When I was a toddler and fell over, my mother would immediately shout with joy: “Jumped, jumped, jumped!” She wasn’t lying. She was turning something that had happened to me into something I had done. She was reframing the experience, turning it on its head. She was suggesting, “You did that to yourself, didn’t you? What a clever thing you are.”
Perhaps I was just a stupid kid, but I’m told that it seemed to work. I would waddle off in another direction, only to fall again and turn to her, threatening tears; and once again, I would be told that I had “jumped, jumped, jumped”.
This was a family thing, and I thought of it as one of those strange things we Pintos did and resolved that it should be a secret.
But then one day I was walking down the seafront outside the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai with a friend from college. A little fellow from out of town, separated from his mother, fell over. “Jumped, jumped, jumped!” I shouted.
Of course, he burst into tears. A strange man shouting at him in a strange language in the middle of a strange city must have been more than he could bear. His mother swooped down on him and mumbled her explanations and peace was restored. My friend looked at me curiously.
I explained, and she said, “Ah. Well, my mother did it differently. She would say, ‘Nothing’s happened, nothing at all, come to Mama,’ holding out a cream biscuit or a lolly, and I would waddle, stumble, waddle to her and be rewarded. Then she’d say, ‘See, you fell and got up and you got a bikki!’ I’m told I became a committed faller and riser.”
Why am I telling you all this? I think because there are times through life when we all try to do what our mothers were doing for us. We try to find meaning in life’s seeming randomness, its unfairness; look for ways to deal with its tendency to knock us over even on a clear road. In the grip of the Covid pandemic, we’ve been doing this more visibly. We are trying to see meaning in what threatens to seem like a meaningless event.
Each person who has lost a family member, lost a loved one or an entire livelihood, turns her or his or their eyes to the sky and asks, “Why?” And implicit in that, “Why me?”
The sky, unseasonably blue, vouchsafes no answer. Social media is full of people writing paeans to the new birdcalls, but the birds too sing no answers. The pandemic is global, but we are alone. No one, we feel, grieves as we grieve, no one suffers quite as we do. But here’s the thing: as Nida Fazli points out in the poem included in this collection, not one of us is excluded.
The universe does not make a special case for anyone, it does not turn sharp and pointed teeth at anyone in particular. It just seems that way. My father had a way of dealing with the “Why me?” Whenever I asked that question – and like most young people, I raised the anguished cry about once a week – The Big Hoom would say, “Do you ask that when something good happens to you?”
But having said that, it has been rough. We’ve all had it rough. The world, as we knew it, blinked. If you blink just now, deliberately, blink as if explaining to a child what a blink is, you will bring on a moment of darkness. For a while, we were all there. It was the dark of our prehistory, the terrifying dark of unknowing.
The pandemic – the losses, the fear, the isolation – threw us back on ourselves, and our selves were not, many of us found, particularly comfortable places. It threw us back into our families and we discovered the fault lines of love and intimacy again. It threw into focus the ways in which we had divided our lives into here and there, inside and outside, office and home, work and play, us and not-us, and this suddenly seemed unsustainable.
As I write this, we are limping back, in fits and starts, to what we were doing.
Employers are asking employees to come back in to work. School bells are ringing in many places. Traffic is snarling up the roads and the bird song has faded from our senses. The new normal is now looking very much like the old normal – because if it has anything to do with being normal, then its newness must fade swiftly into habit.
This is comforting, if you want to be comforted. This is terrifying, if you want to be terrified. But in any case, it is a new beginning. Or can be.
Each ending is a beginning. This is a truism, and one that we like better when it is applied to someone else. But this time the whole world lurched and shifted, and it lurched and shifted for everyone, without exception. And so we say, regretfully, that a whole era has ended, believing also that a new era must begin. And if this is true, then this is where we get another chance. We can be kinder to each other. We can be kinder to the Earth. We can do something about our faults and fears that break us or, more often, lead us to break others.
The pandemic only shows us what we have always needed to see: the need to rearrange our lives.
To rearrange our inner lives, because that is the only real site of change. There are many billion resolutions being made, perhaps a million efforts, too. Private, individual efforts.
As for public, collective efforts, there is evidence already to prove that we’ll blow it again. Even as you read this, some more mountains are being dug up, some more trees are being cut down, some more rivers are being poisoned. New wars are brewing, new jackboots are about, new inequalities are piling up on the old. But we’re going to have to soldier on, you and I, in hope...
Perhaps your hope is getting a little world-weary, a little shop-soiled. Perhaps it has been mocked by the cynics who have now begun to show their colours again. Never mind them. Cynicism is the penultimate refuge of the scoundrel and the poseur. Hope has been painted with cotton-candy colours, labelled a Pollyanna and turned out of doors as uncool. Never mind that. We must always remember that hope is the bedrock of human civilisation. Of Life.
We messed things up this time. But then, our species has been messing things up for millennia.
As individuals, we mess things up every day. When we don’t, something comes along to mess them up, to injure us, and often we are allies in our own injuring. And so we’ll always be thrown back on that eternal, magical “thing with feathers”. Make no mistake, the cynic in the hipster clothing lives on it, too – on hope, which is made of uncool things: resilience, courage, kindness, always kindness.
This book is about hope, it is about resilience, and so it is about Life. It is about rising after a fall, about getting through the dark nights, about finding light. It brings us voices across time and geography, for all that is good and beautiful in the dream of being human is timeless and universal. These voices remind us that whatever the news says, whatever the warmongers chant, whatever the purveyors of hate may say, whatever life may throw at us, there is another day on the way. A day when we may live. When we may find – and share – some beauty, some grace, some love. It is all that has ever mattered.
“Introduction”, excerpted with permission from A Book of New Beginnings: Some Words for Living, edited and with an introduction by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger Books.