The problem

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NO doubts that the corona epidemic is complex in nature. It evokes what the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss dubbed as a total social fact, a concrete event which connects and unfolds the various aspects of a society in its totality. Such an epic event is not easy to study. At this moment I remember a sage piece of advice I once received. I was told, ‘Sometimes, one needs to ramble. A walk is often purposive, a ramble gives you a dream time, allows you to float, waiting for surprises.’ This essay is a ramble through the news, the views, and gossip about the Coronavirus. It does not seek immediate solutions, but looks for nuggets and frameworks of understanding.

Nature has always inspired performances, magnificent narratives, whether it incarnates itself as a deluge, an eclipse, or a virus. Whether it was the great flood, the iceage, or the bubonic plague, it has shaped history and controlled our imaginations. Of late man has been contemptuous of nature and read the medieval plague as a thing of the past, while it is an imagination that should continue to haunt us.

One of the first things one notices about the Coronavirus is the narrow, restrictive glossary employed to understand it. In India, it is not portrayed as a riddle or a mystery, but strangely as a secular problem that threatened the competence and functioning of governments. In fact, governance reduces it to an exercise in problem solving or policy allocations. One senses a failure of language and imagination here because the virus broke through the everydayness of being, playing Humpty Dumpty with everything we took for granted. Our pretended hubris of the lockdown which we presented Guinness Book style, reflected more an illiteracy of history and language, and lacked a sense of the deeper metaphysics of life and death. We seem to ignore the symbolism of death and dying. There is little sense of the collective mourning in the everyday litany of statistics. There is no language of loss, at best an empty hubris of control. Even nature in its polysemy is seen as a law and order problem.

Given this liability, the Corona chronicle has to be read twice, once in the language of power and governance, and once again as a reflection on everydayness groping for new categories.

A crisis can either approve paradigms or reinforce stereotypes, but either way, the crisis as a phenomena makes you reflect on thought, on the ways of thinking. The Corona as a crisis is still unfolding, but right now, it reveals a rush to stereotype. But stereotype, rather than exacerbating the crisis, becomes a Linus blanket, whose intellectual security and warmth sustains habitual thought and becomes a social consolation. At the present stage, the Coronavirus reveals the larger life power of standard modes of thought.

A reading of Peter Drucker helps at this point. Drucker, a doyen of organizational thought once made a fascinating distinction between leadership and management, an observation which looks like a play of words but has profound consequences, as it unravels in daily life. Drucker claimed that a leader is one who does the right thing, while a manager is one who does things right. The manager emphasizes the tactical, he plays safe, where a leader confronts a more open-ended experimental world which involves risk. A manager is instrumental, and literally conveys a sense of impression management. One was pondering over Drucker’s distinction as one listened to Modi’s first speech declaring a lockdown. One expected leadership, but what one received was a managerial exercise, the absence of ideas beyond the panopticonization of spaces. There was a gimmickyness in the plate-beating ritual, evocative of the Swadeshi movement but empty of ideas and idealism. There was little attempt to think of healthcare, ethics, and the varieties of suffering the closure would create. The speech verged on the correct, but not on the true. Truth hurts, it opens you up to new possibilities and it demands rethinking. One of the interesting things is that people felt Modi had to look decisive, and make decisive moves to prove he is in-charge. All one wanted was a piece of drama. Modi recited the lines as if by rote.

In one sense, Modi is a collection of stereotypes of the kind of authoritarianism India wants to see in power. Whether it is a rocket launch, an act of demonetization, or a lockdown, there is a technocratic machismo to the act. No one asks whether the act is a civil act or of power. The decisiveness of the image was critical, one had to convey a sense of being in control. But whether the lockdown worked or not was secondary. It was as if the virus was being subject to a law and order solution. Public health, unfortunately, is more complex than that.

The logic was simple. The virus created a state of emergency, a situation which demanded an unprecedented exercise of power. The virus, in the words of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, created a state of exception, a state where democracy could be suspended and treated as secondary. Two questions most of us refused to ask at that time are: why do we take such authoritarianism for granted, as an intelligent response to a situation? Second, we do not notice that our democracy, already majoritarian in its idiocy, is an assemblage of evolving authoritarianisms, from CAA in Assam to AFSPA in Manipur, to the brutality of Kashmir, and the lockdown in the Corona. We seem to assume authoritarianism is apt, because it possesses a kind of cybernetic intelligence to handle the emergency. What we acquire is not immunity to a virus, but a gradual and accumulated immunity to a democracy as a way of life. Our fetish for the magic of decisiveness adds to it.

The problem stems from the way we construct Modi. When we analyse Modi, we miss out on the genres of literature and philosophy. What we confront is the immediacy of journalism, and the factuality of social science. Both seek the factual, but by listing facts we miss out on the truth. We see a political creature, a policymaker, and we measure Modi in indices as a measure, and a number, but we do not see him as a metaphor. There is an assemblage of acts, but an absence of imagination. The mediocrity that Modi has added to the country is not just intellectual, it is ethical, aesthetic, and linguistic. We keep incarnating Modi as a managerial exercise, a crude outline of problem solving. Consider Modi’s speech on the Coronavirus. It was overpowering in its inanity, but exquisite in its impression management. He asked everyone to drum plates to all of the workers, and little was said about the suffering, about the disaster called the informal economy.

The middle class echoes Modi. It is a meeting of comfort zones of the intellect. One wishes there was a Robert Conquest to analyse Modi, instead of bureaucrats from our planning commission. In fact, Robert Conquest, in assessing Stalinism, made a point that deserves to be emphasized. He said, ‘Americans were studying Stalin gathered intelligence, yet not all the facticity of intelligence provided insights into the evil of the Stalinist regime.’ Similarly, not all the policy analysis of our social scientists makes a critique of Modi. There is a failure of a moral imagination which only the great literature or a new social science can cure. The Coronavirus has, in fact, provided a new lease of life to the Modi regime. Watching the Janta curfew, the superficiality of the event, one realizes that authoritarianism to rule creates a crust of mediocrity. In Modi’s case, he used the greatest good to the greatest number. We need a different language, a different morality to expose Modi.

This partly stems from the fact that we have reduced Modi to a political creature. Modi and Amit Shah ooze the language of politics but little else. One reads little that is literary, or aesthetic, or ethical about them. One can understand the problem of Modi better but one contrasts his career with the rise of Stalinism or Fascism. There it was literature, especially poetry, that provided the acuteness of critique and understanding. Writers grasped the dangers of the fascism of everydayness, where one makes more compromises to adjust with reality. Small adjustments became the order of the day, and as a result, a majority of people adjusted to tyranny. Literature saw through this process acutely, and challenged it persuasively. Sadly, the acuteness of his brand intelligence is foiling a moral critique. In a spirit of adjustment we claim that Modi works so he must be good. When politics becomes managerial or ideological, it loses its sense of ethics. Our habits like our concepts march in uniform to Modi’s drum.

The acts of politicians are immediately consumed and interpreted by think tanks, which try to create an intermediate layer of understanding between act and policy. As a collective text, think tanks in India have exercised a fascination which needs to be examined. The power and influence of think tanks reflects the decline of an intellectual community. The academe is virtually missing in policy, media, even TV. What we have instead are policy experts from Centre for Policy Research, Observer Research Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, creating a moral compass of policy directions and handing out report cards. One has to grant that they have an understanding of power and its idioms and they behave less acrimoniously than the university. There is a more detailed sense of backstage. Generally, the main actors are bureaucrats who have both a sense of power and its absence.

Consider the recent discussion on the state of the world after the Coronavirus between Shivshankar Menon and Shyam Saran. Two formidable people, suave, composed, easy with themselves, one expected much and listened closely. One replayed the discussion wondering whether one had missed something. Both began by discoursing on globalization, highlighting key words like security, borders, and connectivity. Yet both sounded like dated opeds that meant little. A lot of what they said was empirically true, but fact did not graduate to a framework of meaning. They referred to the blame game country’s play. They said they sensed the world as fragmenting. They added the usual wisdom that nations should find in themselves, sources of resonance for recovery. They hinted aptly and profoundly when such an event was the 9/11 of global solidarity.

Two things intrigued one. They spoke common sense, but one had to ask them whether common sense offers insights in a moment of paradigm crisis. Second, they both spoke as generalists, yet the connectivity and thought never came through. A generalist today is an innocuous creature. He lacks connectivity to the systemic power of holism, which integrates knowledge and understanding at different levels. In fact, but by the time they ended, the only profound and welcome thing they said was, ‘Stay Home Stay Safe’. I wish they had, because the performance was affably empty. There was little sense of medical discourse, and its connectivity to migration and globalization. One wishes they had speculated about the varieties of time they had to tackle during the crisis, especially the time beyond the short run.

I realized two things at that time. Here were two experienced men confronting the emptiness of the paradigms. They did not state it, but the body language of hesitancy, a rush to closure, revealed the tacit understanding. It was clear that globalization as a value frame was fragmented and empty. Second, nation states have become self-centred, and with the likes of US and Britain, literally parochial, even punitive. One realized, as one watches a fable, about the relation between the paradigm and power system. The very helpless in articulation of the two senior bureaucrats was revealing. They sensed the end of the paradigm, and they were helpless to articulate the new world beyond cliche. Yet, the honesty lay in their hesitancy, and silence.

Beyond leadership and think tanks, one has to consider the press.

This eventually raises the question of truth and narrative, of the roar of the writer as a journalist, storyteller, scientist, and historian. Two articles of startlingly different style set the tone for the spectrum. The first was by Annie Zaidi, writer and filmmaker. They style is compact, personal, like a metaphorical housewife cleaning up leftovers. For her, truth begins with the self, with personal honesty and its professional accompaniment. The pandemic leads to self-discovery, of the importance of truth. She refers to the list of evasions, prevarications by citizens, whether consuming paracetamol before a flight or bureaucrats helping relatives evade quarantine.

The journalist has to become the truth teller at this moment. A journalism where exaggeration, which paints Modi as a new savant, will not do. Shekhar Gupta and ‘The Print’ had no recourse to either economy or modesty. He pegs his own article on Gabriel Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, but has little sense of the book. He plays with the title, but he forgets that it is the language and narrative which makes it fascinating. Shekhar Gupta, in fact, should have made a contrast between the magical realism of Marquez and the corporate realism of Narendra Modi. A magical realism tends to show how dictatorships can be surreal entities. If Shekhar Gupta has understood Modi’s language, he would have made an interesting contrast between socialist realism and nationalist realism as literary genres. He would have realised that Modi was unconsciously imitating the Stakhanovite, Stalinist language of production statistics, which was used to celebrate Soviet industrialization. Modi was mimicking socialist realism to present epidemic statistics creating a Olympiad around death and its exponential activities. In its attempt to look managerially competent, Modi has created a surrealist language of governance. 

By the second fortnight of the virus, the texture of waiting and conversation changes. Modi appears like a replay of a bad play, an extra asked to do a heroic role, and sounding tentative. He thrives on the rhetoric of nationhood evoking an urgent Swadeshi era of togetherness and community, while there is anomie and devastation all around. His speech has no sense of logistics, the responsibility of delivery, questions of transporting migrants, issues of handling human rights violations. I wish he could have taken a leaf out of Fidel Castro’s speeches. Once Castro addressed the nation on the issue of milk shortage to the children, explaining the difficulties and apologizing to each child. One cannot see Modi doing such a similar act.

Modi, in fact, tried to emphasize the development metaphor. While India is composed of different economies facing a variety of crisis, Modi created an image of an integrated world economy doing rather well. The Olympics image of a race of nations haunts him, and Modi is more content handing out report cards to himself and the people when facing the concrete hard-headed questions of materiality and decision-making. But there is another emptiness that needs to be talked about. A friend of mine, who is an avid watcher and sensitive critic of news and debates that follow, contrasted Modi’s unctuousness on TV with the critics echoing a holier than thou attitude, that we know more than you. She said, ‘No one admits they know little about what is going on. As a result, we have a Punch and Judy show on TV, which is rhetorically empty, and consequently tiring.’ She claimed we are poor listeners at best and complained, there is no sense of the constructive vision of the community.

How do we work together? She claimed in that the emptiness of policy has to be met at two levels. First, there has to be an individual act which is ethical. This then has to be scaled up to policy. She gave an example. On a walk back she saw a group distributing food in the slums. The food was packed diligently, and served carefully. She inquired about who was doing it. It was not some big corporate group or politician, it was an ordinary shopkeeper responding to the hunger in his neighbourhood with dignity. People, she laughingly added, did not know his name. He was either Pappu Bhai or Yusuf Bhai to everyone. She admitted it was a small matter, a neighbourhood reaching out to itself. She said, ‘If Pappu Bhai’s ethics of generosity could have been scaled up to one square mile, we have a community.’ She claimed that Pappu Bhai was not a problem-solving or policy-making person, he had just created a caring economy. The langar, she added, was another vigorous and traditional example of open generosity. But the stories of the Pappu Bhais will not be written about in newspapers. He won’t be cited in CSR documents, but all democracy needs is a neighbourhood of Pappu Bhais. He is not talking human rights, just living it.

Pappu Bhai becomes a metaphor for a different kind of thinking. Unfortunately, nobody listens to Pappu Bhai. Everyone watches Modi. She claimed that the second phase of the virus lashing out at Modi adds little. He is just a face in the mirror, the middle class echoing middle class emptiness. People on TV should now work on the one square mile ethics. It also challenges false news with ease. She was right. Critique in the time of virus demanded an ethical act. When the ethical act becomes political, policy in a democratic sense is born. One can scale up the planetary ethics after that. The simpleness of the ethical act my friend talked about went beyond voluntarism or philanthropy. It emphasized the face-to-face aspect of an eye-down relationship. The ethics is simple. Crisis demands that you rise above the average, crisis also demands that you rise above your own average. Third, you do both in a self-effacing way. Ethics as sacrifice, generosity, community, speaks louder than policy, turning a political economy into a model economy. One does not need a handbook of management for it. It is there as a part of the wisdom of folklore. Parables often speak louder than mere policy.

Another friend of mine added that critique needs to be constructive. It has to connect to a community, share the spirit of storytelling, be plural and futuristic. It has set the path of alternative ways, which neither side possesses. It needs a moral imagination which is a prelude to problem solving. This friend claimed, as a well known social scientist, that public health of any crisis is an act of learning and an experiment in pedagogy. By locating oneself in a neighbourhood, the critic becomes witness, memory, testament, and trustee. He combines discourse and storytelling. Such ordinary literacy is important in an age where leadership displays both illiteracy and stereotype. To defeat a thoughtless thought, one needs thinking action. Maybe the last words belonged to a saddened policy expert. He said, ‘We must stop pretending that policy is a perpetual motion machine of problem solving. We need the imagination and intelligence of neighbourhood and community to keep sensitive and human.’

Our sense of stereotype and normative begins with the state and then moves to science. It is interesting, we invoke science as a method, a technique as something readymade and available, something literally off the shelf. Science, like the Everest, is there. There is no sense of debate, plurality, doubt, scepticism. Science is the turnkey way of problem solving. The technocrat and the citizen merge in this invocation of a normative science. There is little sense of metaphysics or cosmology. Science is almost offered as a hygiene that purifies us in times of pollution. The presentations themselves are completely sanitized of history, and is offered as a form of immaculate innocence.

The absences and silences that surround the virus are enormous. In our urge to be modernist, it is as if we have lost the collective memory. India as a governmental regime has lost its sense of metaphor, then one realizes that it is a straightjacket of an imagination. One senses it in a housewife with a PhD saying, ‘I wish I could tell the story of Tenaliraman and the virus, something to tell my child and reassure us both on the dangers of the virus.’ There is an emptiness which the science cannot fill, but a spiritualized scientism, a packaged psychology, which promises a technique or a mantra but delivers neither. There is no sense of the fact that to be is to be afraid, and that we will have to create what Hans Jonas called, ‘a heuristics of fear’, a framework of the imagination. Half storytelling, half faith, which helps him cope. For too long now we have denied coping or muddling through as unscientific or failed solutions.

In the infinity of postponed lockdowns, we now realize that coping is what we do anyway, even if we don’t understand it. It is the body’s innate wisdom, a sense of prudence. We have to bring back coping as a craft or fine art, a way of intuitively reacting to the crisis, by realizing that coping is not something your scientists can turn into a handbook. It is not a technique, just intuitive judgements within a cultural frame. Coping is a balancing act an individual performs within the limits and possibilities of a culture. As a housewife told me, ‘Coping is a home science, both of everydayness and culture, because you sense the enormity of limits, you sense the interstices of possibility.’ There is no magical spirituality to it. One loses the wisdom of coping in the age where psychology handbooks scout like cookbooks, offering custom made solutions. These are placebos, but one needs a deeper psychology of everydayness in a crisis, especially as one as prolonged as the virus.

As a friend told me, ‘Coping is like cooking, we pick it up like tacit knowledge. Teaching it as management destroys it like a folktale. Coping and prayer allow me to make peace with my fears, and almost feel fond of my anxieties. Science cannot do that for me.’ Another scholar told me, ‘The sadness of science is its current isolation, science needs the company of the Shaman, the mystic, the trickster. Without myth, science would lose a sense of its own competence.’ Disasters should train us to fight the poverty of dualisms. Dualisms impoverish the world around, confronting science with superstition, that not all beliefs outside science are superstitious. Lighting a lamp for your husband for his good life is not superstition. It steadies you, and it conveys more of what is called the Pascalian wager. Neils Bohr captured it when someone asked him why he had a blacksmith’s hoof on the front door. He said it works fine, and in the meanwhile, it does not do bad. The world is full of Pascalian wagers that let us cope with uncertainty.

It is not just coping, it is public concern on the sense of what is happening. I was asked why is it that advertisements do not change the logic and rhythm of their usual rhetoric. Take Amul, it is acting as if it is still festival time celebrating itself. In days of shortage, can it not emphasize sharing, of doing with less. The failure of advertisement, of an imagination is startling. Probably the one exception was the Corona footwear ad, which racing through a world of footwear explains why safety demands we stay at home.

A different question asked by a lover of graphic novels was, ‘Would we have coped differently if India had a sense of science fiction?’ She was not referring to populist caricatures, but the classic stories of epidemics providing scenarios for the inexperienced, the unbelievable. The question was both literary and pedagogic. Could literature have added something to the way we responded? Could the sense of the knee-jerk be broadened into a sense of scenarios about alternative possibilities of lockdown? Can the virus not be seen as alien, intrusive, but as a part of a long duree of our imaginations?

Years ago, Johan Galtung and Robert Jungk had suggested that the future as an imagination be taught as an exercise to children. Science fiction could have been an interesting way of visualizing the Corona phenomena. One needs a different sense of the evil and the alien, even as metaphors for democracy to grow in our imagination. It could be a new meeting ground for science, fairytale, myth, and science fiction, creating a pluralism that transcends the ability of the scientific temper. There is little about the sociology of emotions. We work with concepts that neither have emotion, worse, we drive emotion into the backstage of the private and the domestic, and seek to scienticize it with canned spirituality. One desperately needs a sprinkling of ordinary conversations to add sense to the stiffness of policy initiatives.

To me the most stunning way this came home was in scraps of ethnography presented in blank verse. The housewife and the migrant become two classic characters that require a different reading.

Why ask a housewife / To play Kierkegaard / "on fear and trembling"? / His is a metaphysics, / Mine is a curdled everydayness. / "My fears are stark / I am scared / I am afraid / My anxieties overpower me". / The Covid outside / Has created a Covid within. / This man’s world has no place / For anxiety, my anxiety / Men think in terms of / Pre-fabricated thoughts they call policy / Not tiny fears like little alphabets / Enzymes of anxiety / Signaling an unnamed distress / My fears speak for me / I am afraid / Therefore, I am – / A shopping list of worries / Using silence / To shame storytelling / And social science.

I am the housewife / Working in drudgery / Cooking, cleaning, washing / Repeatedly / My fear and trembling / Lost in waves of guilt / Dissolve in everydayness / My anxiety becomes inanity / I am hysteric and hypochondriac. / Yet no one senses my pain / The Covid has infected my mind / Mutating dreams into nightmares / Everydayness becomes an insanity / Of anxieties / Where hope becomes / The guilt of fear and waiting. / I even discovered / That housework is no longer mine / It is what executive do at home / Between two cups of branded coffee / They wouldn’t know how to make. / While they are honored in newspaper supplements / Beaming as if they have patented / A sugarcoated drudgery / Home work is the new corporate worship / As executives / Play narcissists as housewife. / My anxiety needs an impressionist / Not a handbook of psychology / A sense of the skin deep / Frothing in a ferment / Of ifs and buts / Creating bleak futures / For everyone around me. / This Covid is a virus / For bringing alive / Empty time / Lost stories / Invisible people / From the untold cities of today / Covid reveals / Everyday worlds / We fail to recognize / Creatures of textbook socio logy / Cloaked in invisibility. / The migrant, / There but not there / Servicing a city / As cook, tailor, builder, cleaner / A creature out of Mahashweta / Or Whitman / But lost to literature; / Documentaries don’t invisible everdayness / The language of facts lack poetry / The gossip of visibility / The voice of empathy / While my sadness is lost in silence. / I am the migrant / Liminal to the core / An insult to citizenship / Unwelcome at home / An alien at work. / I service cities / While cities cloak me in invisibility / When I emerge / I am an embarrassment / The refugee at home / Homeless everywhere / My borders begin with my body / I am hawker, the rediwala / As I am called / With fraudulent affection / Walking streets with a bare cart in front of me. / I am chaiwala / Subject of political humbug / Unemployed / Abandoned / No one speaks for me / While the P.M. / Hosts my caricature / In political rallies / As his homely double. / The city / A menagerie of the unwanted / Unemployed / Cook cleaner tailor / Barber and beautician; / Normalcy was my invisibility / I am the clockwork / That runs your city / While the city runs away from me / Every nook cranny crevice / Is my home / In a world without homecoming. / Don’t talk to me about policy / The ejaculation of economists / Flaunting their impotence / As exponential fears / In web in air seminars / The new salons of meaninglessness. / How does hypocrisy / Find an easy home / And we don’t? / We sit / Confined in sheds and abandoned schools / And bus stations / Sprayed with chemicals / Sanitized for a bus / To take us back / To what was once home.

Unfortunately, the poignancy of the situation does little to the making of policy. The idea of the new normal destroys storytelling again and creates a post truth society which requires a different analysis. But that needs a different story.