Now that I have plenty of time sitting at home, I read, watch movies and old serials, do online IQ tests…and I meditate. I write,too, whenever I can. My brain, therefore, remains exercised at least for part of the day, although, admittedly, I do get a bit depressed as the day progresses. I am not an enthusiastic participant in hectic WhatsApp messaging, I do not tweet, I am absent on Facebook or Instagram. Never having been a golfer or an avid bridge fan, never having been particularly in need of social interaction at any time except when my job demanded socialising or when good friends sought my company and having become, over the years, sparing in consuming alcohol, that is one part of life I do not miss.
I used to be quite active physically until a few years ago. While in Brussels and Geneva and Delhi, I used to take long walks, sometimes lasting a couple of hours. This was a habit I acquired very early in life. While in Delhi, my childhood was, of course, spent in cricket or in playing with stray dogs and puppies. Later, once I had gotten over the cricket age, I began to enjoy walking. All the way from our house in Turkman road or Rouse Avenue to the ancient fort of Feroze Shah Kotla. Generally, the fort was unfrequented by others, hence I had it almost all to myself with the Ashokan pillar standing in solitary splendour. I could sit there and dream up scenes of imagined happenings in the dark and desolate cubicles surrounding the inner quadrangle. I walked to Connaught Place too, crossing the railway lines into Bengali market and, from there on to Shankar market and beyond. On pleasant evenings, I walked even to India Gate and back. On occasion, I walked all the way from my college in Delhi University to my home, a goodly distance, past Kashmiri gate, Daryaganj, Delhi Gate and Asaf Ali road. I do not know what these places are called now as Delhi specialises in changing names.
I put on a great deal of weight in Geneva, thanks to too many dinner parties with other Ambassadors. When I came back to Delhi, as secretary to the Government of India, I was given a smallish house in Satya Marg after a long wait. A wait which convinced me that Secretaries in Delhi must have decent accommodation without waiting too long. When I became Cabinet Secretary, therefore, my priority was to have some good houses built in New Moti Bagh and to earmark forty of them exclusively for Secretaries.
Satya Marg is close to Nehru Park and I started to go early in the morning to walk around the park. In time, I became too ambitious. The walks transformed into jogging and that,too, at an increasingly brisk pace. I should have known that an overweight man in his mid-fifties must not take up jogging. Particularly since I had fallen several times in the past and twisted my left ankle repeatedly. In a few months, pain and swelling developed on my left ankle. I paid no heed, thinking it will go away like swellings used to disappear when I had twisted my ankle in the past. This time, the pain and the swelling wouldn’t go. I tried various remedies, visited many doctors. The fact was that the cartilage in my left ankle had rubbed off and my ankle joint had no lubrication. So today, when I walk, I walk in pain. The long walks of the past are but a distant memory. I cannot go for walks anymore, I cannot even stand for too long and the pain persists even when I am sitting. In these corona bound days, therefore, my physical exercise has to come from the many excellent exercise regimes available for the elderly and the chair bound on You Tube.
I have re-discovered some of the classics and discovered new writers. Over the years, my reading preferences have changed. Gone are the days when, during the course of a train journey from Delhi to Madras, I would clamber on to the upper berth and read three novels in the course of a day. PG Wodehouse was,of course, the universal favourite at the time. I had read all of Wodehouse before it turned eleven. Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, HG Wells, Manohar Malgonkar and other brilliant literary craftsmen absorbed me in those ancient days when there was no TV and films were once-in-several-months luxuries. The length of a book held no fear for me and I could wade through “ Gone with the Wind” without much of a problem. Today, my interests are different. I cannot say that I have the reading zeal that marked my teens. I like to read more gently flowing stuff, the likes of Ruskin Bond, forest tales of Jim Corbett, Kenneth Anderson and their ilk, travelogues,Himalayan adventures, with some thrillers and short stories thrown in. The Kindle allows me to experiment and I have come across some brilliant but little known writers, some of them Indians writing in English. Writers like Jessica Falleiro and Gaurav Punj are truly gifted. Many others, too, whom I am yet to discover. And I read a great deal of spiritual, non-dualist literature, both in fiction and non- fiction.
The lockdown has not troubled Kerala much. Kerala has been different in its thinking from its very inception. For many States, the route to prosperity lay exclusively in creating “ease of doing business” for foreign investors,corporate houses and businessmen. The underlying principle was that if the investor is looked after, he will look after the needs of the rest of the societal pyramid. Successive governments in Kerala thought otherwise. They put their emphasis on the welfare of the common man, often contemptuously dismissed as populism by some modern day economists and “rock star” prophets fawned upon by the media. The left wing mindset that the State inherited after centuries of repression of the landless and the lower castes and the compulsions of democracy drove the policy framework into a different direction. The focus shifted inevitably to economic uplift of the indigent, on educating them, on providing them with decent health care. Regardless of whether the government was Congress-led or Left, the policy direction remained similar.
The growth trajectory of the State has been strikingly different from that of the rest of the country. Indeed, the Western Ghats remained an impassable barrier even in the distant past for the likes of the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals and the Southern dynasties with few exceptions for short periods. Kerala has, in fact, been more integrated with its trading partners in the Middle East, China and Europe than with India east of the Western Ghats. Even the British could hold sway only over the northern part of the State and the really significant social and economic changes that took place in the pre-Independence years were thanks largely to enlightened “native”rulers and their carefully chosen Dewans. The Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936, allowing entry of lower castes into Hindu temples, was issued by Maharaja Chithira Thirunal of Travancore. The contributions of Dewan Madhava Rao to education and Dewan CP Ramaswami Iyer to industry set Kerala on a different path.
After Independence and, more particularly, after the formation of the State, land reforms and public private partnership in education changed Kerala’s landscape even further. When the Oil Boom turned previously arid desert lands in the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia into oases of prosperity, Kerala, with its educated professionals and skilled labour, had the advantage of first entry. Once more, Kerala was looking outward for its prosperity and inward for social reform. Part of its social reform process was the development of a strong public distribution system, both formally through rationing and informally through a string of fair price shops which kept profiteering by private traders under check. The growth process of Kerala, as it evolved, was also markedly different, with emphasis on services, especially tourism and technology, reinforcing once more its interface with the world at large.
Thus, when corona struck, Kerala was able to ride on its policies and achievements of the past five decades and create barriers to the spread of the virus both through its efficient health care system and its ability to mobilise quickly the public distribution system to reach essential goods and services to the people. This was not limited to those who called Kerala their homeland. While we saw pathetic pictures of migrant labourers in the north of India painfully trudging homeward for miles and miles, Kerala was able to keep half a million such workers in relative comfort in 18000 camps. They will be ready for work when the restrictions are lifted. Supported by a governmental system with experience in crisis management and in the “campaign” mode of sectoral reform adopted successfully in the past by the State in areas as diverse as houses for the homeless, adult literacy and family planning and the growth and maturing of Panchayati Raj institutions, Kerala was able to handle the Covid crisis with far more aplomb and dexterity than other States in India. This was combined with realistic political leadership, timely decision making and a resolute bureaucracy functioning without fear of being given up when the chips are down. Together, they added further potency to the brew that had already been concocted over time by successive past governments.
We are yet a long way off. The relative slow progress of the pandemic can suddenly change into a huge conflagration as the lockdown becomes economically unsustainable. There could be difficult days ahead. Service industries,tourism, small and medium industries and startups struggling in their infancy have been badly hit. Government finances, never strong, have plummeted even further. Ingenious new ways have to be found, old and irrelevant policies and procedures jettisoned, and new horizons searched . This applies not only to Kerala but to all of India.
Every crisis carries within itself the seeds of new opportunity. Can India as a nation learn to stay united, derive lessons from our experience, understand one another better, abjure political opportunism, re-examine our economic philosophy and revive the hope and spirit of 1947?
The corona virus could well separate the wheat from the chaff in our social, political and economic firmament.