Shabana Azmi’s words of wisdom amid Covid-19: Health is a right, but it’s also a responsibility
“The sky has never been so blue, the birds have never twittered more sweetly.” Veteran actor Shabana Azmi does poetic justice to the virtues of the lockdown, but also points out at the need of “policy and governance that is inclusive and answerable to the weaker sections (of the society), and also in sync with Nature”.
In an interview, she also talks about getting to spend more time with husband, writer Javed Akhtar; supporting relief efforts amid the crisis; and her “miraculous” survival in a near fatal accident.
How are you both coping with the lockdown?
Going with the flow. I returned from my shooting in Budapest on 15th March and went into self-isolation for 2 weeks by which time the lockdown was already in place so it has been a very long time. For someone as gregarious as me, I could never have imagined that I would stay sane. Javed is used to periods of isolation when he is writing, so it was easier on him. But we have never spent so much time together and we have always enjoyed each other’s company, so it has been good for us personally.
But the plight of the migrant labourers tears into your conscience and makes you reflect more deeply on the great divide between the haves and the have-nots. How fragile our public health system is, how important it is to have social security and how much more inclusive our policies need to be.
After an accident as serious as you had in January, you recuperated and went to Budapest to shoot, returning to Mumbai just in time before a life-altering lockdown was implemented in India. Do you see it as a second life?
Ever since I lost my mother in November, it has been a roller coaster sliding downwards. Except for 3 wonderful days in January, when we celebrated Javed’s birthday and had friends and family come in from all over - Rupankan, a cultural organisation from Indore, held a photo exhibition of Javed by photographer Pradeep Chandra and SMM Ausaja where a jewelled fountainpen in Javed’s name was launched. A calendar on Javed was also released.
The next night we had an intimate Bollywood 70’s theme party at home, followed by a big bash on his birthday on 17th January. I was dancing till 5 in the morning!
We left for our Khandala home Sukoon the next afternoon with Javed’s cousin sister Sumbul and her husband Nawab. I was very tired from the 3 days of partying so I requested that Javed carry on with them and I follow in the next car to catch up on my sleep. About twenty minutes before we could reach home, a truck rammed into my car . I was asleep at the back and rolled off from my seat to the floor. The impact caused me to faint. Mercifullly, I remember nothing at all.
I’ve been told it was a miracle I had survived. A month and ten days later, still in considerable pain, I was shooting in Budapest! And then we had to pack up because of the coronavirus spreading to Europe.
I reached Mumbai on 15th March, went into self-isolation, by which time the lockdown was already in place! I’ve been at home for over 60 days. Is this going to be the new normal? I hope not. I like to be surrounded by family and friends .
It was so pleasant to hear you sing the ‘Abhi na jao chhodkar’ parody made by Javed saab, and the ‘nok-jhok’ on a video interview. It shows the importance of keeping a home atmosphere infused with fun and romance in our own ways. Your comment?
It is very important to keep the atmosphere at home pleasant, not just for yourselves but also for our staff who are away from their families. I keep in touch with my girls group on zoom where we let off steam because some of them are having to do all their housework without any help. But we also talk about trivial things and have a good laugh. And we are in regular touch with our families. I miss my mother and feel extremely sad that I could have spent so much time with her.
As a senior citizen yourself, what is the message you would want to convey to the elders and youngsters in terms of taking the right care?
We must remember that health is a right, but it’s also a responsibility. As seniors, it is important that we play by the rules and not break away from the required protocol. Maintain social distancing, wash hands with soap frequently, stay indoors, boost our immunity. There is no heroism in breaking rules. We owe it to ourselves and to society to keep ourselves informed and lead by example.
What does your typical day look like amid the lockdown, and what keeps you busy?
Reading, writing, listening to music, giving talks, participating in webinars. I’m also involved hands on in all the relief work being done by Mijwan Welfare Society, an NGO founded by my father Kaifi Azmi, which I now head. We have distributed foodgrains , health kits and masks to more than 22,000 people in different villages in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. We have also set up Rozgar dhaba, an information hub for the returning migrants on government schemes, job opportunities, making ration and Aadhar cards, etc... to me, that is the most important empowerment tool we can give them.
Here in Mumbai, both Javed and I are providing cooked meals. And yet it’s only a drop in the ocean.
The pandemic has exposed the fragile structure of our public health system and the lack of a social security cover makes the poor even more vulnerable, particularly women and children. We need policy and governance that is inclusive and answerable to the weaker sections and one that is in sync with Nature.
The sky has never been so blue the birds have never twittered more sweetly. There is a lesson in it for all of us. Sustainable growth must replace the rapacious destruction of natural resources.