When Shams of Tabriz left the khanqah of Baba Zaman in Baghdad for Konya, where his beloved Rumi resided, he had anticipated hardships ahead. But then, he was trained 'to accept the thorn with the rose'. Similarly when I along with twenty-one others (including nine girls) left the Jamia Millia Islamia for Kashmir we were gung-ho about it. But then we had also been anticipating a lot of unknown unknowns waiting for us in the way. Right from the go things seemed sombre. A severe hailstorm saw us off. The haunting hilarity of this journey and a number of ethical conundrums had just begun.
Firstly we were taken to the Delhi Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research for screening. Just a formality! Then we had to wait for five long hours under the blazing May's sun for getting the clearance and pass from the District Magistrate. I wondered why we couldn't do it online. We left Delhi in the evening and after a twelve hour bumpy ride reached Lakhanpur, the gateway to our motherland. But lo and behold, we were not welcome here. Not that we had expected fireworks and red-carpet but we were made to sit for seven long hours on metallic road before those troublesome and traumatic procedures ensued. All niceties were forgotten and our self esteem was shattered. Absolute chaos. Was all this necessary? Probably. But could it have been done in a better way? Undoubtedly so.
Once into J&K, along with a train of other buses, our bus was escorted by a police team into Samba's ghettoed transit camp. Fatigued, stressed and strained we deboarded our bus. Here we lost our 'Jamia identity' as we were pushed into clusters of people--migrants, labourers, the pan spitters and pissers. What had been assured to us before leaving Delhi was thrown to wolves and we were directed to segregate as per our districts. The issue was of girls. How could they be handed over to the crowd? It was a terrible idea. After marathon correspondences with the authorities the idea of segregation was shelved and we were allowed to travel further onboard the same Jamia's bus. But we had to wait for the next day in order to leave. That night was full of crouches, suffocation and battles with mosquitoes.
The next day at 1 pm we got the green signal, after having waited for around twenty-four hours. Now the long haul from Jammu to Srinagar started. Landslides, chronic traffic jams and vehicle breakdowns took us another twenty hours before we could reach TRC at Srinagar. One hell of a journey had ended. The another was to start right there: the institutional quarantine. With others gone, I was directed to report at a quarantine facility in Budgam.
For me getting admitted into a quarantine centre was like a cultural shock of a different kind and magnitude. The decor was harsh and visuals distressing. I came to realise that the promises of administration were like a veneer of froth. But that was not surprising given the mismatch between the willingness and affordability of the state. The four days I spent in the quarantine centre, before my COVID test came out to be negative (as was the case with all of my university mates), was a fascinating learning experience of a lifetime. Not just small tiffs, there were tantrums, fits and hysteria inside. We were treated like animals, even worse. We felt like walking corpses nobody wanted to touch. The food was thrown inside through windows and locked gates by the authorities, affording us no dignity. At the same time, never before had I realised that so many people could smoke, blabber, watch cranky loud videos on YouTube and laugh lousily with utter disregard for people around them. I couldn't keep my aesthetics going. My ego went down into gutters. There was nothing left to do except wallowing in self pity.
Here let me neither understate nor overstate anything. And please excuse the agnosticism of my position. I believe that no one can be singly blamed for dismal state of affairs when it comes to the administrative response towards COVID19. It is normal for a policeman or a patwari whose neck is on the line at the quarantine centers to face the pushback from disgruntled inmates. When they are left to hold the baby without consistent directions from the top brass the spicy faceoffs are all but natural. It is a classical case of shooting the messenger.
I may not have any new value propositions to offer but I think when the state doesn't trust people and people don't trust the state it becomes extremely difficult for the state to convince people that what it is doing is for the collective good. It becomes equally difficult for the citizens to assure the state that they would actually behave responsibly. And thus to expect either state or citizens to do better is a tall order. The issue is further complicated by the fact that in the case of Covid-19 we are moving with the history and are learning as we are going. There is no collective wisdom to draw guidance from.
To put my quarantine experience under the philosophical microscope, I realised the importance of family, privacy, liberty and individuality, the worth of everything that we otherwise relegate to the status of 'normal'. I saw how life devoid of love and tenderness looks like. I came to know that most of us are only as good as circumstances allow us to be. I was reminded of the delights of life's simple pleasures.
For four days I lived a life of an underdog, a subaltern--a person who is always looked down upon with pity and disgust, a person who always becomes the butt of ridicule. I also learnt about the idiosyncrasy of power--the power of scarcity that the state can relentlessly exploit to seek monopoly rents, muscle in on your private territory and make you dance to its tunes. It was a sneak peek into an absolute command state where arrogance of authorities could often border on madness.
Finally, what else could've brought the implications of globalisation nearer to my locality, what else could've made me aware of the liabilities associated with being the member of a society and what else could've proven to me that society wielded such an enormous disciplinary power (for I would have cunningly dodged the quarantine otherwise).