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The age of pain—and comfort

In this time of extreme discomfort, comfort is the new catchword

The belongings of 16 migrant workers who were run over by a goods train lie scattered on the tracks. reuters
The belongings of 16 migrant workers who were run over by a goods train lie scattered on the tracks. reuters

When 16 migrant workers, who had paused to sleep on the railway tracks on their 800km journey home on foot, were run over by a goods train last week near Aurangabad, many of us know people who, from the comfort of their memory foam mattresses, asked: “But why were they sleeping on the tracks?"

So much for the news report that began with the plaintive line: “If this image doesn’t move you nothing will." The image was of the railway track, a mangled mess of clothes, chappals, blood—and some miraculously untouched rotis.

As a terrifying tidal wave of hunger and sorrow wash away the precarious livelihoods of large swathes of this country, we are too busy figuring out how to covid-proof our lives to worry about how to help those who are left with nothing.

Indian industry’s response? The government should ensure that workers—many of them stranded in big cities without any assistance from their employers after a sudden lockdown was announced in March—return to work or be penalized.

Empathy, already in short supply across the world, is increasingly a dated concept except in New Zealand, whose citizens have been reclassified as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s “team of five million".

Sure, privileged Indians have been impacted too. But restricted access to our old lives is not the same as dying of hunger or being run over as you walk hundreds of kilometres to get home. As writer Mohammad Aamir Khan, who was wrongly imprisoned for 14 years, pointed out in news website The Print: The lockdown isn’t anything like prison.

There’s no equivalence between our covid reality and the real Indian struggle for survival.

Yes, the bubbles—real estate, fintech, growth, credit—are popping alarmingly close to our faces, forcing us to re-evaluate our investments, savings, startup ventures, but we are already strategizing about how we will keep our families safe in the coming years.

Sure we will have to wait patiently until we can extract our hard-earned money from various mutual funds and stocks. And there’s no question of buying or selling that apartment for a while.

We will have to soothe our frazzled adult children—who, on the cusp of graduating from university, were forced to return home—and convince them that it’s not the end of the world if they take a year off. We will need to celebrate our milestone birthdays over Zoom or with funny, loving videos sent by our friends and families. We have already said bye to beer on tap but our favourite coffee is still available online.

Maybe we will get a pet for our young, lonely, only children who have spent the summer holidays without their friends and any outdoor activities. We might consider home- schooling. We will certainly have more and new battles at the workplace as companies figure out how to “handle" employees in a post-covid world. As for millennials, I am sorry, you have really seen the worst this world has to offer.

But if we are honest, we know that our discomfort is only another challenge, not a threat to our existence. We have already started working on our recovery with our therapists.

Brands are doing their bit to expand our comfort zone. In an age of extreme discomfort, comfort is the new catchword.

Processed foods have already made a comeback as consumers rediscover white bread and hoard tinned and frozen foods that have a shelf life. With no impetus to step out of our homes, loungewear, athleisure and Work From Home have all become fashion buzzwords. The world has discovered what everyone who has ever parented a young child knows: It’s easiest to work from home in sweatpants.

In some ways, if you are honest, this new world is almost easier.

Gyms and running tracks have been replaced with online yoga sessions and stripped-down body- weight workouts. Mixing it up—jump rope followed by squats, push-ups, lunges and Surya Namaskars—requires a fraction of the time it took you to exercise in that other world. And nobody’s judging you for exercising less.

Live sport seems like a distant dream but we have access to every big game ever played and all the books written these past decades. We can pick a sport or a topic and become a domain expert. I have decided to become an expert in crime series. These days I am addicted to the comforting predictability of a sullen detective called Bosch in the Amazon Prime series by that name. Watching anything else is too much effort.

Just a few months ago, we were discussing how we wanted our schools to go back to basics and keep screens out of the classroom; now Unicef’s website is addressing topics like, “Rethinking screen-time in the time of covid-19".

For those who believe the smartphone is destroying society, the pandemic just speeded up the demolition. More than ever before, our smartphones are our lifelines in the new world order.

How can the two worlds compare? The pandemic has only sharpened the divide between those who have and those who don’t.

Even from the comfort of our reinforced, Wi-Fi-enabled cocoons, there are many ways to lend a helping hand to fellow citizens who are fighting to live with dignity. Work on our empathy (starting with the workers we employ), hold our political representatives accountable and ensure they do their job, donate a percentage of our savings and assets to a charity of our choice every year (in Islam, it’s already practised as zakat).

The world can only begin to heal if more people start giving and caring more.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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