I WANT to go looking for a girl. The girl I saw in the middle of one night, walking down Delhi’s Ring Road, past one of its glitziest markets, dressed in a frock whose sequins glittered in passing cars’ headlights, in what was perhaps the best dress she owned, sweating, stumbling, struggling to keep pace with her parents, only one face in a group. They carried a bag each, the entirety of their worlds now in those small bundles.
Where did she go to escape coronavirus, a disease that has meant that while our children have been sequestered in homes, she has been left out on the streets?
In the sad quiet of the neighbourhood park the other day, I recalled her again. I was talking to a friend whom I had connected with after years on Facebook — the social media website that best exemplifies a life that has to be, at all times, full of things. Ironically, it was she who put in words feelings I had been trying to grasp about these coronavirus times. Earlier, it seemed 24 hours were not enough for all we had to do, she said. Now, nothing seems particularly important.
It’s amazing how much one can get used to — face masks and hand sanitisers next to open drains; hungry people standing in startlingly round circles to collect food (a discipline that is damning in its incongruity); a classroom on Zoom for toddlers, who can barely comprehend a keyboard. And how much we can learn to overlook — the paranoia, the inhumanity, the cold-heartedness, the middle-class smugness, the smothered childhoods of a world struck still, and that girl in that frock.
This Tuesday, my daughter had a Zoom Kathak class; on Friday, a Zoom school assembly. The 14-year-old has had a “Zoom sleepover”, and her brother — his first year in college cut short by the lockdown — a “Zoom party”. It could be that they are “coping”. But do we take heart from the fact, or isn’t that the most disheartening part — how easily they have receded from the world outside?
But that world too is deceptive. The Gulmohar is in full bloom, birds I have seldom seen have come to nest in the balcony, sky is bluer, air cleaner, and at night, we can see stars. It’s easy to forget the cost at which this has been achieved, the hundreds who smuggled their way out, as that girl in that frock, as our universe shut its doors on them. If we do remember them, while cooking, cleaning or washing, we push the memory aside, Instagramming the products of our labour.
We are okay couching this as a necessity; that “we” don’t know what “they” might be bringing with “them” to “our” homes. Social distancing now has medical legitimacy.
As does a concept alien to our very beings — of keeping loved ones at arm’s length. Against all we have learnt to hold dear, all that has meant for us to be human, that is the new normal: people succumbing in the clinical cold of hospital wards without families being allowed last visits.
When it’s all over — and it will be, like every doomsday scenario, except when the sun blows out (a scientific certitude) — how will we look back at this time? In terms of lives saved, or a life irrevocably lost? What will we tell that girl in that frock we sent away into the heart of darkness? That a mask, a hand sanitiser and a coronavirus-free tag means she can go back to living next to waste dumps, and to be thankful while at it? That the rivers of disinfectant sprayed on her and her parents, and in the areas they live only on the margins of, have saved them from diseases that don’t even register as contagions? That there is nothing incongruous about men entering bare-handed into drains to clean them — and, not so long ago, to recover bodies from, in the national capital — while reams of news pages are spent on discussing PPEs? That the faith in tomorrow that they must hold on to, so as to simply keep going, is after all a fallacy?
What will we even tell our children? How long before they can take the Metro, hug a friend, slide next to a classmate, eat racing around the playground, and wipe their hands down their uniforms (kyunki, daag achche hain)? Who will make that call? Which parent? Which school?
Surely, school is as much about realising we can live with some germs as learning that viruses have been around as long as — or longer than — humanity.
And how long before one of those children, in one of these schools, on one of those Metros, is that girl in that frock?
This article appeared in the print edition of May 3, 2020, under the name ‘What do we tell that girl in a shiny frock’. National Editor Shalini Langer curates the ‘She Said’ column.