There is No Wealth Greater than Life Itself: A Lesson from the Coronavirus Lockdown 

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    Indian roads are usually busy and vibrant, but the coronavirus has brought in an eerie calmness. Image:Pixabay

    I just can’t believe it. Nor can you. But you can’t not feel happy about the story I am going to tell now. 

    “I couldn’t imagine, I will be so anxious while going out of my own house!” said my friend calling from Kolkata. Her usual sparkling voice had an uncharacteristic heavy dimness as I heard her talk on my mobile looking out at the murky evening sky from my terrace. 

    “But I had to go out! To fetch some regular stuff like milk, bread and such things. The lane outside my house was so barren, for a moment, I felt it was like Mohenjo-daro, the city of the dead”, she added. 

    Now I was at the main road. My usual place, a lively, bustling Mohalla market.  Why did it appear to be a strange place to me, though! I come every day to this market. Even on a Wednesday, when the market remains closed, it is not so silent, so desolate. A few steps ahead into the market I see a few policemen. Suddenly those graphic WhatApp videos flashed in my mind. Common, unsuspicious people being whipped by police just for stepping out on the road. The lathi of law, being wielded in the name of rule of law by a police officer, doesn’t discriminate between elderly or a high official. A naked display of ‘Democracy’ is in full flow as the stick dances to the tune of the whims and fancy of the cop wielding it, as it were. When fear and passions run high, being a woman doesn’t bring any special advantage. Shiver went down my spine. 

    But in the direst of the situations, it is the hope that drives us to take a step forward into the unknown. I saw a milk booth was open. Three people were standing there. Each one within a chalk circle. I could make out soon that it had nothing to do with the ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ of the playwright Bertolt Brecht. 

    I was told to occupy the subsequent circle behind them at some distance. From a close distance, I could see the face of the cop. He looked more anxious than confident. As the person ahead got his stuff and moved out, another person took that chalk circle. 

    Give me two packets of paneer, said the person in the circle ahead of me. Two persons manned the booth. They were fully protected with masks and gloves on. The senior guy asked the consumer to put the money on the table. He wouldn’t touch it. 

    “How many more paneer packets are there?”, asked the senior guy counting the money to return the balance. 

    “There is just one paneer packet left in the fridge now”, said the boy. 

    “How come, I got 40 paneer packets this afternoon”, asked the shopkeeper surprised. 

    “All are sold, just one left”, said the boy nonchalantly. Hmmm…acknowledging the fact, he offered the balance money to the elderly ahead of me. Please keep these two packets of paneer back in your fridge, said the elderly person taking out the packets from his characteristic Kolkata cotton bag. 

    “Why? Why are you returning it? Didn’t you ask for it” asked the bewildered shopkeeper? 

    “Yes, I did, but since you are left with just one, keep these two packets back, too. Someone more needy will take it. I have enough for two days”, said the graceful man. 

    A strange look of appreciation was clear in the sparkling eyes of the shopkeeper as he took the packets of paneer back. 

    “I couldn’t believe my ears”, said my friend. Forsaking your bit for someone else who is more needy! She watched the person trudging back home with his Jhola, light by two packets that he didn’t really need. 

    “Do you need paneer”, asked the shopkeeper? 

    “No, I am good with just two packets of milk for now,” said she. I can clearly see her contented face through her assured voice. 

    The horizon in front of me had acquired a clear sparkling blue tinge.  The Sun was not in hurry to go down today. As if, it wanted to see this serene world more languidly and lovingly. The moment of crisis brings the best in us. It brings the worst in us too. 

    The hapless hoard of people on the highway going back to their villages, hundreds of kilometers away, on foot…flashed in my mind. Only if someone for whom they worked had cared for them in the times of crisis!!  Could you ever anticipate this? 

    “There is no wealth but life”, John Ruskin’s famous dictum rings a bell as I hang up. 

    Vagish Jha is a historian and educationist based in Delhi.

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