I heard this statement in the middle of a heated debate going on at a recent cooperative housing society meeting and it sent a mini jolt into my system.
The debate was about whether to allow maids to start working in the society after the management committee (MC) had banned entry to them for the past two months. When announcing the ban on maids, the MC had also made a separate humanitarian plea to please continue paying salaries to them during this period. In due course, the government announced a partial lifting of the lock down and explicitly allowed maids to enter the premises and start work. In light of this new information the society had called another meeting to decide further course of action.
As was expected, tempers were flaring and sparks were flying with each side expressing their opinion vehemently. One of the members who was advocating entry for the maids also put forth this point that in spite of our requests, many people have not paid salaries to the maids, so before you ban further entry please also consider this fact that these poor maids will lose their income.To which an elderly gentleman reacted indignantly with “It is sad that they will lose their income but I cannot allow them in at the cost of risking my health!”
This statement stopped me dead in my tracks.
I saw the situation in a completely different light now.This debate is raging all over the country – what to allow and what not to allow and this one statement illustrates a very subtle point – what length are you willing to go to so as to protect yourself? Each of us has a different threshold for that.
In the past two months, we have realized that none of us can live in a vacuum. We make physical contact with the outside world every time we call the elevator, step out, handle cash, go to the shop, buy stuff, get something repaired, have an in-person conversation etc; the list is endless. All of these activities expose us to the risk of getting the Covid infection.
Everyone has a different perception of risk and the way to control it; some people are washing vegetables with dettol while others are spraying sanitizer while some others are washing their hands and few others are not even doing that. Each individual is doing what they think is appropriate and everyone understands and respects that. Theoretically speaking, if everyone were to follow the ‘to each his own’ philosophy there won’t be any conflicts and all of us could live happily ever after.
But practical reality is very different, our experience shows us that all life is interconnected. At some point or other you are compelled to come in contact with others. In pre-Covid times, interaction between all kinds of people used to be a regular feature of life. Now, because of the risk of Covid, contact has become highly risky and suddenly everyone is rethinking all their choices.
In the past two months I have had to make many tough choices on a personal level as well as on the level of the MC of the housing society. Here are some examples of the kinds of choices that had to be made –
• Ensuring my safety vs. taking away another’s livelihood
• Cutting costs vs. supporting those that work for us
• Holding onto my cash vs. donating to the migrants’ cause
• Putting effort into cooking a fancy meal for myself vs. cooking for the starving migrants
• Restricting entry into my house vs. trusting the maid to take precautions
• Staying safe at home vs. volunteering as added help for the local police
• Facilitating an open and free Whatsapp forum vs. restricting peoples’ right to post.
While these may seem like petty matters for most people, for me, they were anything but petty. Each and every choice I made brought to the surface all my hidden fears and biases. Do I really care if the migrants starve? Isn’t it their fate? Is it alright to squeeze out a few rupees from the meager salaries of the staff because tough days may come onto me in the future? If the police force does actually need volunteers, is it not my duty to step up?
As you may have guessed, I went through a roller coaster of feelings of fear, suspicion, paranoia, helplessness, pity, empathy, kindness, forgiveness and so much more. The entire situation had drummed up a certain emotional intensity within me.
In this pressure cooker type of environment, the boiling waters of my emotions washed away all my dressings and social etiquette and brought me face to face with the core of who I am – my values, beliefs and fears.
In theory, I believe in free speech, in helping the downtrodden and taking care of each other, but when the time came was I able to stand up to my beliefs? Each and every decision shined the torchlight back onto to me – how human am I?
Now that the lockdown has lifted and rules have been relaxed, in hindsight, I can say that I am proud of some decisions I made and not so proud of others. These episodes have revealed to me the gaps between who I would like to be and who I actually am. They have showed me where my work lies.
In conclusion, all I can say is that if this Covid crisis put me through a treacherous roller coaster in middle of boiling waters, it also gave me a priceless gift, the gift of clarity, the gift of knowing who I am when I am stripped of all my masks and costumes.