Dr. Prashant Khattri
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Allahabad
Charles Wallace India Fellow in Social Anthropology at Queen’s, 2020-2021
It was June 8th, 2020, 2.30 in the afternoon, I got a call from my mother who lives in Lucknow around 130 miles from my place. She was a bit worried and directly asked me a question- is it safe for Nitin (my brother) and his family to stay back in Gurugram (Gurgaon that is around 20 miles from Delhi) as Delhi recorded a seismic activity of 2.1 on Richter scale? It was the eleventh shock that Delhi recorded. Some were felt by the residents of the adjoining areas and others were reported in the media. She told me that she has read that an earthquake of a bigger magnitude is inevitable and can happen anytime soon. Delhi falls in a zone that is seismically very active and a massive earthquake is long overdue in the Himalayan region. She wanted his family to come over to Lucknow for some times. But how will they travel? Is it safe for them to travel in the pandemic? They can travel by their own car? For how long they can stay? These were her concerns. She also knew that there is no forecast for earthquakes and there were also counter narratives in the media that say that such tectonic activities are common but still they all warn that an earthquake is bound to come. How to make sense of all this? It was December 20th, 2019 (Corona pandemic still a couple of months away to jolt India) that an earthquake with its epicenter in Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan shook Delhi and adjoining areas, my parents were with my brother at that time and it was quite a panic that was created as they live on the 10th floor of a high-rise building.
Our conversation then shifted to the dangers of living in a high-rise building and the construction norms that we all thought were not followed by the builders in general. In case of a disaster the building may come down like a pack of cards. We realized that we generated such risks for ourselves. I was reminded of Ulrich Beck who talked about the risk society and how we are manufacturing risk to our own peril. Soon my father cracked some old common family joke on which my mother took great objection as she said how you guys could laugh away such a serious issue. But actually we all knew that we know nothing how to resolve the issue. I could realize however, that our experience is similar to what Immanuel Kant writes in his ‘Analytic of the sublime’, where he suggests that sublime is a pleasure produced by the mind as soon as it reaches its own limits. The humiliation of the mind through the thoughts of destruction and loss is overcome soon by the mind itself that restores its power by reckoning its own superiority to the nature. How many times it happens that when we cough in these times we look at each other in the family and give a smile-nothing to worry, as we cannot do much about anything that is happening around us.
Nightmares are coming true. It’s like living a disaster movie with all its dimensions (Ds). Pandemic was not enough. A super cyclone Amphane wrecked havoc in India, Bangladesh and Srilanka in May, 2020. The Chief Minister of Bengal where the cyclone made a landfall described the effects of the cyclone as worse than the pandemic.
Disasters are not defined only in terms of scientific and administrative norms. People tend to have their own explanations based on absorbing principles of Karma or appealing principles based on folk models. Consequences of one’s Karma are inevitable and owing to large scale destruction to the environment we cannot protect ourselves from the wrath of the Mother Nature. Alternatively, it is also believed that appeasement of the deity ensures safety and any shortcoming in this may lead to destruction. With such theories doing the round, people making sense of the crisis through themand science not coming to the rescue of people, thought of another disaster striking in the midst of the pandemic does not seem to be very far away or unbelievable.
On June 9th, I woke-up reading a headline in a Hindi newspaper that read- ‘The city (Prayagraj, where I stay) is coming back to its flow (translated from Hindi).’ With Malls, restaurants, places of worship and other public places opening-up there is a sense of getting back to the normal. On June 10th, in an English daily I saw a photograph of a hoarding stuck high and bold on a street of Lucknow that read- ‘Lucknow please smile as the life has started again (translated from Hindi).’ This photograph of the hoarding was placed under the headline-“Ambedkarnagar hospital chief dies: record jump in single-day fatalities.” People were still fighting out the infection within the projections of normalcy through such advertisements. The newspaper is sensitive enough to have brought this to our conscious thinking.
How can this paradox be explained? Behind the statistical data, we are actually missing out the pain and sufferings of the people. Their hardships are unfathomable through statistical models.We can only imagine a four year old child kept in isolation for 14 days and asking her mother, “can I come to your lap now mom?” Only very selected stories of mental agony and suffering are seeing the light of the day and are getting reported in the media.News reports of people not getting proper care, not being admitted to any hospital in some places, or not being tested even after reporting symptoms are common now. People are dying without their loved ones getting the opportunity to see their faces for the one last time. Much more needs to be known, not only about people’s suffering but about the meaning they are giving to their sufferings. How do people make their sufferings sufferable? A narrative of ‘normalcy’ might be on the agenda of the state, however the ‘lived reality’ lies between the pandemic and the data dashboard.