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How a virus turned our world order upside down

‘Bilet pherot’, or England returned, used to be a source of pride and privilege among Bengalis. Now it has a new meaning in the age of ‘coronization’

Passengers at Kolkata’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport on 7 March.
Passengers at Kolkata’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport on 7 March. (Photo: HT)

A hallowed Bengali ideal has finally bitten the dust in the age of corona. Bilet pherot, or “England returned", was once the adjective to which generations of Bengalis aspired. In my imagination, it conjured up black and white Bengali films where a dapper hero, preferably Uttam Kumar, would descend the steps from the aeroplane to the tarmac, after pausing to light his pipe, his head cocked just so. His overcoat and hat were cues to remind the doting Bengali audience that he had just come from the streets of Oxford Circus in London, a newly-minted barrister or doctor now returned home.

My grandfather, who died before I was born, was bilet pherot, a source of great pride in the family, the only one of seven brothers to have gone to England to study. I have a photograph of him at the Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, a lonely brown face surrounded by white ones. He was a barrister, the bilet pherot permanently attached to his name, like his Tripos degree from Cambridge. So great was the social hullabaloo over these England-returned bhadralok, it became the subject of the very first silent film made by a Bengali director with an all-Bengali cast, Dhiren Ganguly’s Bilet Pherat (1921), which poked fun at the affectations of the returnees as well as the apoplectic conservatives who frowned upon their anglicized ways. My grandfather was asked by some family elders to eat cow dung to purify himself. He refused.

Now, thanks to the coronavirus, bilet pherot is something to hide rather than flaunt. The first official coronavirus positive case in Kolkata was a young man who had returned from London and refused to check himself into the Infectious Diseases hospital for several days. Then came another case of another young man who had returned from London and tested positive, followed swiftly by a third case of someone who had come back from Edinburgh. The chief minister, who had years ago promised to turn Kolkata into London, demanded an immediate ban on all international flights. Once, Kolkata’s lack of international air connections was a sign of its great downfall as a cosmopolitan city, a source of shame. Now, Kolkata wanted to block the few flights it still had and seal itself off. Bilet pherot had become a source of anxiety rather than pride in this brave new world we are coming to terms with.

During the great cholera epidemics, many of which ravaged Bengal in the last couple of centuries, the disease was regarded with dread in the US and Europe, dubbed the illness carried by immigrants and travellers, gypsies and Jews, the “diseased outsider" bringing what the West saw as tropical pestilence to their shores. US president Benjamin Harrison singled out immigrants as a “direct menace to the public health". A New York physician said, “The disease entered our port on account of defective quarantine and it has been carried to us mainly by filthy immigrants."

The words sound dreadfully ironic at a time when it is those returning from the UK and Italy who are the ones in “defective quarantine". We were used to a world where the US looked on the smuggled mango in some Indian’s luggage as the dangerous interloper, the illegal immigrant bringing in tropical diseases from the crowded filthy cities of the so-called Third World. The flow of fear has now reversed polarity.

It’s like colonization all over again or, as my partner puts it, “coronization". Instead of the East India Company and the crown, this time its carrier is a crown of a different sort, the coronavirus. Once, the West looked upon us as the ones who gave them exotic diseases. That attitude spawned entire post-colonial studies on the stigmatization of infectious tropical disease. Now, in an ironic turn, the stigma has turned on its head. A country that once fawned over its white tourists today looks at them with hostility. Expats face suspicious glances, extra forms and people covering their faces when they walk into an ATM. Of course, the uncomfortable truth is that it’s returning Indian students and tourists and pop singers skipping quarantine who are the new agents of coronization. But xenophobia provides easier targets to rally against in a time of panic. In the US, it’s the “Chinese virus", over here it’s bilet pherot.

What is undeniable is that the virus has turned the world we knew and its old order upside down in ways we could not have imagined. Everyone wants social distancing now and bowling alone sounds like a good thing, not a sign of a dysfunctional society. The child abroad was once the hallmark of upper-middle-class India, a status symbol of sorts. Now it’s every parent’s nightmare as they move heaven and earth to get their children back home from Washington and London and Milan. And when they manage to finally come back, their bilet pherot tag can earn them a mandatory home quarantine stamp on their hands instead of a red-carpet welcome and immense cultural cachet.

Those who relished the perks of the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cards suddenly find their families split down the middle. OCI cardholders settled in India are worried sick because they are unable to bring their children home from the US after the government announced the visa ban till 15 April would apply to OCI cards as well. They cannot leave because they do not know if they can then return to their lives here. Once, the OCI card had made movement back and forth easier. Now it has left families stranded on either side of the visa ban, proof that the citizen in Overseas Citizen of India is but a second-class one when the going gets rough.

It’s a world we can scarcely recognize in other ways, one that would not have seemed possible even two months ago. As factories shut down in China, the air above them clears almost like a miracle. The normally congested noisy streets of Kolkata are eerily empty, as if wiped clean with a wet rag as the city goes into lockdown. The new “fake news" is not about fomenting riots between Hindus and Muslims but the feel-good type about swans and dolphins frolicking in the gondola-less canals of Venice. My WhatsApp groups have stopped their daily Hindu-Muslim, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Congress, India-Pakistan squabbles and share the latest news on the coronavirus and suggestions for Netflix shows to while away the hours. Someone recently made a half-hearted BJP jab but no one took the bait. Friends call to check in where once an SMS would have done.

One day we will emerge from all this into a post-coronial world and we will look back at the ways we have been changed forever. These are early days yet in our newly “coronized" world. We are still getting used to its strange new contours, finding our bearings in a topsy-turvy world order. But we can feel the difference. Who would have thought that in 2020 we would see headlines like the one a friend shared recently on Facebook: “African countries move to restrict European visitors amid coronavirus pandemic"? If they had only done that a few centuries ago, we would be living in a very different world today.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

Twitter - @sandipr

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