At the end of the Schindler’s List, after having saved around 4,000 Jews from horrible death in the Holocaust, Schindler is in utter sorrow that he could not do enough. He takes out his gold pen and says, this could have been one person. These shoes…
He goes on.
I feel like him currently, in my mad movements. I look at all those clothes in my wardrobe, just lying there filling the space, and feel shame rising in me. If I could give away those kurtas to women walking home, they could have saved themselves from the scorching sun. Those dupattas at least. Those shoes. Kids’ clothes, toys.
The list is everlasting. So is the guilt.
What has happened in our country in the past few months, has been a wake-up call. We all knew there is poverty here, deprivation, cruelty. But it was hidden in the margins so far. It became mainstream when roads became empty of honking cars and lakhs of poor people started walking on them, in the middle of them.
Their stories became the mainstream of this country for the first time and created a cacophony that even the eternally oblivious were forced to hear.
The reactions from the middle class are manifold and can be shocking. A neighbour said, “Government is doing everything, but these people don’t listen. They are unhygienic and carry the virus from place to place.”
Another said, “Why should we pay our domestic labour when they are not working? We are doing all the jhadu pocha, we have become the bai now”.
The creche where my children go is unable to pay their workers, as parents are refusing to pay. It does not bother them that the didis who feed and coddle their toddlers may go hungry, along with their children. And colleagues in my five-star private university are complaining that they are being given too much work by their departments, “during vacations? as if we are slave labour!”
All this makes me alienated from my surroundings.
The crisis always brings the worst (and the best) in people, their true colours become visible. I curse everyone, hide under my quilt, become panicky and crazed – and remember doing the same long back during Bombay riots when the social, emotional fabric of my innocent world was torn violently to pieces. When upper class aunties came in their little Maruti cars and took away carpets from looted shops of Muslim merchants.
But just like then, I have friends now. Steadfast, honest and humane. They bring me light and inspiration.
Rashmi is cooking khichadi for 25 workers living nearby in Delhi. A woman, a lawyer, a teacher, a UN worker once, she does this labour of humanity daily.
Upasana, a political scientist and writer, is on calls with migrant workers returning to Assam – trying to find out their needs and how they can be met. She talks to a woman whose husband just disappeared while travelling back on a packed train to Guwahati, leaving her with their infant daughter. The stories of devastation whirl in her head, keeping her awake at night, but she keeps at it.
Amina runs a community kitchen in Gurgaon, where migrant workers tell her that Muslims are spreading the virus, its ‘corona jihad’. She says to them, “I am a Muslim, and even if you are being pig-headed, I will feed you”.
Not all of my friends are doing COVID-19 relief work, but carrying on activities that continue the circle of life. Ketaki, who spent the last two decades as a labour lawyer while the organised labour sector diminished, is now looking after her adopted twins in lockdown and enjoying creating a new future.
Priyanka is catering to her elderly mother-in-law, paying debts to the previous generation. Geetanjali, a professional actor and singer, transmits her skills to the tribal children around her farm in Wada district of Konkan, turning children’s story books into musicals.
And Prabhat continues to train rural girl athletes for sports competitions via Manndeshi Champions in Satara.
Mahabharata tells us there is a balance in the world always, vinash and vikas, destruction and progress.
I have hope.
I follow my friends. I go back to my childhood learnings of religion and philosophy; pay zakat this Ramzan, donate to experiments in COVID-19 relief and invest in farmers organisations, write for and on behalf of Women’s Bank and cooperatives. Then practice mental and material distancing.
For instance, a simple thing like not buying new clothes this year! Go to class wearing old clothes and speak to students about sustainability and need based consumption. Do my small bit like that little squirrel in Ramayana who helped build the massive bridge to Lanka.
Rainer Maria Rilke puts all these feelings in his poem,
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Nearby is the country they call life.
Give me your hand
Sameena Dalwai teaches law, and is the author of Bans and Bargirls: Performing Caste in Mumbai’s Dance Bars.