With Covid deaths in India touching alarming numbers, history will remember 2021 as the Year of the Virus. And my only hope is that we learn from the pain of losing those we loved, and imbibe the self discipline of masking up and social distancing to keep everyone safe.
Year of the Virus
Warnings about the second wave were always in the air, But no-one wanted to believe, calling them just a scare, Now we are caught unprepared, Falling prey to the virus snare, And still needing to be told to mask up to avoid a third flare…
Xenophobia: Fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything foreign or strange. (noun)
Both were humans like you and me, Yet they were different, as different can be, She wore a bindi, he wore a cap, She folded her hands, he prayed on his knees, Imprisoned within cages of xenophobia, And that was their only similarity.
Also known as “The Struggling Girl”, this famous photograph by Kevin Carter first appeared in The New York Times on 26 March 1993. It is a photograph of a frail famine-stricken boy, who had collapsed in the foreground with a hooded vulture eyeing him from nearby. The child was reported to be attempting to reach a United Nations feeding center about a half mile away in Ayod, Sudan (now South Sudan), in March 1993, and to have survived the incident. The picture won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography award in 1994.
Carter took his own life four months after winning the prize.
Discoloured / with old blood The vultures circle / low Over the young girl / watching Greedily / with dead Beady eyes / waiting Knowing / delighting / in The moment / when Their talons will / sink into The raw vernal flesh / ripping Out the guts / tasting The pain / drawing Pleasure / lower they Swoop / on the Gamin / unsuspecting Unknowing / unconscious / until With wings outstretched / the Vultures plunge / casting The pervert shadow / of Death.
Have you noticed? How you will subconsciously stick to well-lit roads if you are walking home alone? How you will pull your bag across your chest in a crowded bus? How you will not look a man in the eye because you dont want to send him ‘signals’? Because in this world where the victim takes the blame, the onus of rape is on the woman.
Can we change it?
Tears of Shame
You are young and beautiful and attractive… They said. Men will lust after you… Its all your fault. And she cried tears of shame. Sometimes she jumped down a well.. Sometimes she kicked a chair. Then one day… They raped an old, wrinkled grandmother instead.
Look at how ambitious you are, when home should be your place… They said. Men will lust after you… Its all your fault. And she cried tears of shame. Sometimes she cleaned and cooked all day Sometimes she resigned the job she loved… Then one day… They raped a stay-at-home mom instead.
Look at the way you walk and laugh and dress… They said. Men will lust after you… Its all your fault. And she cried tears of shame. Sometimes she stifled the laughter… Sometimes she covered her legs. Then one day… They raped a baby instead.
Centuries of women have gone before us, and centuries more might go by before the dreams that they passed on to to us can become reality. But every woman who has had the courage to stand up in face of oppression, had the strength to withstand the pain, who fearlessly walked over coals… She lives on, because we carry her within us… like the song of a dream.
Let’s make sure, it is heard. We owe it to every woman, who will come after us.
Song of a dream
Her laugh echoed / long After the song / of Her dream Had frozen on her lips / and The words had / dissipated With the cold winds / Blowing Over crumbling walls / of Stifling dogmas / and Craggy chasms / of pain That stood powerless / now Against her laugh / resounding In / A thousand voices Uncontrolled Like / Frothy bubbles Spilling over
Aai and Fauzia, her Libyan friend from office had been talking in hushed tones in the women’s drawing room for over an hour, their conversation dotted with muffled sobs. When the tearful sounds subsided, muted words would fill the room. I wondered why Fauzia was crying. Just a couple of months back, she had seemed happy, effervescently announcing that she was to be married. Was she not getting married anymore? But of course it was not my place to intrude or ask.
I did steal a glance at the strikingly beautiful girl, while she adjusted the white farrashia before leaving. The thick chador fell like a tent around her, hiding her shape and identity. She kissed Aai thrice on the cheeks, and clutching the white cloth close under her chin, made sure that it completely covered her lovely face… all of it, except the kohl-rimmed left eye, with which she peered out at the world.
That was the last time I saw Fauzia.
Many years later, when Aai thought I was sufficiently grown up, she told me of the custom of the white sheet. The virginity test… the proof that groom’s relatives needed… the red stained white sheet on which the marriage is consummated. Fauzia had been returned to her father because the white sheet was not bloodied.
All these years, I thought of Fauzia as a proof of the subjugation of women in Libya. Until last week, when a news held my attention. A girl was sent back to her parental home and her marriage annulled by the caste elders in Kolhapur because she too had failed her virginity test. And it made me wonder…
Red, Stained with Good Fortune
I smear / the red In / the parting of my hair Wearing / proudly My streak / of good luck And fortune That is /mine Will be / mine Until The day / that I pray Will / never arrive When / they will wipe The red / out of my hair And Cover me / in A white sheet.
The numbers are climbing. People are dying. Old and young, alike. Everyone knows someone who is gasping for their next breath. Because the virus knows no difference of age, wealth, status. It just knows to invade a body. And when you get fever and chills, a cough, maybe pneumonia, unable to breathe… you can still make it… Maybe you will recover at home. Maybe you will need medical care. Perhaps, oxygen support. But such great are the numbers that hospitals are overrun. Crematoriums too.
And in the grip of a devastating second Covid wave, there are those, who are profiteering, making money off the dying. Extracting a pound of flesh. Scooping up the coins scattered around the dead. The irony is, what guarantee is there that they will survive to enjoy their ill-begotten money? Who guarantees that a number won’t become a name?
The nights are / the worst When / the silence of the curfew Is pierced / by the banshee wail Of white coffins / their Blue lights / announcing The presence of the / dying Encased inside / as they Race / on deserted roads But / no hospitals are Taking them in / no beds Mostly / but no oxygen Either / and definitely no Hope / as People die waiting / To suck in the next breath / in Serpentine queues.
The powerful and the wealthy are fleeing the Covid catastrophe that has seized the country… away from the scenes of gut-wrenching pathos. And while they, who could have helped fly away, it is the commonest of the commons who are reaching out, running around, and helping the gasping to draw in the next breath.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 is considered one of the most challenging and ambiguous of all the Sonnets. But when read with a view to what’s happening around us today, you will understand what he wrote.
“They that have power to hurt, and will do none, That do not do the thing they most do show, Who, moving others, are themselves as stone, Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow …”
And in an ode to the Master of Words is my limerick… Power.
They / the rich and wealthy / holding power untold They / who run the world / with all their silver and gold Have hearts of steel / But not the strength to feel / Their souls / they have / to the devil sold /