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Home >Opinion >Columns >The grimness of 2020 and the force of love that refused to die

Once there was a chalk circle and a child made me stand inside it. On an eroding concrete platform between heaps of rubble and a stream of slush. She held both my hands, pulled hard, trying to disbalance me, with laughter shaking her slight five-year old frame. She gave up in moments, but not my hands. Holding them tightly, she climbed up my body, my hands going up autonomically to give her leverage. She clung to me with her arms around my neck. Chuckling softly. You win only by giving up, in the test of a chalk circle.

Her mother sat on her haunches on the steps, smiling. Usko toh khush kar diya, lekin kuchh karoge hamaare liye? You’ve made her happy, but will you do something for us? So she asked, as I walked down the steps, the child still around my neck. Na khaana hai, na mazdoori, aur koi apna bhi nahin: We have no food, no work, and no one to call our own. How can you have no one? Aisa hi hai, that’s the way it is. How old are you? Ekees, 21, she said. I put the child down gently. Sach bolna; achcha nahin. Kuchh karoge? Speak the truth, don’t say something good.

Once there was a girl squinting in the afternoon sun. Smiling and describing her house. A six-by-nine-foot room, shared by five other girls. Laid off in March from a garment factory, they were waiting. Not knowing for what. Not knowing what they will eat. And knowing that this is no country for young women. Too far was home, because Ma and Pa in Odisha depended on her wages. They talked on the phone, less every week to conserve currency. How many of you are here? I asked. Thousands, she said. Alone, together. How old are you? Ekees, 21.

My 21-year-old daughter smiled when she opened the door to let me in, “I suppose it’s a bit too early for a gimlet". Our shared jokes survive in the rubble left by 2020.

A broken girl burnt on a pyre by the state. Devoted dogs abandoned for an irrational fear of infection. Millions forced into starvation overnight. Not a hand of help for you—because, you are Dalit, you are Muslim, you are an outsider, you did not vote for me. Precarity, structural injustice, and every cleavage tearing apart people, laid bare by the pandemic. Lies, denial, and, utter incompetence, in the self-proclaimed exceptional nation, leader-of-the-free-world, and elsewhere, confronted by this unsparing scourge. Science and voodoo on the same pedestal. As many as 74 million people reaffirming their devotion to all that is worst in us, embodied in a malign charlatan. Inheritors of Lincoln’s legacy wrecking the cornerstone of democracy. Bleak skies of winter nights sheltering elderly women and farmers, bookending the moral chill of 2020.

Ideals frayed to illusions. Institutions unravelled by hubris and ineptitude. Selfless heroes with courage, who should not have been needed, but for crumbling edifices and the evisceration of empathy. Our world corroding at its core. The most precious of things, built with centuries of sacrifice, eroding by the assault of a darkness within us, wilting the essence of humanity.

And then there was death in 2020. Striking down unbearably too many, whom I care for. Altering my universe, my life. One among millions I am, even in this battering by mortality. Left less scathed, if anything. But the greater grief of others is no balm, for no one.

Once there was a woman ruminating on this darkness. That, once there was a fire of possibilities. But how unexceptional we are when the forces are so large. “So, I do what I can in small ways—of love and generosity to those around. The rest ka kyaa faydaa, what’s the point?"

Why are you smiling? I asked the girl who was squinting. What was there to smile about? Aap dekhne aaye humko, bus kaafi hai. You came to see us, that is enough. As I walked past the rubble, still on her haunches, she called out. The child still chuckling. Koshish karna, tum achche aadmi ho. Bus kaafi hai. Just try, you are a good man. That is enough.

Once there was a man who invoked the better angels of our nature. Once there was a man who bent and showed us liberation in a handful of salt. Once there was a man who had been to a mountain top and had a dream. Once there was a man who walked long to freedom and forgiveness. Each of them ziddi, or stubborn, my emblematic metaphor for everything you need to fight the good fight.

But each of them could be what they were and do what they did because of the countless never recorded in the tendrils of our collective memory. Who tended the skull cracked on the bridge, cooked their last handful of rice for those who walked to the salt, forgave the lynching of their brother and a million cuts of daily indignities, who were just there, with their hands of succour, and, hearts of care. Unexceptional, all. But with love and generosity for those around, and, the courage to act—all of which are hard. If enough did this, in high offices and grimy bazaars, with neighbours and rivals, out in the winter night or even in a jail, there might have been no 2020. No force is large enough to withstand acts of sustained love and generosity. It demands that we be ziddi, like she is. That is the real fire of possibility. That is the faydaa. Bus kaafi hai.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation

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