I’m right now in a working class town called Kalimpong in the eastern Indian State of West Bengal. Life was difficult here even before the pandemic. Daily water shortages are an inescapable fact of life. The roads suck. The transportation options aren’t great and locals make do with what’s available – they have to. The locals of Kalimpong work relentlessly just to keep one foot in front of the other. People take actions just to survive. It’s a hard life here. And surprisingly, most people don’t seem bitter about it. This is life, they appear to be taking it on the chin.
I, too, have had to adjust my level of comfort to what’s available. It’s been a learning experience, a refreshing experience in which anything extraneous was fast disposed of and I’m grateful for it. On the whole, the people are warm and friendly and I feel safe in any part of the extended city of Kalimpong.
Last month, the second wave of the pandemic struck and most everyone began wearing masks in public. Social distancing continues to be a challenge. There are a couple of local campaigns providing support and resources to local residents. People are doing the best they can to continue putting one foot in front of the other.
In the middle of the second wave, I’ve started to receive social media invites for “listening circles” from all over India. Invites from well-to-do, upper middle class Indians in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkatta and other Indian metros, invites from people who, from the safe comfort of zoom meetings, talk about their feelings of fear, helplessness and frustration with the government. They talk about how much the poor are struggling because of the pandemic and the lockdown. One particularly “evolved” “intellectual” draws a straight line between all the problems India is facing today and how one man (yes, one man) is responsible for everything that’s been going wrong for the past seven years. The same evolved individual says to echo chamber approval that India will have Nuremberg Style trials to bring to justice the Prime Minister and his cohorts. No one can be allowed to escape, he says. Yes, really. Should I laugh? Should I cry? I am firmly in an alternate reality in these listening circles.
And thus, the “listening” circles go on – there’s not much listening but a whole heck of a lot of venting and finger-pointing because their delicate middle class lives have been disrupted. It appears to me that India’s well fed middle class needs more mental health support through this pandemic than the poor who don’t know what the next hour brings. I’ve had to tell more than a couple of people who’ve invited me that I’m not interested in these events anymore. I neglect to tell them that if they really wanted to effect change in India, instead of listening circles, they’d be working in the trenches in difficult places like Kalimpong and places worse off, where locals don’t have the time or energy to indulge in talking about their precious feelings.
I don’t have the energy to point out to my “progressive”, “evolved” Indian friends on social media that India needs less of their self-indulgent, intellectual masturbation and more of effin action. There’s no point in my saying anything to these people – they’ll continue with their feel good listening and blaming sessions and when the pandemic is over, they’ll write award-winning books and make award-winning documentaries about the suffering of the average Indian.
In India, talk is cheap and life is cheaper.
Of course, if you’re the kind of Indian who’s lucky enough to be in a zoom or WhatsApp listening circle, everyone can surely feel your pain about all of this.
© 2021 Marlon de Souza