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Monday, March 08, 2021

Swedish writer Zac O’Yeah, who made India his home decades ago, wonders if this is the end of the road for wanderlust

The world and its curious explorers might never be the same again, as the pandemic leads to distrust, xenophobia and the end of learning from each other. But even then, we cannot survive without the kindness of strangers

Updated: March 29, 2020 12:46:17 pm
COVID-19, COVID-19 outbreak, coronavirus infection, xenophobia, distrust, travel, kindness, strangers, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news A woman walks outside Castel Sant Angelo, as Italy tightens measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. (Reuters)

By Zac O’Yeah 

I happened to be discussing monkey wrenches with the owner of a tiny hardware kiosk, when I heard the screams, “Corona! Corona!” Being a typical Nordic-Germanic gentleman, I’m a bit of the archetypal Do-It-Yourself dude, although my wife often says it’d be better to hire a competent carpenter. Unfazed by her apprehensions, I love going down to the petes around the Majestic area in Bengaluru to browse for tools and shop for power drills and electric jigsaws to do the odd spot of home improvement. Momentarily distracted from the price negotiations (there had already been talks of a lockdown in the city and I was, of course, wearing my anti-pollution mask), I looked around and noticed teenagers dressed like villainous extras in a Kannada gangster flick, pointing in my direction. Then it clicked. I was the corona.

I hurriedly paid for the tool and headed for the Chickpet Metro station to put distance between me and the rowdy pretenders. Two days later, newspapers reported that a Frenchman, who had arrived in town from Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh, during the janata curfew on March 22, had found it impossible to get lodgings in Majestic — which, apart from hosting the railway station and main bus stand, is the hub for budget accommodation. The elderly tourist was hounded by a mad crowd. The tragic irony was that the crowd was breaking the curfew and, by attacking the stranded foreigner, had totally misunderstood the concept of social distancing. Alert journalists and policemen rescued the hapless man and fed him, as it seems the only words the panicky tourist could utter were, “Banana. Banana.”

The traveller-friendly area, where I myself lived for months when I first came to the city 30 years ago, had suddenly turned on its visitors in a way one could never have imagined. Sure, one could argue that these misguided local gents were only indulging in mischievous timepass — what else to do on a curfew day but turn vigilante? — yet it set me wondering how this situation will affect the image of India abroad, the relationships between tourists and locals and, above all, the safety of those visiting arguably the most hospitable country in the world. As a personal testimony to the last argument, I just have to think about the decades that I’ve lived in this country and how I’ve come to take it for granted that strangers everywhere — in the neighbourhood, on buses and trains, in markets — will greet one with a cheerful “Had your coffee?” and be eager to strike up a conversation. Is it all over now?

There’s certainly something cataclysmic about our times. COVID-19 and related pandemics are only one piece of the larger puzzle. There is the still ongoing crisis following the post-9/11 wars, then, of course, there’s global warming, and frequent economic meltdowns. The 20th century, with its catastrophic World Wars followed by the Cold War, was bad, too, but the perpetrators could be named as they usually signed declarations of war. With our current disasters, we no longer know who to blame. So, the fellows in Majestic, who get their news via WhatsApp, naturally assumed that this sole tourist was somehow culpable. The tourist wasn’t even wearing one of those indelible-ink “corontine”-stamps.

For long, admittedly, I have had a morbid interest in scary situations, the result of which is my stockpile of handy reference titles such as The Action Hero’s Handbook (2002), On Killing (1996), The World’s Most Dangerous Places (1994) and The Zombie Survival Guide (2003). But reality is a slightly different kind of animal, oftentimes stranger than fiction, and it needs to be treated with kid gloves.

So, although here’s my first-hand opportunity to experience the end of the world — or as close as I’ll probably ever get to it — it’s not a good enough incentive to leave my balcony, even if I wish I could find a black-marketeer to sell me cigarettes and whiskey to make this enforced wholesomeness more bearable. I’m personally unable to figure out the jumbled curfew instructions and rather than getting myself mildly lathi charged, I’ve tried my best to enjoy the meditative birdsong, the unusually breathable air, the possibility that my beer belly will shrink as I’ll shift to a diet of ketchup-tempered macaroni with mouldy peas (which was all that was left in the neighbourhood shops after the hoarding hysteria). My only outings are hurried dashes to the pharmacy around the block to get more hand sanitiser, antigerm soap and mouthwash, and the few people in the street eye me suspiciously and give me a wide berth.

COVID-19, COVID-19 outbreak, coronavirus infection, xenophobia, distrust, travel, kindness, strangers, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news The lockdown is a challenge for mental health (Getty images)

It’s an infectious attitude. Soon, I, too, cross the street to avoid getting too close to anybody. Especially if they look Chinese. Or foreign. Or Indians well-off enough to have holidayed abroad. I’m even starting to get suspicious of myself: am I touching unsafe surfaces when I close the gate outside my house? Even my usually helpful pharmacist has got bitten by the bug, although we’re both masked and he’s also wearing protective gloves, and neither of us is coughing and we’re separated by the counter and at least 3 ft of air. When, after doing my other purchases, I ask for cough mixture, he takes a step back, looks at me askance and says, “We don’t have any. Why do you need it?” He has drawn his own conclusions and before he dials some emergency helpline, I hasten to defuse the situation, “Simply to have in case the worst happens. Pray god it doesn’t.”

Something has definitely changed. Rushing back, I meet a lady, who worked as a maid for one of my neighbours so we always greet each other. Now, she is lying on the pavement looking desperately hungry, though she still acknowledges me. “Coffee aitha?” I ask, as we do in Kannada, before realising that she probably can afford neither food nor coffee. I give her the Rs 200 left in my wallet before dashing home.

These circumstances set me thinking of how, in my part-time job as a travel writer, I’ve often been faced with the strangeness of the world which has given me a certain perspective to apply to tricky situations. I’ve done battle with anti-tourist-minded Australian immigration officials, faced off Egyptian militia who threatened me with machine guns when I entered the country as one of the first tourists after the revolution, and put down a British cabbie spewing xenophobic racist venom by casually mentioning that, despite being white, I’m a tourist from India. But last year, I was in the ancient city of Pompeii (famously destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD), and I could not then, in my most spaced-out fiction, have imagined that just seven months later, those emblematic outdoor cafes of Italy were going to be shut indefinitely and the outgoing Italians mandatorily placed under house arrest, while the streets are, apparently, as dead as Pompeii’s.

Being confined to one’s home for 21 days is an unfathomably long time for most. This kind of quarantine can have mental health repercussions (as a novelist, I easily identify with Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, 1980) because once we are done with cleaning the windows to enjoy watching blue skies, our frustration may result in xenophobia — and who will we blame then? The Chinese? But like Gandhiji argued with reference to colonial oppression, one cannot dismiss all Britishers as bad; likewise, just because it started in a Chinese food market, we should not turn against a whole people or stop eating Chinese grub.

Foreigners in general? Just because the infection appears to come by airplanes from Europe, we shouldn’t forget that white people are victims, too, most of them entering India in the hopes of an enjoyable holiday and instead losing the money they had saved up, perhaps, over an entire year. Should I point my finger at the NRIs who returned when the disease started spreading abroad, desperate to be in their native places during this crisis — and who, unwittingly, spread it among their loved ones? But it just doesn’t make sense to turn social distancing into distrust of everybody — especially since the only way life can go on is if one believes one’s fellow humans to be responsible enough to follow the guidelines issued by authorities.

Being an avid watcher of horror cinema, I do recognise the scenario — most zombie-apocalypse potboilers, for example, have some fenced-in camp or fortified town where the last surviving humans live, while living corpses carrying the virus roam the countryside. Is this what our homes should become? Our homelands?

If COVID-19 were to be compared to a trailer of a forthcoming webseries, there’s a likelihood that we’re witnessing the new normal — an epoch of widespread and frequent outbreaks of pandemics. If we can agree that this is not the last awful situation humankind is faced with, we need to mull over what our responses should be. Should we turn back the clock on tourism as an industry, to the era before mass tourism and chartered flights, an age when only explorers and diplomats visited distant lands?

Tourism definitely ushered in an interest in what was previously seen to be alien. When I was a kid in Sweden, there were few Indian restaurants but nowadays there’s a curry house on every second street corner; in India, even smaller towns will have eateries serving European staples. This is admittedly to simplify a complex matter, but the notion can be expanded to encompass, say, other Indian cultural exports such as yoga, philosophy, Booker-winning novelists, Bollywood dance, while Indian textile exports have helped Europeans, who previously dressed in subdued colours, look happier. The culture of India has become one of the dominants in the world (alongside Anglo-American culture), whether we talk of the masala flavours or ideas like karma. A corresponding flow of impulses has reached India from abroad, ranging from existentialism to rock music, viticulture to IT, without which modern India would not be so modern. A global lockdown followed by increasing suspicion of one another means less of such cross-cultural pollination. A significant rise of xenophobia inevitably results in a corresponding decrease in our ability to gain from encounters with alien cultures.

COVID-19, COVID-19 outbreak, coronavirus infection, xenophobia, distrust, travel, kindness, strangers, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news The retreat of humans, thanks to the virus, allows a stray dog in Connaught Place, Delhi, an undisturbed snooze. (PTI)

Apart from the spread of diseases, however, there are other serious arguments against tourist travel. Especially in the recently more environment-conscious European countries, people are going the full Greta and abhorring flying just like Ms Thunberg (who has declared she might be infected with the virus) or paying climate compensation fees if they must. Tourism is, therefore, turning increasingly local, with people holidaying in places reachable by train, or even better by bicycle, that is, essentially in their backyards. But considering that most European countries pollute at the estimated annual per capita rate of 4,000 kg of carbon-dioxide emissions, cutting back on vacation plans isn’t going to save us. Ironically, a Greta-worshipping friend in Sweden pointed out (over email and at a safe social distance of 8,500 km) that COVID-19 has probably done more for environmental recuperation in a shorter timespan than any governmental or civil measures have managed in ages.

A futuristic non-tourism world, should we imagine it, might ideally be like Disneyland and Legoland (for children) and Las Vegas (for adults), where we find replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, pyramids, Greek temples, and so on. In Las Vegas, I even found an Italian-themed casino where guests could walk into an air-conditioned piazza of outdoor cafés situated under a perpetually sunset-rosy sky — just like being in Italy, but without the hassle of actually flying to Rome, not to mention getting stuck for weeks at Leonardo da Vinci airport because of all the possible global disasters one can think of. Or, if gathering at amusement parks seems too dangerous from a viral point of view, then tourism might just move to the internet. Instead of surfing in California, we surf the net.

So, are we looking at a world where, if we cannot go to the Taj Mahal, the Taj Mahal comes to us? In a virtual form through sterilised 3D-glasses, downloaded as a software simulation which, if it has viruses, will only be bugs in the programme that’ll lead to the monument crashing upon us, but without harming us more than a reboot and restarting the computer does? The signs are already there, considering how much online services benefit from the real world coming to a physical standstill. But do we really want social distancing (which is a healthy habit even in non-corona times) to turn into a mentally unhealthy social isolation, into anthropophobia or humanophobia?
It’s impossible to pretend today that we don’t live interconnected lives. Whether in India, Europe, the Americas (and despite the US’s planned anti-Mexico wall), we all — even the most isolated country in the world, North Korea — inhabit the same little globe, the size of a pea in a cosmic context.

Crises (like global warming and viral epidemics) have basically become unstoppable, while mankind is stoppable — as COVID-19 is trying to tell us — and if mankind continues its current battle against nature and other species, it will surely lose in the end. The best way to go about things would, perhaps, be to treat this situation as the new normal and find ways to connect and interact with our fellow beings without harming them, and without harming the planet.

Although I hope I’m wrong (remember I’m just a second-rung sci-fi writer) and even if this global shutdown of almost everything should remain a once-in-a-lifetime aberration, we need to learn to live with its aftermath. Fundamentally, I’ll continue believing in my co-humans because I want to remain friends with everybody and can never forget the finest moments from my travels — such as when I was robbed on a train in Assam and how my co-passengers adopted me, bought me fruit and tea until I could get off in the next big city and sort things out. It is times like these that highlights the importance of us showing kindness to strangers.

(Zac O’Yeah is the author of the Majestic Trilogy. He also writes travelogues)

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