Lockdown musings: When elephants return and peacocks fly away

I cannot remember when it came to invade our mind. Whether it was in the early hours of the morning or late evening or perhaps, at night. I ought to because it announced its arrival with fanfare and drums

Amb Amit Dasgupta (retd) Apr 07, 2020

I cannot remember when it came to invade our mind. Whether it was in the early hours of the morning or late evening or perhaps, at night. I ought to because it announced its arrival with fanfare and drums. Not as a thief in the night or as the quiet plague. It came just like hunger does and poverty with fair warning. But it was unlike marauding locusts because this one you could not see but only what it did.  

That people died is putting it mildly. Infection, contagion, lockdown, quarantine became the today’s vocabulary. And death. WhatsApp worked overtime.

But like every good crisis, this one too had a brighter side to it. It revealed our, suppressed and often ignored, respect for the simple and forgotten things of life. Like humanity, for instance. And hope. And kindness. The longing for company and of laughter. The joy of reading and of music. And, of course, of blue skies that had not been seen for a long time. Things we knew existed but had forgotten about.

A friend of mine, who is an amateur photographer, spends long hours these days on his terrace with a coffee, a camera and a zoom lens. He lives in the heart of Delhi with tall bushy trees that had, till now, been populated by crows, the occasional hawks and a multitude of pigeons. Over the past few days, he has photographed the grey hornbill, barbets, sunbirds, robins, parakeets, spotted owls, what looked like an eagle, and, believe it or not, the long-disappeared sparrows. They have started to return.

In a town in Kerala, the endangered Malabar civet was spotted on a now-empty street. Peacocks were seen dancing on the roads in Delhi. A herd of elephants went for an evening stroll in Coorg. From Jalandhar, you could see the wondrous Himalayas. Off the coast of Mumbai, whales were sighted. And loveliest of all, when you opened your window and inhaled deeply, it was no longer acrid air. And the sky was blue and you could hear bird song.

I read somewhere that the only way to face this untoward situation is to stay positive. That is because we are now so insecure that we can no longer be by ourselves. We need to see people, even if we don’t speak with them. The crowded elevator, the busy marketplace, congested roads are part of our everyday biography.

Some social health experts say denial of this kind of social contact can be depressing and could even lead to mental health issues and possibly, trigger suicide. In the hustle and bustle of modern civilized life that we are all part of, where so many are lonely even in a crowd, it is the sheer seeing of other people that we have learnt to perceive as normal. We have adapted to elephants being in sanctuaries or trees as the habitat for crows and of the long hours on the road stuck in a traffic jam. This is what keeps us going.

A university in Canada is offering a free online programme on emotional wellness. In France, a person ran an entire marathon on his small balcony because he couldn’t bear the thought of being cooped up in his small apartment. Such was his determination. Many have taken to reading the books they always wanted to but never found the time for. Others have started to learn cooking. Some have picked up a paint brush and easel. We have started to talk to friends we had lost touch with but found in our contacts list. We laugh and joke with them but more importantly, we enquire about their welfare. We have started to have meals with family and talk to our spouse, parents or children. Several have reached out to the elderly and the infirm and the forgotten marginalized and have started to help out with community meals. This is not charity but humanity. It is who we really and truly are.  

You can smell it. Perhaps, just a whiff at present. But it is most certainly there. Endangered and almost extinct like the Malabar civet, kindness and compassion are making a comeback. I can smell it in the air. And I know, so can you.

Perhaps when this is all over and the civet scurries back to its hideout and the elephants return to where they came from and we are once again caught up in the frenzy of today and its material expectations, the thought of having experienced who we really are and meant to be would not leave us. We would, I dearly hope, become kinder and gentler. We would pause to watch the sunset. We would reconsider our words if we feel it would cause hurt. We would reach out to those in need. We would respect because in doing so, we would reveal our true nature.

(The writer is the author of 'The House and other stories')