Sunday Long Reads: Of COVID-19, xenophobia, travel, Tagore, Gandhi, superstition, food, and more

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A woman walks outside Castel Sant Angelo, as Italy tightens measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. (Reuters)

Swedish writer Zac O'Yeah, who made India his home decades ago, wonders if this is the end of the road for wanderlust

By Zac O’Yeah 

I happened to be discussing monkey wrenches with the owner of a tiny hardware kiosk, when I heard the screams, “Corona! Corona!” Being a typical Nordic-Germanic gentleman, I’m a bit of the archetypal Do-It-Yourself dude, although my wife often says it’d be better to hire a competent carpenter. Unfazed by her apprehensions, I love going down to the petes around the Majestic area in Bengaluru to browse for tools and shop for power drills and electric jigsaws to do the odd spot of home improvement. Momentarily distracted from the price negotiations (there had already been talks of a lockdown in the city and I was, of course, wearing my anti-pollution mask), I looked around and noticed teenagers dressed like villainous extras in a Kannada gangster flick, pointing in my direction. Then it clicked. I was the corona.

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Why COVID-19 pandemic may change how we view individual rights

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Shutting down: Delhi empties out for the janata curfew (Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

In the 1940s, the nuclear bomb upended supposed eternal truths and humanity’s image of itself. The novel coronavirus pandemic may not be as drastic, but it will affect phenomena and values which appear to be absolute, like the world order and individual rights. Since the end of World War II, the US has been the world’s leading influencer, and served as the globocop since the fall of the USSR. Never before has it refused to take the lead in facing a global issue, while struggling to tackle it at home. It even persisted with sanctions against Iran, one of the worst-hit countries, when an opportunity to end the unpleasantness presented itself. Even Trump’s withdrawal of troops from overseas had not signalled so clearly the end of the Pax Americana, and the globalised world it oversaw.

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When Tagore accused Gandhi of superstition

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Tagore and Gandhi's debate holds significance in the times of COVID-19 virus when a large number of public personalities have expounded unscientific and superstitious positions.

The havoc caused by nature has often caused great anxiety and divided great minds about their cause and mitigation, including faith, action and belief. Such a divide was witnessed in 1934 between two of the greatest Indians that lived in the 20th century: Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Their debate holds significance in the times of COVID-19 virus when a large number of public personalities have expounded unscientific and superstitious positions.

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WhatsApp Uncle discovers the downside of social distancing

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The only good thing that has happened is concern for vulnerable, old people, he says.

OH HO oh ho oh ho....my family,today i am tanha dil....life is tanha safar...i know uall r saying for our goodonly...DaduDadiurrisky business... corona akelapanmay give karuna....buturat risk andall...I knowusaywithLuv...

BUT UR ALL A STUPID OR WHAT....

Sorry my family. all social distancing has made my hasmukh and susheel nature lyk mixie of karela juice and aamle ka ras — kadwa and khatta i knowur saying for good of me and daadi daadi who used say to me ji chalo picture dekhein and tum kabhi haath nahi pakadte now
she is taking my own chaddi and poking me when I want sum jhappi she is saying social distancing, I am saying u r doing emotional atyachaar...

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Bringing home the holidays

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WhatsApp groups are in overdrive dispensing advice on how to make the most of our confinement. (Source: Getty Images)

I wish I were marooned on a balmy tropical island when this cataclysmic event befell us. But wishes are horses, and mine are stabled in a two-bedroom flat in a Bengaluru suburb. In February, I was staring at amid summer vacation and making furious plans, zig-zag-ging indecisively between the Seychelles, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. I spent hours on Skyscanner, Tripadvisor and Airbnb. My wife and I redecorated the house in anticipation of the daughter’s homecoming from boarding school. We booked tickets to attend a slew of April weddings in the family and planned out the whole summer, every long weekend and holiday pencilled into the calendar.

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On the joys of room-travel

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THE WORLD WILL WAIT: Airports around the world are deserted as people stay home to avoid COVID-19. (Wikimedia Commons)

IF OUR lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardour and paradoxes — then our travels. They express, however inarticulately,a number standing of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and the struggle for survival,” writes Alain De Botton in The Art of Travel(2002).

Yet, as a beleaguered world tries to overcome a pandemic, cooped up at home in a city under lockdown, if there’s anything one is certain of it is that travel will never be the same again. Now, with families spread across continents, ageing parents on their own in cities where one cannot reach at will, the distance one had taken for granted seems yawning. How does one learn to live with something one has no control over? Or, reconcile oneself to a world spinning uncontrollably into the unfamiliar and uncertain territory?

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Cyrus Mistry: ‘Our lives are more deceitful than we admit’

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"I chose to set the novel there because I learned (from the internet) that apparently it is a hotbed of Pentecostal Christian activity" says the author. (Designed by Gargi Singh)

Your third novel, The Prospect of Miracles (Aleph, 2019), contains a gamut of big ideas — faith, desire, infidelity, mortality, sanity and madness, and the thin line dividing the last two. Do you begin writing a novel with a sense of its overarching theme?

Put like that, you make The Prospect of Miracles sounds like a chaotic mish-mash — if not melee — of ideas and authorly impulses. In fact, I do personally believe that the creation of any good novel must preclude “overarching” or pre-determined content. The process of writing has to always be an organic one so that — at the best of times — the writer discovers and explores his themes and characters in the course of their creation. Every unanticipated event or insight should surprise the reader as much as it may possibly have — to a small or significant extent — the author/narrator himself — or herself — during its process of acquiring form. Your enumeration of diverse “ingredients” in my novel doesn’t remotely hint at the cohesion which melds their unfolding.

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Poet of the Fall: The humane verses of Kashmir’s Madhosh Balhami

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A picture of Madhosh Balhami

It was 1 pm on March 15, 2018, when Madhosh Balhami, who was sitting in his courtyard writing verses, heard sounds of firing. Minutes later, three armed militants rushed in, one of them injured. “Bhaagne ka ek raasta mere makaan se jaata hai (an escape route goes past my house),” says Balhami, 55, who took his family and rushed to his brother’s house close-by. The crossfire between the militants and security forces went on till 2 am. By then, around 1,000 pages of his verses, written over 30 years, had turned into ashes, and the house, built by his father in the ’60s, had been reduced to rubble — only a 10x11 ft room survived. “My life’s work had burned; when 80 kg of copper utensils had melted, how could paper survive?” he says, with a bitter laugh.

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Book review: Why Bhagat Singh’s inheritance is a difficult subject to engage with

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Bhagat Singh’s inheritance is a difficult subject to engage with, and Moffat does a good job.

During the past few years, many books have dealt with the inheritance of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Quite a few, including this one, have departed from the usual format of merely glorifying Singh as a nationalist and martyr. They have acknowledged the revolutionary inheritance, locating Bhagat Singh as a young thinker with a profound social, political and economic vision. The corpus includes two books by the reviewer himself, and a powerful one by Kama Maclean.

However, Chris Moffat departs further, innovatively trying to “open Bhagat Singh out into his afterlives, providing a language with which to comprehend his widespread popular appeal and continuing potential as interlocutor and instigator in modern Indian politics.” Another significant departure is his attempt to locate Bhagat Singh and his comrades in the context of the national education project launched by Lala Lajpat Rai in the early 1920s. The book is about Bhagat Singh, but Lajpat Rai is a major interlocutor.

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Why JBS Haldane was one of the finest biologists of the 20th century

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This is a book for scientists, science writers, bureaucrats who administer science programmes, and anyone who receives email alerts from high-impact science journals.

Being a non-fiction writer, I pick up biographies with reluctance. Most biographers write because of their enchantment for a person whose body of work may have shaped their discipline, or biographies read almost as a paean to a standalone episode, a period in time, a decade or even a year that exerted tremendous influence on the course of history. There are biographies focused on great speeches by statesmen that changed the course of nations, or valiant acts of generals and their troop, or major developments in art and architecture. These have the ability to stir the soul and fill the reader’s heart with admiration, but most often biographies about people, time or place end up as hagiographies.

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In words we trust

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Here are some books you can read during lockdown. (Designed by Gargi Singh)

I have loved my tryst with William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy (2019), which covers the days of the East India Company.
I came across The Girl from Aleppo: Nujeen’s Escape from War to Freedom (2016) by Christina Lamb and Nujeen Mustafa — the account of a disabled Syrian girl’s travels across 15 countries in a wheelchair, till she finds sanctuary in Germany — at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. I attended Lamb’s session on the book and picked it up. It turned out to be a great read.

- Keki N Daruwalla, poet and novelist

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Roberto Benigni: We will always need a fairy tale

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On familiar turf: A still from Pinocchio

The wooden boy with a nose which grows longer with every lie — the tale of Pinocchio is a timeless one, and has been the staple of many childhood storytelling routines, warning the wide-eyed listener about the consequences of lying. Matteo Garrone’s cinematic adaptation of the children’s classic of the same name, which played at the 70th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival that concluded on March 1, has a serviceable young lad as Pinocchio. But the heart and soul of his movie is Pinocchio’s loving father, the woodcarver Geppetto, played by Roberto Benigni.

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Why Kolkatans Love Sipping History at Paramount

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Paramount has a 102-year-old history in Kolkata. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

In a rapidly-changing Kolkata that sees new restaurants open every month, Paramount has held its own for over a century. Just a stone’s throw away from some of the city’s oldest educational institutions in College Street, north Kolkata, this 102-year-old sherbet shop is a landmark in itself. It was opened in 1918 by Nihar Ranjan Majumder, from Barisal in present-day Bangladesh, who relocated to Kolkata to make a living.

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How to introduce children to birdwatching

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Bird watching conversations between experts and children are something interesting. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

You: Kids, wake up! It’s 4 am. We are going
birding, remember? Expert uncle and expert aunty are going to show us some beautiful birds at the lake.
Kids: Umm, want to sleep. Go away!
Somehow, you bundle them into the car and reach
lakeside. An hour later.
Expert uncle: You’re late.
You: Yes, but what to do? The kids wanted to come.
Expert aunty: How sweet!
Kids (get out of the car, yawning): But where are the birds? Where is the lake? It’s all foggy. Can’t see anything!

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