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A letter to my nephews on making sense of covid-19 and its aftermath

Alone, in Goa under lockdown, author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi pens a letter to his nephews, calling on calm, grace and a return to reason

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi with his nephews, Abhishek and Ishan, in 2013.
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi with his nephews, Abhishek and Ishan, in 2013.

Dear Abhishek and Ishan – While you are both safe and healthy, this is an unprecedented, impossible time, without an instruction manual. It's going to have to be assembly by trial.

You, Ishan, are in rural Wales, far from home in Bengaluru. Windows in your sheltering house look out at fields. I imagine your relief when your roommate’s family took you in after your university shut and borders closed. This family's rescue – high up in the pantheon of human grace – confirms the arrow in any compass points at compassion. Anne Frank was right – people are really good at heart. The world has a genius for amplifying every unkind deed. But in gloomy hours, behold each encountered kindness as magnificent, even wondrous. Every wee thing – a sweet word, an apple in your basket – is an exchange of light, of the recognition that you were earmarked out of billions to receive a treat. No one has your particular apple. Only you. Utter the sweet word: it was yours only to be passed on.

In your enforced solitude, look at your life as a diorama, view it from top, recognize the shape of life. An aerial view to your life reveals how the grudges you bear, the hurt you hold occupies little space in an otherwise large and bright room. Right now, I need you cut out of view present distress and past anguish – we honor its presence but we don’t touch it yet, not today. Instead, move your eye over the larger room, over lamps of warmth and glasses you had drunk nimbu paani from – let all this felt loveliness remind you how it can be a charm against bad luck. The objective lens in a telescope gathers light to a single point of focus. Ptolemy looked up at the great night sky, common to all, and only he saw a winged horse, Pegasus. All the mysterious, animating velvet beauty in this world relies on our witnessing for its existence. By collecting light to a single point of focus, new worlds are revealed. Seeing is evidence.

Maybe now – when everyone is shouting on the internet and all you really want is a pizza before the world burns down – make beauty your shield against the ugliness of the present hour. Sink into fine, coiled sentences in the old novels. At the still point, Eliot wrote, there the dance is. Look at Edward Hopper’s paintings - they’re really about how conversation can break up devastating isolation; depictions of its absence, in his paintings, emphasise how word is invaluable. 'I describe,' Hopper has said, 'the absence of sociability between individuals..' His paintings were subtle reminders of Forster's old adage - only connect... live in fragments no longer. I know Billie Eilish rules your Spotify, listen to her lick each word in her every song like a cat before a bowl of cool milk – pure, modern genius, a Bedouin who arrived perfectly formed, with a trunk of marvels. I love you. That’s not only the name of one of Ellish’s melodies. I love you.

Abhishek, you're at home in Mumbai, where dolphins were spotted off the coast of Marine Drive. When we are quiet, secret splendor bursts upon on. How awful that we interrupted this natural order with our greed and meanness – bad manners on the karmic level. But shared pause might be a good time to reflect on how to do better next time. Don’t eat animals, or eat what you believe you can kill (if you can bear to kill, you'll give your uncle industrial strength anxiety). Read Jonathan Safran Foer’s treatise on vegetarianism –a clarion call; read Coetzee, again.

Every day, Ishan and Abhishek, you can clean up this messy room just a bit. Fewer clothes mean less ironing. No visa run for any travels in your head, no carbon print to mop up. Turn off the tap. We don’t need very much to live, these days have proven, although why we hoard indicts something else entirely. What remains irreplaceable in darkening chaos is human company –without it, we’re all doing crazed somersaults in our head. In seclusion, we see it is life we must hold to dearly, which is to say: it is all humans we must love collectively, if we are to live at all.

I am in in Goa, alone, so dauntingly, damningly alone in the village of Moira, alone in a big old house whose doors creak and moan, more alone than I have ever been. I’m scared. I don’t know how long this will last. Food supplies running out. Authorities attacking civilians with sticks, even the ones who hazard out for basic groceries. You are both adults, so governments are not just memes for millennials, they’re monsters who send out forces to attack you, suspend your meals, make your jobs disappear. Remember these days when you vote. A‘lockdown’ without food - as it was in Goa - is a kind of slow drawn out death. Do you remember how we looked away when Kashmir was shut down a year ago? We said it was necessary. Now, we’re all shut down, it’s also necessary, but none of us are looking away. The Universe keeps tabs – right now, we’re Bad Planet, and I assure you Elon Musk’s Mars Mobile is not a car pool service. You’re here, stuck, with me, with all of us.

Yet, here it is: the privilege to panic. Our concerns paling before hundreds of thousands of workers summarily sent packing, walking to their villages in blazing heat, mind shut from rage and sadness, body reeling from hunger, from fatigue. For many this lockdown turned into a holiday that stretched on for longer than bargained for, and without avocados; for others, it was dismissal from that crowded nation called Dignity. But what are we meant to do? Keel over from dread and despair - or is this the time to make art from the broken pieces of our hearts, as Carrie Fisher has advised? Well, what’s the point? We’re all going to die. Gosh, I’m being totally OTT – I’m exaggerating the possibility of our death, when we know it is as an inevitability. From birth, we have been deferring death; in the meantime, we have been living. Football on the Denial Commons.

So, go forth and live, live, live.

Social distancing is an aperture to spiritual intimacy. In my silence, under the mango tree, I pray. I chant. I sing to the heavens. I do this because, yes, this disease is a catastrophe of unmatched scale and unimagined consequences but I also believe it is the greatest spiritual event of all our lives. Suddenly, each of us is a monk. In this monastery of quarantine, we are handed the true, difficult, purposeful work of what it means to be human. No one knows, or we know now that we know little. A window of rare time is an invitation to enter yourself so fully you are left dazzled by your possibilities. Emerge from this exploration with clearer knowledge of what you must fix, and what talent, joy, levity, style, or gentleness you must return to the world as rent for your time on it. When I pray, as I am doing right now, I am not afraid. In fact, I am fearless. Be well, my boys, for even if life presently feels like a canteen with cold chai and no snacks it’s actually a great and sumptuous feast, there is enough for all of us, more than we can imagine right now. Any meaningful experience of true abundance commences with austerity. Wait for it, as they say on the viral cat videos you sometimes forward to me. Wait for it.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi lives in Goa and is the best-selling author of The Last Song Of Dusk. His new memoir, Loss, is forthcoming this summer from HarperCollins India.

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