Locked down in a place of lessons

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A German writer recounts the alienation, prejudice, frustration, amity, spirituality, and acceptance he has discovered in India, his home away from home.

To be stuck at home during the coronavirus lockdown is one thing. To be stuck in a place you consider home and be treated like a carrier of the virus is another awful thing. | S.S. Kumar

On the second day of the lockdown, I drove 6 km to Periyamudaliyarchavadi to get water. Coconut water. A Tamilian friend who runs a tiny guesthouse in his garden had just harvested his trees. I wasn’t there just to fill my bag with heavy and delicious coconuts. He was helping me out and he needed my help too.

All guests were long gone after what had been a dull start to the season. The quiet atmosphere in his otherwise lively abode matched the awkward silence of the vacant streets. Two days into the lockdown and he was struggling to buy milk and vegetables for himself and his three children. I had brought some cash along, which I could lend him — a little drop of hope to ease his more urgent worries.

We spent the afternoon together and I left at around 5 p.m., totally unprepared for what would unfold over the next 30 minutes. The police had blocked several roads, making it impossible to go back the way I had come. I roamed around the village to find a way out. Luckily, I was on my motorbike. The villagers who saw me immediately covered their faces. They screamed at me, Po! Po! Go away! One man pretended to pick up a stone to chase me away, like I was a stray dog. Dozens of people sprinted into their houses and huts. One woman cursed at me like I was the devil himself. It was surreal to say the least. And frightening. I could not believe my eyes and ears. Yes, I have heard the stories of foreigners being beaten and chased away with sinister “Corona Corona” choruses, but those were stories from Goa, Delhi and elsewhere. Now, those hostile realities had reached my home as well.

I had returned to India in early December, long before the term COVID-19 was even crafted and when most of the world didn’t know that a city named Wuhan even existed. I consider Tamil Nadu my second home. This land has raised me to be the man I am today. I have been coming to Periyamudaliyarchavadi for the last 18 years, I have seen the temple wither away and be renovated, I have seen houses and shops come and go and children grow into adults, but none of that mattered any more. The news on WhatsApp or Facebook spoke a clear language: The white travellers and tourists from Europe had brought the deadly disease into India. Even the Puducherry Chief Minister had taken to the TV, promising his frantic people isolation and COVID-checks of all the ‘vellekaras’, or the white folk, in Auroville.

Nobody was allowed to leave the international township any more — a township born from the idea of human unity. Rumours spread quickly. It hadn’t taken many ridiculous and utterly false social media posts to create the hostile environment that I just witnessed. Obviously, I have encountered isolated instances of xenophobia before, having travelled across India and many other parts of the globe over the last two decades. We are human apes, not gods. I understand that. But fear and animosity from the men and women I consider my brothers and sisters, virtually right in front of my house?

As I type these words, ten days after my trip to Periyamudaliyarchavadi, a nationwide lights display has just come to a close — and the country has changed once again. The rage and scapegoating has shifted, since it has come to be known that almost half of the COVID-19 cases across India can now be traced back to a Tablighi Jamaat (an influential islamic missionary organisation popular mainly in South-East Asia) meeting in New Delhi. Inter-religious tensions are on the rise again, tensions which had hardly even begun to subside. The high-stakes drama over the Citizenship Amendment Act is still an open wound on a vulnerable subcontinent that is trying to find a pathway from a diverse past into a diverse future. It’s hard to imagine that the indignation will be directed at the Tablighi Jamaat alone and that all other followers of Islam will be spared. Strange times indeed.

Yet, on Day 12, the animosity towards foreigners is still palpable. I am making sure I stay at home until things cool down considerably. I was supposed to fly back on April 1. (In hindsight, I wonder if I knew that my plan to fly out of India on that particular date would turn out to be a great joke. But, of course, my ticket has long been cancelled). The German government is making great efforts to bring home its stranded citizens from all corners of the planet, including thousands in India. Last week, I twice had the opportunity to fly back to Frankfurt. I declined.

Despite the global uncertainty over the pandemic and over how the situation will unfold here in India, and Tamil Nadu more specifically, despite the fact that I may not be able to travel back to Germany this year, I was in for a big realisation. These demanding times showed me more than ever that this too is my home. This is were I belong. It was simply not possible to turn around and leave at a time of crisis and uncertainty.

Flipping through my notebook, I found a passage written only two months ago, an awkwardly distant time when none of the present realities were even imaginable. I was riding my motorbike on the ECR and almost got killed. The road had been dug up for maintenance, and there were neither lights nor signs. In a split second I had to steer to the right to avoid a fatal crash. Coming from that side was a bus senselessly speeding down the road. I would have been dead if it weren’t for those centimetres between me and the bus. I had parked my bike and let my frustration flood through my body and overrun my mind. It was one of those dark moments when you simply have had enough of India, enough of the utter carelessness, the polluted streams and toxic village lakes, enough of religious bias, the sheer disregard for human life, the noise and the dirt and the misery and the violence, not to mention the upcoming unbearable summer heat — enough!

Why the hell am I here?

Having arrived at this very question countless times, I knew my answer already. Still shaking from the shock of nearly dying, I wrote: “Loving India is ‘a love in spite of’. A love in spite of misery, of fear, helplessness and death. Because after all, it is not a country of misery or despair. India reveals a profound appreciation of all darkness and light which ought to be experienced by mankind, an unfathomable lesson in horror and divinity. Every manifestation has to be accepted because everything is part of God. All is Brahman, as the Upanishads state over and over again. Sarvam khalvidam brahma. And, of everything that can be said about this country, the opposite is equally true. In India, darkness is not the absence of light, but its companion.”

I brushed off my frustration and decided to stay. India taught me everything. So, why would I think this upcoming lesson would prove in any way fruitless? It´s undeniable, especially in these unprecedented times. One way or the other, something extraordinary is about to happen. This is a lesson and mankind is the subject. Let´s listen, once more, to what India has to teach us about our very human condition.

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