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Shrinking spaces and expanding horizons

Concerns around disease transmission have restricted our physical space. Humans that once roamed free on Earth are not able to do so now. Students do not have the pleasure of attending schools, gym enthusiasts must lift weights at home and, increasingly, access to public places is being determined by vaccination or RT-PCR status.

ANJALI MEHTA | New Delhi |

S ome years ago, I saw a mesmerizing dance show at the Purana Quila in Delhi where the accomplished dancer Astad Deboo, straining every nerve and sinew, slowly contorted his body into a tight ball – he was simulating an embryo. Today I am reminded of that contortion as I look around. The pandemic and man-made factors have relentlessly compacted our lives to fit into the shrinking spaces around us.

Concerns around disease transmission have restricted our physical space. Humans that once roamed free on Earth are not able to do so now. Students do not have the pleasure of attending schools, gym enthusiasts must lift weights at home and, increasingly, access to public places is being determined by vaccination or RT-PCR status. Humans are experiencing the same uncomfortable reality of depleted common territory that so many magnificent creatures of the wild have been subject to for several years. Almost 68 per cent of wildlife has declined due to the large-scale attrition of forest cover which now stands at a mere 31 per cent or so of the total land area.

Commercially driven takeovers of their habitats have forced animals into close proximity with humans. Despite now understanding first-hand what being hemmed in feels like, many humans remain unempathetic. For example, several resident welfare associations are deeply divided on the issue of the need to provide shelter and food for stray dogs. This is a far cry from the days where we grew up watching our older relatives regularly feeding birds and kindheartedly throwing a morsel to dogs and cows that wandered close. Displacement regularly affects humans as well now.

Human conflict, ethnic cleansings and calamitous natural phenomena brought on by global warming have created homeless refugees. Such people often face hostility and have a poor quality of life in the countries they flee to. Women have had it tougher since the pandemic has kept people confined to their homes. Domestic violence has risen – even by as much as 30 per cent in some countries. With the entire family being at home, their space for quiet reflection has been lost in the interminable swirl of increased household chores. Authentic, fun-filled online social media exchanges are getting swallowed up by the superficial quest for ‘likes’.

The fulfilling and joyous banter amongst private groups of friends, college and school mates, or neighbours is corrupted by having to designate one (or a few) as the overall administrator – responsible for the ‘conduct’ of the group. Surely the responsibility of not hurting others with our speech rests with each adult human. There are well established laws against hate and incendiary speech. The deliberate creation of such a post strongly places the entire group at the mercy of the administrator’s own personal and political biases.

In the more public platforms, interesting conversations leading to a build- up of consensus among groups or the emergence of sustainable solutions on diverse issues are quickly thwarted by trolls who instead flood the platform with politically motivated, sensational, and fake news. They stalk and abuse women online. We recently witnessed an extremely depraved attempt to auction Indian women on cyberspace. Not surprisingly, the online places where women feel safe and welcome are reducing. The space to love someone of our choice and even to pray to a deity of one’s choice – two integral aspects of life – is dwindling.

Even in this modern era, we hear of young lives being sacrificed to caste-related ‘honour killing’. Some state laws make religious conversion punishable. Hoodlums masquerading as moral keepers of society tyrannize young couples in interfaith marriages. Many such young couples facing harassment are compelled to seek judicial intervention. The space for seeking the truth and telling it is contracting. People are subtly manipulated or outright coerced into following a particular political ideology. Dissenters are treated shamefully. Genuine investigations of crimes or scams are thwarted and instead a lot of money is spent on covering up or whitewashing the incident. There have been instances where journalists out to uncover the truth have been harassed, bullied, jailed and even killed.

Whistleblowers, usually people of rare courage, are made to feel as if they have done something wrong in exposing the truth. Powerful lobbies accused of fraud swing into damage control mode and save their own skins while making whistleblowers look like fools and liars. The scope for fun and laughter is lessening. Jokes which made us laugh because they were funny and irreverent, now can elicit punishment rather than laughter for the teller. This is because many disgruntled authorities lack a sense of humour and can be childishly vengeful. The regular umbrage-taking by those in authority creates an atmosphere of all-pervading seriousness, vastly different from yesteryears where the wonderfully satirical cartoons of RK Laxman brought a smile to the face of even the crustiest official! The chance to get a proper education is reducing.

Extremely high entrance cut-offs make securing a university seat a nightmarish struggle. For those who are lucky enough to gain admission, there are frequent disruptions in their studies – usually due to some ruckus created by the student wings of political parties. Even the choice of thesis topics has become limited. Rather than subject experts being allowed to design such studies as well as address gaps in the current knowledge in that field, they are unethically pressurised to allot research topics of ‘national interest’.

The space for thinking critically and heartily examining controversial topics through debate or discussion is shrinking. There is a sustained attempt by those in power to introduce a conformity of thought and ideas, forcing even the imagination to shrink. Mirroring the ever-expanding universe, a human’s imagination is limitless, and a stifling of this deep resonance between a human and the stars above is to shrink the very essence of being a human. In astrophysics, black holes in space are bordered by a line called the event horizon. Cross this threshold, and you are sucked into the infinitesimally dense void of the black hole where even light cannot enter.

Similarly, if the room for expanding one’s thoughts and expressing one’s views gets compressed further and further, it is going to be impossible for the light of knowledge and discovery to enter. Meanwhile, a few things grow rapidly, out of tandem with the world around them. The virus is unfettered and continues to multiply its presence exponentially by making neat alterations to its spike proteins.

Several billionaires’ financial net worth is still growing by leaps and bounds in a world with a decidedly inequitable distribution of wealth. Some powerful leaders across the world expend their energies in lengthening their own personal ruling tenures, dismissive of environmental and citizens’ concerns, even as our planet sinks deeper and deeper into peril. In a world that seems continually programmed by irresponsible leaders and a relentless disease to cave in upon us, we can regain valuable space by expanding our own consciousness, broadening our thinking and enlarging our heart’s capacity to give and receive love.

The greatest gift in these times of paucity is to just allow a fellow being a little more space to live, laugh or learn. A little more space to breathe. And watch Astad Deboo’s ‘embryo’ blossom gracefully into a contented and complete being.

(The writer is a Delhi-based medical practitioner)