The birds are singing louder, the nights are quiet except for the dogs barking, the langurs have almost stopped coming, probably because they now have the whole town to themselves. Walking several kilometers for groceries and making lines is the new normal. The air is clear, there is more time to think, and though we are busy all day, there is a new calm, a ‘whatever comes, comes’ attitude. This is our life under lockdown, how we see it affecting us and our immediate environment, though we can imagine how the confinement of humans is affecting nature in the rest of the world.
On Earth Day, I think of Earth, and how she is getting a break, amazed at her capacity to rejuvenate and capitalize on the slightest retreat from our nefarious activities. I can’t help but reflect on our obnoxious behavior, fueled by arrogance and sense of entitlement. Let’s be honest; homo sapiens is a despicable, dangerous, and destructive creature. Those with a conscience may worry that we are ruining the earth, that we will be destroying it if we don’t change our ways, but no one can make the sacrifices to stop, not even slow down the huge machine that has been put in motion, as that would result in scraping the income of those at the top and deprive the ones at the bottom of basic necessities. And life goes on…until the limit is reached and Earth hits back. I feel we are presumptuous in thinking that Earth will let us destroy her. This is a losing battle, where we shouldn’t worry so much about Earth, she will take care of herself, but rather about the survival of our species. The pandemic may have changed the way we think, brought in new realities, new priorities, but when it is over, which may take some time, what will be the new normal? Will we go right back to where we were?
Earth not only deserves but commands respect. For Jews, Christians and Moslems, she is God, for Hindus, the Universe, for Buddhists, the law of cause and effect, for animists, Mother Earth. We cannot escape the reality that we are reaping what we sow, though we can redeem ourselves by reducing greed and acting smartly and selflessly. If we want to remain on this Earth, we need to show more empathy, compassion, and an understanding of the meaning of happiness.
My father was also an accomplished storyteller endowed with a prodigious memory. He was born in 1909 in Salonica, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, now Greece, and would sometimes tell me stories on Sundays, the only day I spent time with him. I loved hearing of his childhood and he reminisced his pranks and sibling rivalries, summer fun, the awful French school, but also the loss of his father, the fire that destroyed the city in 1917, and the near-famine they experienced thereafter. There were tales of companionship, adventure, endurance and privation but also of a loving family, all told to me in riveting detail.
In these days of pandemic where we are all at home, I thought the following story, depicting an incidence of cholera that took place in 1913, would be relevant. My father was only four, and his child’s view of the events offers a slice of life of a long-gone era tinged with present significance.
My first awareness of death came a few months after the takeover of Salonica by the Greeks, in 1913. It was difficult getting used to all the changes, and people were continually reminiscing about the good old ‘tiempo del Turco’, or Time of the Turks, under which the Sephardim community had been living for the past five hundred years. By this time, we had moved upstairs, to the middle floor of our building, with my Aunt Boulissa above and another family downstairs. One day, a member of that family became very ill. The doctor arrived, recognized the unmistakable signs of Cholera and called in the Greek sanitary services. Their reaction was swift, though we thought of it more as a calamity brought by the Greeks. They put us all in quarantine and brought in a string of gendarmes to watch over us day and night, making sure we didn’t leave the house.
There was but one way to get supplies and I enjoyed the process immensely. From a window, we would lower a hamper tied to a rope, with money inside. A bandanna covering their mouths, the pluckier greengrocers, leading donkeys saddled on both sides with baskets laden with victuals, would fill our hamper.
From the window, I could watch day after day, the sidewalk across the street being sprinkled with quicklime, poured out of a watering can. It was a whitish liquid that turned yellow after a time. The next day, it would be sprinkled with plain water until it recovered its pristine white color.
I was jubilant; I was no longer left alone with my mother all day long. Everybody stayed put at home, and it was like a holiday. I could not understand what it was all about as I had the word ‘calado’, down with a cold, mixed up with cholera. Father nervously rolled cigarettes, my brothers rehearsed their German lessons and my mother complained that the grocers took advantage of the situation by putting inferior goods into our hamper.
One morning, I discovered that the door leading downstairs to the cholera-stricken neighbor’s apartment had been left unlocked. From the landing, I caught sight of my little neighbor, Estrellica, who was chewing on something and, looking up at me said, “Do you want passicas, raisins? Come down, I’ve got a pocketful.” I climbed down and she gave me a handful. I had started eating them when I heard my mother’s imperious voice calling, “What are you doing downstairs? Get up here this minute! But what is this you are eating?” “They’re passicas, Mamica; Estrellica gave them to me.” Holding her cheeks with both hands, I heard her uttering a fearful “Oh, my God!” I thought that she was going to faint. Everyone came running and stared at me in consternation as the news of my escapade spread through the whole building like wildfire.
The passicas were soon thrown down the toilet and my hands were washed in alcohol. “All we needed was this rascal Maïrico making us all croak with cholera!” was the general outcry. Father kept his composure and firmly opposed the request of all our neighbors that I be closeted alone in a bedroom to await the outbreak of the dreaded disease. My mother, as any mother would, declared that she would not hesitate to be closeted with me if necessary.
From that moment on, I became an object of great curiosity. Ten times a day, family and upstairs neighbors would inquire if I felt any bellyache or dizziness. I had never been the center of such attention and to further boost my importance, I went from one to the other just to state that I felt no bellyache at all, nor had I had any dizzy spells; and I enjoyed watching them all raise their gaze to heaven.
Our neighbor died after a few days. Her body, soaked in quicklime, was removed by the special services. From the window, we watched the solitary hearse moving away.
As we enter the third week, 7:30 PM has become news time, when we switch on the BBC news and anxiously watch the developments that are unfolding beyond our gate. The pandemic is spreading at alarming rates in the whole world. We saw it appear, then catch on like a raging fire as it is in Italy, Spain and now the US. China is returning to normal, Yidam said it feels almost too normal, with everyone going about as if it never happened. Will it come back?
In India, the numbers are rising. Until two days ago, Himachal had still not gone beyond the original three cases, their families having been tested negative. There was talk of ending the lockdown on the 15th of April while keeping the state lines closed. A two-week quarantine is imposed on returning Himachal residents, pictures showing them lying listlessly on properly distanced cots in a barn, waiting… Now there are more cases, in another district, emanating from a Muzzamidin in Delhi group of Muslims who held a celebration last month and spread it among themselves then outside and beyond. All we can do is wait. The valley below us is silent, save for the few cars and bikes that circulate when the curfew is lifted. They are becoming scarce as petrol is now off-limits.
Police cars blow the occasional siren and blare our news no one can comprehend from handheld loudspeakers. Supplies are coming in fits and starts so that shopping is still possible. Arrests are made every day. People jumping the curfew, others selling goods at inflated prices, or smuggling items that had been discontinued “Do you want meat? Alcohol?” Tenor is approached as he races home like Cinderella before the last stroke of midnight. Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, the police beating people trying to get into the shuddered liquor stores, and cigarettes are sold singly on the sly. We thought about all the alcoholics, smokers, and drug addicts whose supplies have been cut, of the meat-eaters who will miss their daily fix. We are almost vegan as cheese is only available in the upper parts of town, closed off to us. Some of our children have declared they are sick of our daily rations of rice and dal, and Jampel la and Tenor have been making pizza until the existing cheese supply runs out.
The biggest challenge with the children is screen time. Baby D’s online classes start early, especially with the difference with China time. Tibetan requires endless memorization that she finds challenging. Math demands writing out circles and squares spelled out in Tibetan and there is Chinese on top. Dechen remembers her own study of Tibetan as a child, and reflected on how strongly it is based on memorization. She hovers over Baby D like a Japanese mother, beaming when she gets a virtual star or a line of praise from her teachers thousands of miles away on the Tibetan Plateau. The day is punctuated with tears and tantrums. She worries about getting back. India is closed and now China. If China opens, but India doesn’t? Meanwhile, Yiga is fighting for attention, wanting to stick to Ama at all times. She only relents when put in front of the IPad. We have exhausted Peppa Pig, and now it is Baby Bushwing. Dechen limits it by getting Norzin and Baby D to play with her, and pays them in screen time. I play with her one hour, but yesterday couldn’t wrench her away from the screen, which resulted in a drama that lasted the rest of the morning. I spend an hour with Norzin each day, though more for quality time as she has gone back to her online classes with Andrew, who teaches her from LA. We read my father’s biography, events that took place a hundred years ago, with cholera quarantines, girls and chaperones, silent movies, arranged marriages, French and Italian schools, Turkish soldiers, and a raging fire that devastated the town of Salonica.
Further south, on the Indian plains where the heat will soon rise, horror is beginning to unfold. There was a four-hour notice before all local and regional transport closed down. Migrant workers, in the millions in cities like Delhi or Mumbai, were left jobless and unable to pay rent, with no options other than to walk home to their villages, hundreds of miles away. They took off on the traffic deserted roads saying the government had forgotten them, those nameless people whose labor keeps the cities ticking. Soup kitchens are building up, camps erected, and some transportation arranged, but the number who will fall through the cracks is doubtless in the thousands. They found the first case of the virus in the largest Mumbai slum, which is being cordoned off. I don’t even want to think about what will happen to those inside. Poverty and chaos lead to desperate measures that bypass regard for human life. In the meantime, bigotry is raising its ugly head, and rumors in Himachal are running that Muslims have brought the virus to Himachal, a predominantly Hindu state where the sale of beef is illegal.
In the world at large, the ripples caused by Covit-19 are growing, and with them the effects of faulty policies dictated by short term vision and greed. In our day and age, leaders, though they may be hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach, usually strive for an image of unity and rising above squabbles, encouraging the best in all. No longer. On one side of the world, we have a cockerel who convinces the poor that their interest lies in his favoring the rich and has brought vulgarity, bigotry, and divisiveness to the front lines. On the other, we have one who speaks for destroying the secular make up laid out by its founders, vital to the well-being of a nation that relies on a delicate balance between multiple ethnicities and religions.
I hope that people with the sense to rise above all that will prevail. It is not the time to blame and point at each other. We have a real enemy now, one common to us all, one we can’t see. We need unity and all the goodwill in the world to weed it out.