Society

Social distancing is an idea whose time has finally come

Columnist Shovon Chowdhury has a satirical take on why social distancing must remain the norm for all time

Since time immemorial, human beings have been trying to come closer. This is a natural consequence of the process by which we are born. We are yanked out of the womb by strangers, naked and quivering, and spend the rest of our lives trying to rediscover the comfort in which we were born.

Since climbing back in is something most mothers would object to, we seek solace in the arms of others. We want to be close to them. We want to feel their flesh against our flesh. We try to fit on the same seat in the bus, and overload auto rickshaws to unprecedented levels.

Worldwide, our leaders have always shown the way, even the most unexpected ones. Napoleon used to kiss his soldiers on both cheeks, lavishly and often. According to contemporary reports, his lips were wet and clammy. It was one of the contributing factors to the rapid collapse of his empire.

You may argue that this was just a personal quirk, and not representative of a wider trend in history, but this is not true. Hitler was extremely affectionate. Nehru used to leap into crowds at the drop of a hat. Even in cold and inhuman regimes such as the former Soviet Union, such methods were in widespread use. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev would greet all world leaders, without exception, with a kiss on each cheek, followed by a long, lingering smack on the lips. My extensive study of photographs from the time does not indicate any use of tongue.

Many have criticised our PM for hugging world leaders. Before they are dragged off kicking and screaming, for plotting to undermine the Government, they should consider the fact that what used to happen before him was much worse. Brezhnev was particularly fond of East German leader Erich Honecker. If you Google ‘Brezhnev-Honecker kiss’ you will see pictures of the two of them that you will never be able to unsee. YouTube videos of former US President Jimmy Carter trying to avoid the inevitable are also richly entertaining.

Powerful forces like this have conspired over the years to drive us closer together. The problem is particularly acute in India, where population, religion and public transport have led us to the conclusion that personal space is a Western conspiracy. Our need to mingle is deeply ingrained in our psyche. Those who think that now is a good time to criticise religious festivals should consider this before speaking up.

Only a powerful shock to the system can cure us. We have just received that shock. Social distancing is the answer. Let’s hope that the virus goes away soon, with a minimal loss of life. But the habits we acquire should remain. Not just now, but for the foreseeable future, let’s not try to squeeze in between those two little old ladies sitting on the bus. It’s better to keep standing.

(No large crowds congregate in Shovon Chowdhury’s most recent novel, 'Murder With Bengali Characteristics')

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 9:01:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/social-distancing-is-an-idea-whose-time-has-finally-come/article31142222.ece

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