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The year 2020 is turning out to be an extraordinary challenge for individuals, families and businesses. Coronavirus has spread several other viruses – those of fear, uncertainty, hunger, jobs, lack of physical interactions in education as well as in life, and the like.

The pandemic has left traditional business models in a shambles. Supply chains have got disrupted. Businesses have shut shops. Industries with some core strengths have diversified into newer markets and products. The first priority happens to be that of servicing the critical requirements of customers while shielding the employees to the extent possible.

Economies the world over have taken a severe beating. For a vast majority, sources of income have simply vanished overnight. The virus has exposed, yet again, the fault-lines in our health, social and economic infrastructure.

The Innate Goodness in Humanity

Many amongst us have already turned cynical towards a proposition of this kind and believe that human beings are selfish. Being bombarded relentlessly by the propaganda mills run by shameless politicians, a TRP-chasing media and movie directors who keep churning out dark and depressing flicks, we often end up taking a jaundiced view of people and events around us.

Rutger Bregman, the popular Dutch historian, in his book Humankind, argues otherwise. He points out that there is a spontaneous coming together of people immediately after any natural disaster. He says that ‘cooperation has been more important in our evolution as a species than competition. What we assume in other people is what we get.’

Walter Scheidel, in his book, The Great Leveler, argues that throughout human history, the following four kinds of disasters have led to economic equality: wars, revolutions, pandemic and state collapse. Each of these, he proposes, results in excess mortality, thereby creating a shortage of working hands and, as a consequence, a general rise in incomes.

A ‘X’ Shaped Recovery?!

However, the proposition is arguable. Take the case of the pandemic stalking us at present. It is true that it strikes all and sundry. But to say that the loss of livelihoods and economic hardships faced is the same across different income levels and business verticals would be wrong. Social biases, disparity in access to quality education, health and networking and a non-level playing field for small businesses to cash in on newer opportunities in the environment – all these play spoilsports. With each disaster faced by humanity, the inbuilt inequalities and fault lines only end up getting reinforced. The plight of the millions of Indian migrant labourers who travelled long distances on foot to reach their homes during April and June 2020 cannot be erased from our collective memory easily.

Credit Suisse economist Neelkanth Mishra speaks of four classes in the society: government, wage earners, informal enterprises and formal firms. For 2020-21, he has attempted to examine which group bears how much of the overall GDP loss. In these computations, 50% of loss is borne by the government, 25% by the wage earners and 10% each by informal and formal firms. Looking beyond 2020-21, a growth slowdown will be unequally distributed between these groups.

Recovery in the economy would not be as rapid as the slowdown has been. From the computation done by Mishra, it appears that it would neither be a ‘V’ or a ‘W’ shaped one. Perhaps, a ‘X’ shaped recovery is in the offing.

A Silver Lining in the Corona Virus Cloud

Broad sweeping generalizations of a situation could also hide some silver linings in an otherwise gloomy-looking cloud. According to a study done by Badri Narayan, a social historian and cultural anthropologist and, Director, GB Pant Social Science Institute, major challenges also tend to bring out the innate goodness in human beings.

He has interviewed 215 quarantined rural migrants in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The respondents were from a diverse set of castes like dalits, other backward classes and upper castes.

By way of a conclusion, he states that ‘Caste is deeply ingrained in our social system….. but an emergency like a pandemic gives jolts and shocks to it.’

In other words, when it comes to handling overwhelming challenges, caste considerations normally take a back seat. This indicates a possibility of the pandemic facilitating better social unity and cohesion, an idea which deserves to be explored further. This proposition fits in well with the views of Rutger Bregman.

The underlying need is to build resilience and inclusivity across the vast socio-economic spectrum of our society. Our politicos, economists and social activists appear to be missing a road map to counter a strategic challenge of this kind.

(Part 4 of a series of articles on Corona virus and Leadership) 

(Inputs from Prof G P Rao are gratefully acknowledged.)

(Image courtesy https://medium.com/@brca.iitdelhi/social-harmony-e7cbacc76287)

(Related Posts:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/09/05/corona-virus-and-an-early-onset-of-industrial-revolution-4-0

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/09/08/corona-virus-leadership-traits-and-human-values

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/09/14/corona-virus-some-lessons-from-bhagavad-gita)

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In Part 2 of this series of thoughts on the challenges posed by the pandemic to business leaders, we had noticed that the same are being met by:

  • Reposing one’s faith in the basic goodness of human beings,
  • Responding to fresh challenges in a creative and innovative manner,
  • Adopting a sunnier disposition,
  • Preparing for contingencies in advance, and
  • Reconfiguring operations with due respect to nature and mother earth.

One no longer has the luxury of treating these traits as being theoretical constructs. Leadership is always context-specific and top managements need to evaluate the seniors on the traits listed here. These are the transformative professionals in the organization who need to be brought into critical roles without delay.

Much like a befuddled Arjuna twiddling his thumbs at the beginning of Bhagavad Gita who is made to realize his true path of righteousness towards the end of this unique Manual of Motivation, the pandemic is telling leaders to wake up to a new reality and get their act right.

Lord Krishna does not directly refer to human values; instead, he places a premium on one following the path of righteousness, a concept which is all-encompassing. He exhorts us to work in a detached manner, to focus on our efforts and be clear that results are not in our control. He speaks of the virtues of higher resilience, equanimity and the extent of control we exercise over our desires. All these enable us to enjoy an inner sense of peace and joy. He also speaks of human behavior being governed by the mix of three ‘gunas’: Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic.

The qualities mentioned in Bhagavad Gita mostly match with the traits mentioned earlier. Businesses and traders downing their shutters and moving on to totally different activities surely have owners who are learning the art of detachment the hard way. Many have expanded their footprints, revealing their nerves of chilled steel and reflecting a high degree of resilience. Seeking inner peace and equanimity by adopting some meditative practices and doing yoga is helping professionals to switch over to a work-from-home mode, despite distractions caused by family matters. All these have made leaders discard their sense of pessimism and get cracking in the face of a pandemic, setting an example for others to follow.

It would be appropriate to revisit some verses of the scripture:

Whatever actions great persons perform, common people follow. Whatever standards they set, all the world pursues. (3.21) 

When the mind, restrained from material activities, becomes still by the practice of Yog, then the yogi is able to behold the soul through the purified mind, and he rejoices in the inner joy. (6.20)

 

 In that joyous state of Yog, called samādhi, one experiences supreme boundless divine bliss, and thus situated, one never deviates from the Eternal Truth. (6.21)

 

 Having gained that state, one does not consider any attainment to be greater. Being thus established, one is not shaken even in the midst of the greatest calamity. (6.22)

 

 That state of severance from union with misery is known as Yog. This Yog should be resolutely practiced with determination free from pessimism. (6.23)

 

 Completely renouncing all desires arising from thoughts of the world, one should restrain the senses from all sides with the mind. (6.24)

 

With the benefit of hindsight, those who have a positive attitude are not only surviving the virus but have also discovered newer dimensions in their lives. They are on the way to re-skilling themselves and learning other trades. For many, especially in countries like India, an abiding faith in a divine power brings about a sense of surrender, acceptance, patience and resilience. The result is that they end up following the key lessons of Bhagavad Gita, even though in a subconscious manner. This helps them to do well during the kind of churning that the pandemic has inflicted on us.

What the virus has thrown up is a challenge to human beings to live, work and become smarter; to respect nature and environment better and to focus on being sustainable. It has prodded us in the ribs to be more flexible in our thinking and to expect the unexpected.

It has brought home some basic truths: that human beings come first; also, that the key lessons imparted by Lord Krishna to Arjuna on a battlefield some 5,500 years ago continue to be relevant to this day.

(Inputs from Mr Ashok Narayan are gratefully acknowledged; translations of Gita verses courtesy https://www.holy-bhagavad-gita.org)

(The illustration is reproduced with permission from the illustrator, Arati Shedde, and Heartfulness Magazine – www.heartfulnessmagazine.com.)

 

(Part 3 of a series of articles on Corona virus and Leadership)

(Related Posts:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/09/05/corona-virus-and-an-early-onset-of-industrial-revolution-4-0

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/09/08/corona-virus-leadership-traits-and-human-values)

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How have some of our business leaders responded to the challenges posed by the pandemic? Well they appear to be following the popular saying that when times get tough, the tough get going!

As per press reports, Sanjiv Mehta, Chairman and MD of Hindustan Unilever, has spoken of the kind of steps taken to boost the company’s prospects by focusing better on health, hygiene and sanitation products. As many as 50 new product and pack innovations are said to have been made. Agility and speed have helped.

Manu Jain, MD of Xiaomi India, has said that the pandemic has taught him the importance of empathy and patience during tough times. The ability to be able to put oneself in another person’s shoes stands out. Instant gratification is nowhere on the horizon; patience alone helps. So does slowing down and staying calm.

Ronojoy Dutta, CEO, IndiGo, has highlighted the importance of staying connected as well as being transparent with employees so as to retain their trust. According to him, irrespective of the situation, honesty and transparency win in the harshest of times. According to C P Gurnani, CEO and MD, Tech Mahindra, leaders need to give up their ‘command and control’ mindset and shift to a ‘mentor and inspire’ mindset.

Manish Sabharwal, Chairman, Teamlease Services, concludes that resilience matters as much as performance.

(*Source: The Economic Times Magazine, August 30-September 05, 2020, etc)

Leadership traits which help

Leaders who thrive in an era of heightened uncertainty and bloated entropy are better placed to steer their organizations more purposefully and effectively. The virus has highlighted the following qualities in someone who leads an organization in such stormy times: Prioritizing people. Creating clarity on what needs to be done; providing hope and refusing to let a mood of despondency creep in. Having an ear to the ground and being flexible in an evolving crisis; engaging with other stakeholders, including employees, to understand their concerns better.

The virus has brought into focus the dire need for such leaders. It has even indicated the kind of traits such leaders should have: empathy, compassion, higher resilience, an inner sense of peace and equanimity, brain stilling, actions which are rooted in basic human values and better concern for the environment.

It is already understood that leaders who believe in delegation, decentralization and quiet consensus building are able to handle crises better. The approach to problem solving needs to be non-muscular. A shock-and-awe tactics is best avoided.

Leader Mindsets and Human Values

Prof G P Rao, a behavioural scientist of repute and the founder of SPANDAN, a NGO which espouses the cause of human values in organizations, demonstrates that leaders have three kinds of mindsets: ‘I am Everything’, ‘I am Nothing’ and ‘I am Something’.

In a recent study, he has identified the following five topmost values perceived as being conducive to tackling the pandemic successfully:

  • Faith in basic goodness of human beings
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • A positive outlook: Happiness – contentment – self fulfillment
  • Respect to nature and mother earth, and,
  • Preparedness.

The empirical study covered a total of 100 professionals, of which 57 were drawn from the senior and middle management rungs of a software company and 43 belonged to a mixed group from different professions and organizations. The study was conducted during the months of July and August, 2020.

The basic premise is that ‘I am Something’ leader mindset needs to balance the needs and aspirations of others and that of the environment, choose suitable human values and facilitate others to do likewise.

Examples quoted above from the practical business world also testify to the proposition put forward by Prof Rao – that the aim of a leader should be to strike and acquire an optimal balance between and among the select human values so that there is synergy between ‘I am Something’ leadership and human values.

By reposing one’s faith in the basic goodness of human beings, by responding to fresh challenges in a creative and innovative manner, by adopting a sunnier disposition, by preparing for contingencies in advance and by reconfiguring operations with due respect to nature and mother earth – that is how the challenges posed by the pandemic are being met.

(Inputs from Prof G P Rao are gratefully acknowledged.)

(Part 2 of a series of articles on Corona virus and Leadership) 

(Related Posts:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/09/05/corona-virus-and-an-early-onset-of-industrial-revolution-4-0

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/09/14/corona-virus-some-lessons-from-bhagavad-gita)

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When businesses started limping back to a state of suboptimal normalcy – call it the new normal, if you will – they woke up to the kind of belt-tightening they could do by increasing their dependence on Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and many other technological advances. Many digital czars see the pandemic accelerating tech-trends in the long run, driving social good.

The future portends enlarging the scope of technology in such diverse realms as education, health, security, agriculture, river management and the like. India has just announced plans to create a health data base for its citizens. Hopefully, when a suitable vaccine comes up, an ambitious roll-out program could be undertaken.

According to Genpact CEO Tiger Tyagarajan, the pandemic has cut companies’ digital transformation timelines to as little as 6-12 months from about 4-5 years. Remote working and online transactions have already become a norm rather than an exception across industries.

Rahul Aggrawal, CEO and MD of Lenovo India believes that ‘the recovery journey could be tedious and technology is playing a critical role in helping us adapt to this new reality. The growing role of technology is already evident through enabling remote working, virtual learning, remote business engagement and significant growth in tele-medicine, e-commerce, PCs, smart phones and many other industries.’

Cheer-bots and Bot-dogs have started brightening up life for sports persons and patients. In Japan, in stadiums bereft of human presence, robot cheerleaders have perked up players on the field. Robotic priests have started popping up in Buddhist temples. Therapy dogs have started spreading sweetness and light amongst patients.

Large companies which place a premium on employee goodwill have responded by hiking salaries, promoting good performers and facilitating work-from-home. Quite a few others have had no other option but to resort to issuing pink slips and giving people a compulsory break from work. Many have slashed salaries temporarily so as to manage their cash flows better. Many others are struggling to cope with a sudden spike in demand after a lull induced by extended lockdowns.

The fact that growth rates have plummeted across most sectors of the economy indicates the need for accelerated innovation and a higher rate of learning. Since newer technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning need to be absorbed faster, there is a need to have hybrid organizations which utilize technological interventions alongside human ingenuity.

As per recent press reports, Nandan Nilekani, Chairman of Infosys, has highlighted the need to absorb newer technologies faster. Falguni Nayar, Founder and CEO of Nykaa, emphasizes that ‘Digital has emerged as a clear Winner.’ Whether shopping for daily provisions or for cars, the customers have shown a preference for digital transactions. Virtual meetings have become a norm. Carbon footprints of organizations have got reduced.

The pandemic is helping leaders to identify the slack in their systems. The need for leaders to keep coming up with out-of-box solutions was never higher.

(Part 1 of a series of articles on Corona virus and Leadership)

(Related Posts:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/09/08/corona-virus-leadership-traits-and-human-values

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/09/14/corona-virus-some-lessons-from-bhagavad-gita)

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Never did Bertie imagine seeing such a mess in his life,

Eagerly waiting for Drones to reopen so loneliness gets over;

Target practicing with darts is a skill which is getting rusted,

Bingo Little has time to sit together but cannot come over.

 

Back-slapping, hugging and shaking hands is a strict no-no,

Chatting over phone alone sounds a safer proposition;

Telegraph services to-and-fro nephews no longer work,

Aunts use video calls, trying to change their matrimonial disposition.

 

Roads are virtually free but a drive to Brighton is ruled out,

Peggy receives from Miss Tomlinson online grace;

Kid Clementina is missing the fun of putting sherbet in ink pots,

Prudence Baxter awaits her next egg and spoon race.

 

Aunt Dahlia is unable to invite nephews and nieces for meals,

Though Anatole is ready and willing to offer many a lavish spread;

Uncle Tom is delighted at Milady’s Boudoir being in a limbo,

Amidst lockdowns losing his silver collection he does not dread.

 

Friends like Gussie Fink Nottle have ample time to study newts,

Madeline has bouts of insomnia and looks at stars all night long;

Roderick Spode is busy launching on a new Eulalie line with masks,

While Cora Bollinger practices a rappy version of Sonny Boy song.

 

 

Sir Roderick Glossop is frightfully busy attending to loony coves,

Dr Murgatroyd has a long list of patients with red spots;

Dr Sally is immune to proposals over WhatsApp while on duty,

Doctor Hailsham takes a pound a day off you with his vegan shots.

 

Lord Emsworth freely potters about in his gardens,

With Parva School Treat Day off, peace and relaxation he elicits;

The Empress in the pink of health, savouring her 57,800 calories,

Freddie peddling online some immunity-boosting Dog Joy biscuits.

 

Aline Peters has money but is looking for ways to spend it,

Joan Valentine has no money and would do anything to be paid;

Ashe Marson does Larsen exercises on the roof top these days,

He and Joan avoid kissing on the lawns, saddening a scullery maid.

 

Life is like a drink which they all keep drinking deeply from,

A cup in which the beetle of a virus floats with all its variations;

Or, gorging on a green salad on top of which rests a caterpillar,

Demanding an apology from anyone trying to disturb its meditations!

 

They appear to be adjusting quickly to their travails,

In Plumsville, the Principle of Peaceful Coexistence prevails;

All this may sound ironic but wisdom is in being positive,

And, when it comes to Coronavirus, testing negative!

 

(Illustrations courtesy Kevin Cornell)

 

(Related Posts:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/who-ropes-in-doctors-and-paramedics-from-plumsville-to-counter-corona-virus-part-1-of-2

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/06/20/of-lockdowns-p-g-wodehouse-and-the-milk-of-human-kindness

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/07/25/the-corona-gladiators-proposal-for-a-plummy-movie)

 

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Mr Schnellenhamer, the head of the Perfecto-Zizz-baum Corporation, the leading movie studio, is reported to be having an odd disagreeable feeling these days. Perhaps, it is caused by what Roget’s Thesaurus would describe as  agitation, fury, violent anger, wrath and similar emotions listed under the heading ‘Rage’, that too of an impotent kind.

Having struck a deal with Coronavirus Global Corp (CGC in short) to unleash upon the public a movie based on the current pandemic, he believes things to be moving a tad sluggishly. He is not able to gather enough goofy ideas to add a sparkle to the script. Discussions with his team of directors, script-writers, music composers, yes-persons, deputy yes-persons, junior yes-persons, nodders and trainee nodders have led to finalization of the basic outlines of the movie. But he feels much more could be done. CGC had mandated that the movie should get released before any vaccine or virus anti-dote hits the market.

Tentatively titled ‘The Corona Gladiators’, the movie would capture the positive effects of the pandemic over all the inhabitants of our planet; also, the eventual victory of Homo sapiens over the deadly virus emanating from the laboratories of Coronavirus Global Corp (CGC in short).

Details of the plot are yet to be revealed but perhaps the hero and the heroine, cast in the mould of Psmith and Eve, would both be scientists working on an anti-virus drug. Frustrated at the lack of results, they go underground on a super secret mission to steal innovative ideas from laboratories elsewhere in the world. To be shot in Washington, London, Paris, Oslo, Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra, the movie will have car chases, gun fights, encounters with secret services and many other elements which would ensure not only commercial success but also critical acclaim.

The climax may see the couple, after having whipped up an anti-virus drug, facing a bunch of rogue Vice Presidents of CGC inside the Colosseum in Rome. Before being threatened with pistols designed to fire a volley of vials filled with the brand new anti-dote and running off to safer pastures, CGC personnel will blast humanity in general for its apathy towards environment and Mother Nature. As the drums start beating, declaring the brave gladiators to be victors, the titles start rolling. The end will leave the doors open for a sequel which could cover the onset of a far more deadly version of the virus.

Some of the sub-plots discussed so far for spicing up the script are as follows.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Leaders  

 Poor politicos live in glass houses but are well-endowed to hurl stones at others, as and when the situation demands so. The pandemic is merely just another tool in their hands to beef up their image further and also to win upcoming elections by clipping the wings of those in opposition.

Top honchos like Prime Ministers and others are improving upon their macho-but-sensitive images these days by not only flexing their muscles to browbeat enemies – real or imaginary – but also remaining in news for unexpected reasons.

Scribes were recently surprised – much like a nymph while bathing – when the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did some push-ups on his office carpet during a newspaper interview to demonstrate his post-Corona fitness for the job.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Fredricksen decided to postpone her wedding in order to be able to attend a meeting of the European Council on the virus. We understand this is the third time she has done this.

Hon’ble A B Filmer has been requested to collect more details on the leaders who have publically defied such norms as social distancing and wearing masks.

Atithi Devo Bhava

Back home, India has always believed in treating guests with reverence, atithi devo bhava being the norm. Many Indians thus decided to heartily welcome the Country Managers of Coronavirus Global Corp (CGC) by clapping, lighting candles, ringing bells and banging pots and pans from their balconies.

In order to assist CGC in exceeding its own estimates of market share and bottom line in the country, some imaginative steps were taken. First, a complete lockdown ensured that the migrant labourers got stuck in cramped urban spaces where they could easily get infected. Gradually, they were prodded to migrate to distant rural areas, thereby improving the spread. Those who remained in urban areas threw caution to the winds when it came to wearing masks and following norms of social distancing. After all, there is a limit to what a hassled government and its officers can do to change the behaviour of its citizens in public places.

Aunt Dahlia is in agreement that this needs to be considered for inclusion in the proposed movie.

A Budding Romance

When two young and bright persons come to explore a small and peaceful place like Pondicherry in south India, a transient bond of affection gets strengthened. But on the 4th day of their stay, they are caught unawares by a harsh lockdown announced by the government at a notice of less than 4 hours!

While their needs for survival are adequately met, the sheer fact of living through a major event in their budding lives brings about a stronger play of the hormones. A not-so-astute observer might be forgiven for missing the stars in their eyes and the way their faces light up when they happen to be together.

Angela and Tuppy Glossop concur with this idea.

Cupid and the Mummification of the Corpse

Cupid is busy with his e-initiatives. Love birds living in different metros have learnt to remain contented with video and text chats till the time things return to a newer state of normalcy. A young couple whose marriage had got indefinitely postponed find that the boring part of their relationship has already started. The bride-to-be feels that there is a limit to the number of times one can ask each other how their day was, what they plan to have for dinner and the movie they intend to watch every night. It feels as if they have been living in a fast forward mode and have already sensed the process of the mummification of the corpse of love some time after the priest has chanted the last mantra and the marriage has been sanctified.

Bertie Wooster is delighted that he is not being asked to play a role in the movie.

Some Green Shoots

It is an open secret that thanks to the aggressive marketing strategy being practiced by CGC the world over, sale of sanitizers and related hygiene products has registered an exponential growth. Lifestyle coaches and loony doctors are laughing all the way to their respective banks. Yoga-gurus-turned-business-honchos are busy re-labelling and re-launching select products, unleashing these upon an unsuspecting public. So are the owners of online streaming platforms who have grabbed the rights of movies being churned out by our dream merchants.

The last mentioned would be delighted to know of a retired Rev. Aubrey Upjohn who has created an excel sheet which lists the movies on offer on various streaming platforms. Much of his time now gets spent on keeping the list always updated in terms of new arrivals and the ones which are yet to be watched!

Immunity-boosting Tissue Restoratives

Across homes, homemakers are whipping up turmeric and basil based tissue restoratives, prompting all their family members to gobble the same without much ado. Those who are in the business of spices are chuffed at the sudden uptick in their fortunes.

Laura Pyke heartily approves.

Suggestions are welcome!

Would you have a suggestion to offer as to how to make this movie a wee bit juicier? Suggestions may be mailed to Wilmot.mulliner@zizzbaum.org.

Those whose ideas get selected will receive an invitation to visit the studios and have a meal with Mabel Potter and Wilmot Mulliner.

(Illustration courtesy Mr Suvarna Sanyal)

 

(Related Posts:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/who-ropes-in-doctors-and-paramedics-from-plumsville-to-counter-corona-virus-part-1-of-2

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/06/20/of-lockdowns-p-g-wodehouse-and-the-milk-of-human-kindness)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The 24th of March, 2020 dawned upon us as any other normal day. Denizens of India were going about their daily chores with as much zombiness as they could muster. Flowers were in bloom. Birds and bees were going about doing whatever they normally do. Trees were swaying in the gentle breeze coming in from the Bay of Bengal. In other words, God was in heaven and all was well with the world.

However, by 2030 hours in the evening, our world had turned upside down. The Indian government imposed a comprehensive lockdown across a country comprising 1.3 billion persons. The Prime Minister himself appeared on our TV screens and announced this decision. By the time he finished, a mere three and a half hours were remaining for the decision to take effect.

This sudden whammy left all of us twiddling our thumbs trying to figure out as to how to survive the depressing phase staring us in the face. This was one of the harsher slings and arrows of fate which had hit us. Initially, a sense of shock and awe prevailed. Gradually, reason started reoccupying its throne. Travel plans had to be junked. Medical issues came to the forefront. For the digitally illiterate, banking transactions went for a toss. Gadgets at home needing urgent repairs were left in a limbo. Some missed their daily dose of morning newspapers. Our hearts might have bled realizing the plight of migrants, but we took a jaundiced view of the humble house maid coming in to earn a living. Many other challenges tested our grey matter no end.

Even today, the virus continues to offer a unique experience to most of us, whether by way of making us fearful of its ferocity or by snatching away many of the degrees of freedom we have always taken for granted.

 

The Guardian Angels

It is not that yours truly has been very brave or wise in handling the depressing effect of virus-induced extended lockdowns so far. Much like the V-shaped and W-shaped depressions which plague many of our economies – developed or otherwise – these days, the dark forces of depressing thoughts have been frequently snapping at my heels.

As a loner whose cooking abilities are limited to boiling milk and eggs, and whose procurement related negotiation skills are outdated, life only got tougher in the post-lockdown phase. The horizon of mundane challenges expanded to include sourcing of fruits, vegetables, groceries and medicines. For someone like me who is battered by multiple health risks and is rather shy and diffident, especially in the presence of the members of the fairer sex, the challenge is even mightier.

Luckily, my Guardian Angels who, I am told, go around these days with their fancy i-Pads keeping a track of their favoured ones, noticed my name flashing in a deep red colour on their screens and decided to pitch in. Gradually, a host of characters straight out of the many narratives of P G Wodehouse started popping up around me, making me smile – even laugh occasionally – assisting me in keeping my body and soul together, besides keeping me emotionally afloat and cheerful. Thanks to the virus, a transient family came into existence, with the tantalizing possibility of lingering bonds of friendship which may survive the vagaries of time.

 

Some Supporting Characters

Here are some of the honourable mentions in this context:

Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom, my next door neighbours, who keep offering delicious lunches in a routine manner. Their large house is surely not a patch on Brinkley Court. Nor do they have Anatole around. The lavish spreads are an outcome of the culinary skills of Aunt Dahlia, who only calls me a blot on the landscape if she finds me not tucking in enough of the lavish spreads she whips up.

Uncle Tom, besides worrying about taxation blues, could share a great deal of spiritual knowledge. One of his tips to invite a state of happiness is to sing one of his favourite songs at least three times a day without worrying about the reaction of either the humans or the asses around.

At their doorstep, one is apt to find Augustus catching up on its beauty sleep. If awake, his supercilious body language does not encourage one to endeavour to tickle it behind the ears.

Piggy and Maudie, who take care of my pangs of hunger at dinner time, ensure that their dinner spreads are full of nutrients and soluble vitamins, a sentiment that would meet a hearty approval of Laura Pyke.

Piggy happens to share my passion for poetry, books, movies and general affairs, and a personal meeting with him never fails to uplift my spirits. Likewise, a brief session with Maudie on spiritual matters is invariably enriching.

When it comes to being woolly headed, I could offer competition to Lord Emsworth. But I have neither a big castle nor a large estate to take care of. Nor do I have the need to hire a bevy of supporting staff to take care of my affairs. However, someone cast in the mould of Beach the butler, my Man Friday, takes care of mundane upkeep of my modest abode. On this angel falls the burden of ferrying my dinner from Piggy and Maudie’s home every night. How he dodges the ‘oh’s and ‘ho’s of cops enroute in these locked up days and manages to bring home the bacon, so to say, is praiseworthy.

Emerald Stoker, a long time friend and a tough cookie on some days, is otherwise one of those soothing and sympathetic ladies you can take your troubles to, confident of having your hand held and your head patted. She keeps calling me up frequently, not only to check if I am still alive and kicking but also if I happen to be under the grip of any depressive thoughts and need to see Sir Roderick Glossop. I have reason to believe that she keeps a distant track on my emotional peaks and troughs, often directing Guardian Angels in my immediate vicinity to ensure that I remain in a cheerful state of mind.

An architect by profession, she also happens to be a passionate cook. On several occasions, she has shared with me the exotic vegan stuff whipped up by her for the day. All this support from her comes even as she battles severe problems in her personal life.

Jeeves in my life during this phase happens to be a movie maker. He also wears many other hats. His driving and networking skills are exemplary. A globe trotter, he, like all others on this list, suffers from an abundance of the Milk of Human Kindness.

He has the knack of ferreting out sensible movies from the many online streaming options which are in vogue these days. When he shimmers in with a cup of his spiced tea or lays out a lavish breakfast spread, one would need to have a ready supply of tissue papers handy so as to keep one’s drooling under control. Whenever the Guardian Angels are in a celebratory mood, he ensures a ready supply of tissue restoratives.

Angela and Tuppy Glossop

At the start of the lockdown, Jeeves introduced me to Angela, a sprightly spinster who popped up in Pondicherry to soak in its unique ambience, but got stuck due to severe mobility restrictions imposed then. The same fate befell Tuppy Glossop, a friend of hers and a space scientist to boot. My house was blessed by their presence.

Besides a sense of decency and an ample supply of the Milk of Human Kindness coursing through their veins, their sincere efforts at dishing out something which I would find to be palatable endeared my heart. They took over the procurement as well as the household management functions rapidly, the result being that one never had to miss one’s vitamins.

As someone who relishes the pleasures of the table and also aspires to be a sous-chef, Tuppy, in one of his finer culinary experiments, even succeeded in making a ‘perfect circle’ puffed-up chapatti.  Angela was quick on the uptake and sharpened her skills at cooking delicious lentils and kheer (a kind of pudding popular in India).

Both have been going out for beach walks together but I am not aware if any dispute concerning Angela having spotted a shark in the waters ever arose between them. Perhaps the credit goes to the sharks which avoid being in shallow sea waters around Pondicherry.

Pauline Stoker, a fashion designer, a marketer and a fitness enthusiast, keeps popping up with her home-cooked stuff on several days, brightening up the evenings with her effervescence and charm. Often accompanied by her well-mannered Kid Clementina who is sorely missing opportunities to put sherbet in ink pots these days and is invariably struggling to complete her home work online.

Captain Biggar and Galahad happen to be neighbours who pitch in occasionally to spice up the proceedings. One ensures a ready supply of several works of P G Wodehouse borrowed by him from a library nearby. Another offers a fresh perspective on current affairs over a steaming hot cup of tea. He has even ensured home delivery of farm fresh milk, duly sourced from contented cows.

All this is not to say that my immediate family, stationed about 8,000 kms away, does not bring in emotional succour by ardent enquiries made almost every other day. Each interaction with them is akin to a tiny drop of the elixir of inner bliss. Then there are relatives, friends and cousins who are keeping in touch, sharing their experiences during the lockdowns.

 

Meditation and Spiritual Upliftment

Twice a week, the group gathers for a spot of meditation at my place, thereby retaining the members’ sanity and equipoise.

The positive spin-offs of the virus are many. Lesser noise pollution. Minimal traffic. Greener environment. Virtual meetings. A unique time to relook at ourselves and our priorities in life closely. Better sharing and caring between neighbours. A hastening of the onset of Industrial Revolution 4.0.

On the flip side, at least three friends have so far handed in their dinner pails during the 90-day period under reference. For yours truly, some fresh challenges have popped up on the health front. I shall be deceiving the public if I were to say that such incidents do not dampen my spirits. However, help is at hand to pull me out of a deep emotional pit whenever necessary.

The eventual result is a kind of spiritual upliftment, perhaps of the kind that vicars experience when someone like Thos happens to be around.

An Abundance of the Milk of Human Kindness

To sum up, the Guardian Angels are keeping loneliness, depression and negativity at bay. An openness in making new friends, a tendency to help others nearby in whatever way one can and a positive frame of mind facilitate a healthy dose of laughter, mirth and joy. All efforts are being made to keep the body and soul together, so there is no shortage of feel-good hormones in one’s system.

As we gear ourselves to getting used to a long term presence of the virus, or its subsequent off-shoots which it plans to unleash upon us in the days to come, we would do well not to forget that it is here to teach us a rich lesson: that true happiness lies not in material comforts but in sharing a part of what we have with others who, at that point in time, may be in dire need of. Of being able to put ourselves into others’ shoes, anticipating their needs and trying to address the same. Adjusting to what is and not repenting what is not; accepting that life is never perfect. Cultivating a sense of gratitude.

To put it simply, keeping human values on the top of our dealings with those who deserve the same; being humane. As one of my professors would put it, by adopting the Spandan (heartbeat) approach to life.

(Allusions to characters from the works of Wodehouse are purely imaginary; depending upon some personality traits of the real persons alluded to here. No offence is meant to either of the two categories.)

(Illustrations courtesy Mr Sanjay Mohan and the world wide web)

 

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Here is how the sight of a wren, the smallest of birds in creation, fighting to protect her little nest from an intruding hawk taught me the difference between patriotism and nationalism.

As she unleashed the fury of her miniscule wings and beak, I heard the wren say the following to the overbearing hawk who had obvious contempt for the little bird seeking to defend so negligible a homestead:

“Dear predator, here is what you need to understand: the same god who made you a hawk made me a wren, gave me a tree into which I could build my nest.My nest is not the greatest of homes, but the only home I know and love, like every other wren in every other part of the earth. Like all other wrens everywhere, I love my nest, just as every hawk on every mountain peak everywhere feels proud of the peak upon which it keeps its offspring safe, regardless of which nation the mountain belongs to.

I make no claim that my nest is the greatest of all nests, or has any magical properties. I defend it because I am used to it and is the only nest I have. I labour in sunshine and sleet to keep it safe, just like wrens in other places value their little nests and defend the same with vigour. And god gives me the strength to fight for its preservation, as wrens in other countries fight for theirs.”

In not claiming that her little nest was anything but a little nest, but one dear to her and her fledglings, the wren was simply proclaiming herself a patriot. And in admitting that her nest was not the greatest abode in the wide world, the wren was disclaiming to be a nationalist.

Many years later, when I was in the United States of America, the memory of the wren became my political inspiration.

Persuaded to stay back and accept a tenure-track teaching job at a reputed university, I declined the kind offer.

Pressed to explain why I was foregoing so exclusive an opportunity, I found myself saying that I would miss home.

On being asked what it is I meant by the term “home,” I found myself pleading that home was something entirely different from a fine house equipped with all the comforts that material advancement makes available. Home evoked the memory of sights, sounds, smells, cadences of social interaction, attitudes to time, space, money, the deep oneness with the languages we wa are born into and in which our imaginations embellish our realities. I remember referring to the charms of the wayside oven (tandoor), now fast vanishing, alas, under press of sophisticated urbanization, where I often stop while traveling to savour a hot-baked bread—a pretty proletarian fetish, but one that filled some deep longing in me. I pleaded that this was a feeling akin to an ordinary American lapping up a bowl of clam showder or beans along an ordinary street; and that just as an ordinary American working man or woman made no claims for American “exceptionalism” on the strength of her quotidian repast, I loved my roadside baked bread without extending that sentiment to claiming that India was the greatest of nations.

Home was simply a cadence of un-self-conscious living that informs everything from our palate to the structure of our interactions with our weltanschuuang. Something that enables us to understand similar feelings in other peoples who live outside the territories that define our geographical nations.

Indeed, the current spectacle of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers trudging to their villages away from the metropolises teaches us that home may not always correspond even to the designated countries of which we are citizens, but recede into hinterland spaces. A migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar may feel as alienated in Mumbai or Bengaluru as a rangy Texan in New York, unimpressed in either case by the superior claims to glitter of the megapolises they leave. In such episodes not only is nationalism a distant thought, but even our patriotism may shrink to pieces of land that speak to our souls.

Thus, were I to echo the sentiment “India first” I would not mean by that India above all, but to express the sentiment of the least inhabitant of my country who might wish her little hutment to be clean and attractive because, simply, it was a space closest to her existence.

I came to realize that such attachment to the concrete conditions of our grooming and lived being constitutes patriotism, whereas projecting that concrete into an unfelt abstraction that has never any basis in fact or reality comprises nationalism. My confluence with my given space and order of living did not, I made clear, in the least cloud my objective recognition that other peoples in other countries have notched up achievements that transcend what India may have to her credit. And, like the wren, I do not covet the mightier claims of the hawk, but simply seek to defend the nest I love.

Patriotism, or our love of our given clime, leaves us free to value a like sentiment among peoples in other climes and countries, and free to find fault with what we may be lacking without letting bravado or false claim distort those realities.

Nationalism, like religious faith, permits no such room. It asks of us that we propagate that we outshine all other peoples, cultures, climes, countries in every sphere of life because of some divine origin or exclusive right to perfection.

Where patriotism denotes love of our country and clime, nationalism denotes a politics of dominace, built on myths and legends that have no discernible or objective reference to who we are and how we subsist in our daily lives.

In that context, I recall a most instructive vignette to which I just happened to be witness.

A political pracharak (propagandist) working with people in a slum area was encouraging little slum children to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Obeisance to Mother India). At which a little girl with disheveled and matted hair asked “where is she? Where can we meet her”? The pracharak, rather askance, said “She is everywhere.” The little rag picker then wondered why she never comes to meet them, and why, if she is such a caring mother, are they always hungry and destitute.

In that interaction, I saw a telling debate between the abstract and the concrete, and an innocent but searing refusal of reality to be fibbed off by a great nationalist idea. Clearly, the abstract idea of a supervening mother did not square with the little girl’s experience of motherhood as she experienced it.

It struck me that the same sentiment afflicts downtrodden peoples in all parts of the world, and nationalist slogans about their particular countries being “first” do not help alleviate the miseries of the marginalized.

The episode of the little slum girl brought to mind another. In my undergraduate class, there used to be an African-American student named Rufus. Over the semester, I found that he was not coming to class. One day along the university street I saw him, discovering to my astonishment that he had acquired a fair-skinned face, rather like the legendary Michael Jackson. When I expressed my astonishment, he simply said: “this country is great only for the whites, and I mean to be great.” Rufus had clearly decided to go over to a prevailing, even if covert, definition of nationalism. Even as his patriotism remained strong enough to disallow him from abandoning the country he was born and grown up in.

It should be obvious that our love of our countries bears no relation to the abstract constructions of their alleged greatness, but only to the concrete fact that we are born there, speak our own dialects, and commiserate with one another in specific forms of cadence. And, the fact that other climes and countries may have lesser or greater claims to national stature makes little difference to our love of our little nests.

Natonalism enjoins upon us to believe that our air is the most salubrious, our water magical, our sunsets and sunrises unique ly blessed, our accumulated histories and legends superior to those of all others, our culture the only worthwhile culture, our religious faiths nearest to god, and our stores of knowledge beyond compare.

Patriotism acknowledges that where I live is my beloved space, warts and all. It makes no claims to exceptionalisms that are thought to be god’s unique gift to us. It recognises that our streets are shabby, our lanes full of clutter, our habits shoddy, our resistance to rationality often grossly debilitating, our defiance of law a routine habit of mind, our male chauvinism shameful and violent, our casteism or racism or communalism deleterious to the most desirable ideals of human rights and human oneness. Patriotism recognizes that things may be better in other countries and, less so in yet others, and patriots seek to better such conditions and realities without covering them up in sham slogans born of abstraction that have no real existence, or impelled by a gnawing sense of inferiority.

Patriots understand and honour patriots in other nations. Nationalism constructs them as potential enemies.

Patriotism accepts the great reality of diversity; nationalism seeks to obliterate diversity and aims to create the world in its own abstract theology of supremacy.

 

(The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

Permission to publish this article is gratefully acknowledged.)

 

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You shimmered into our lives just as Jeeves would have done,

Carrying upon your silver salver tissue restoratives of a different kind;

Thanks to you, we relish a rare sense of solitude and a chance to go within,

As each sip goes down the hatch, reviewing our priorities in life we do not mind.

 

Sips of your restoratives have shown us to ourselves in our true colours,

The cruelty with which we neglect our loved ones who really care for us;

The callous disregard of life, nature and a sense of due proportion we practice,

Our dire need to demolish walls of all kinds around us without much fuss.  

 

By treating us all with equal respect sans any discrimination,

You have shown us the value of gifting some purple socks to a lay liftman;

A vast majority of us may not be as richly endowed as Bertie Wooster,

But care, empathy and concern for the have-nots around us do not deserve a ban.

 

When the master dreams of prattle of tiny feet around him to perk up things,

For a tactful person like Jeeves to get him to change his mind would simply be fun;

Lockdown rules out an encounter with a bunch of giggling and staring school girls,

But a webinar with Miss Tomlinson and her pupils could bring home the bacon.

 

Next time Angus McAllister wishes to spend some time with his folks back home,

We shall encourage Lord Emsworth to egg him on with a generous tip;

When Freddie starts marketing the anti-virus variety of his Dog-Joy biscuits,

We do not doubt his ability to have a big order from Lady Georgina in his grip.

 

Anatole is delighted at the novel range of dishes he has come up with recently,

A group led by him is now busy running community kitchens on major highways;

Providing succor to the needy, the hungry and the displaced poor travelling home,

Eager to hug their near and dear ones in far off places, awaiting happier days.

 

Rosie M Banks is dishing out scripts for romantic serials for social media barons,

While Bingo Little works from home and keeps busy with household chores;

Psmith and Eve are preoccupied as advisers to the United Nations,

Keeping a sharp eye on political leaders who prioritize wealth over the health of their crores.

 

Calamities have befallen us, mind-boggling challenges face us,

Civil protests we have suffered, economic ruin stares at us;

But we are persons of chilled steel, sporting a stiff upper lip,

Adjusting to your presence, walking along with our chins up.

 

Harsh slings and arrows of Life we have long since known how to face,

But you have highlighted to us the value of breathing in fresh air;

The air which would contain the fragrance of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

Thank you for helping us to evolve spiritually, for showing that you care.

 

(Related Posts:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/05/01/residents-of-plumsville-support-extension-of-corona-related-lockdowns

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/who-ropes-in-doctors-and-paramedics-from-plumsville-to-counter-corona-virus-part-1-of-2)

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Even though the dark clouds of a virus envelop us and Life makes us glum,

Many of us bask in the brilliant rays of humour which greet us in the form of a narrative Plum;

Our suggestion to all clueless politicians and caregivers is never to despair,

We support all your lockdowns, we write this merely to make you aware.

 

With his head bulging at the back, many a problem Jeeves can still solve,

Ordering stuff online and keeping scheming aunts away with a goofy resolve;

Keeping at bay girl friends who wish to improve Bertie’s grey cells,

Arming him with some quotes from Spinoza which he uses over phone, casting transient spells.

 

Jeeves keeps shimmering in with one of his pick-me-ups on a tray,

While the master sharpens his skills at sock-darning, forgetting all shades of grey;

An article on ‘What the Well-dressed Dictators are Wearing’ is being whipped up by him,

Alas, the chances of the next issue of Milady’s Boudoir coming up soon are rather slim.

 

The pride of the Wooster clan is close to his heart, the feudal spirit intact,

For the sake of an aunt, restoring a stolen cat to its owner is part of a pact;

For the happiness of an uncle, thirty days without the option is no big deal,

At the end of which he merely aspires for a delectable Anatole meal.

 

Uncle Tom is not amused by the sudden downturn in his earnings,

His solace lies in keeping a tighter leash on the tax wolves’ yearnings;

Aunt Dahlia continues to ensure that Anatole keeps them both in good humour,

Relishing a unique phase of togetherness where the silver collection is safe from any intruder.

 

 Lord Emsworth potters about his gardens in a state of bliss,

Thanks to Gladys, he no longer hesitates to tell McAllister to call it quits;

The sanctity of the moss-covered yew alley is being maintained,

The Empress is in the pink of health, thanks to the advice of Augustus Whiffle being entertained.

 

The Bingeese love enjoying their quite life, sans the fear of a

Laura Pyke popping up at home,

Bingo Little ensures a cup of afternoon tea while Rosie works on her next tome;

Rosie keeps a sharp eye on the internet banking transactions of her dear hubby,

Lest he be attempting to fund one of his sporting impulses with the support of a buddy.

 

Florence Cray is delighted at the prospect of finishing Spindrift-2,

Edwin the Scout plays fire fighting games on his tablet new;

Madeline is delighted at seeing the stars shine so very brilliantly,

Pauline plays tennis on the roof top of her high rise diligently.

 

Unless you speculate, you do not accumulate, is what Ukridge keeps doing online,

Many of the doctors we know in Plumsville are already co-opted by WHO on the front line;

Mr Schnellenhamer whips up the script of his next medical thriller, extending his range,

Nodders having been persuaded to go on leave without pay, surviving only on the juice of an orange.

 

Gussie is delighted that his newts no longer complain about the quality of water,

Of another notebook with juicy comments on Pop Bassett he claims to be an author;

To deliver speeches at schools only in the video conferencing mode he is braced,

Non-availability of tissue restoratives ensures he faces no risk of feasting on orange juice duly laced.

 

Ashe Marson provides online tips to all those wanting to remain fit,

Larsen exercises, brisk walks and cold baths form a part of his wellness kit;

Troubles of the lining of the stomach unite those who are young at heart,

Forsaking the pleasures of the table and allowing Prudence to win over Greed being a worthy art.

 

Rozzers keep a ceaseless vigil on ‘criminals’ who move around freely without a mask,

 Their sinister ‘Ho’s and ‘Ha’s and investigative techniques make easier their task;

The risk of getting their helmets pinched has all but vanished,

But the practice of getting pushed into water bodies is yet to get banished.

 

Indoor and online games of all kinds have risen to the kids’ defences,

Would-be step-fathers not coughing up protection money face consequences;

Rogue ones, when in love with Hollywood divas, start behaving angelically,

Priests need them around so as to be hotter on their jobs and to evolve spiritually.

 

Entrepreneurs and business honchos await the new normal to unfold,

Psmith helping them to recast operations into the Industrial Revolution 4.0 mould;

Sally and Joan Valentine inspire them online to worry more about sustainability,

Scaling up their efforts to contribute towards creating an inclusive society.

 

To put it simply, God is in Heaven and all is well with many amongst us,

While providing succour, our Guardian Angels are not missing the bus;

The elements are in a better shape, flora and fauna lead a contented life,

With males wearing skirts, spouses are delighted, families missing many a strife.

 

  The challenge we face now is an opportunity to evaluate our priorities anew,

The value of interrelationships, quality time with loved ones who may be few;

Realizing that Mother Earth needs to be treated with greater respect,

That all of us play a role in maintaining civility by way of a public debt.

 

The virus has thrown many V-and-W shaped depressions our way,

Teaching us never to allow the dismal forces of despondency to make us sway;

Having a chin up attitude, no matter how dark the skies may look,

The sun is surely shining somewhere, smiling benevolently above a babbling brook.

 

The victory of Homo sapiens shall need an analytical frame of mind,

Besides empathy, compassion and gestures kind;

Many of our delicately nurtured leaders across the world have already set the bar high,

The so-called sterner ones may now reveal their milk of human kindness and refrain from making us sigh.

 

 Plum’s works carry life lessons which we continue to pick up and apply,

Many of us are surviving the lockdowns so far on his works’ supply;

Upcoming ones would afford us an opportunity to keep devouring more,

Soon, we may look back at this phase of mirth and make it a part of our family folklore.

 

(Related Posts:

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/who-ropes-in-doctors-and-paramedics-from-plumsville-to-counter-corona-virus-part-1-of-2

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/04/14/who-ropes-in-doctors-and-paramedics-from-plumsville-to-counter-corona-virus-part-2-of-2

https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2020/03/23/psmith-shares-with-lord-emsworth-a-smart-marriage-plan-to-ward-off-corona-virus)

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