Work never stops, even during a lockdown

I am working 16-17 hour days, of which 8-10 hours go on Covid-related and constituency-connected work

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Sat 16 May 2020, 1:52 PM

Last updated: Sat 16 May 2020, 4:03 PM

Chronically busy people are busy all the time, any time: that's why their busy-ness is a chronic condition, like rheumatism or indigestion. I've been diagnosed with this malady in my childhood, before the word 'workaholic' was invented. I've never known a moment of idleness since I was a toddler; I've always been mystified by people saying they were "bored", since I had no personal experience of boredom. All my life, there has always been more that I wanted to do than I had time for.
Which is why there was some curiosity among family, staff and friends when the lockdown was announced. Opinion seemed broadly divided into two camps: those who said "Shashi can finally find time for all the things he's kept pending", and a sceptical minority who murmured, "maybe, Shashi will finally learn to relax."
The subtext in both cases was, however, "bet Shashi will still manage to be busy."
For someone who had been travelling insanely-13 different cities between January 3 and the opening of the Indian parliament on February 1, hurtling to the constituency every weekend after a full schedule in the national capital, and making speeches, attending events and meeting importunate visitors during the hours I was out of the House during the session, lockdown meant a life without any of the three main things that had kept me busy thus far-meetings, events and travel. Surely, this would help me ease up on my busy-ness?
Within a day or two, it became apparent this would not be the case. Immediately, a huge amount of Covid-related work, especially relating to the constituency, arose. On the evening Indian parliament adjourned, I had requested the prime minister, in the presence of the Lok Sabha Speaker, to amend the rules to permit MP funds under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) to be used for essential supplies to combat Covid. On the first day of lockdown, the Speaker called me while I was at lunch: my proposal had been accepted, a revised order would be issued. My team in Thiruvananthapuram and I immediately swung into action, eliciting, from the local chapter of the Indian Medical Association and the district collector, information about what supplies were in short supply and urgently needed. We then immediately issued purchase orders under MPLADS for these essential items-9,000 kits of Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers, 3,000 rapid-testing RT-PCR kits from the only lab in India approved to make them (Mylab in Pune), 250 non-contact thermometers from Hong Kong. The Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences in Thiruvananthapuram was doing cutting-edge research into a new RT-LAMP testing system for Covid: I allotted them a crore of rupees to complete their development, testing and manufacture of these kits for constituency use. And finally, with every rupee left in my available funds, I purchased a thermal face-detecting scanner to be installed at the airport to quickly detect passengers arriving with fever. No sooner had that order been placed than the Prime Minister announced the suspension of all MPLADS funds for two years: instead of being allotted by the local MP on the basis of awareness of local conditions and needs, they would now be sequestered by the Central Government, a reinforcement of a pattern of centralisation that has become all too apparent under the Narendra Modi regime.
But there were plenty of other things to do for the MP from Thiruvananthapuram. Keralites stranded abroad and wanting to come home reached out to me in large numbers, from 22 countries (at last count)-ranging from students in places as far apart as Ukraine and the Philippines, to fishermen stranded in Iran by the lockdown, to businessmen unable to return home from what was intended to be a short business trip to a foreign country. Responding to their requests and bringing them to the attention of the authorities dealing with such problems took time. Then there were the people from elsewhere stuck in Kerala, whose MPs reached out to me for assistance to them-social media brought me queries from political leaders in Bihar, Bengal, Maharashtra, and even Nagaland for such temporary migrants, for all of whom my constituency team arranged help. Another request was to record messages in Hindi and Bengali for migrant workers in Kerala at the request of the Malayala Manorama media house, which turned out to be effective in reassuring them and discouraging their attempted return to their home states. The Bengali message in particular-carefully crafted by this former Kolkatan in some trepidation-went viral, since many people could not imagine a Kerala MP speaking Bengali!
And then came what family referred to as the "typically Shashi Tharoor" invitations, for video conferences and interviews on the virus, to preparing and delivering a series of five hour-long lectures for the online education portal Unacademy, and speaking in a large number of 'webinars' addressing varied audiences on various subjects, from my books to my life to the possible future shape of the post-Covid world. These have averaged two a day throughout the lockdown, sometimes more, occasionally less. As occasions that would normally have been commemorated by events assumed 'virtual' form, various requests for video messages poured in, and I devote some time a day to recording goodwill greetings to inaugurate seminars, celebrate landmark anniversaries or hail occasions like Earth Day and International Nurses Day. Planned efforts to revive the All-India Professionals' Congress, which I lead, have been forced to assume a 'virtual' form, but have been taking shape through Zoom conferences and telephone calls.
And Covid continued to intrude on the rest of my time, since I inevitably spent hours studying the policy questions, reading about the experiences of other countries, or speaking to, and issuing letters to, ministers on those issues that affected my constituents.
But there was some relief from Covid work as well. As it happened, my mother and a sister (who lives in London) are locked down with me too. My mother, who maintains an independent life in Kochi, though she has thankfully been spending more and more time with me in Delhi, was scheduled to go back on March 15, and my sister, who was on a work trip in India, was supposed to accompany her before returning to London a week later. An hour before they left for the airport, I stopped them going. I had been admonished, publicly and privately, by my sons and concerned relatives for continuing my regular work and not taking the dangers of the pandemic seriously enough.
Suddenly, at the eleventh hour, I just didn't feel comfortable letting my mother out of my sight with a possible coronavirus crisis about.
I rarely make impulsive or instinctive decisions, but this was one I would be grateful for when the lockdown came.
The bonus of their presence was the kind of family time I had not enjoyed in most of my adult life. I feel guilty mentioning such private pleasures when so many of our countrymen and women have suffered terribly in the lockdown, and I realise this bonus came because of the privilege of being an MP with staff in residence, but that is my reality. We begin the day with morning tea together (and after the first phase of the lockdown, newspapers as well); make it a point to commune at mealtimes; and every evening, from about 7.30 or 8 (depending on that day's videoconferencing commitment) I spend a couple of hours with them, playing rummy or Scrabble, or watching something on television-often, thanks to my sister's subscription to the National Theatre in London, outstanding video recordings of astonishing stage productions there. (These included a breathtaking Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Antony and Cleopatra, with Ralph Fiennes playing a part I had assayed in my last year of college at St Stephen's, opposite Mira Nair as the Egyptian queen. An inspiring and somewhat humbling viewing experience!)
My sister also made sure that I overcame my usual physical indolence and put in the time needed for regular exercise. Our healthcare workers are enduring enough strains: the least the rest of us can do is to keep ourselves fit and healthy, so as not to add to their burdens. She herself works out for an hour-and-a-half each day and goaded, nagged and exhorted me to do the same. The results have been, if not visibly spectacular, quietly impressive, and it is a habit I hope I can retain in a post-Covid life. I was also able to engage my domestic staff and their children in impromptu games of cricket and badminton on the lawn, a great bonus of sarkari-bungalow life that I would never have been able to make time for pre-lockdown.
That I could be outdoors at all was thanks to another facet of the lockdown: the bright blue skies and cleaner air we have all been allowed to enjoy. The national capital region, the posterchild of India's chronic, yearlong and nationwide air pollution problem-which on average sees most of the days in a year in the 'poor' to 'severe' category on the national Air Quality Index-has witnessed little short of an unimaginable miracle. With the lockdown in effect, and construction, industrial and vehicular activity (which cumulatively contribute 75 per cent of Delhi's PM 2.5 levels) down to a crawl, the capital has been experiencing record levels of clean air. Barring a single day on the fifth of April when a few overzealous supporters of the Prime Minister chose to take the latter's call to light lamps in support of our critical service providers to the next level by bursting firecrackers (and the lingering effects of their effusions the next morning), AQI levels in the city have dropped to scarcely believable levels. It has been truly refreshing to see AQI below 30 most days, on one occasion dropping into single digits-7! in Delhi! -after an unexpected summer shower.
The net result of all my lockdown activity (as I write this during the third phase of the national lockdown in India) is that it's not a case of 'all work and no play', even if this sounds like the schedule of a 'dull boy': I am working 16-17 hour days, of which 8-10 hours go on Covid-related and constituency-connected work (including social media posts!), 3-4 hours on video conferences/ webinars, Zoom meetings and interviews, 1.5 on exercise, 2-3 on meal times and family, and the remainder, whenever possible, on writing. I took the opportunity to conclude work that had already been well advanced on Tharoorosaurus for Penguin, a light, illustrated collection of largely under-used words, from 'agathokakological' to 'zugzwang' (the title combines my name with 'tyrannosaurus', since so many are terrified of difficult words, and 'thesaurus', since people want to be able to look them up). And then I embarked, and have made some progress, on a considerably more 'serious' book on nationalism, for my regular publisher, David Davidar of Aleph.
There have been memorable incidents almost every day of the lockdown. My cook's wife gave birth to a healthy baby girl on April 14, the day we Malayalis mark as the auspicious occasion of Vishu, and a rare Vishu I was able to spend with family. Mother's Day was marked in my mother's company, which would not have happened but for the lockdown. (However, my treat for her-delivered food from a high-class eatery-misfired when the scheduled 1 pm delivery actually arrived at 3 pm, delayed by various obstructions en route.) More unhappily, early in the lockdown, I discovered a major termite infestation had returned to the bookshelves in my study and devoured most of my precious collection of volumes on Nehru, Gandhi and Patel, which shared a shelf, many of which were out of print and irreplaceable.
There were heart-warming moments too: the seriously ill woman I was able to get a private room for at a hospital, the salaried patient whose savings had all been eaten up by treatment but for whose family I was able to negotiate a modest discount, the stranded travellers I was able to win priority for from a beleaguered Government. (Fulsome tribute is due to Foreign Minister Jaishankar and Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Puri, both old friends from their diplomatic days, who have been models of responsiveness and helpfulness amid their impossible schedules.)
The one lockdown experience that particularly comes to mind when I look back on these six weeks is when a distraught mother appealed to me about her infant daughter suffering a rare disease, for which the only cure lay in an experimental treatment in the Netherlands. The child's blood sample was to be rushed to the Netherlands for genetic analysis and then the treatment had to start before she turned two in June. With the lockdown and the flight cancellations, this had become impossible, and the mother was distraught. I spoke personally to the Foreign Minister and the Civil Aviation Minister. They went out of their way not only to arrange to transport the sample, packed in dry ice, to Mumbai and then to the Netherlands, but to have it delivered by our Embassy directly to the lab there in record time.
We pray the baby is found eligible for treatment and that she is saved. But this life-saving humanity is ultimately what this entire national lockdown is all about-saving lives, helping each other, keeping our heads above the engulfing tide.
Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Indian Parliament and the author, most recently, of The Hindu Way: An Introduction to Hinduism. -Open magazine

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