Clarification: An earlier image used with this story was a representational image of Christmas celebrations in Kolkata from 2016. We have replaced it with one from 2020 and apologise for the confusion.
Every time state governments announce a night curfew to combat covid-19 rates, I am left mystified. As a joke doing the WhatsApp rounds says, it seems they think covid spreads in public places and restaurants, but only after 9pm. Also “political gatherings are perfectly fine in large groups regardless of any rules. That’s because the Ministers set the rules, and the virus obeys the rules.”
But having seen the pictures of Kolkata’s Park Street during Christmas, I can finally understand what our policymakers are up against. While Kolkatans had patted themselves on the back for a fairly restrained Durga Puja (thanks, in part, to last-minute orders from the Calcutta high court), they partied this Christmas like it was 2019. These government directives were just trying to dampen the party spirit in the year of the pandemic. Clearly, an uphill task.
Park Street has always been the epicentre of Kolkata’s Christmas bashes. This year, too, throngs in Santa hats and reindeer antlers showed up. Many of them were mask-less. They shoved and jostled and tried to take pictures of the Christmas lights. They queued up for their must-have plum cakes. Restaurants were having duck festivals. Social distancing felt like a figment of the imagination, a fairy-tale creature, much like Santa Claus himself. During Durga Puja, the court had given directives about the safety procedures pandals needed to follow. As a result, many pandals became off-limits to the general public. But it seems no such rules applied for Christmas. While there wasn’t any post-Puja spurt, thanks to the excellent compliance with norms, congregations like the ones on Christmas could trigger a spike, pulmonologist Raja Dhar told The Times Of India.
It’s not just Park Street. While some of Kolkata’s famous clubs abandoned plans for Christmas and New Year’s Eve galas, others went ahead with restrictions like smaller numbers and spread-out tables. Pictures appeared in the tabloids this week of revellers partying. “All social distancing protocols were followed,” said one interviewee, as if one can drink with a mask and party while being socially distanced. But following all safety protocols has become the meaningless mantra of the new normal, lulling us into thinking we are safe just because someone pointed a temperature gun at us at the door and squirted some sanitiser on to our palms.
One can understand the frustration, the urge to salvage something from a cancelled year. It’s hard to stay in an indefinite state of hyper-vigilance for months on end. At the same time, the vaccine feels more like a reality than it did three months ago. Pleasure is a huge part of our lives, something that makes the daily grind worthwhile. It’s tough to eschew it, and even harder when you see others merrily flouting safety protocols and getting away with it. We feel like goody-two-shoes party poopers for staying in while those around us shrug and say “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be”. Friends are posting pictures of snow-covered peaks in Darjeeling while we are mulling wine for two.
In a way, it has become that much harder to stay the course when a vaccine appears to be in sight. While the daily virus toll figures still appear in the news, the news cycle does not obsess about them the way it used to a few months ago. The pandemic has not gone but it has receded in some ways from our consciousness. And every time we see mask-less politicians addressing rallies and inaugurating statues, it recedes further. The government, which had asked us to bang vessels and blow conch shells in a bid to bolster team spirit early in the pandemic, seems to have run out of ideas as well. Political parties are holding rallies like it’s business as usual. The plateauing infection numbers in many cities and dipping mortality rates are good news but we forget this is good news that has been hard-won. Instead of filling us with courage for the last mile, it’s feeding into a false sense of complacency. The virus has not been tamed. Our infrastructure is just coping better with it. And as the UK has discovered, there can be many a twist in the tale. It can rear up like Hokusai’s great wave and pack a wallop just when we thought we were over the worst.
This is when we actually need to reinforce safety protocols. This is when we need to boost people’s resolve. This is when culture could step in to drive home the point. When Bengali soap operas resumed production after the lockdown hiatus, they all dutifully tried to adjust to the covid-19 reality. In one serial, a woman running a catering business worked with a mask. In another, the estranged husband of a young woman came down with covid-19, adding an urgent twist to their roller-coaster love life. The toddlers in some serials suddenly fast-forwarded into adulthood. The famous family feuds, the mainstay of all soaps, resumed but rather awkwardly, with everyone standing a good foot from the next person while still arguing vehemently.
But, ultimately, the soaps lost steam. Covid-19 was just too disruptive for storylines. The family socials were not meant to be socially distanced. Soon, weddings were happening in full swing because weddings with merely 20 guests just didn’t work. Soap operas could not afford to forego even a single ritual, from the bachelor’s party to the ashtamangala, or the bride’s return to her maternal home after the wedding. These are the bread-and-butter of soaps, even if they were social-distancing-unfriendly. People were going out for picnics, concerts and office parties. People were flying back and forth from London. There were no masks to be seen. Masks have to be normalised, not hidden away. On a popular singing show, some of the participants sometimes wear masks while sitting on the benches, some don’t. People are feeding each other snacks, hugging and goofing around. Recently, the show host and some judges tested positive.
Covid-19 vanished like magic from soap storylines, almost as suddenly as it appeared. It was just too inconvenient to incorporate it into the story, despite all the platitudes about the “new normal”. At the time, I had rolled my eyes at scriptwriting laziness. In retrospect, though, it’s clear soap operas are not that removed from our own reality. At some point, we too shrug and just revert to old habits ,because it’s too much hassle. This Christmas felt a bit like that as we fell off our collective wagon. Christmas, in some ways more than even Durga Puja, is when Kolkata gets its groove back. The cooler weather of Kolkata’s all-too-brief winter of content makes it hard to stay at home. But we forget that just like us, the virus too enjoys the coolness. We would have done well to remember what the Christmas carol told us about Santa Claus coming to town.
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
Happy New Year.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.