It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
I am not sure, twenty years hence, how will we look at the past six months. Along with the society, polity and economy, our friendships and relationships, and the very essence of our lives have been torn apart.
If you are in Delhi, it all started with the attack on the universities. Then came the riots and then the virus. The mayhem continues. What’s good about these dark times?
Remember the chilly January night earlier this year when goons attacked students in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and many did not want to go back to their hostel rooms?
Within minutes, there were offers from people from all over the National Capital Region (NCR).
People opened their homes to complete strangers, some offered to pick them up. They were ready to drive to an area hit by violence well past midnight to help a stranger. For the next few evenings, people stood outside the gates and formed information networks, while others sat at home, sweaters and shoes on, ready to go out and stand against any further violence.
Nothing tarnishes a city like a riot. Doubts are raised over the administration, the police and the communities. But it is never just that. It is the geographies and the memories that are soaked in blood, inundating both space and time. The city transforms for the residents and the outsiders, not just in news headlines, but also in the innermost nuclei of our minds. The shock jolted many into action.
For long, this government has been cracking the whip on foreign funds to Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Activists were being targeted. But still, when sectarian violence brought the Delhi to its knees, campaigns were launched and money was transferred.
Someone knew someone who wanted help, and that someone knew another who wanted to help. And, they were not activists. They were not organisations. Most people engaged had no prior experience in mobilisation. Lawyer, pilot, techie, editor, author, Twitter influencer, viral video maker – one was not like the other. They came together in WhatsApp groups, Twitter threads, and over email chains specially created to coordinate relief efforts and provide legal assistance.
When the government was busy deciding whether showing Aadhar cards was mandatory for receiving relief, people had been identified, their damage roughly assessed and money transferred. Instant networks had trumped a decades-old machinery created to administer and provide relief.
When the Coronavirus came, new people and partnerships emerged. It was as if there was a pre-agreed change of guard, as if the hive intelligence knew how to use its reserves in a sustained manner.
IT entrepreneurs were distributing food packets and posting updates on LinkedIn. A journalist was busy setting up a command centre with the police. An ex-travel company CIO and friends were providing balanced, freshly cooked food to 5000 people every day.
While people were running away from government-run shelters and their inedible food, community kitchens were being set up. People with no experience in social service were raising money, standing in queues for elusive e-passes, hiring buses and sending people home with a smile.
Helpless people were found at railway stations and put in smaller vehicles. Suddenly, they were not migrants. They were not sheer numbers, burdening the city’s resources. They were not a faceless, nameless threat. Dignity was being restored.
Stories were being brought back from the front lines – of the poor man who stood near the line but waited for others to take their food; of people who had not eaten in a day but sharing a packet; of khichdi being made for those who could not chew; of milk being arranged for kids.
The needy was not a class, nor was the aiding. There were English-speaking youth in the queues. There were domestic maids who had turned volunteers for their areas, keeping tab on who needs what, who is pregnant and needs medicines, the eleven Muslim families who would not be able to make semiyan for Eid.
There were a million hungry bellies. There were a million hands feeding. The vacuum left by the failing economy and indifferent governments was being filled. The people were rising, the same silent people that were accused of turning into religious extremists, taking democracy for granted, and showing indifference to rising sectarian violence in the country.
But they were not silent anymore. They were forming bonds, holding hands and putting their faith in values that were considered lost. They were believing and making others believe that there is hope.
Featured image (representational): Trinity Care Foundation workers preparing a mid-day meal for schoolchildren | Flickr