These days I think a lot about Dida, my maternal, grandmother, especially of the day of Nabami when in her village, Nirole she tumbled down the steps of the Kamakhya mandir and broke her crown. Boromama was fortunately present there and he being a surgeon of both eminence and excellence always carried with him sealing gel with which he managed to stop the bleeding on Dida’s head. Dida was gingerly balancing herself and two large bell metal plates upon which rolled precariously mondas and kodmas, naarus and the ensemble of peas which make the paanch kolai. She was coming down without holding or touching anything because the touch of a surface could pollute her purity needed for the temple. And then she fell, head down. I think of her often as I try to go down the steps with stuff in my hand without touching the walls, or the bannisters, fearing that someone, unnoticed by me must have touched the same and it would be informed to me that he or she has been diagnosed Covid 19 positive. I know that as of now, I can only get the virus when I come in contact with someone who is already infected, but in my mind, I am well into the following stage of community contagion. No amount of logic can kill the panic in my mind.
Dida had a strong sense of the entho, I don’t know how to communicate this in any other language. But literally entho means something touched by the sputum or the mouth. As adolescents just getting to know the erotic world, we often laughed at the kiss being entho. Nonetheless, you could not speak while holding a plate full of cut fruits about to be offered to the Gods, you could not use your teeth to tear something used in the sacred spaces, like a packet of sholtes, or candles or incense sticks. That would be entho. The mobile phone, though Dida did not live to see it would have been entho of the first order. You needed to wipe everything with gangajal just as we use the sanitizers these days. Dida’s greatest anxiety would be a refill of gangajal, just as mine is the sanitizer. Dida was finicky with currency notes, with coins, with slippers to be worn for the outside and those at home, eventually she went bare foot. Then there were series of saris, those which were clean and those which were unclean, much like mine these days, there are clothes for me to step outside home, there are clothes to stand in a queue at the medicine shops and there are clothes in which I stay put at home. Same for footwear, careful how far these can enter into the homes, and by what means am I to clean these and how I should dispose off the material with which I clean. The corona regime has brought back each and every bit of the clean versus unclean culture that I learnt from Dida. Not to mention of hair and nails, not to mention of defecation.
Food was served either on the plate or in small bowls, individually, no self-service by digging in spoons on a bowl full of rice at the table. One could not leave anything in the table because if so, then it could not be placed in the fridge again. The surface of the dining table was entho because it came into contact with food which came into contact with saliva, hence entho. My younger cousins measured the degree of impurity of touch from the height from which bowls were dropped; torkari from a lower height, daal from a slightly greater one and fish from the greatest one. Soon they made a model of everything, saliva it is. Vegetables have little saliva and fish itself has saliva. Admirable anthropology of the likes of Claude Levi Strauss. The climax of Dida’s regime manifested while serving food, the left hand is entho because it is used to clean the anus, while the right hand is the clean hand. So never to use the left hand for anything. I am using the body fluid model enthusiastically, I am calculating my risk according to what can receive the body fluid the most. The newspaper vendors are ahead of me in these concepts, they refuse to pick up newspapers from the streets because that’s where people throw their saliva the most. One calculates closely, don’t touch elevator switches, someone with Covid 19 may have touched it. Friend’s neighbour lives in the next block, but her daughter lives in the same block as hers and the daughter’s son has come down from America. So we assume the son is infected, daughter is also infected and daughter is going up and down the lift to see mother, hence she has infected the elevator with virus. No stepping out for my friend QED.
Dida’s entho stopped at objects, it did not extend to humans. For the others of her generation the obsession with cleanliness went into untouchability. They designated people as dirty, those of the lower echelons who moved around a lot catching saliva especially with their hands and feet. The poor are construed as unclean because of unclean hands and feet, no matter what you do, some germ remains, just as we say of the Covid 19 patients. How can you ask the sweeper to fetch you water? Unclean fellow, ostracize him, his family for they are in constant contact with him. You get the entire concept of unclean castes, the untouchability. I think that Hinduism was born out of some germ caused epidemic. Avoid the touch, avoid social mingling, avoid contact with bodies, do not touch surfaces, change clothes, wash hands after whatever you touch are very similar to the avoidances we have with the Corona Virus.
Central to both the corona virus and Hinduism is the idea of the clean and the unclean; some surfaces are clean like marble is clean, carpets are unclean, leaves and reeds are cleaner than fabric, wool is cleaner than cotton as if we are speaking of the duration of the virus on surfaces. There are body parts to be avoided; hands, legs, hair and nails. The entire schema is best evident in Tagore’s Jeebansmriti where he remembers a senior servant who looked after the children of the household and his puritanical regimen manifested in his deep distrust not only of anything that was external to his body as he avoided touch with anything or anyone around him but distrusted his own arms and legs too. Hence, he would furtively look everywhere, roll up the holy thread around his ears and suddenly dip into the water as if he wanted to give all natural elements the slip. The body would be held so sacrosanct till an absurd extend where it had to recoil from itself. Ditto same with the corona virus. We distrust everything because through some remote and impossible connection we find the virus travelling all the way into our bodies; we construe the world to be so extensively infected that we have nowhere to hide from which includes our own bodies as well. The idea of Hinduism is just this; the withdrawal of the body and eventually the self from the world petrified of getting polluted.
There is no point in saying be careful, don’t panic. Panic is panic, it cannot be a half-way house. We cannot panic partially and in part be reasonable. The television, the government and the unprecedented lock down is completely strange and eerie. We have been made to see the corona virus as a death sentence that braces each of us, the sword of Damocles that eventually spares none. May be to keep us all at home, the threat was repeated many times, which eventually turned people paranoid. Each one is a potential threat to the other; members of the family look suspiciously towards each other, even a small sneeze makes parents hate children, siblings fight sibling, friends are friends no more and we all become islands unto ourselves, anyone trying to mingle is an enemy. This mutual suspicion blows into witch hunting; suddenly doctors and nurses are asked to vacate rental premises in West Bengal, a man attacks a woman saying that she is a Covid 19 patient, animals are attacked, passengers coughing out of some unrelated reasons are deboarded, people are scared to meet familiar faces in streets for the fear of greeting. I find myself taking the far corner of the pavement when I see another human walking on the same path; I feel like the Brahmins of Kerala who would beat up a Shudra were her or his shadow to fall on the way of the Brahmin’s steps. The corona has made every Hindu custom based in the formula of cleanliness and purity and pollution into a rationality. This, is the real danger of the disease, more than the disease itself.
The disease has not got us together; the disease has only united us in fear because we realise that each one of us is like the other because we have the same fear. As far as the real unity of mankind goes, the disease has taught us to hate one another, to fear one another, to construe that each one out there is an enemy, detrimental to my life and longevity. One of the basis of human unity is a recognition of mutual dependence. Unfortunately, everyone is trying to avoid the other, cutting lose ties of exchange, should the invisible strain of the virus travel through any kind of communication. My nephew tells me that his friends have stopped calling, ostensibly because they feel that the virus travels through the phone. Extend this to the attempt at creating noise to quell the corona virus by banging thalis on Amavasya, the equation settles on both sides.
The cleanliness principle is now being extended to humans. Notwithstanding that the corona virus has been imported by the richer foreign returned Indians, in the minds of humans, it is the poor those who need to be avoided like plague. How can the rich ever be polluting? It is the poor who are unclean and hence the hate for the poor is so evident in the mindless beating of vegetable vendors and delivery boys by the police in Kolkata. In times of social distancing due to the virus, the most virulent form of prejudicial social distancing is underway. The panic of the virus is the panic of the poor, and these are the poor who help reach services at home so that we can maintain the social lock down and not overcrowd market places. Yet, the fear of the germ, which translates into the fear of the world, of others and of one’s own body blinds the consciousness so much that one loses any capacity to relate to the complex forces that makes for her existence in the world. This is why, the role of the poor in reaching out services to the community so that no one needs to leave their houses was never acknowledged in the planning for the lock down.
The administrators just said lock down; in most places the lockdown was not planned in details. As a result of which all the essential services locked down as well bringing hordes of panicked consumers into the markets, falling over one another for a significant length of time. Social distancing was belied because the possibilities were not worked out in detailed. The problem of the consciousness based upon the phobia towards germs makes one so involved in the self that the details of seeing how the self owes its existence to a host of supporting services are never considered.
Jainism is perhaps the world’s most detailed address of the germ theory. The Jain covers her face, her feet, does not touch agriculture, does not eat roots, all for fear of touching germs. The Jain absolves herself from the world, minimises footfalls, minimises the impact of her existence in the world. Suicide is valued in Jainism. The Hindu is not quite this; hers is a heavy footprint with the dynasty trailing for generations behind her, she is eager to stave off the world away from her, instead of allowing the world to go on as if she was never there as the Jain does. Suicide is anathema to the Hindu psyche. The corona virus, despite the masks and the gloves, the head and body covers is decidedly Hindu, for it seeks its own self above the other. Corona scare has not taught humility before God, but reinforced the belief that one deserves to live more than the others and hence goes the poem circulating in the social media where the Indian hoards kilos of rice and staples, medicines and essentials so that come what may, her family will not be distressed. This, is also the case as people fall over one another into panic hoarding. In hoarding, the Hindu social distance is even consolidated, no one wants to remember friends and extended family, all wrongs done by them to the self are conjured up in memory as if to build up a case of not sharing the proudly hoarded stuff to last over the lock down.
The depression of Indians are unlikely to be over a sense of helplessness, that as an individual she can do nothing to alleviate the situation. The west perhaps faces this because despite the selfishness of the western individual, her sense of moral agency as a foundation of individualism cannot be denied. The depression of the individual in India is that of having been subject to an order to which she thought that she was an exception, because through her entire consciousness she has tried to be aloof from the world and now being subject to rules has accelerated the prejudices in her. This is the essence of a caste society; for this is a society that refuses to be equal to every other. The individual, as a moral agent will have a semblance of being equal to every other in matters of law, though she will aspire and compete mindlessly to have more headspace than her ilk. The panic of the external world, which the corona virus consolidates, has reinvoked the casteist fervour of Hinduism as the most reasonable thing to do. This is the great harm that the disease will do, reverse each and every victory we may have wrenched by way of social reforms.
The problem with this panic is that it complete unsettles the mind, making it worry about touch, what one should not touch, how many times one should wash hands and an ever alert mind of who and what to avoid. This preoccupation makes it difficult for the mind to engage in vital and meaningful activity. Such a mind so fearful and so conscious of cleanliness is a distracted mind, with little concentration and when such a mind engages in gaining command over the world descends into superstitions like clanging utensils to scare away the virus instead of setting up state of art laboratories to test and collect big data for analytics.