God's Own Twenty20: Ways COVID-19 changed the way Malayali lives

Humans are still fuming that a parasite so infinitesimally small, submicroscopic, has forced them to change the way they live. It has even forced them to do what was thought impossible: ease the pressure on the environment.

But before we objectively look at the ways in which we in Kerala have been made to change, we need to see to it that our egos are not nagged by the thought that we have been humbled by a nanometre-sized thing that could have escaped from one of our own genetic labs.

For this, it can be helpful if we parrot what a sorcerer named Diego Maradona had said in 1986. We can attribute all that this invisible virus is doing to us to the “Hand of God”.

The Diego, by giving a reason larger than himself for the humiliation suffered by the English during the quarterfinal of the Mexico World Cup, was in his own instinctive way trying to keep the bloated English ego from exploding into yet another call for war against Argentina after the Falklands.

Now that we are agreed that we have been felled by the 'Hand of God' and not by some submicroscopic creature that we can tinker with in our labs, it is time to calmly take stock of the new habits we have been forced to acquire.

Some of these, low carbon emissions for instance, Keralites have already dumped and some others like frugal marriages would in all probability be cast aside the moment the pandemic eases or even before, when we become so used to the virus that we acquire what is now called a delusional courage.

But some could spill over into the new year, and hopefully even beyond.


Frugal Marriages: That only 50 guests could be invited for a marriage could have been a blessing in disguise for at least some Malayali parents with marriage-ready girls. But even richer families eager to put up a carnival around their daughter's marriage would not have found the restrictions much of a dampener. It turned out to be fun, and there was the camaraderie. The wedding and pre-wedding events went live on Facebook. Relatives got a better, closer view of the rituals than if they had been at the venue. Some middle class families might consider this arrangement better suited for the occasion and stick on. But families for whom weddings are the equivalent of a Republic Day parade, will go back to making weddings look like the dazzling show of strength it once was.

Virtual joint family: It took a lockdown for people to realise how deeply they valued visiting close friends and relatives. Out of this fear of being shut out from closed ones was born the virtual family meets. Distance no longer mattered. A living room in Florida was no farther than your next room. Cousins who would have otherwise met once in two years began to see each other weekly. Children and even the adults practiced hard and showcased their skills - a flash of oratory, a slice of poem, a song - during these meets.

Everyone marvelled at what they discovered about their loved ones. Had it not been for these pandemic-induced virtual meets, they would never have known. They gossiped, made fun of each other, and even fought. A big joint family has suddenly been discovered.

A leader reimagined: After the lockdown, Malayalis were hooked not just to web series and OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon but also to perhaps the most unlikely television show: A Pinarayi Vijayan press conference.

Pinarayi Vijayan

He reads from a written text and sounds as monotonous as an old-time robot. Yet, he topped the evening charts.

Initially, people were curious about the daily COVID-19 numbers. But when he realised people were tuned in, Pinarayi found a way to sneak into their hearts. The things he said made it seem to every individual listening to him that he was part of the family, perhaps its most respected member. He told them how to wash their hands, wear masks and how to go shopping. He said he didn't want anyone going hungry and told how community kitchens should function. Like Sars-CoV-2 that uses its spikes to stick to lungs, Pinarayi's sunset briefings seem to have attached him to Malayali hearts.

Return of the prodigals: Till the 'Hand of God' struck, sons and daughters had enough excuses, especially a busy work schedule, to ignore their ailing parents or leave their care to paid servants. Once locked inside their houses, all these excuses suddenly looked like last year's calendar on New Year' Day. And then, the fear of the virus spread, and genuine concern for 60-plus parents, forced them to shun paid help, too. In the end, the wily virus left many adults alone with their aged and suffering parents. It was now up to the 'busy' sons and daughters to swill out the urine can, remove the bedsheets, make food, give the parents a walk, push them on wheelchairs, bathe them and apply ointments on them. There are many who had already found this less time-consuming than they had thought and also satisfying, more than even their little achievements at the workplace.

New house pets: It was probably Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who had set this off. As part of the Subhiksha Keralam project, and during one of his sunset press briefings, he had asked people to begin vegetable farming in their homes. He asked them to do this as a hobby as they were anyway locked inside homes. But in urban centres of Kerala where people live in high-rise apartments or in small tight plots of land, vegetable farming was not really feasible. Yet, the idea of cultivating something caught hold. So instead of vegetables, flowers bloomed. Instead of on the patch of land outside, inside. Orchids or English ivy or fiddle leaf fig trees, like pets, could be grown inside homes; hung from beams or balcony railings or just potted and kept on teapoys or window ledges. Many now consider tending to their phalaenopsis or dendrobiums or oncidiums as much a stressbuster as cuddling their pugs or beagles or pomeranians.


Bandh-free colleges: Though First Bell has been a fair success, no one would ever consider online education an alternative to classroom education. It was just a stop gap arrangement, a smart and opportune use of technology to prevent any major disruption in the education process. Though children living along the fringes – in high ranges, forests and near the coast – found themselves left out, online education was any day better than no class at all. There is already a thinking in the academic community that even after normalcy is restored the online class mechanism could be put to effective use when there are uncalled for breaks in the academic calendar, especially in the name of bandhs and strikes. On an average, students in Kerala colleges lose 50-60 days a year to such political interruptions. A student leader can bully a student out of her class, but not from her home.

Sit-at-home shopping: This is a story of betrayal. When we were locked down, we survived not because we had big malls but only because we had a provision/margin free store every 50-100 metres from almost every home in Kerala. These neighbourhood stores had made it easy for us to source essentials when there were war-zone restrictions. But big retailers like Reliance made it even easier. They used the opportunity to popularise their online grocery marts. The delivery was quick and the products delivered, including vegetables and fish, looked fresh. So for a Malayali, used to shopping books and furniture online, sitting at home became all the more convenient than standing in a small queue in front of the shop around the corner. Our small shops survived neo-liberal policies. But can they weather COVID-induced marketing strategies?

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