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May 9, 2021

A voyage around the virus

It does become hard to make sense of one’s own feelings when personal grief is overlapped with a tragedy of historical proportions. And I have also to contend with a sudden burst of movement in my own circumstances. That is how I find myself emotionally disoriented at this time, unable to find a focus for my thoughts.

First, I have lost two first cousins. They died in India, in the insane surge of Covid-19, one in Aligarh and the other in Delhi. To say this is to also allude to the still unresolved pain of Partition and how national aberrations have snapped ancestral ties.

Then, the death of Professor Shamim Hanafi, again in Delhi and at the hands of the pandemic, is a loss that is deeply felt in Pakistan among the enthusiasts of Urdu literature. He was an exceptional scholar and a great human being. I count myself as one of his friends and have fond memories of being with him during his frequent visits to Karachi for literary festivals.

Strangely, I am left to process these bereavements in a distant place, in southern California. Take this as a measure of the times in which we live that this rather sudden dislocation was also prompted by the threat that this rising wave of the virus is posing in many countries.

In fact, we – my wife Sadiqa and I – were all set to visit our younger daughter Aliya in Italy. We had a family visa and had to fill specific forms and accept certain conditions, such as a 10-day quarantine and certification from specific medical authorities. Even with all this, our elder daughter Sheherbano, who lives in the States, would not be able to join us because siblings are not included in the family that is allowed to be together.

Just three days before our departure, our daughters asked us to do the test for antibodies, since both of us had had our second Sinopharm vaccine three weeks ago. Our antibodies count, mine being more dismal than my wife’s, triggered alarm. Both our daughters decided that we had to be rushed – airlifted, almost – to the States to be in Sheherbano’s care, who is a medical doctor.

Literally within a few hours of that decision, we received our tickets – with just enough time to get our PCRs, mandatory for boarding a flight. We landed in Los Angeles on Saturday evening, last week, and before noon the next day, Sunday, we got our first dose of Pfizer.

This story can be told from different perspectives. We are certainly fortunate in having this opportunity. It is possible to suggest that our daughters were being a bit paranoid about the vulnerability of their aged parents. We had been very careful, obeying all their dictates. But, in a classic reversal of roles, they wouldn’t entirely trust us.

Just as the pandemic has played havoc with the lives of hundreds of millions of people globally, it has cruelly messed up the resolve of our small family to be together a number of times in a year, wherever is it possible. There is this realisation, ticking like a clock, that not much time is left for us to do that.

The experience of international travel with all the Covid restrictions and a punishing long-haul flight would be something to share. With all one’s familiarity with air travel and crowded air terminals, this was something new and intimidating. On the flight from Istanbul to LA, lasting for more than thirteen hours, I innovatively used my wife’s dupatta to make a tent-like cover to eat my meal.

But a more serious and knowledgeable appraisal would be required of our easy and unquestioned access to the Pfizer vaccine. This would have a bearing on what they call vaccine equity. The deprivation of the poor and the developing world in this regard is a matter of global concern. I need to mention that the vaccine rollout in Long Beach city where my daughter resides is a model in the United States.

There is so much more to report on how life in some parts of the country is returning to normality. For instance, people who have been vaccinated may not wear masks, unless they are in a crowd. However, all these issues are a distraction for me. I am perhaps looking into them to avoid the unbearable reality of what has happened in India and how it has touched so many in Pakistan.

In many ways, India’s systemic failure and the colossal human tragedy it has spawned has its roots in the history of South Asia and what its countries have made of the freedom they had earned. Here is also some evidence that they have failed in their tryst with destiny. Hopefully, the debacle that we are witnessing in India will not be repeated in other South Asian countries, though alarm bells are being sounded in Nepal.

I would hesitate to dwell on my personal story of losing two first cousins with whom I did not have close contacts, largely because we lived in two countries divided by animosity. The family of my mother’s only sister did not migrate, and it is now an extensive clan that is spread across different cities in India and abroad. I have been thinking about them this week and wanting to know them better and share the sorrows of their lives beyond gasping for words on WhatsApp.

We, in South Asia, have suffered our interludes of hope for reconciliation and jingoistic, irrational confrontations. But the tragedy that India is suffering now has touched us all at a different human level. One could not have imagined the scenes that we have watched on CNN and BBC.

Is there some divine message in this emotionally wrenching disaster, recounted in so many persons we have known and we can relate to? I was aware of Shamim Hanafi being in a critical condition and it was hard to bear. We do not know how long will this pandemic last and wonder what lessons it will leave for us – and our rulers.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]