Speech Melba | Columns

Me and my pie: When coronavirus exposed the reality of inequality

One of those easy truisms that is dished out about India is the duality of it — “there are two Indias,” they always say. Mostly, the second India is well out of sight of the first. It pops up occasionally at a traffic signal when a persistent mendicant has to be shooed away or lectured about finding a job. Or sometimes it appears as a line of naked bottoms when the train edges out of a station at dawn. Mostly, it is disguised as a flower seller or vegetable vendor whose tribulations are never allowed precedence over the nagging suspicion of their “over-charging” ways.

But, as someone once said, the average urban Indian’s closest brush with poverty is invariably the ubiquitous domestic help. Through interactions with this being, without whose presence their lives are rendered extraordinarily unliveable, they dish out vast generalisations about poverty and economics. Equally helpfully, filtered through the largesse extended occasionally to this being, they are able to form impeccable opinions about their own munificence.

Then along comes the pandemic, flippantly breaking boundaries and gate-crashing communities with absolutely no respect for privilege. Who would have thought a wholesaler in Chandigarh would be infected by the same disease as Prince Charles? Was it AIDS that last showed such little respect for wealth? Today, the rich sequester themselves in luxury, live-in valet and all, while the poor try social distancing stuck five to a room. The middle-classes pick and choose. They want the jhaadu-pocha woman to come to work, but they chase away the frontline health worker who lives in their building. Social distancing is killing us, they groan, while ensuring the sweeper reports to work each day.

As I sift through onions at my neighbourhood grocer’s these days, I see exquisite apparitions buying cucumbers in cut-off denims. Waiting in a long line at the billing counter, I hear a cultivated drawl from a man in scruffy WFH shorts and dirty pigtail: ‘No whole grain. No focaccia. They’ve only got white, babes.’

In unspoken agreement, the second billing line is reserved for Dunzo couriers, young, harassed-looking men with lists, asking the salesgirls to help them find astonishing necessities. ‘Arab sauce enda shelf, akka?’ They are in a rush; if they cannot find the arrabbiata here, they have to try the next store before 1 pm. The exquisite apparition might get away being out on the streets after 1 pm, but the Dunzo guy might get to feel the temper of an impatient cop.

For the first time in memory, my grocer’s stock looks tired and brown — spotty cauliflowers and five sad-looking melons. The fresh supplies truck has not arrived. Waiting in line I fantasise I am in Poland in an old WWII movie and that next week I might be squabbling just to take home a wilted cabbage. It’s that infectious post-apocalyptic scent in the air.

The sense of unreality is most pronounced on social media. One realises there is something warm and comforting about food; perhaps that is why everyone is talking about it incessantly. But as recipes and photographs scroll infinitely, there is also something unconsciously obscene about the obsession. Timelines respect no priorities, so within seconds of seeing an ineradicable image of migrant workers scrounging for semi-edible fruit from a heap of rotting bananas, you move seamlessly to someone baking rich banana bread. The video of a ragged man scooping up handfuls of milk spilt on the road segues to a post about blueberry cupcakes winking from someone’s new dessert cloche.

Hundreds of labourers who have taken refuge under a bridge somewhere in Delhi apparently make do with one meal a day. In another Delhi suburb, policemen complain of residents demanding strawberries and Figaro olive oil without which, they say, they cannot cook. Photographs of nurses working without masks and of a woman weeping for the dead son in her arms alternate with nostalgia photos of #MeAt20, the hashtag that is trending during Covid-19 in a bewildering spike of narcissism. Unless narcissism is survival instinct on overdrive.

Words like ‘basic’ and ‘necessity’ have become shape-shifting monsters, no longer to be relied upon. We need a new language to make sense of these streaming visions but we receive only static, sounds falling between frequencies, unable to become speech.

But listen, between the static there is silence. A deep, welcome and almost tangible silence. It seems to be the silence that precedes a rebirth, but it could also just be the silence of a long night. But mostly it is a magnificent and humbling silence, as if the Earth were speaking and we are meant to listen. And listen we would, but we first have to pose with a glass of wine and a slice of that banoffee pie we baked.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 5:03:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-lockdown-is-like-a-quick-change-artist-it-becomes-many-things-for-many-people/article31423246.ece

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