Life in a village is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing, in terms of the age-old communal bond that people share on every occasion; the textbook ideas of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘fraternity’ are essentially practised in these remote and far-off villages, far from the maddening crowds of cities where such words have been rendered into empty slogans. But while life in a village often presents a rosy picture, there are many thorns that come along unnoticed. Let’s tread the path to one such village!
I happened to be in a village which is located in Pulwama district, 3 km east from the main town. This village was declared a red zone on June 7 due to emergence of a Covid positive case, a young man of 22 years. The news sent shockwaves through the whole village and everyone seemed perplexed at how the virus had reached here from far-off Wuhan. Announcements were made through public announcement systems ordering the inhabitants to stay inside their respective homes and avoid unnecessary visits outside. The whole village panicked when an ambulance blew the frightful siren late at night to ferry the family members of the patient who had tested positive to a quarantine centre. The patient had no travel history to outside the region; however, he had occasionally visited the local hospital for treatment of his stomach ailment. Even as the announcement was being aired on loudspeakers, wrought-iron gates were locked shut and many houses turned off their lights, fearing the ambulance may rough them up as well.
The next day, banners were lofted on electricity poles and public roundabouts, declaring the whole village as “Red Zone”. Roads were blocked by logs of wood, restricting the movement of people as well as transport. For two to three days there seemed a curfew-like situation, with anxiety palpable on peoples’ faces; though some people occasionally went to their orchards and farms for their daily chores. Shops were shuttered down, the local butcher and bakery shops seemed to have vanished in thin air. Elderly as well as young who had never worn a mask were seen covering their faces, not risking contact with this deadly virus. The muezzin gave his regular azaan but his call this time was hardly heeded to. For a day or two everything seemed to have come to a standstill with only birds and dogs roaming through the streets. Days passed by and life slowly came back to normal with streets again dotted by people. Shops came to life again. The village life was revitalised as if nothing had happened. The virus was forgotten and never mentioned again.
After a gap of eighteen days, when the entire village had come back on track and there was the usual hustle and bustle on the roads, a sudden announcement was made from the local mosques, ordering people of the village to go for mass sampling for coronavirus. Villagers were perturbed by this sudden announcement. Why only our village chosen for mass sampling? There were a couple of other villages in the district which had more positive cases than us?
People feared more the test than the virus. The fear was aggravated by the typographical error that health officials had made by declaring the patient who had tested positive as a “female”, when he was a actually a male. A rumour ran through the whole village that it was a deliberate attempt on the part of the administration to declare more positive cases from the district. People said that positive cases of coronavirus meant windfalls for every official, from a peon to a higher-up. People made up their minds not to go for testing and thereby prevent themselves from being taken to a quarantine centre for fourteen days. If a male can be shown as female, surely a “negative” can be shown as “positive”.
Health officials kept knocking on the doors and gates of various houses but they were turned a deaf ear to. In two days, only 5 to 6 samples could be collected in a population of 1,500 plus. It was bizarre, declared the local health staff after they tried to convince people that it was for their own benefit that the testing was required. The next day the Tehsildar came. He ordered people to go for testing or else action as per law shall be initiated against them. The Tehsildar’s summons, too, proved futile. He went from pillar to post to convince the villagers. He had an altercation with a family when he questioned them if they had given their samples, to which they replied in the negative. He was furious and ordered his subordinates to file an FIR against them. Police was called in to force people to go for sampling. By the end of the day, some hundred samples had been collected.
I was baffled both by the approach of the people as well as the modus operandi of the administration. Where villagers often give ears to rumours, the administration was equally culpable by not educating people in the true sense. There seemed to be a communication gap between the two. The villagers were hell bent on not giving their samples, and the administration was adamant on taking them. I couldn’t understand who was right and who wrong!
Finally, I could decipher that life in a village has its pros and cons. Where a city-dweller seems engrossed in his own affairs and hardly bothers about what happens to his neighbours, life in a village is bound by a thin thread which can be pulled by anyone, at any time. The rumour mills that operate on shop fronts and in barber shops is a scene worth watching. A typographical error was so blown out of proportion that people even stopped going to the local health centre! Accusations were levelled against the local Covid staff that they had deliberately made a representation before the district administration to sample the whole village, as more positive cases meant more monetary benefits for them. How far that is true, I haven’t still understood. For the first time, though, I realised that over-emphasised brotherhood and unity sometimes can lead to chaos and utter disregard of general welfare. Life in a village often has its blessings, but at times it has its failings as well!
The writer is ‘an enthusiastic traveller’