Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 1, April16-30, 2020
Kindly wait, you are in queue
These are very dark times indeed and The Man from Madras Musings feels like a character out of a Russian or to bring it closer home, a Bengali novel. The atmosphere, as a wordsmith once put it, is so fairy tale that it is Grimm. Imagine a whole world locking itself down, industrial establishments shutting, public entertainments out of the reckoning and the poor and elderly as usual suffering the most. The mind just boggles. MMM certainly has enough stories to tell his grandchildren, as and when they appear of course and provided they are willing to listen and more importantly, believe in his narration. Certainly, those who were not part of the COVID experience will find it hard to think of it as anything but surreal.
What they will find harder to believe is that one virus could get us Indians and Chennai-ites in particular, to conform to queue discipline. It seems improbable but it is true and MMM has seen it with his own eyes. Mind you, they, by which MMM means his eyes, are not what they once were but they can still make out people standing in orderly lines at checking-out counters in shops. And what is more, they are adhering to the concept of space between each other. These shops have drawn lines, or circles, depending on individual taste and patrons are expected to stand on the line or within the circle as the case may be. The space between these geometric drawings are the mandatory six feet. Hard to imagine eh?
Most of us who have been in queues in this our land know that there are really no queues – each person believes he or she is at the head of one and ought to therefore be served first at the counter. In fact, MMM understands that one of the key reasons for Indians being successes in the IT industry (that business which first made Work From Home fashionable) is their ability to think laterally, which in turn comes from their habit of breaking queues. The other habit, when we do form queues is to leave minimum or no space between each other. We are so close knit as a nation that we stick close like brothers. Thus MMM is quite sure that all of you out there have been part of queues where when it is your turn to step to the counter, two or three people behind you will also join and listen to your conversation with whoever it is that is attending to you. Not only will they hear every word but sometimes butt in and offer suggestions or even solutions. They will also relay the gist of your discussion to others down the line. All very friendly no doubt if you like that sort of thing but not nice if you are the kind that likes privacy.
All of this is of course nothing compared to the person behind who having joined you at the counter will place both arms on either side of you. A very protective gesture no doubt but also highly protectionist – it is chiefly to prevent those behind from trying to sneak ahead. This way, apart from the person listening in, you also have the joy of him breathing down your neck, filling your personal space with body odour and pinning you to the counter with no leeway for any movement. MMM has in such situations adopted an unfailing trick – drop a pen and quickly in the process of ducking down to retrieve it, push the interloper firmly away. This is of course not a lasting solution, for such people usually tend to make a comeback, not for once realizing that they were wrong in the first place.
Anyway, such happenings have now become a rarity and so MMM’s advice is that you need to enjoy it while it lasts. Only shopping these days is no joy, for you are looking for commodities that are increasingly difficult to find and expensive. And by the time these products come back, the old queue behaviour will also be back. MMM heard someone saying the other day that life will never be the same after COVID. He disagrees and predicts that we will go back to our old ways. And MMM would much prefer those small discomforts when compared to what we are going through now.
Clapping hands and lighting lamps
When the Prime Minister speaks The Man from Madras Musings listens. This is of course partly out of patriotism. It is also partly out of what arose from an earlier speech on a Tuesday night at 8.00 pm after which MMM found everyone he knew standing in queues for exchanging rupee notes. So each time there is a prime-ministerial broadcast, MMM stands to attention and hangs on to every word. He likes to be ahead in queues.
This time of course it was with different feelings that MMM listened. The first speech for a day’s token lockdown MMM realised was a forerunner for something bigger, a mere dress rehearsal as it were. His good lady, also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed was even more proactive. This is when we needed to buy some essentials so that we were prepared for a long blockade she decided and sailed out to shop. MMM’s good lady is no hoarder and so when she returned it was with a small set of important items without which chez MMM cannot get by, and no, in case you were wondering, rolls of toilet paper are not essential commodities in the MMM household. But she did come back with horror stories of men and women who were foraging as though there was no tomorrow. She had even seen a man stocking up on locks – you know the kind that have tumblers and levers. Seeing her incredulous look, he had explained that these would come in handy. He expected the law and order situation to collapse he said and so he felt he needed to be protected.
People are made differently was all that MMM could say when his good lady returned and related all these tales that MMM found, to quote the bard, wondrous, pitiful and passing strange. But what transpired thereafter was even more surprising, enough to make the twenty hairs or so left on MMM’s head stand on end like quills on a fretful porpentine. The PM if you recollect said people had to stand in their balconies and on rooftops and clap to express gratitude to the millions of frontline workers in the war against the virus. MMM fully agreed with the sentiment though he did not think exhorting people to stand on balconies to cheer was such a good idea. Sure enough, most converted it into a kind of social outing. In India, zeal and deification can go to all kinds if limits. But that was not at all. In the midst of all the chaos, the shutting down and the fear, one politician managed to print posters thanking all doctors and with a photo of himself thrown in prominently of course. These were pasted all around MMM’s area.
It made MMM wonder as to how this man found a printer who was willing to keep his outfit open during the lockdown, get the workforce needed to execute the order, not to speak of a designer, however bad the layout. And then once the printing was done, he could also locate people to do the pasting, with glue and then spraying the sheets all over with cow dung and water – not as a cure for COVID but to ensure that the posters are not chewed up by the cows. Did you know this trade secret by the way? No? True. All posters in Tamil Nadu are after pasting given this treatment. Apparently, cows don’t consider their urine and dung to be therapeutic. It’s only the humans who do so!
A week or so after this, the PM was back, asking us to light lamps. This led to some people bursting crackers as well. But MMM will not go into all that, especially the question as to where fireworks could be bought during a lockdown.