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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Our absurd notions of what’s essential and what’s not

As the extraordinary lockdown of the nation continues, these are, according to India, Essential Things—maida , rice, sugar, milk, refined sunflower oils, bread, brown bread which is maida with a brown dye, and fruit juices which are sugar, chemicals and pulp. Not only can you live for decades without these “essentials", you will be healthier, more beautiful and less likely to die in a pandemic if you avoid them.

One way or another, most essentials are a result of a planet-wide addiction to a drug called sugar. They are harmful, they are cheap as they are produced in large quantities because they are “essential" even when there is no pandemic, and every kilogram of most essential things requires hundreds of litres of fresh water. They represent the tyranny of a majority, like religion.

But then these foods, like religion, bring joy to millions. However, that is not the reason why they are classified as essentials. In a crisis, joy is not considered an essential thing. Being alive is. There is something absurd and meaningless about the concept of Essential Things. It is an idea that is filled with wrong assumptions.

The same absurd idea is at play in the treatment of that perennial global disease—poverty . There is an important assumption that India makes about what is “essential"—the notion that what the poor need is only food, and that their bellies have to be filled with starch and sugar. I am not disputing that cheap food is a basic necessity; I am disputing the idea that a basic necessity is the same as what is essential.

The extraordinary power of the idea that grain and sugar are sacred essentials for the poor has created an indestructible system, a private-public partnership that produces them cheap at an industrial scale, denying most of India the habit of healthier diet. The first sign of new prosperity for hundreds of millions of Indians is high blood sugar. The reason why vegetables, eggs and meat are not subsidized at the scale of grain and sugar is that proteins are not considered as essential as simple sugars.

Being alive is merely a platform, living is a very different matter, even for the poor, but the benevolent world does not accept that. Time and again, the poor have demonstrated that they value fun as much as survival. Except in extreme circumstances, like famine, the poor have disproved the favourite assumption of the rich that basics are a greater necessity than fun.

That the poor must be interested only in the grim business of “essentials" and that fun is a flippant thing is not a mistake that only the Indian government makes. Even the American tech industry was trapped by the nonsense of Essential Things. Every time tech billionaires thought of building a computer or phone for the poor, they imagined it will be used to check “the price of a crop". Even Mark Zuckerberg imagined a special internet for the poor that contained only educational and informative sites that, of course, would have helped a poor farmer check the price of his crop. But then the reason why the poor adopted phones and the internet was the same as that of the rich—not to discuss diarrhoea, but to pursue fun.

The true nature of sorrow is boredom. That is why even in a transient phenomenon like the lockdown of a nation, boredom is not a trivial matter.

When I was younger, I believed that in a calamity, the only people who mattered were doctors, engineers and scientists. Even assuming, wrongly, that most books and films were not bad at all, I thought artists were the most useless in a calamity. I was, as you can see, trapped in the myth of essentials. Now I feel differently. I see all around me that what keeps people going, what makes them suffer greatly just to be alive in a crisis, and to follow draconian orders, is the promise of fun, which is largely a creation of artists.

It is amusing to note that today most of India is immersed in all sorts of films and series, our presumed inessentials, while hospitals, an essential service, are seeing fewer patients than normal because people are so terrified of corona, hospitals and doctors, that they are putting off medical procedures.

As I write this column, cops are enforcing a containment sealing of my colony in Gurugram, a commodious residential area of row houses, where there have been no covid cases. Weeks ago, there were two cases in a high-rise hundreds of metres away. I hear even walks and runs will be banned, even though the colony is so spacious that people in public spaces are usually separated by a hundred metres. In fact, to get closer than six feet to another, you have to hate or love them or simply want to be infected. No one is sure why the government is wasting its resources on sealing a somewhat sparsely populated colony with no history of the disease.

The world has responded to the pandemic in two ways—the Chinese way, which is the lockdown of an economy, and the more relaxed but cautious way of, say, Japan and Sweden, that lets life flow. India is imitating China, and has in the process become the world’s most stringent adopter of the lockdown method. In all of the Western world, except in stray pockets, people are actually encouraged to go out and exercise.

The office of the deputy commissioner of Gurugram reassured me that it will release a list of reasonable exceptions. I hope it does not share the ancient confusion in India about Essential Things. Anything that is fun, anything that brings happiness to people, we are trained to think is inessential.

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

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