Originally posted on April 23, 2020. Today, April 14, 2021, is again the first day of Ramadan and we are still in state of lockdown here in India.
Yesterday I fasted. It was the thirty-second day of the Coronavirus Virus lockdown in India. It was also the first day of Ramadan. I am not Muslim, or even particularly religious, but I’d been asking myself what would Bapuji be doing during this pandemic, and my answer was very clear: he would be fasting.
Since the founding of the Republic, Indians have faced many challenges. Being true to the principles that created the largest democracy on the face of the earth, each generation has to reformulate an answer in the language and the circumstances of the present moment to this question: what would Bapuji do? This question is more than lip-service to the man whose compassion and courage inspire us. It is more than just a sound bite on the TV news to gain some political advantage. When facing the silent enemy of the Coronavirus, a life and death situation, our answer might determine whether we live or die.
The threat of death and the economic destruction brought on by the virus is very different from the occupation of the British Raj. There is no enemy we can point to, no foreign army, no terrorist, no General Dyer. Its victims are not defined by the language they speak, nor the clothes they wear, the clubs where they hang out, nor the religion they practice. The virus does not obey human laws or ordinary conventions. It is a force of nature.
And the threat is very grave. People are dying. Crops are not harvested. Shops are closed. Temples, mosques, shrines, churches, and gurudwaras, all are empty. The hospitals are not turning sick people away because all the beds are taken. Doctors and nurses are not yet being overworked, getting sick themselves and dying because they are caring for huge numbers of patients, but that is only because Indians, some more willing than others, are following the advice of our leaders and health professionals and staying home, reducing the rate of infection.
But this comes with a cost. Nerves are frayed. Families confined at home are seeing both the love that brought them together as well as the negative traits that they would normally tolerate. And yet, we have to do what we can because our survival depends on it.
Of course it is far too early to begin to draw any lessons from this experience. But certain things are clear, and I think we should keep them in mind because we cannot really know how long this situation will last.
First we are all in this together. The virus does not discriminate between Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, or secularist. Our only defense is a united front. We will only succeed if we work together. We number about 135 crores and share a relatively small section of the earth’s surface. This is a difficult situation even under the best of circumstances.
Second, we have faced other crises in the past, and we have prevailed. One of the reasons why India has such a low infection rate per capita is because people know how to work together facing impossible situations. We've realized that any struggle is hard work, but there is no way to avoid the pain that our human life presents us.
Third, Coronavirus is stealthy. It hides. In war, soldiers wear uniforms so that they know who they are fighting with and who are the enemies. The virus has robbed us of that luxury. It has no memory of past injustices. It does not hold grudges. It does not discriminate. To those who might say that the virus itself is God’s punishment for evil, I would just beg for humility in the face of calamity. Which one of us really knows the mind of God? It is perfectly understandable to try to blame someone else when facing an overwhelming fear. It is an instinctive reaction to lash out, and we think it helps. But the virus does not share our prejudices.
And fourth, there will be pain, and suffering, and loss. These are the facts of our lives now. There is no way to avoid it.
When I first learned about Bapuji’s fasting, I was puzzled. It seems obvious that the way to fight an enemy is to use all the strength and power at our command. I thought he inflicted pain on himself to motivate others, perhaps even through guilt, to come to his way of thinking or unite against the British.
But perhaps it was the only thing he could do. There was no other defense. There was no power that he had to defeat the oppressor other than his inner strength. He nourished his soul by depriving his body. It was also his way of standing up to the suffering of life, accepting it willingly.
I feel helpless in the face of the epidemic. I remain confident that the situation will improve, but I cannot predict when or how. In the meantime, I will do my best, and I will try to overcome my prejudice and work with everyone to defeat our faceless enemy. And I will fast.
Ken Ireland with Ankit Deshwal