay.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray