In the face of life-altering change, only hope—comforting, terrifying, necessary—can show us the way to starting afresh
When I was a toddler and fell over, my mother would immediately shout with joy: ‘Jumped,jumped, jumped!’ She wasn’t lying.She was turning something that had happened to me into something I had done. She was reframing the experience, turning it on its head.She was suggesting, ‘You did that to yourself, didn’t you? What a clever thing you are.’
Perhaps I was just a stupid kid, but I'm told that it seemed to work. I would waddle off in another direction, only to fall again and turn to her, threatening tears; and once again, I would be told that I had ‘jumped, jumped, jumped’.This was a family thing, and I thought of it as one of those strange things we Pintos did and resolved that it should be a secret. But then one day I was walking down the seafront outside the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai with a friend from college. A little fellow from out of town, separated from his mother, fell over. ‘Jumped, jumped,jumped!’ I shouted. Of course, he burst into tears. A strange man shouting at him in a strange language in the middle of a strange city must have been more than he could bear. His mother swooped down on him and mumbled her explanations and peace was restored.
My friend looked at me curiously. I explained, and she said, ‘Ah. Well, my mother did it differently. She would say, “Nothing’s happened, nothing at all, come to Mama,” holding out a cream biscuit or a lolly, and I would waddle, stumble, waddle to her and be rewarded. Then she’d say, “See,you fell and got up and you got a bikki!” I’m told I became a committed faller and riser.’Why am I telling you all this? I think because there are times through life when we all try to do what our mothers were doing for us. We try to find meaning in life’s seeming randomness,its unfairness. In the grip of the COVID pandemic, we’ve been doing this more visibly. We are trying to see meaning in what threatens to seem like a meaningless event. Each person who has lost a family member, lost a loved one or an entire livelihood, turns her or his or their eyes to the sky and asks, “Why?”And implicit in that, “Why me?”
The sky, unseasonably blue, vouchsafes no answer. Social media is full of people writing paeans to the new bird calls, but the birds too sing no answers. The pandemic is global, but we are alone. No one, we feel, grieves as we grieve, no one suffers quite as we do. But here’s the thing: The universe does not make a special case for anyone, it does not turn sharp and pointed teeth at anyone in particular.It just seems that way.
My father had a way of dealing with the “Why me?” Whenever I asked that question—and like most young people,I raised the anguished cry about once a week—The Big Hoom would say, “Do you ask that when something good happens to you?”
But having said that, it has been rough. The world, as we knew it,blinked. If you blink just now, deliberately, blink as if explaining to a child what a blink is, you will bring on a moment of darkness. For a while, we were all there. The pandemic—the losses,the fear, the isolation—threw us back on ourselves, and our selves were not,many of us found, particularly comfortable places. It threw us back into our families and we discovered the faultlines of love and intimacy again. It threw into focus the ways in which we had divided our lives into here and there, inside and outside, office and home, work and play, us and not us, and this suddenly seemed unsustainable.
As I write this, we are limping back,in fits and starts, to what we were doing. Employers are asking employees to come back in to work. School bells are ringing in many places. Traffic is snarling up the roads and the bird song has faded from our senses.
This is comforting, if you want to be comforted. This is terrifying, if you want to be terrified. But in any case, itis a new beginning. Or can be. And ift his is true, then this is where we get another chance. We can do something about our faults and fears that break us or, more often, lead us to break others.The pandemic only shows us what we have always needed to see: the need to rearrange our inner lives, because that is the only real site of change.There are many billion resolutions being made, perhaps a million efforts,too. Private, individual efforts.
As for public, collective efforts,there is evidence already to prove that we’ll blow it again. But we’re going to have to soldier on, you and I, in hope. Perhaps your hope is getting a little world-weary, a little shop-soiled.Perhaps it has been mocked by the cynics who have now begun to show their colours again. Never mind them.Hope has been painted with cotton candy colours, labelled a Pollyanna and turned out of doors as uncool.Never mind that. We must always remember that hope is the bedrock of human civilization. Of Life.We messed things up this time. But then, our species has been messing things up for millennia. As individuals,we mess things up every day. When we don’t, something comes along to mess them up, to injure us, and often we are allies in our own injuring. And so we’ll always be thrown back on that eternal, magical ‘thing with feathers’.
*Make no mistake, the cynic in the hipster clothing lives on it, too—on hope, which is made of uncool things: resilience, courage, kindness,always kindness.
Extracted from A Book of New Beginnings:Some Words for Living, edited and with an introduction by Jerry Pinto. Published by SpeakingTiger Books, 2022