Notes from Chennai During COVID-19

Policemen holding sticks regulate the crowd as people line up to buy alcohol at a liquor shop after the government eased a nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 pandemic, on the outskirts of Chennai on 7 May 2020. Photograph: Arun SANKAR / AFP; courtesy: Getty Images

‘It is impossible to regulate social distancing in a country like India’

It’s good to be back after a hiatus. And needless to say, it’s good to be back alive. Like most Indians, I have a heart condition. The polluted air does not help my cause. Even before the onset of COVID-19, I had two recurring problems – shortness of breath and frequent colds. So, during the current emergency, my wife, Avantika, our seven cats and I have confined ourselves to our home on the first floor of an apartment block. My readers (those who live locally) and the security guards in our building have helped us to procure groceries and cat food.

I have been stepping out of my apartment only twice a day, to give food to a dozen stray cats that roam around the ground floor. I spend my remaining time writing and doing the dishes. Despite the fact that the management of our apartment block is allowing maids to enter the building, Avantika has yet to relent to that. I’ve come to realise that its only people who adhere to Indian cooking, and cooking South Indian food in particular, who appreciate the difficulty of doing the dishes. Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos might call the chore a ‘happiness booster’ (back in 2014, Bezos went so far as to call it the sexiest thing he does), but given the amount of oil and spices used in South Indian cuisine, doing the dishes puts your shoulder through a tremendous stress-test. Particularly if you have a heart condition.

Beyond those workouts, I have written 120 blog posts of a semiautobiographical nature under the title ‘Bug’. My peer Jeyamohan has written 120 short stories. We write every day, and both of us have written more during the lockdown than many writers do in a lifetime. But the fact that all these and other works by Tamil writers have not gained traction in European languages has been my eternal grievance. Twenty-four years have passed since my novel Zero Degree was published in Tamil. It has been translated into English, nominated for prizes and featured in numerous ‘best of’ lists. But I see no signs of translations in French, Spanish or German. The works of most Indian authors continue to go unnoticed, like a beautiful waterfall hidden in a deep jungle. To use a somewhat clichéd simile.

In the Olympics, India always appeared at the bottom of the medal chart (with just a silver and a bronze medal for its tally at the 2016 games). We’re used to it – corruption runs deep in the sports department. Similarly, India was, for some time, at the bottom of the COVID-19 table. It would have been naive in the extreme to get used to that. Now it is in the third spot, behind the US and Brazil. By the time you read this article, it could well be at the top.

It is impossible to regulate social distancing in a country like India. Everyone knows about the infamous ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’. On 20 June 1756, the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, dumped 146 POWs in a 4.3 x 5.5m dungeon in Fort William; 123 died that same night. In India’s slums today, a family of eight lives in a 3 x 3m space covered by an asbestos roof. Every time I look at such a congested space, it reminds me of the Black Hole. Eight people cannot sleep in such a confined environment. That’s why you find some of them sleeping on the pavements. Unfortunate incidents like Bollywood-star Salman Khan’s car running over five innocents who were sleeping on the sidewalk back in 2002 are a regular occurrence in India (Khan was convicted of culpable homicide in 2015 but cleared on appeal a few months later, after the prime witness, a police officer, was kidnapped and later killed). 

The government is yet to entirely lift the lockdown announced at the end of March. In India, laws aren’t framed with human consideration, nor does anyone, be it rich or poor, respect those laws. In the case of the first, consider a day labourer whose job is to break rocks all day. They get ₹200 (around £2) for their day’s work. Then they are pressured to pay taxes, but how can they? The only purpose of the tax laws seems to be to keep them poor. It’s no wonder that many small-time businessmen have committed suicide. 

On the other hand, anyone who has driven in India may very well infer that Indians do not respect rules. The country’s road traffic makes you feel that you are living in an insane asylum. So, who does anyone think will obey curfews and lockdowns? No one cares for anything. That is why we have seen demoralised Indian police officers beat up people who they deem to have broken curfew. I had to advise a friend, who is a doctor, to wear his stethoscope visibly when he walks out. Otherwise the police would beat him up too. On 19 June, an appalling incident happened in Tuticorin, where the police took a shopkeeper, Jeyaraj (aged sixty-two) into custody because he kept his shop open past 8pm and then argued with them when asked to close it. Shortly after, Jeyaraj’s son went to the police station to see his father. They were both stripped naked and tortured by inserting an iron rod in their rectum, which eventually led to their deaths (the pair had been hospitalised following their maltreatment, and the police had advised their family to bring them dark-coloured lungis in order that their continual bleeding not be noticed). Unlike the American police, the Indian police tend not to perform acts of brutality in broad daylight and make it a public spectacle. The officers involved in Jeyaraj’s case are now in prison, but only after a massive public protest.

What I was saying earlier about a lack of appreciation for Indian writers is no different in India itself, by the way. No one knows the true meaning of the word ‘writer’ in Tamil Nadu. A writer named Dharman heads to the apothecary to get something for his stomach pain during the curfew. The police stop him and ask him who he is and what he does. Dharman thinks that they might not recognise ‘writer’ as an occupation. So, he just gives them his name. They insist that he must come to the police station. Dharman knows that there is no guarantee that he will return alive. So he calls the district police chief, who is a friend. The police chief tells his officers that Dharman is a writer and instructs them to leave him alone. Hearing this, the policeman salutes Dharman and says, ‘Oh sir, I didn’t know that you are a writer, but in which station?’ Do you get it? There is a job at police stations for someone who writes down complaints: that’s a ‘writer’. 

Translated from the Tamil by Vidhya Subash

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