Autobiography of an unrepentant year

Rogue year 2020 has taught us valuable life lessons

opening-illu2 Illustrations by Job P.K.

I was born with the fanfare that attends the eve of every new year. There was the usual orgy of well-wishing, inflated predictions and overblown hopes. No matter what, everyone nurses the naïve belief that a change of calendar would somehow result in a change of fate and mark the beginning of a dream run. Poof! Well, somebody had to burst that bubble, and I took up the responsibility. I have also given life lessons you would not have learnt any other way.

Lesson No 1

I have taught all of you to be more economical in your expectations, and I guess that lesson has been learnt well. This December end, even your wildest dreams are going to be as colourless as a vintage Films Division documentary.

Lesson No 2

I showed you that “experts” can be as dumb as ordinary folk, often dumber. Highly paid perspective planners, futurologists and the chaps who tell you your fortunes every week—none of them gave you a clue about how times would shape up. If I were you, I would ask for my money back. Fact is, these guys have been taking you for a ride for a long while. It is only that 2020 has made their incompetence obvious. Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a bestseller about the black swan—on how a single event could change our way of life. Bet I cooked, excuse the pun, Taleb’s goose, too.

Lesson No 3

Be more careful with your excuses. You said you wished you had more time so that you could read the classics. I gave you enough time to read a rack of Russian novels. Did you even open the first page of Anna Karenina? If you have not been reading Shakespeare or the Nobel winner for literature, the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the lack of time, it lies with Netflix.

Lesson No 4

Some of life’s aspirations are better exactly as they are, as aspirations. You aspired for a slower, quieter and greener world. I gave you all three and you did not know what hit you. In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin said he had always idolised Gandhiji and was keen to meet him. In a sense, they were on the same side. Gandhiji was the diminutive leader who took on the might of an empire, and Chaplin, the small man who gamely fought the establishment. Strings were pulled, and the tramp managed a meeting with the Mahatma, but it ended in disappointment. While Gandhiji was courteous, an uneasy and embarrassing silence prevailed most of the time. Chaplin came away with a profound insight: Some of man’s most eager expectations are better off not realised.

Lesson No 5

The margin between being missed and being taken for granted is narrow. A colleague with two teenage daughters used to say that the long hours in the office were keeping him away from his children, and that they sorely missed his company. He reasoned the lockdown was ideal for some long-awaited family bonding. Three months into the lockdown, he told me how interactions with his daughters went:

Week 1: Yay! It is so wonderful
that you are at home the whole day, papa. Hope this lockdown goes on and on…

Week 2: Papa, we will teach you how to play a super video game.

Week 3: Can you be a little quicker papa? You are slowing down the game.

Week 4: Yes, papa (stifling yawn), we have heard that story of yours a hundred times.

Week 5: Papa, I think we are out
of milk, and mummy wants you to get it.

Lesson No 6

I taught you survival, or how to manage without the things you felt were essential for life. You learnt to manage without maids. You found you could live without kitty parties or going every evening to the club. You did not die when there was no weekend resort to get away to.


Lesson No 7

It is not the product, it is the packaging. Remember the time when you had to invent excuses to skip work. In elegant English, they called it ‘French Leave’. In earthy and more evocative, Bombay Hindi, they call it dandi marna. I have made it legal. All it took was for me to invent a new name: Work from home.


Lesson No 8

I tamed the net and turned ‘online’ from a perplexing mystery to a simple matter of a few clicks. When all doors were shut, God stepped in and opened a portal, then another and yet another. Soon you were going online like Gen Next. Now you can look your kid in the eye and tell him to log off so that you can attend a Zoom meeting.


Lesson No 9

Fear is the ultimate fitness inducement. It takes a pandemic to get people really concerned about their health. I have also punctured the vanity of the gym showboats who flaunted their six-packs and claimed nothing could touch them. They gargled as if their life depended on it. (It probably did.)


Lesson No 10

Your moral science textbook in school told you that all men (and women) are equal. But no one gave a practical demonstration like I did. Countries rich, poor and middling—all pressed the pause button. Royalty, heads of state (well, make that ex-heads of state), superstars and sportsmen... all were laid low. You have never seen a greater leveller than me.


Lesson No 11

I gave you the ultimate alibi viz. social distancing to steer clear of people you would rather avoid. So your ma-in-law stayed at her place, you in yours, and never did the twain have to meet. With a cast-iron alibi, you also managed to skip the big fat family wedding.


Lesson No 12

It was the year of great learning. Lockdown diaries are full of people excitedly telling the world what they learnt during the lockdown. “I learnt how to ______. (Fill in the blank with whatever you did during the months at home; for example, make pizza, play the piano, repair the flush….) Do not ask me how long these new-found loves will last. Usually, they have the life expectancy of a pre-poll promise.


lesson No 13

I have made people more regular in their prayers. You asked yourselves—why did all this happen? Could it be, dare you say it, God’s way of punishing you for your wrongdoings? Many of you automatically became better human beings; if only as anticipatory bail lest another pandemic was waiting in the wings. Remember that old joke about how, at heaven’s gate, the Kerala interstate bus driver scored over the devoted priest? He had put the fear of God into more people in a single bus ride than the priest in his entire career in holy orders. Well, I think I have achieved pretty much the same results.

I do not need to wish you a ‘Happy 2021’. After what you have gone through, any year is bound to be happy.

PS: Yes, I gave you Covid, but I got rid of Trump. You can spend all of next year wondering who caused more damage.