This Indian life by Shoba Narayan: Love in a time of corona
First, the good news. The sky has never looked so clear, the air so pure. Nitrous oxide emissions from cars have fallen. Heck, the ozone layer may bridge. There is birdsong everywhere. Dolphins are frolicking off the coast of Mumbai. An endangered civet cat wandered through Kozhikode. Nature is rebounding, and spectacularly. What about us humans?
In times of great turmoil like the one we are experiencing now, there are two ways to live. You can choose fear, or you can embrace life.
When Oskar Schindler chose to save Jews at great personal risk, he chose life. When your grandfather, aunt or uncle chose to save fleeing Sikhs or Muslims during Partition at the risk of being killed themselves, they embraced their higher selves. When the Spanish Flu attacked India in 1918, killing more than 15 million people over just three months, volunteers from the Ramakrishna Mission sprung into action, feeding and nursing the poor, paying scant heed to their life and limb, serving others instead of worrying about death.
History is littered with such unsung heroes. The people who carried out dead bodies during the plague even though they could easily have been infected. Red Cross workers who are at the frontlines of the battle against deadly epidemics.
Today, countless sanitation workers, doctors, nurses, vegetable vendors, are choosing to live and serve society, in spite of the risks. Some do it because they need the money, but for many, it is a choice.
Even after bad things happen, the way you respond is a choice. There is a story in Yasmin Saikia’s book, Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971, about a woman named Nurjahan, who has experienced firsthand the violence between the Bengalis and the Biharis. She has seen rape, pillaging and murder. And yet, her story is one of redemption, of rising above circumstances to choose empathy instead of bitterness.
As our lockdown days stretch into weeks and we wonder how to get through this pandemic, we can learn from these stories. We can choose a life of service and joy rather than solitude and fear.
This approach is fraught with risk. If you sit at home by yourself, there is virtually no risk of getting infected. If however, you decide to cook meals for the elderly in your housing complex, you have to go out, buy vegetables and deliver meals. If you decide to volunteer at hospitals like some of us have, the risks are higher. You have to choose your path based on your circumstance.
Not all of it needs to be heroic. Some of it can just be recalibrating how you behave on a normal basis. You can choose to be positive in an age of doom and gloom. You can choose to do one random act of kindness every day, even if it is something simple like making chai for the security guards in your building or phoning elderly aunts and uncles. When a colleague sends you a testy message, you can give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he is unloading his anxiety on you. When your spouse yells about something trivial, you can tell yourself not to react.
Times of stress are great ways to build and test character. In that sense, difficulties are a gift because they help you find out what you are really made of. Are you a leader (and this has nothing to do with a job title or being the CEO of a company)? Do you have good judgement? Do you have grit, honour and grace in the way you deal with the world? How bright is your moral compass? Do you listen when the angels of your better self speak to you?
So yes, be careful. Take the proper precautions. But don’t give up on life. Find joy in small things. Tend to your garden. Embroider a scarf for your child. Cook a meal and send it to a relative. Make amends with a friend that you have fought with. Be of help to others. Find meaning and purpose in everyday acts.
Having faith in God helps in this endeavour. Lots of elders I know are less fussed about the virus. They have a zen fatalism. They talk about the writing on your forehead. God gives you a certain number of breaths and no virus can take that away, they say.
A life of fear makes your world shrink. A higher purpose makes your world expand. It adds moments of colour and joy. It makes life worth living.
Choose joy. Choose service.
(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)
This Indian Life appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, April 12, 2020
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