Did we learn anything last year, asks Swara Bhasker

A few days ago, I celebrated yet another birthday. Another year of ostensibly turning older and thus apparently wiser. A stray comment from a friend got me thinking. “A year older and none the safer,” she declared.

I recalled my last birthday, in early April 2020. The nationwide lockdown was two weeks old and in full force. We could not leave our homes. My friends and family had organised an unexpectedly fun birthday party on Zoom and kind neighbours surprised me with cake. This time around I was back at work, on shoot in Goa, and had a small celebration with my cast and crew, in addition to the new staple in family interactions—the Zoom call. But the pandemic was still raging and was more insidious, varied and arguably more lethal despite the vaccine. The possibility of a lockdown was still lurking!

The situation makes you ask a simple question: What has changed, if anything?

Salil Bera Salil Bera

I look back at my own life and find that actually a lot has changed. After 10 years of living on my own in Mumbai, I have, in my thirties, moved back to my parents’ home in Delhi.

The pandemic taught us different things—a friend of mine discovered the hidden chef in her, my hairstylist rediscovered motherhood and the pleasures of domesticity as she was forced to stop shooting and spend days at home with the family, another team member said she discovered the importance of saving.

The enforced ‘me-time’ has made people around the world take a break from the treadmill of our daily lives and reassess how we are living and what we are living for. I, for one, learnt many lessons. I realised how grounding and stabilising family is. I realised how sometimes as we chase career goals, we forget the growth of our personal lives. I realised I want children. I (belatedly) realised I had been betrayed in love. I learnt to be grateful for the many blessings and privileges my life has. But, perhaps, most critically, I learnt that the human heart is more resilient than emojis, love songs and Bollywood films.

And, while the lockdown last year was arguably one of the worst and most shameful human impact stories of our time, there were numerous acts of goodness by strangers toward one another that reaffirmed our hope in the human species. Activists and NGOs tried to assist migrants to get back to their homes and villages. Corporates donated funds, shoes and slippers to distribute to migrants who were walking to their homes. Citizens donated in good faith to various relief funds and efforts. And, medical professionals rose to the occasion to become the hero of our times.

But, a year later, as we grapple with a diverse, speedier and invisible variant of the virus, face vaccine shortages, as bodies pile up in hospitals, samples queue up in labs, positive cases skyrocket and once again livelihoods of the most vulnerable sections of our society seem endangered, we as citizens expect our government to care about the people who elected them, who blindly celebrate every thaali bajaao, taali bajaao, diya jalaao, tika lagaao utsav. Care enough to tell them the truth about the danger that is still not over. Care enough to suspend election rallies and festivals and actually govern the nation through a crisis.

However, like a toxic boyfriend, what we have instead is criminal negligence on the part of our ruling party, as it keeps relief efforts at bay to drum up huge crowds at election rallies and allows lakhs to congregate for public celebrations of Hindu festivals, and its leaders roam the countryside mask-less. I wonder in desperation what to do with these lessons of resilience, gratitude, hope and kindness that I learnt in the last year. As I go through the now familiar cycles of frustration, anger, indignation, shock, disbelief and hopelessness on following the news cycle in our country I ask myself—is hope nothing but the last resort of the helpless?

The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.