Home / Opinion / Columns /  Indians awaiting the return to ‘normal’ are looking forward to what, really?

As the pandemic wanes and the world, tired of fearing death, opens up, Indians look forward to the return of ‘normal life’. As though normal life in India was something pleasurable.

When covid first began to spread, the most contagious pathogens were alarmist analyses of American commentators whose influence on modern Indian thought is disproportionate to their capacity to be correct. And the most influential idea then was that a post-pandemic world would be unrecognizable. This was convincing then, but was naive, as we now know. The same politicians, the same billionaires, the same addictions, anarchies, biases and fears run the world.

There was a long phase during the pandemic when Indians granted Prime Minister Narendra Modi exceptional influence over them. And India had an opportunity to perform a revolutionary coup on its way of life and transform itself forever. India could have redesigned roads and pavements, changed rails, created new minimum standards for hygiene and inter-city travel. India could have even quit perceiving and treating all Indians as though they are poor.

But we did little, if anything. All those months when Indians stayed at home did not see much done in terms of public works. Normal Indian life is going to be highly recognizable. India, which does not wish any Indian to die of corona, will let them die in other ways. When things get back to ‘normal life’, more Indians will die on the roads, and in factory fires, but without masks. There will be longer queues of people shuffling into government hospitals for a host of seasonal illnesses, and urban smog will return. Indians will spit in public spaces as before, and cough on others. The office, too, is far from dead. Bosses will demand that their subordinates be physically present to reassure themselves that they still have underlings who can show through long unnecessary hours and wasteful acts that they are doing what looks like work.

Also, India’s great political stamina for useless things will return in full force as cities open fully for agitations and disruptions of life. All for lofty esoteric concepts and never for foundational, basic necessities.

In the ‘normal life’ that will return, the national definition of ‘essential commodities’ will continue to be food, mostly the kind of food that is not only inessential but deadly, made inexpensive by heavy subsidies.

India is in a perpetual—hence normal—war against poverty. And India’s main assumption that shapes all policy is that the only thing that is essential is food. Thus India will continue to confuse a basic necessity with what is essential. It will not concede that what is essential to life, even for the poor, is fun and other joys.

That the poor must be preoccupied with eating, and when not eating with foraging, and when not foraging with grim things, is an overarching assumption not only of the government, but every organization in the world that aims to eliminate poverty, including the American tech industry.

The same people who responded to the pandemic—in governments, academia and activism—are those who will be at the helm of ‘normal life’, when India and other nations shift their focus to their other deadly epidemic—poverty. Their poor performance on covid is a reminder of why and how they fail to bring our other epidemic to an end.

For Indians, normal life is about throngs of people. Everywhere. People are the backdrop, extras in the more interesting stories about ourselves. We have been missing them. Even though they make long queues longer, talk in movie theatres and cut lanes, we feel lost without them. Indians are unaccustomed to empty roads. Vast hectares of pastures without even a sign of people is the very idea of sorrow for us. Insufficient public infrastructure results in a life that is never devoid of crowds, and that has its own happy energy.

Indians, even those given to balcony enthusiasm, who suffer from chronic sorrow will have to return to ‘normal life’ by seeking non-covid reasons for their melancholies. It is hard for them to explain their reasonless sorrow because the threshold for what constitutes misery is very high in this country. Hence sorrows need to have exalted reasons. But melancholy, dejection, depression and other phenomena on the spectrum of gloom need not have an identifiable emotional cause. So, unlike the melancholic in rich nations, where mental afflictions are not expected to have major causes, Indians have to invent grand sociological and medical reasons, even grave injustice, to explain their affluent sorrows.

Our balcony enthusiasts have always felt it somewhat indecent to lament their half-glooms in a nation where people have tragic stories and yet manage to live banal lives with banal joys. The pandemic, briefly, offered India’s rich a respectable trigger. They talked about how the uncertainty of everything and their house-arrests, even though their homes were large enough to have balconies, affected their mental health. Those were still not acceptable reasons by Indian standards, which require bereavement or impoverishment to justify anguish. But still, among all the reasons affluent Indians have cited for their reasonless sorrow, the pandemic gloom was the most respectable. After all, it had the potential for death and destruction.

As ‘normal life’ returns, the sad among the balcony lot will have to go back to their old lame reasons and feel the unreasonable shame of feeling low even though they have been more fortunate than most Indians. And to cure their emptiness, they will try to make the world a better place and thereby make it worse. I am not a big fan of normal life.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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