Citizenship and agency in times of despair: Reflections

Over the years, citizenship as a way of living, as a value and as an idea have become central to my writing and my talks. It has seemed to me more and more that we need to own our citizenship—of where we live, our countries and our world—as a first step to improving what we experience. Our own citizenship, I insist, is the first step to demanding accountability.

The last three months have, however, tested my commitment to this idea sorely. This essay is an exploration—even, a meditation—on the challenge this has posed to me, as a citizen and as a preacher of citizenship.

In these two and a half months, housekeeping and domestic supplies have dominated my day. Even as I have become more efficient, either by figuring out routines and systems that work for me, or simply by dumping tasks, I have become more and more tired, as if fatigue seeps through layers of being—from body to brain to spirit. How am I to be a citizen when all systems inside me feel like they are flatlining?

With the announcement of the lockdown, came the colossal and continuing humanitarian tragedy of workers wanting to return to their home states without any trains or buses running. They have been homeless and hungry, and many have been ill. The first opportunity for active citizenship was to participate in taking care of them, through the distribution of food and other supplies. That was not going to be an option for me—I was quarantined, I had no transport and I have poor immunity. Donations of money and labour were also not possible.

I can and could write. So, of course, this would be my citizenship service. But around me, everyone is writing—especially men, whose work burdens have not multiplied as much as women’s. People are writing and webinaring (surely that is a legitimate word now?) and there is much less evidence of people reading. As someone said to me the other day, people are also tired of reading.

At my end, writing has become more and more difficult, not because I have nothing to say or because it is hard for me, but because with every week of lockdown, the small interstices of time in which I can write (which includes thinking, composing and putting down words) have shrunk more and more, being squashed on the one hand by housework and on the other hand by deep fatigue, requiring me to lie down more and more during the day, just for minimal functionality. This fatigue shortens my day as well. And then I think, if writing is so hard but no one will read, why bother?

The citizenship preacher inside me says, because it’s your job. The Gita-reader says, that’s not your problem. But I, ordinary human being, cannot budge. I spent the other day feeling like cardboard squished to papier mache pulp without its potential for beauty. Flatlining is actually the best word for how I feel. My body, brain, spirit… the very life within me feels flat.

And all media—social and mainstream, all text is overwhelming. I cannot process because I am filled with guilt about not doing enough. Posts that underscore the misery of the world, the nobility of those who serve or the volumes they accomplish, and the posts that say more explicitly that one should do this or donate that, all seem to chide me personally. And the more they do, the more I flatline.

But the truth is: This is my moment. This is how I am. This is real.

I do say this in my citizenship writing and talks—you are only called upon to do what you can. But you are called to do it, and to do it as best you can. So I have been wondering: What can I do?

The Gita bails me out again: I am to do my duty before anyone else’s. And in this instance, I recognize it is to take care of my mother and by extension, myself first. To keep her secure from COVID-19 and through my staying safe, to ensure her well-being.

But what is my duty beyond this? This is harder to tell. When you cannot do any of the things people need immediately, are you useless? I hope not!

I come to my primary self-definition—I see myself as a writer and a scholar. So that would mean my first task is to understand, to process and then to write—in any format. If I am not useful today, I can hope to be useful another day.

I see myself as a teacher. What are the modes of engagement available to me, and what is it that I can share at this time?

Prajnya expands my capacity. We have lived up to our name and hung back a little, choosing to curate and create learning resources for the community. We could push a little further, try a little harder.

Keeping old promises is important too. Miraculously, and this may be the silver lining of the pandemic, all deadlines have been pushed back. Tasks that are more time-consuming than we originally thought must be completed in this time.

And I suppose that healing oneself, physically and mentally, is also an act of citizenship if one sees one’s life as a stint of service and utility. Self-care sometimes starts with the physical, sometimes with the spiritual and sometimes in the brain–lead where it first yields.

We have rightly celebrated the service and citizenship of health-care and conservancy workers, of those who deliver essential services and those who work delivery jobs. Others too find ways to be citizens—some by following the rules to a T; some by feeding those around them even if they cannot trek across the city; some by checking in on others; and some by supporting those who serve. I think I see more clearly than ever that most people are trying their best, in very difficult circumstances. And it is this trying that will save us, as individuals and as a species, in this moment.

I wish that my own citizenship could come without judgment of another’s. I am doing this; is that all you are doing? We are not children in a sand-pit race. However well we know each other, we do not know all of the frailties and fears that make up the other’s life.

Maybe the greatest act of citizenship in these times is compassion. Forsaking judgment, forsaking expectation of others, assuming an attitude of humility and gratitude, doing without performing and accepting that most people are doing their best—this, I can try to offer the world. Perfecting this compassionate attitude of citizenship may be my best contribution at this time.

And what do I do with the immense and debilitating anger that I feel when I read about failures by the government, you will rightly ask? I too feel that. I feel fury and I feel grief and most of all, I feel despair that nothing I do will matter to governments that choose to be oblivious. And then it multiplies because I feel helpless. Futility then pushes me further into that profound pit of fatigue and I cannot bring myself to do anything because I am so tired and there is no point. I think resisting that is citizenship.

And you resist that despair, recalling the very spirit of ants, caterpillars and termites that I like to talk about when I do workshops. So you cannot read an academic article, read something in the news; that is too much, read a listicle! You cannot work on a paper, write an op-ed; that is too hard, blog! You cannot cook for two hundred, cook for two; that is too hard, simplify the menu and prep to simplify cooking for another day. If the avid engagement of your professional colleagues leaves you bemused, draw and colour and sing and sew till you are ready. If you look closely, past the despair and fatigue, there is always a small aperture through which a speck of light may enter. There is always an opportunity to act. If you cannot resist the government because of your own inner state or (lack of) physical wellness, resist despair.

Citizenship, I used to say, was about conscience, courage, compassion and creativity. At this moment, it may be the last that rescues people like me. And maybe you.



TEDxChennai talk on citizenship, March 10, 2019.

10 things to do in times of political upheaval, DNAIndia, March 27, 2017.

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