We are well into the fifth week of the official lockdown brought about by the Novel Coronavirus, Covid19 to give it its formal appellation, and the one thing we can be certain about is that the uncertainty will almost certainly continue for an uncertain period of time. April 20th beckoned seductively, with something to look forward to, but various State Governments, after enticing us with vague indications of some level of freedom, developed cold feet and went back on their word (wisely perhaps), and now we wait with bated breath for May 3rd. As to what magic will occur over the next couple of weeks whereby the third day in the merry month of May will bring forth joy unbounded, is anybody’s guess. Chances are we will still be stuck in the ‘same old, same old’ situation with more infections, recoveries and fatalities, but the curve should flatten. However, as the poet had it, hope springs eternal and with most countries, including the World Health Organisation (which is not a country but a conglomeration of divided countries) giving their thumbs up to India for the way we have thus far handled the crisis, we might just about scrape through without humongous damage. That is the hope, and we will have to survive on a wing and a prayer over the coming weeks and months. A quick aside on WHO. Donald Trump, in a fit of heightened pique, cut off WHO’s fund supply for its apparent China tilt. However, help was at hand from a predictable corner. China, naturally, coughed up (cough being the operative word) several millions to make up for Trump’s parsimony. Who knows, WHO might move its HQ to Beijing sometime soon! Or, perhaps, Wuhan. In Al Pacino’s Oscar-winning expletive from Scent of a Woman, ‘Who Haa!’
This is the third consecutive column I am writing, if tapping on the keys of my desktop can be classified as writing, on Covid19. Some might say I am overdoing it a tad. If so I plead guilty as charged, taking comfort in the knowledge that I cannot find a single piece in any newspaper that talks about anything else. Even the ‘bare bones’ sports page, in its studious analysis of who will take over from the Big 3 of world tennis – Novak, Rafa and Roger – cannot help but make constant mention of the virus and how it may or may not have affected these giants of the game, their glorious backhands and lethal forehands. As for sundry actors from the celluloid world cooking up a storm in their fancy home kitchens, or Virat Kohli being given a haircut by his celluloid wife, ‘been there, done that.’
Herein lies the columnist’s dilemma. Should he choose to go clean off topic and write a column on, say, ‘Is Vishwanathan Anand’s lethal end game waning?’ or ‘Should M.S.Dhoni put us all out of our misery?,’ verbal blows will rain on him for indulging in sports frivolity when the whole world is beset with this beastly virus. On the contrary, do another piece, albeit from left field with a totally different perspective on Covid19, and the Cassandras will go, ‘Gosh, haven’t we had enough of this dreaded topic? I am sick to the back teeth with the virus.’ If indeed that is so, I could advise them to visit the nearest hospital, only to be condemned as a literal minded idiot. There you are, you see. It’s a classic writer’s conundrum, one that I have bent my feeble intellect long and hard to find a solution to, thus far with scant success.
The Eureka moment took its own sweet time, but when it did arrive, it was a snorter. The name ‘Lav Agarwal’ drifted into my mind, and I knew I had found a neat solution to write on the subject we humans around the world are presently obsessed with, and yet coming from an angle that will keep reader interest alive and afloat. If you haven’t cottoned on to where I am headed with this fresh tack, then you must be duller than I had imagined. I am talking about the daily 4 PM bulletin on all the news channels on our television screens, when a group of four or five worthies from the Health and Home Ministry provides us with the latest rundown on what has been happening over the past 24 hours all across the country with regard to, what else, but the Coronavirus. When I first tuned into these distinguished government servants sitting across a table and addressing the media, I found it all rather desiccated. However, with each passing day, I began to appreciate these masked officials who were providing us with detailed information on a subject every single one of us should be vitally interested and involved in. Our lives could depend on it. Thus, my afternoon siesta ended at 3.59 PM when I would wake up and sit bolt upright, to listen to their chief spokesperson, Lav Agarwal from Health, ably supported by a demure lady, who usually took the trouble to colour match her sari with her mask, followed by the ICMR gentleman sporting a walrus moustache, who had the unfortunate task of having to explain to the media why the special rapid testing kits from China were yet to arrive, or were diverted to Italy or, worse still, why many of these kits were found to have holes in them in the wrong places! He invariably put a brave and kindly face on it, this walrus-moustachioed gentleman, but you could see the strain was beginning to tell. As for the elegant lady from the Home Ministry, she generally kept her missives short and on point.
That said, the hero of the hour was, without a shadow of a doubt, our good friend Lav Agarwal from the Health Ministry. He was invariably given maximum screen time, and he did not waste a second of it. Fully informed, he would meticulously trot out the statistics pertaining to each state, would easily switch from Hindi to English and back, as the mood took him. A veritable fount of information, Lav Agarwal left no stone unturned or avenue unexplored to drone on with his inexhaustible fund of information on social distancing and contact tracing. Truth to tell, more often than not, I hardly took in anything of what he was saying, but I would yield to no one in my admiration for his saying all that he was saying. It was like a soother and would give me great comfort, often lulling me back to the land of Nod. On occasion, when the cameras did not pan on the estimable Agarwal for any length of time, I would get disturbed. Has he not come today, is he unwell? Surely he hasn’t contracted…no, no. Surely not. Perish the thought. And just as I was in danger of sinking into a slough of despond at Lav’s apparent absence, there he would appear, his cherubic face a symbol of reassurance! You gotta Lav this Agarwal. In case anyone thinks I am being frivolous, let me assure my readers that I have not missed a single day of the Government of India’s daily 4 PM bulletins, fronted by the patient Agarwal. I say patient because the Q & A session at the end of the conference can try anyone’s patience. But Agarwal and his team tackle all the queries with great meticulousness, and if they don’t know the answer, they don’t try to prevaricate. In fact the ICMR representative with the walrus moustache is particularly open and never tries to put one over the media. If he does not know something, he will be upfront about it. If there’s a hole in the testing kit where no hole should be, he will come right out and say so.
In sum, I think the Public Relations wing of the Government has done an excellent job of keeping the Indian public fully informed on a daily basis on precisely how things are developing on this terrible medical crisis that has taken a vice-like grip over all of us. Which is why I was startled out of my wits when there was no bulletin a couple of days ago on TV. I felt hollow and my mind was full of questions. I could not imagine an afternoon without these doughty sentinels of the Government having a cosy, fireside chat with us. Happily, they were back the following day (with graphs, charts, the whole shooting match) to give us an extended report on ‘one month after the lockdown.’ They were probably preparing the previous day for this, hence the absence.
Finally, if and when CV19 finally takes leave of us, and it can’t be too soon, the one thing I will miss most are these 4 o’ clock siesta talks on TV. Methinks I will record some of these programmes, and keep playing them later on to wallow in a sense of comforting nostalgia. It’s not what Lav and his team told us that matters as much as the fact that they were there to tell it.