Economy

Parag Agarwal & Co: Why India Should Stop Boasting About Twitter's New CEO

So a dozen of the top CEOs in the world (including heads of Google, Microsoft, IBM and now Twitter) come from a country with 18% of the world's population. But there are other numbers our overly proud fellow Indians should be running.

-Analysis-

NEW DELHI — An Indian recently became CEO of Twitter. I forget his name. Hold on, let me Google… Yes, Parag Agarwal. I’m not saying this for effect. I actually didn’t remember, and had to Google. Because it isn’t very important to me. Yes, that’s right. And you can read on to know why.

Agarwal is an IITian (graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay), apparently. Of course.

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India's Farmers Finally Hand Modi A Major Political Defeat

The year-long national movement of farmers challenged the government of Narendra Modi against all odds, and ultimately prevailed by focusing on unity across India's diverse ethnic, religious and geographic landscape.

NEW DELHI — In what will be hailed as a great victory for the year-long farmers' movement in the times to come, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday announced his government's decision to repeal the three controversial farm laws.

Modi's government until now had been unrelenting, with none other than the Prime Minister himself scornfully calling the protesting farmers "andolan jeevi (those who live off agitations)" on the floor of Parliament. The BJP machinery attempted to brand the farmers' agitation as a movement led by Khalistani Sikh separatists and funded by terrorist groups.

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Modi Bows To Farmers, Belarus Camps Cleared, Extra-Long Eclipse

👋 Dia dhuit!*

Welcome to Friday, where Indian farmers win a major victory against the Modi government after a year of protests, Austria announces a full lockdown and mandatory vaccines and the world is treated to the longest lunar eclipse in nearly 600 years. We also have a feature story from Jeune Afrique magazine that traces the international origins of twerking.

[*Gaelic]

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COP26: Lessons From The Failure Of Glasgow

The final deal at COP26 falls well short of what's needed to confront global warming. Still, the Glasgow summit has provided a new blueprint for how we measure progress — and shown how pressure can be applied to world leaders.

-Analysis-

PARIS — Commit to making new promises… next year. This is pretty much what the world leaders agreed to do at the end of the COP26 conference on climate change. They are so terrified of the idea of enforcing any kind of restriction, even the smallest ones, or imposing any additional cost on their citizens — just look at soaring energy prices — that they are postponing the hard decisions.

Strong opposition came particularly from Beijing and New Delhi, which managed to remove the gradual ending of coal activities from the final agreement, and to replace it with a simple reduction.

World leaders were happy to commit to long-term carbon neutrality targets, which their successors will have to handle. Yet there are still too many heads of state who are refusing to initiate any painful action in the coming decade — the only one for which they will be truly accountable.

China, Russia, India and Australia have clearly failed.

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Coronavirus
Sreemanti Sengupta

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

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Green
Sukanya Shantha

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

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Society
Prasangana Paul

Clubhouse Caste: How Silicon Valley Insiders Look In India

"Cultivation of mind should be the ultimate aim of existence."
Babasaheb Ambedkar.

-Essay-

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Society
Junaid Kathju

A Touching Tale Of Leprosy In Kashmir

"We all have the same story here. After my family abandoned me, it was these people who adopted me and looked after me for all these years."

SRINAGAR — Nizamuddin Bajad, who claims to be 100 years old, was a young man when he arrived in a leper colony situated on the banks of Nigeen lake, far from the noise and crowd of Srinagar city.

Bajad, a resident of Chattaragul village in Ganderbal district, had lived all his life as a nomad, traveling across stretches of Jammu and Kashmir with his flock of sheep and goats. Then one day, he suddenly fell ill and was diagnosed with leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease.

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Society
Tarushi Aswani

COVID-19 Widows In India Face A Sexist Bureaucracy

Women who have found themselves in charge of a family after the sudden deaths of family members discover rules, regulations and laws making mockery of their situation.

NEW DELHI "He died months ago but the government reminds us of our loss every day," says Dipanwita Das, whose husband died on April 25, 2021, at the height of India's second wave of COVID-19.

Das admitted her husband to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital as his vitals dipped and temperature rose. Her husband, Partho, passed away soon after, beginning an ordeal for the widow that she had entirely not foreseen.

First, the hospital misspelled her husband's name on official documentation, delaying the procurement of a death certificate. To rectify this mistake, hospital authorities asked Dipanwita to file an application. They also asked her to update the "registered contact" with her own number, as the hospital had entered the number of a hospital attendant in that space.This process took weeks.

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Society
Pritha Bhattacharya

In India, When Mothers Live Without Their Children

The stigma around so-called "non-custodial mothers" has prevented us from expanding our own imagination of what motherhood can, or does, look like when it is practiced by non-residential mothers

NEW DELHI — Three years ago, Shalini*, a 35-year-old media professional based in Bengaluru, gave up custody of her daughter. Her child grew up in a joint family and she was very attached to her paternal grandparents. Shalini couldn't imagine taking her child away from the people she loved. Still, Shalini went through severe mental health challenges after her separation; it took her several years of therapy and counseling to adjust to the new parenting arrangement. But she is now on the path of discovering a new relationship with her 8-year-old daughter.

"I interact with my daughter like I am her friend," she says. "When she comes to live with me during the weekends I enjoy it fully without taking any unnecessary pressure of being a "mother" around her. In fact, I feel my relationship with her has significantly improved because I am a happier person now than I was before my divorce."

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India
Karan Thapar

Netflix's Playbook For Tyrants Has A Real-World Example In India

Op-Ed

INDIA — I don't watch many Netflix programs, but a series recommended by my cousin has struck me like a bolt of lightning. Called How to Become a Tyrant, it presents what it calls "a playbook for absolute power." Much of it is tongue-in-cheek, yet it's based on the actual tactics and strategies used by Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Il-sung, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. So if you take it seriously, it tells you what you must do if you aspire to be India's tanashah. And the remarkable thing is it feels uncannily like the country we're living in and the politics we're subjected to. Read on and see if you agree.

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India
Vinod Mubayi*

West Bank To Kashmir: Why Modi Sees Israel As A Guide For India

Aspects of discredited Israeli policies are being imitated in a country half a continent away.

-OpEd-

NEW DELHI — Nothing demonstrates the arrogance of Israeli settler colonialism more than the periodic killing, every few years, of hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza by its bombs and missiles.

Leading Israeli politicians and military leaders are fond of describing this brutal violence as "mowing the lawn," as if Palestinian people are noxious weeds that need to be cut ever so often. "Mowing the lawn" is a nakedly political act meant to repress and suppress the non-Jewish population of territories like Gaza or the West Bank that are under de facto Israeli control.

"Israel has the right to defend itself," says U.S. President Joe Biden, who knows full well the profound asymmetry of military power between Israel and each and every one of its potential adversaries. The choice of words is clearly meant to justify brutal actions by Israel against Palestinians who live under occupation.

The trigger for the current conflict is widely acknowledged to be the threats of eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. This was followed by the Israeli police using tear gas and stun grenades on worshippers in the al Aqsa mosque on the holiest day of Ramadan. This provoked Hamas militants in Gaza to fire rockets into Israel, most of which were successfully countered by the Israeli "Iron Dome" system. Then came the aforementioned "lawn mowing," i.e., the Israeli artillery and aerial assault on Gaza.

When the cease-fire took hold, 12 people had died inside Israel, two of whom were ironically Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel and one a domestic worker from Kerala. In contrast, the UN estimates that 270 died in Gaza, 68 of whom were children, many of whom were infants. This is deemed by Israel a "proportionate response," preserving an approximate ratio of 20-25 Palestinians killed for each Israeli life lost.

Amira Hass, one of the most perceptive commentators on Israel-Palestine affairs, writes in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

"The lethal Israeli bombings of the residents of the narrow and sealed Gaza Strip may be presented in Israel as a "response," but every Palestinian and also other sensible observers understand them as part of the century-long continuum in which one people takes over and expels, fragments, divides and crushes, while the other people refuses to give up its identity and homeland — so it is attacked time after time."

American support to Israel is usually couched in terms of the $3.8 billion military aid given every year. More insidious and hidden are the many hundreds of millions given in the U.S. in tax-exempt donations to entities that use the funds to finance the growth of settler colonialism.

"The settlement enclaves sprouting up across the area are supported by a constellation of corporations and nonprofits financed mainly through U.S. tax-exempt donations," says Tanya Wintman. In the case of Sheikh Jarrah and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods, one need only look at two such settler organizations, Nahalat Shimon and Ateret Cohanim…These tax subsidies and the activities they support — the ethnic cleansing and Judaization of East Jerusalem…subsidizes private provocateurs, settlement lobbies and multinational corporations sowing destruction in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem."

This relentless drive to create an Eretz (Greater) Israel with no defined boundaries finds its voice in the increasingly right-wing majoritarian Jewish Israeli population egged on by their political representatives. It is manifested in the Jewish mobs shouting "death to the Arabs' in mixed Jewish-Palestinian cities like Lod/Lydda.

The basic underlying cause is Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories and its policy of apartheid not only in the areas conquered in 1967 but within Israel itself, west of the so-called Green Line.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times of May 25, Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu emphasises, "We Palestinians living in Israel ‘sub-exist," living under a system of discrimination and racism with laws that enshrine our second-class status and with policies that ensure we are never equals. This is not by accident but by design."

For approximately five decades, India had supported Palestine completely.

These facts have been acknowledged by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the courageous Israeli human rights groups B'Tselem.

While the settler-colonial regime in South Africa was forced by international pressure to dismantle the ugly features of apartheid two decades ago, Israel defiantly refuses to do so and its patrons in the West, notably the U.S., remain complicit in its adamant rejection of international law and morality.

Most ironically, however, aspects of Israeli policies are being imitated in a country where one would have least expected it.

On August 5, 2019, the Modi regime in India, whose fervent adherents make no secret of their goal of transforming India into a Hindu Rashtra, abolished the statehood of India's only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, and read down Article 370 of the India's constitution that conferred special status to these territories.

Then-Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Narendra Modi in January 2018 — Photo: Lalit Kumar/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire

While several reasons have been advanced to explain why the Modi regime took this drastic step, one particular reason — a settler-colonial policy to change the demography of the area by settling Hindus from other parts of the country there — has received a fair amount of attention.

A number of laws have been passed to remove previous restrictions on acquiring land and property in the newly designated Union Territory downgraded from its previous status as a state. How feasible this attempt to foster settler colonialism is may be debated but this notion became more credible when it was explicitly mentioned by an official of the Indian government.

In November 2019, India's consul-general in New York was seen on video telling an audience at a private gathering about the changes wrought by the Indian government in Jammu and Kashmir. He referred explicitly to the actions of the Israeli government in facilitating Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and is reported to have said, "If the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it."

Any significant demographic alteration, if it occurs, would of course be done under the shadow of the Indian military in the most heavily militarized region in the world today. This, if it happens, would bear a strong similarity to the way the Israeli military facilitates Jewish settlers to appropriate land and terrorize the Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Where India stood before

For approximately five decades, India had supported Palestine completely.

Its diplomatic relations with Israel were limited to a consulate in Bombay for the purpose of facilitating the travel of Indian Jews to Israel while it established full diplomatic relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and allowed it to open its office in New Delhi. Several factors were likely responsible for this situation, including India's emergence as a leader of the non-aligned bloc while Israel was firmly anchored in the western bloc, a position that was cemented when Israel joined Britain and France in imperial gunboat diplomacy: a military attack on Egypt in 1956 after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.

It is hardly any surprise that the Modi regime would take lessons in settler colonialism from Israel.

India's position could also have been influenced to some extent by Mahatma Gandhi"s views on Palestine expressed in his paper The Harijan. Writing in 1938 when the Nazi atrocities against the Jews of Germany were accelerating, Gandhi said that Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense as England belongs to the English and France to the French and it is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.

Gandhi described the Jews as "the untouchables of Christianity" and compared their treatment by Christians in Europe to that of untouchables in India by caste Hindus but then went on to remark:

"My sympathy for Jews does not blind me to the requirements of justice. It is wrong for Jews to enter Palestine under the shadow of the British gun…they are co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done them no wrong."

Gandhi repeated this in July 1946 when he stated that Europe's Jews, "who have been cruelly wronged … have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism." Gandhi's position, basically, was that the western world that had done little to save German Jews from destruction at the hands of the Nazis was trying to salve its guilty conscience by grabbing Arab land to settle European Jews in accordance with Zionist policy.

This position, like many other moral stances espoused by the Mahatma, has little appeal to the Hindutva groups, one of whose members assassinated Gandhi in New Delhi on January 30, 1948.

So, it is hardly any surprise that the Modi regime would take lessons in settler colonialism from Israel just as the Indian police and paramilitary bodies are reported to have received training from the Israelis in so-called "anti-terrorist" actions.

Meanwhile, Palestinians continue to live under the boot of the Israeli occupation. When periodic bouts of violence inevitably occur, Amira Hass, quoted above, reminds us, "It is only natural that Palestinians will want the Jewish military superpower to lose it and for the Israelis to know what fear is."

On the other hand, Israel can and does inflict violence on a vastly greater scale while the sight of Palestinian children killed and maimed and homes and schools destroyed that arouse feelings "of helplessness, rage and despair among every Palestinian…are sights that in the best case do not move most Israeli Jews, and in the worst case make them happy."

This is the arrogance and the reality of settler-colonialism that the Modi regime ostensibly wishes to imitate in Jammu and Kashmir.

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India
Siddharth Pandey*

Pandemic Pollution, And Our Philosophical Duty To Clean The Air

NEW DELHI — I had never given thought to the provenance of funeral wood, until news reports revealed in late April that officials in Delhi had begun receiving requests to chop trees in city parks amidst the colossal surge in COVID deaths. It was a jolting statement to encounter, for it forced me to reframe a life-giver into a death-enabler in ominously stripped, urgent terms.

Wood, of course, had been used for cremation since ancient times, but to think of it as coming from our very midst instead of some sequestered supply-area bore a sting of abrasiveness. Would our public spaces remain the same now on or, for that matter, even the public that once walked and ran under their trees? "Nature repairs her ravages," observed the English novelist George Eliot, "but not all." She qualified, "To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair."

The world was quick to recognize her repairs last year during the global lockdown, when birds and animals started appearing "magically" from their hidden bowers onto our frozen civilized spaces. My most abiding memory from that long period of imposed isolation was the sighting of the Himalayas from the plains of north India, which happened due to the robust clearing of human induced pollution. It was after three decades that those great white sentinels impressed themselves upon the views of the Punjab plains a hundred miles to the south. And although I myself couldn't view those ephemeral vistas from our home further down in Ghaziabad, it felt enough to simply know that the Himalayas had gotten closer to me.

Birds and animals started appearing magically from their hidden bowers.

That exhilarating enlargement of spirit had everything to do with the three decades I spent in the mountainous regions of Himachal Pradesh, before my family's shift to the NCR plains in 2019. For all my growing-up years, those highlands had resolutely ensured that they were the only true high-rises. This was despite the severe urban development that had begun to inflict that geography during my teens and twenties, much like its plain-based counterpart. Nonetheless, the dignity of breathing fresh air in the Himalayas had remained fairly intact, as it still does to a certain extent.

With my shift to the gray-laden sprawl of the metropolis, I realized that untainted oxygen — a basic of life's prerequisites — was a privilege in itself. So when the surreal erasure of haze and smog manifested within a few weeks of the 2020 lockdown, I involuntarily found myself developing a habit of frequently checking the Air Quality Index. I knew that I wasn't alone in experiencing this strange passion, since a number of my Delhi acquaintances were also sharing their incredulity at those deepening azure skies. But I liked to believe, almost childishly, that my delight was "different", for I had nothing less than the Himalayas as my yardstick for comparison. Whenever a "very-good/healthy" reading of the city air conjured up in a cedar-green label, I found myself exclaiming, "This is like the mountains!"

A man travelling on a bus during the COVID-19 Pandemic period in Kolkata — Photo: Sudipta Das

And yet, that joy was no "thorough repair". Not only was it temporary, it also underscored a horrifying reality of displacement and suffering. For those countless fleeing migrant workers who were never allowed to claim their city-homes as their own and forced into making arduous return-journeys on foot, the shift in environment was anything but revivifying. Today, when the second wave wreaks unprecedented havoc across India, that oxygen ironically becomes a leveller in its very brokenness, with the rich and the poor meeting a similar, cruel fate.

In May, when cyclone Tautkae brutally ravaged parts of Western India and led to palpable changes in temperatures across many adjacent areas, this sense of air's imbalance again came to the fore. Standing on my fifth-floor balcony, even as I exulted in the soothing embrace of the 16 degree dip in temperature, the pinch of the knowledge that this wasn't normal pressingly played along. After all, the sudden "coolness' that we experienced was the result of the same factor that had brought destruction in other parts of the country. And the factor behind that factor was obvious too, with news reports stoically blurting future disasters in making: "Tautkae result of climate change, expect more cyclones in coming years: Experts."

We have always been aware that we are nothing without air.

The philosopher David Abram observes in his modern classic The Spell of the Sensuous that like many native and ancient languages, classical Sanskrit makes an association of the inner self with the wind. There, "the word ‘atman" signifies not only the soul but air and breath too."

While water is understandably perceived as the "elixir of life", we have always been aware in an oddly understated manner that we are also nothing without air. Hence the ubiquity of the phrase hawa-pani ("wind-water"), and the inextricability of the two words. Ask anyone visiting the mountains about their first impressions, and they would instantly revel in the difference from plains: "Wahaan ka hawa-pani kitna alag hai…"

Perhaps more than any other philosopher, it was the Buddha who best understood the link between the soul and air, devising his practice-based spiritual teachings on this very connection. But it is the tragedy of our country that political opportunists and bigoted religious babas use such vital legacies as a ruse to overlook the deficiency of medical facilities that we have been acutely suffering from. For instance, recently, Baba Ramdev illogically advised patients undergoing heart-attacks to promptly practice anulom-vilomen route hospital. Not only do such crude suggestions strike as blatantly insensitive, they also have the effect of rendering the otherwise beneficial exercises undesirable by citing them inappropriately.

It has been said that the third world war will be fought over water shortage. If anything, the pandemic must serve as our greatest warning for such a war to never take place. For battles of a different sort have already been fought globally during this and the last year, all united by the need for air. As quantifying markers of something that we once took for granted become the norm of our daily vocabulary and existence — cylinders, oximeters, concentrators, ventilators and so on — air assumes an uncanniness like never before. How we would deal with this estrangement in the near and the distant futures is perhaps our greatest personal and collective challenge now on.

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India
Ranjit Sabikhi

COVID-19 Reveals The Ugly Truth Of India's Urban-Rural Divide

The need to prioritize comprehensive planning is just as acute in both in urban and rural areas.

-Analysis-

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that we are currently passing through will have a disastrous effect on the life of large numbers of people across India and is more serious than the government acknowledges.

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Society
Feza Tabassum Azmi*

Sonic COVID: Listening To The Pandemic's Sounds And Silences

Particularly in mega cities like New Delhi, the pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns have changed our audible environment. What does that tell us about where we're heading?

-Essay-

NEW DELHI — For the last 10 years or more, our mornings have been synonymous with the sonorous horn of the school van that would come to pick up our kids for school. With schools closed ever since the pandemic happened, mornings are devoid of the hurly-burly of kids getting ready and packing off to school. The long, clarion honk was a metaphor for all that a school embodies – punctuality, discipline, orderliness. It had the undisputable power to transport kids onto an entirely different kaleidoscope – the excitement of meeting school friends and a certain natural tendency to start behaving in typical school mannerisms.

That clarion call is being missed. Children across most parts of the world are yearning to be back to school – listening to more familiar sounds of the school bell, the rhapsody of the assembly choir, the laughter in the corridors, the rotund chorus of "good morning teacher" and much more.

The pandemic has changed our sonic environment. The ubiquitous sounds of life seem to have almost vanished. The vegetable vendor with his undecipherable call-outs of vegetable names, the street hawker's rustic marketing jingle, the occasional kabadi wala's high-pitched bawl, the innocuous gibberish of the tea-seller near the lane, the lyrical prayer of the beggar – all seem to have disappeared. One wonders how daily earners like them are managing their way through the pandemic.

The ubiquitous sounds of life seem to have almost vanished.

The ear-splitting honks of vehicles, jarring traffic snarls, wayward two-wheelers and the swarms of e-rickshaws with blaring Bollywood songs became rare, almost extinct. Sound of people in streets and markets faded into obscurity, the cheerful laughter and giggles of children in neighborhood parks got replaced with silence and anxiety. Announcements and loudspeakers on roads were quietened. The occasional roar of the airplane in the sky, the distant train whistle, the ringing of the ice-cream trolley, a firecracker somewhere – the little joys of humdrum life were gone. Call bells at home were not ringing. There were no visitors.

It took a pandemic for us to appreciate these everyday sounds. We almost started missing the screeching vegetable sellers and the traffic cacophony. Our daily soundscape changed after the pandemic. While many routine sounds were gone, the pandemic introduced us to new acoustic elements. Muffled voices behind masks from a calculated distance was the new conversation protocol. Sneezes, coughs, gargles, inhalers, nebulizers became familiar background scores. On one occasion, there was this sound of banging of plates from certain parts of the planet.

An upscale shopping area in central New Delhi, India — Photo: Sondeep Shankar

For most part, the pandemic became associated with stentorian ambulance sirens tearing through the night. Howling dogs and growling cats bemoaned the passing by of ambulances, in ominous cries. The noise inside hospitals became louder, the wails and sobs more painful. Beeping monitors, blipping electronic signals, ringing alarms, whirring oxygen pipelines, wheezing ventilators, humming X-rays, buzzing CT scan machines, dripping IV lines amidst frenzied movement of staff amplified the agony of hospitals. This was sometimes intercepted with a resounding clap or musical appreciation for a recovering patient or a selfless doctor.

There are sounds of cries and pain on TV. Gory visuals of hospitals, distressed patients and desperate family members became prime time news. There were louder sounds of journalists and news anchors as they uncovered story after story. High decibel inconsequential debates on the "whats' and "whys' of lockdown measures invaded our living rooms.

The internet was the elixir of the pandemic. It kept people busy and enabled uninterrupted learning and work. It kept organizations alive and employees earnings secure. The sound of Zoom calls, online meetings, videoconferencing sessions gave a semblance of continuity of life. Beeps, notifications, unmuted microphones, chats and pings provided some respite from an otherwise traumatic reality. The repetitive "Can you hear me" and "Am I audible" were the new work lingo. Phone calls and WhatsApp messages became more frequent. Music, videos, streaming media were the regular sounds at home.

Amidst all these phonetics, the sound of an eerie silence symbolized the pandemic. With traffic halted, factories closed and construction work stopped, sounds of activity receded. The buzzing sounds of existence got replaced by an unknown hush. Silence took over the aural conscience of individuals. We love our bustling roads, parks, markets, malls and city centers. Cities thrive on that chaos and din. Economies prosper on that noise – the noise of trade, sales and commerce. The sudden silence was deafening. The quiet is perhaps not always comforting.

The only solace is the birdsong. There seem to be more birds chirping and singing. Lockdown silence has reinvigorated nature. Social media is abuzz with stories of people hearing new birdsongs and animal sounds. The breeze is cooler, fresher as if flowing in musical notes.

A young worker operates a lathe machine at Anand Parbat Industrial Area, India — Photo: Pradeep Gaur

Forbes magazine reported that lockdowns resulted in a significant drop in noise pollution. Seismologists are reporting less seismic noise and vibrations. Even oceans were found to be more tranquil and ambient with ships and cruises temporarily suspended. Several reports from across the world testified to this.

The lockdown has produced a new sonic ecosystem, engendering never-before kind of aural experiences.

The lockdown has produced a new sonic ecosystem, engendering never-before kind of aural experiences. The pandemic triggered research on sound environments and behaviors. Enthused researchers were exploring the sonic idiosyncrasies of the pandemic: Has the lockdown transformed the distinctive sounds of our cities? How is routine "noise" different? Are sonic peculiarities surfacing? What kinds of emotional response is it generating? Will it have long-lasting effects on listening habits?

Cities and Memory, a global collaborative field recording and sound art work, created a sound map of the pandemic by remixing noises from across the globe. There were others who were trying to record and preserve the temporary sounds of lockdown for the future. Some were exploring which noises characterize a place and which emotions they evoke. The sounds of the pandemic generated much interest from scientists and acousticians.

It is said that every place has a soundtrack symbolized by its life. These routine sounds – good or bad – give a feeling of normalcy. Listening is a fundamental sensory act. It is important to our understanding of our surrounding. Sound is vital to life. It provides a rhythm to our existence. The sounds of our mornings, evenings and night-time shape our life experiences. We do not know when the pandemic will end, what we certainly know is we don't want to listen to the sad song of the pandemic again.

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India
Hirra Azmat

No Answers: A Kashmir Doctor's View From Inside COVID Disaster

People think doctors have lost empathy. But we feel each death, and every young life lost comes as a bolt out of the blue.

-Essay-

SRINAGAR — Blood-stained faces and broken bodies are not new sights for doctors here in Kashmir; It's the curse of living in a region riddled with conflict. No matter how emotionally challenging these cases are, doctors are usually able to provide answers about the patient's chances of survival.

But when it comes to COVID-19, what assurance can these doctors give when families ask if their loved one will make it through the night? In the absence of explanations, these doctors are haunted by loss.

How do these medical professionals go about their day when their world is engulfed by death and devastation?

Below is the account of one doctor currently at the front lines of a tertiary care hospital in Kashmir.

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