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Photo: ANI
Photo: ANI

Opinion | Of downed shutters and philosophies etched in stone

The lockdown has made us philosophize ad lib as we muse about life in an unfamiliar world. We contemplate and surmise, trying to extract golden linings from sunrises and spot dark ones in silver clouds

My friend in Shanghai—let’s call him Mr Sen (no relation whatsoever to the Nobel Laureate)—has acquired a semi-cult status on social media. He has nicknamed himself “Baba", and is trotting out a philosophy a day. Like pennies for thoughts.

Knowing his temperament (somewhat), I believe he has a Nietzsche-like consciousness, though he can be surprisingly disarming when he tries hard enough. So I, for one, am hooked to his ‘Baba-isms’ even as I hurtle around in a time continuum looking for metaphysical anchors.

Sample this: “Baba says… Humankind will now evolve to develop stronger necks. Smiling at people on the street or in the elevator when there is eye contact is not an option (mask duhhhh), so one needs to nod, needing higher number of nods per day… giving rise to stronger necks. Also, ‘pain in the neck’ will signify one is a polite and amiable person, not the other way round."

And: “Baba is wondering if he unable to tolerate intolerant people, doesn’t it make him intolerant and hence unable to tolerate himself?"

He had a reasonable head start in philosophizing, since the lockdown started in his part of the world much before it struck the rest of us. But we, the hoi polloi, caught up soon enough. Today, we have all become contemplators and surmisers, trying to extract golden linings from sunrises, finding dark ones in silver clouds, and stewing meat out of metaphors.

It’s a far shot from Plato, but “I’ve become philosophical—it’s a coping mechanism" is the new anthem of a new world order. You can almost visualize the attendant shrug—or ‘shruggie’ as kids would say—if you happened to be social distancing and (therefore) not face to face.

Many such musings are being logged down in #LockdownDiaries, to be published as e-books in the foreseeable future (the virus seems to have sounded the death knell for print versions) with titles like What Covid Taught Me about Myself and Life Lessons Culled from Quarantine. From listicles of conveniences and mood-altering meditations to ruminations of despair. I’ve been a contributing writer to one such archive myself, going on relentlessly about how cooking gives me a sense of format in these unstructured times.

“I’m rethinking all my relationships and personal milestones," offered a friend, on a WhatsApp call from Trump-land. She had not had this kind of luxury—unlimited time to mess with her head—she said, before throwing in, for good measure, “An unexamined life is not worth living."

“Hey, didn’t we learn that in school, Greek history, remember? We used to pass around noughts and crosses on pieces of paper, what a colossal bore those classes used to be!"

“But I’ve found my lockdown metier in that, what a wise man Socrates was."

I couldn’t argue any more.

Another friend, who had majored in psychology but had moved on to dabble in an area completely removed from mental calisthenics, told me her college degree was at long last proving to be worth its certification of merit. “I think I have far superior insights into the human mind," she declared self-importantly, “so I have taken it upon myself to mentor friends and family members who are, you know, flailing."

What does she advise them?

“Well, it depends on the kind of issues they have, but as a thumb rule, I have asked them all to jot down their thoughts—however ridiculous they may be. Believe me, I’m looking at quite a number of budding philosophers."

If you go online, the tangled web is full of voices on how “Coronavirus is shaking up the moral universe and testing profound philosophical questions"—that’s a straight lift from a piece by John Authers, by the way. Some have even argued that philosophy, as a subject, will no longer remain esoteric and will get “trendy", in keeping with the times.

Speaking for myself, living a time warp, days and nights, weeks and months, segueing alarmingly into some kind of indefinable tract of existential angst, I was finding myself quoting the title of a Mel Brooks movie that was a big flop but remains a particular favourite of mine. Life stinks. But life always stank, reminded someone. “Yeah, true," I concurred glumly. “Guess the best thing to do is be grateful for small mercies." There I was. Philosophizing.

It all came to a flattened head during a Zoom session with friends over wine (something I have written about in last week’s column). There was a reprimand from one of us, but it sounded axiomatic to me: “Guys," she giggled, “is this shallow or what, our quaffing of spirits at a time when the world is in the grips of a pandemic?"

“I’m a firm believer of ‘in vino veritas’," I responded solemnly. “The greatest philosophy of all time." In wine lies the truth. (Interesting trivia: the quote is attributed to Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century CE). I raised a silent toast to ‘Baba’ Sen in Shanghai, the man circumstantially bestowed with the first-mover advantage, and the ilk he’s spawned. We, the philosophers.

Sushmita Bose is a journalist, editor and the author of ‘Single In The City’.

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