Mela mentality sums up our Covid response

Keki Daruwalla

Poet and Author

HAVE the Indian people and the government treated the Covid crisis as a mela, a village fair? Let us start with the IPL, our darling baby. Within five months, the wretched thing was back from Dubai to Bengaluru. For five months the Indian youth couldn’t stay away from the slam-bang, hit-and-miss tamasha. And we are playing in morgue-like amphitheatres. Former cricketers like Sunil Gavaskar should have walked out! Why couldn’t the government put a stop to this levity, for this is reflective of the way the Covid crisis is viewed by the people as a whole? Bash the ball, scoop it up, and you win. Why couldn’t more cricketers like Ravichandran Ashwin stand up? And you bash the ball around as if it was the grail of a bygone era. And a David Warner here or a goner there bashes the ball as if there were no tomorrow, and wins.

The mela syndrome follows us to the Kumbh. What is all this about the holy river and the holy water dripping down from prayag to prayag, confluence to confluence down the Bhagirathi and the Alakananda till it gets to you at Har ki Pauri in Hardwar? Meanwhile, it has anointed Rishikesh. Forget the sacred for a while. Hindus have had some of the greatest reformists, eminent men and singing saints, who have chastised blind faith. But lakhs had snan and maha snan, and walked back dripping to their villages, infecting others on the way. The Kumbh is an atavistic sight: ash-smeared sadhus, most of them naked, gambolling away. The snan cavalcade started on the auspicious April 12, the somvati amavasya snan. Just 2.8 million people took a dip. Another 2.8 million took a ‘holy dip’ on April 14. Not sure what transpired on the full moon snan on April 27. Jai Ho. Imagine the spread! Yeh zindagi ke mele…

In 1961 and 1962, I used to be the Mela Officer at the Kartik Purnima fair at Garh Mukhteshwar. What a lovely fair it used to be: thousands of bullock carts, strung with pennons and dupattas of Jat women would move to Garh, women singing away. The whole night the bullock carts would trundle down from Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Bulandshahr. I would be on horseback for 12 hours a day. It was such a lovely village fair. Watch towers were erected, manned by sentries, looking out — not for robbers, but people drowning. During the thick of the main bathing night, we had batches of brawny policemen, who would go into the river and chuck bathers out after just one dip, otherwise we could face tragedy.

But back to our mela syndrome, with the whole country being run like a village fair. Merry-go-rounds, the well of death with motorcycles racing inside a well. There would be sweets, halwa-parantha in UP, soaked in aromatic oil. The famed duo from Gujarat seemed to be following the same old beaten track into history. But the establishment should spare a thought for the dying and the dead. A crematorium chimney in Surat got warped with the weight of having smoked out 60 poor Covid-ridden souls. I have never heard such a horror story, outside Hathras that is, where they gang-raped a girl, and smoked her on the pyre, allowing no relatives to attend the funeral. A scribe from Kerala wanting to cover the story is still in police custody!

Meanwhile, on politico-electoral fronts, there were huge processions and election rallies galore with no sense of social distance being kept. Social distancing! Don’t we know our own people? How we love to crowd around! We watched the Election Commission (EC) twiddling its thumbs, looking at the scene through opera glasses. Are they looking for some other plum positions? Gubernatorial assignments? Ambassadorial postings, heads of commissions which file reports that no one ever reads. So I am very happy at the stringent strictures passed by the Madras High Court against the namby-pamby EC. “You have been singularly lacking any kind of exercise of authority. You have not taken measures against political parties holding rallies despite every order of this court saying ‘maintain Covid protection’.” The High Court ended by saying, “You should be put up for murder charges probably.” It also asked the EC if it was on another planet when the rallies were going on.

I think this was a historic statement-cum-snub. Never has a constitutional authority been blown apart this way. Public health, of course, takes priority over counting procedures or onrushing politicos. However, public health has never been accorded priority in our national Budgets. Defence expenditure won.

“Politics or no politics,” the High Court observed, “whether the counting takes place in a staggered manner or is deferred, at no cost (should) the counting of votes on May 2 result in being a catalyst to further surge. Public health is of paramount importance. And it is distressing that constitutional authorities have to be reminded.” And the EC had given an entire month for the Bengal elections so that a particular party could benefit.

What happened to planning? Vaccine first. We gave some of it away — 66 million doses. Is that short-sightedness, or bad planning, or just the mela mentality, things will sort themselves out through panchayats, what are panchayats for, otherwise? And what of oxygen dearth? Too many questions to be answered, once we leave the mela. “Yeh zindagi ke mele, duniya mein kum na honge, afsos hum na honge. Yeh zindagi ke mele…” (Muhammad Rafi).

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