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.