The Concert Pianist who Dislikes Concerts

Remember the good old days when we could travel freely? This is from mid-February 2020, not so long ago, but it seems like a forgotten era.

My trusty cabbie had advised an early start to the airport. “Konn tori Purtugal-chyan ieta aiz!” he said with some exasperation, anticipating delays en route.

While most of Goa was going ga-ga over the visit of the Portuguese President here, (with even our beloved CM abandoning his customary hostility to the country he loves to hate, perhaps even more so than everyone’s whipping-boy Pakistan! Thank heavens the President tested negative for COVID-19 too), I travelled to Mumbai to listen to a veritable Portuguese icon who had slipped into India without any cerimônia: Maria João Pires.

MJP

Politicians come and go like so many viral epidemics, but Pires is a living legend, certainly the greatest classical musician to emerge from Portugal in our time, perhaps ever in her nation’s history.

I was privileged to hear her several times during my decade in the UK. Two memorable concerts that still stand out are her appearances at the BBC Proms festival, first in August 1998, barely a month after I arrived in London, when she played Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Claudio Abbado; and a year later Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G major with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Myung-Whun Chung.

In 2014, when I got wind of her maiden visit to India for two performances at the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) Mumbai, I immediately brought it to the notice of the then-Director of Fundação Oriente, Eduardo Kol de Carvalho, and suggested we try our best to organise her recital in Goa. A lengthy correspondence with her agent sadly didn’t yield fruit. A pity, as her performance fee, while steep (and understandably so for an artist of her calibre) was far less than, say, a Bollywood star would charge (and sponsors here would readily cough up) for merely an appearance. A lost opportunity for Goa.

I went to Mumbai to hear her play Mozart Piano Concerto no. 9 (‘Jeunehomme’) K. 271 with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) under the direction of her good friend and musical partner Augustin Dumay in September 2014.

Another reason I made the trip was that I had heard of Belgais. In 1999, Pires founded the Centro de Belgais for the Study of the Arts, near Castelo Branco, an institution devoted to the teaching and dissemination of music among children, especially disadvantage and abused children. I had heard also of the many obstacles she faced. I wanted to talk to her about Child’s Play and seek her advice.

In a 2007 interview to the Telegraph, “Why I turned my back on my homeland”, Pires spoke of being “crucified” by her country’s press, and of how the resistance, hostility and slander she faced began to affect her health, influencing her decision to move to Brazil, leaving Belgais in the care of a friend. But she then embarked on a comparable scheme in socially difficult areas of Brazil, aimed at involving children in choral singing and giving them hope and a sense of pride that they might not otherwise acquire.  In 2017, Pires moved back to Belgais where I’m sure she must have some involvement in the work there, although she vowed to “learn from mistakes” and not take on too much all by herself.

Pires greeted me warmly backstage in the green room after her 2014 concert. We spoke for quite some time, until the throng of autograph-seekers could no longer be kept at bay. She stressed the importance of choral singing for children, of learning how to “be silent, to listen, to pay attention”, the sense of the collective, the “we” instead of “I” when making music, and in life in general.

She repeated to me what she’s said several times before in interviews, how much she dislikes being in the limelight, how “unnatural” it is. In a 2010 interview to the London Evening Standard, she had said “I don’t enjoy being on stage — I never have — but it’s one thing not to enjoy it, another not to cope with it.”

That might seem like a bizarre admission from one of the world’s greatest concert pianists alive, for whom the concert stage has been ‘home’ for close to seven decades now, given that her first public recital took place at the age of five, in Portugal. But I think it isn’t at all paradoxical. She just is much more comfortable making music with others (the “we” instead of “I”) in cosier settings for smaller audiences. It is no coincidence that the composers she has recorded, performed most often and obviously loves very much (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Franck, Debussy) pre-date the age of the mammoth concert hall that seat hundreds, sometimes thousands, instead of a much more modest, intimate circle. In a sense, Pires belongs to a different era.

As at her last visit, Pires was the box-office draw again in February 2020, with not an empty seat in NCPA’s 1109-capacity Jamshed Bhabha auditorium. But when she emerged to tumultuous applause after the interval to play Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C minor, opus 37 with the SOI, again led by Dumay, she seemed almost embarrassed by the fuss.

There is nothing flashy about the concert persona of Maria João Pires, quite the opposite. Her dress sense is understated, practical, with sober colours as if to encourage the listener to focus not on her but the music.

Many observers point to the influence of Buddhist thought in her approach to music; her grandfather was a practicing Buddhist, and she studied Buddhism seriously in her forties, but doesn’t like the ‘Buddhist’ label. “Before anything, I’m a human being,” Pires stated disarmingly in a 2012 interview.

The sleeve note to her Beethoven album (featuring this same concerto with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding on the Onyx label) contains an essay by her in which she speaks of “music’s essential power to bring out a primal simplicity, which is present deep inside each one of us, waiting to respond when summoned”.

Pires readily admits that she prefers the recording studio to the concert hall, but it is this same “primal simplicity” that she strove to awaken in each one of us that happy evening.

This time round, I didn’t attempt to meet her again backstage. Her parting shot to me in 2014, when I sought her advice on Child’s Play, was to “never give up, come what may!” It is advice I have taken to heart.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 May 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Love from Afar

The highlight of my lockdown mornings has been the ability to watch whole operas online, streamed on the Metropolitan Opera website. At the time of this writing, I’ve clocked over 60 operas, and counting.

It has been a voyage of discovery, revisiting old favourites but also learning about many I didn’t know about before, some of them extremely new.

L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar) is one such opera, in five acts with music by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and a French-language libretto by Lebanese-born Amin Maalouf, both based in Paris.

Metropolitan Opera on Twitter: "1/ The 2016 Met-premiere ...

The two-hour opera is inspired by the work of Jaufré Rudel, a 12th-century literary figure, Prince of Blaye (in today’s southwestern France) and troubadour noted for developing the theme of “love from afar” (amor de lonh or amour de loin) in his songs.

According to his legendary ‘vida’ or fictionalized biography, Rudel falls in love with the countess (Hodierna in the vida, and Clémence in the opera) of Tripoli just from hearing about her from pilgrims returning from that faraway land en route from the Holy Land. She becomes his ‘love from afar’. According to legend, he finally sets out to meet her, but falls ill during the journey and is brought ashore to Tripoli in the throes of death. The countess descends from her castle to meet Rudel, and he dies in her arms.

GP at the Met: L'Amour de Loin | About the Opera | Great ...

In the legend and the opera, the grief-stricken countess decides to enter a convent in posthumous fidelity to her ‘lover from afar.’

Was this ‘countess’ a flesh-and-blood living-and-breathing woman, or a fantasy, a figment of Rudel’s (or someone else’s) imagination, or was she allegorical, an embodiment of a place, real or imagined, or an ideal, an intangible concept? Was this a religious or profane, more carnal love? The ‘love from afar’ has been variously interpreted as a ‘love of God’, the idea of the Crusades, the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Land, and even the long-forgotten quasi-historical, quasi-mythical Helen of Troy, as a literary trope.

The idea of an ambiguous Beloved, with a hazy distinction between sacred and profane love existed in early Islamic discourse and can still be encountered in Sufi and qawwali music. There are direct parallels between Occitan (medieval language of the Provençal of the 12th to 14th centuries, in which Rudel’s song-poems were written), and Islamicate court lyric and troubadour songs, which should not surprise us, given the links between East and West, with cross-fertilisation of ideas back and forth.

Why did this ancient fable become the springboard for a 21st-century opera? Saariaho and Maalouf are both self-described ‘voluntary exiles’, and the story inspired them to collaborate in turning (to quote the publicity for the work) “a seemingly simple story into a complex story very simply told…With the straightforward trajectory of its plot, L’Amour de loin turns anxiously around deeper themes – obsession and devotion, reality and illusion, the loneliness of the artist, the need to belong”.

The opera’s principal cast comprises just three, Rudel (baritone), The Pilgrim, the go-between who carries messages back and forth (mezzo-soprano) and Clémence, Countess of Tripoli (soprano), and a chorus that comments, narrates and moves the plot along. In the 2016 production shared with us from the Met Opera Live in HD archive, Eric Owens, Tamara Mumfor and Susanna Phillips sang the respective roles with Susanna Mälkki conducting the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus.

After listening to the opera, my mind inevitably wandered to the idea of our Goa as the ‘Beloved’. I recalled a song from Remo Fernandes’ very first album ‘Goan Crazy’ (released in 1984 and re-released and uploaded on YouTube last year, 35 years later), called ‘Little Goa’.

In it, he sings of leaving Little Lady Goa, but only to “have a little look-see at other little ladies” so he can understand her more, and promises to be back. And I daresay he will.

Goa, like the elephant to the six blind men in John Godfrey Saxe’s poem

The Blind Men, the Elephant, and Knowledge | Shem the Penman

means so many different, often conflicting, things to so many people. The Holy Land trope as one possible explanation for the ‘countess’ in the opera reminded me of the time I had just arrived in the UK in 1998 and begun to meet fellow Goans at social functions (usually some feast or the other, on a Sunday). Some of the younger Goans were second- or third-generation British, descendants of Afrikanders who had come to the UK in the 1960s and 70s. A few had visited Goa with their parents, once in a while and briefly at that, just a few days at a time, some of them not at all. ‘Their’ Goa as they described and talked about it was very different from ‘my’ Goa that I had just arrived from. I remember thinking then that for a lot of them, Goa was ‘somewhere there’, faraway, like Mecca or Jerusalem, a Holy Land, to be worshipped and loved from afar.

The same can be said for many ardent, niz mogi Goenkars, overseas internet warriors who wax eloquent over their love for Goa, bemoan her state now compared to ‘back then’ and issue a shopping-list of instructions on what ought to be done to correct the wayward course. They make quite a few ‘pilgrimages’, many annually, with religious regularity, but stop short of ‘doing a Rudel’, coming here while they’re still able to contribute much more on this  ground that they profess to worship so much, than long-distance virtual hand-wringing. Their love for Goa may be just as true, and most of them mean well, but it can rankle for those in the trenches here, having to actually grapple with everyday issues. Having been on both sides of the equation, I can empathise with both.

Four generations in my own direct lineage (if you include myself) left Goa, ‘had a little look-see’ but then ‘did a Rudel’ in the prime of their lives; and three generations before me (and probably I too someday will) eventually died in Goa’s arms. How much the ‘look-see’ helped any of us understand Goa better, I cannot say.

The newest wave of Goans arriving in the UK directly from the homeland has a much closer connect with the land. You could say they have taken little pieces of the ‘countess’ in their hearts with them.

In the initial phase of my decade abroad (1998-2008), I suppose I had her in my heart too. But I was also the ‘Pilgrim’, making two, sometimes three visits home each year, so in many ways I never really left, emotionally speaking. But each return visit home underscored the alarming changes taking place, most of them not for the better. The castle of the ‘countess’ was under siege; she was being reduced to a travesty of her beautiful self. And the pace has only accelerated.

Will the ‘countess’ die in our arms instead of the other way around? Will many of us look nervously over our shoulder, and cut and run, deserting Little Lady Goa and hoping that the ‘other little ladies’ Remo sang about will take us in? And then once safely there, we can sing with even greater fervor about our ‘love from afar.’

(An edited version of this article was published on 20 May 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

A Crisis of Faith

A few years ago, the vice-chancellor of a regional university said in a press interview that his favourite TV show was ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ the sitcom revolving around the antics of a bunch of science academic geeks (especially a super-intelligent if irritating Sheldon Cooper) and their friends.

Perhaps he thought the title of the sitcom would indicate how high-brow and nerdy he was, or maybe he genuinely liked the show, or both. But he certainly crashed and burned in my esteem, like a flaming meteorite crashing to Earth.

One couldn’t find a more sexist, misogynist, racist, vapid programme than The Big Bang Theory (TBBT), although many other American sitcoms, from the very popular F.R.I.E.N.D.S to ‘How I met your Mother’ or ‘Two and a half Men’ give it a good run for its money. Watch any episode minus the canned laughter to realize just how unfunny it is. The women in TBBT are either dumb-blonde eye-candy to be leered at, or socially inept and frumpy. For a show whose main characters are supposed to be above-average intelligent, the script-writing is really uninspired, bottom-drawer in more ways than one.

We have such a colossal postcolonial hangover that we can find a condescending Western two-dimensional caricaturisation of an Indian guy Rajesh “Raj” Koothrapalli (Kunal Nayyar) so amusing and cute, but get so touchy when far less offensive things are said by us about us on home-turf. Just two random examples: “I’m from India; I can’t resist children begging,” “Please don’t send me back to India! It’s so crowded. It’s like the whole country is one endless Comic-Con, except everyone’s wearing the same costume.” I guess you have to be white and/or stupid to find this funny.

To quote Nilesh Shukla author of ‘The Good Immigrant’:  Raj is “offensive, unfunny, a backwards step for representation of brown people on television… He’s a sexually repressed stereotype, written through the white gaze. He reflects nothing from my community.”

Also, until season 10, Nayyar, the show’s only star of colour, earned just 80% of what his white co-stars took home per episode.

I’m not at all suggesting protests or boycotts (although I’ve gone off TBBT long ago), but wonder why we are so selectively touchy, and why we can’t have a more democratically broad sense of humour.

In refreshing contrast, ‘Young Sheldon’, the 2016 spin-off prequel to TBBT is brilliantly scripted, witty and genuinely funny without the need for a canned-laughter track. And its characters and the situations in the episodes are very relatable.

Crisis of faith

One episode (Season 2, episode 3, S02E03) really resonated with me. For those of you who aren’t familiar with ‘Young Sheldon’, the central character as the name suggests is the young (nine-year-old) Sheldon Cooper living with his family in East Texas and going to high school. His devoted mother Mary is also a devout Christian, which provides much grist to the scriptwriters’ mill, contrasting and conflicting this with Sheldon’s atheism.

S02E03 is therefore interesting because Mary’s deep-rooted faith in God gets rudely shaken after a teenage girl in her congregation dies in an accident. In a touching reversal of roles, young Sheldon helps his mother find her faith again.

Maybe I’m a sucker for slick script-writing, but I found that scene deeply comforting. It articulated brilliantly how science and religion need not be incompatible. I think I’ll remember this when (and those times are a-plenty nowadays) I have a crisis of faith myself.

“The precision of the universe at least makes it logical to conclude there’s a creator.” I’m no Sheldon Cooper, but in my own inarticulate way, I came to a similar conclusion as a medical student when the precision in the human body, the perfect equilibrium of homeostasis was revealed to me. I can never understand how medical colleagues can study the same syllabus and arrive at any other conclusion.

When I was young Sheldon’s age, my own faith in God was just as steadfast as his mother’s. Do any of you remember the children’s book series ‘Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories’?

Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories Volume 1: Arthur S. Maxwell ...

I must have got them from the school library or from the Central Library’s children’s section. Anyway, some of those stories featured a young boy (I forget his name) who would encounter several schoolboy moral or ethical conundrums in his life. His response would be to get down on his knees, literally wherever he was, and pray to God for guidance. In the stories, of course, his prayers were answered double-quick. I’m embarrassed to admit that for a time I emulated him, dropping to my knees anywhere and everywhere, at home, the playground, school corridors, or even the street, and praying. It might have been for just a few seconds to avoid being made fun of, but I did it. I don’t think my prayers were answered quite as quickly, but I recall that deep innocent measure of faith very fondly.

But we all grow up, all too fast, and life throws us all manner of curves, fast balls and googlies. I find that when I am going through a rough patch myself, I react with either of two extremes: my faith either gets stronger (hotter) as I pray for a way out; or I take a complete time-out (cool off) from the whole God business. And then I gradually dial back to my ‘normal’ level of faith, which I call the Goldilocks level, neither too hot nor too cold.

As a Roman Catholic (albeit of the Goldilocks variety), I feel there has never been a better time to be one, or a more optimistic chapter in our church’s history, and I say this on account of the Pope we have right now. I find Pope Francis truly inspiring, in ways that no other pope ever was.

Pope Francis Korea Haemi Castle 19.jpg

His assurance in 2016 that he too has had doubts about faith consoled me very much. He went on to say that doubts can be “a sign that we want to know God better and more deeply.” Well then, my life has had more signs than a railway junction.

“We do not need to be afraid of questions and doubts because they are the beginning of a path of knowledge and going deeper; one who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith,” Pope Francis had said then.

Right now, my crisis is triggered not so much by anything in my personal life as by what is happening in my country: the lynching of our Muslim brethren, the hate speeches by leaders and in the media, the normalization of hate and demonization, the community-shaming, the boycott of their commercial establishments, the low threshold for their summary arrests, police beatings, the denial of medical care merely because of their religion, the near-absence of any outrage or reaction from even the medical fraternity.

How can, and why does, any God, yours mine, ours, his, hers, theirs, let this happen? I struggle to find answers to these questions.

Before I get any “What about…” reactions, let me add that I’ve felt this way about all injustices and they’ve troubled me too. But right now I pray for my Muslim brethren and I hope God listens. Ameen.

(An edited version of this article was published on 13 May 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Music Lessons during Lockdown

The lockdown happened so abruptly, like an Iron Curtain, that everyone was caught completely unawares and unprepared.

This applies first and foremost to essentials like food supplies of course. But it also took our music project Child’s Play India Foundation and my clutch of private students quite by surprise.

One sobering lesson that got reinforced yet again is the great illusion of ‘Merit’, which deftly conceals within itself the unfair advantage conferred by privilege to the privileged, and conversely the unfair disadvantage to those who aren’t.

My private students are largely middle-class or upper middle-class, as am I. When the lockdown struck, our families had a secure roof over their heads with ample room for social distancing and running water to practice regular hand-washing, and God be thanked for that. After the initial (utterly avoidable on the part of the government, who had really not thought anything through) blip in access to food supply, that became less of an anxiety; if you are not dependent on daily wage income to put food on the table or can work from home, you are blessed. Your music-learning children have their instruments with them, and you can get them to allot a ring-fenced portion of the day to the practice of that instrument. If their stringed instrument gets out of tune and you yourself have some music background, you can help tune it.

Contrast this with many of our Child’s Play children. There are tiers of disadvantage, and children who have homes that can provide a safe space for their instrument, big or small, take them home, whereas others leave them for safekeeping either at the children’s shelter or at our office. So when the lockdown struck, quite a few of our children were unceremoniously cut off from access to their instruments.

This was unfortunate, especially for many of our cello kids, whose instruments live in the ‘cello room’ in our office space. And even more so, because they were practicing so hard every day in the run-up to this.  There is a lot of healthy competition especially among our cello students to fill up their practice charts, which is always a good thing.

Post-lockdown, the only way to stay in touch with students is via phone or WhatsApp. Again, not all of our children have access to a phone. But we were able to at least establish that the children and their families were safe, wherever they were.

When the lockdown restrictions began to ease, I was happy to get a phone call from one of the children, informing me that he was at the shelter and would be taking his instrument home with him. Neki aur pooch pooch!

WhatsApp has been such a blessing in trying to keep spirits up among students across the socio-economic spectrum (again provided that internet access exists).

In my own limited experience, Skype lessons in real-time are not practical for a variety of reasons. First, one has to pre-arrange a scheduled time for teacher and student; and hope that the signal is strong enough and there isn’t a power cut. In this, supposedly the state with the best connectivity (on wonders what the worst must be like!) in the country, the strength of internet connection is extremely variable. And a music lesson is all about having the best sound quality, if anyone at either end is to make sense of it. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to find a camera angle that adequately highlights so many aspects of playing an instrument. When an instrument is being played, one wants to look at posture, and what each elbow, wrist, hand and fingers are doing. A stationary camera can’t really do justice to this. A roving camera (or a roving player) can get the viewer at the receiving end quite sea-sick. I know Skype works for many, and some day it may for me as well, but for now, I prefer a pre-recorded video sent across via WhatsApp. I am then able to watch it when I have a moment, text my observations across. In some cases, it is useful to send a video back, to demonstrate or reinforce an aspect of playing, be it bow-lengths, distribution, wrist position, bow-hold, etc. The response has been fairly good in this respect.

With some students, there has been quite a lively discussion, with pictures of the music score sent along as well to indicate where in the piece they would like some advice.

With many of the children, even before this lockdown I had already sent them videos or scales and arpeggios played by me. It now proved, even more than before, a useful reference for their own practice (provided of course their instrument is tuned to mine in the video, and we establish this first). I encourage them to play the scales, ascending and descending, in unison with the recording, and also at an interval of a staggered third. It is something we would have done in class anyway, so this is the next-best thing in this era of social distancing.

Practice charts are extremely useful. It helps a child log in each day’s practice, and provides a visual record of work done, for both student and teacher. This chart usually takes the form of a grid of 100 squares. The student fills in the date, and space permitting, the duration of practice, and what was practiced. A completed chart earns some sort of reward pre-arranged with parent, guardian and teacher. A hundred consecutive days, with no missing gaps in the calendar is even more commendable. Some children take to this like ducks to water. It is always such a wonderful feeling when a beaming child hands in a completed chart and requests another one, please! Many of our Child’s Play children are in this number.

Much younger children have more ‘fun’ charts, e.g. a hundred stars or 100 segments of a large spiral.

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-19 at 12.31.50

A star or segment is coloured in each time, and makes for a pretty colourful picture when it is completed.

During this lockdown, I’ve asked for pictures of updated charts to be sent in on the WhatsApp group. It serves as a gentle nudge a reminder to practice; and when they do send it across, it gives me an idea of the work being done.

With there being talk of lockdown extensions, music teachers everywhere are going to have to adapt to the ‘brave new world’ of long-distance (or social distancing) teaching. We may as well get used to it. I’m in touch with teachers across the world who are similarly coping. If you are a music teacher yourself and have some tips on how you are working with your students, I’d love to hear from you (luis@childsplayindia.org).

A short note on the ‘captive’ student in my home, my son (who probably privately wishes that social distancing applied to me as well but is too polite to say so). We set aside time each day for serious practice, cello or piano. With no distraction from school or outdoor activities, we’ve managed to cover much more ground than we otherwise would have done. Even a lockdown can have a silver lining.

(An edited version of this article was published on 6 May 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: the Adhan Call to Prayer

A piece of uplifting news caught my attention in the first week of April, a welcome change from the hateful tide of victim-blaming and community-shaming that so many sections of the media have wallowed in lately.

Nearly a hundred mosques all over Germany and the Netherlands resounded to the call for prayer (Adhan or Azaan) that Friday (and every evening since) through loudspeakers installed on minarets “in a bid to boost the morale of Muslims amid the coronavirus lockdown.”

100 Mosques In Germany, Holland Put Azaan On Loudspeakers Amid ...

I came across this news item on social media, in an article written by one Elizabeth Jane Becker, “The Sound of Solidarity? The Adhan and the Possibility of a New Civic Body in Europe.”

A PhD in Sociology from Yale, Becker’s book project, ‘Mosques in the Metropolis’ (under contract with University of Chicago Press), uses “years of ethnographic, interview, and archival research to compare two migrant/post-migrant mosque communities in Europe, showing different approaches to incorporation: one emphasizing harmony and the other redemption.” At the heart of this project are “questions about European boundaries, cityscapes, civility and remembrance.”

In spring 2018, Becker co-organised a conference at Yale University’s MacMillan Centre titled ‘Religion and Politics: The tensions between populism and pluralism’. If ever there was a ripe time for a soul-searching fair, free-wheeling discourse on this subject in India, it is now.

It is the first time in the history of both Germany and the Netherlands that the Adhan was permitted to regularly penetrate public space. Prior to this, it was allowed only on “special occasions.”

This move, no doubt in response to the COVID-19 crisis, is acknowledged by Becker as a “desperate grappling for social unity and godly protection.”

Her observation should give pause for thought to many of my friends, even in the medical community, self-professed atheists or agnostics or nonbelievers, or whatever label they wish to give to their nonbelief in the existence of a Higher Power, (which ironically is a belief system in itself. So they “believe” in nonbelief).

My own faith-ometer fluctuates as wildly as my diurnal blood pressure chart. But rant and rail as I might at this Higher Power, it is this very conversation, this very dialogue that I have with that Power that keeps me going and sees me through so much turmoil in my own life and especially when I despair at where my nation and my world are headed.

After the Delhi pogrom, just before the COVID lockdown, many of my atheist friends on social media took to making smug, sanctimonious posts hinting at the wisdom of their nonbelief by pinning all the blame on ‘religion’.

What such a standpoint ignores is the fact that in every instance, all the ills, all the negatives attributed to Religion in general, or any religion in particular, only occur when the message of peace, love and harmony is hijacked by false prophets, politicians and parties for their own devious diabolical agendas, of power, influence, money and greed. Religion is just the pretext for the agenda.

Conversely, religion when practiced in its true spirit and essence can instill a true inclusive all-embracing community spirit and offer much solace especially at a time like this when people everywhere are afraid and desperately need such comforting. “Religion is a great consolation to the suffering,” sings Violetta in the final Act of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’.

As Becker puts it, the Adhan, or “Calling out [to prayer], with the knowledge that no-one can come together, over a hundred mosques seek to heal collective wounds.”

When there is no protection to be found elsewhere, what harm would a steadfast belief in ‘godly protection’ do? Even if a ‘placebo effect’, isn’t that worth holding on to?

“Today, as the world comes to a grinding halt, the mosque rises as such again, offering an opportunity for deepened solidarity through a medium that can touch us even in isolation, uniting us through sound.”

Becker talks about those “collective wounds” cutting deeper, hinting at much older “wounds” of the Muslim communities in Europe, long discriminated against, scapegoated and targeted on account of their being born into that faith: “those already marginalized are affected at far more devastating levels than the economically and socially sheltered.”

She points to the “reality that Europe has long resisted the inclusion of its Muslim populaces, who largely migrated as post-colonial migrants and guest-workers, called to rebuild fractured European countries after World War II. It has since delimited their rights, resisting the bestowal of citizenship for decades….Even with legal equality, politicians and media outlets long continued to suggest that Muslims and/or Islam cannot fully belong to European nation-states.”

I’m sure you’ll find a similarity there with the stances of some of our own politicians and media outlets, and they are just as wrong and misguided as their European counterparts.

Although the UK post-Brexit may not technically qualify for inclusion in discussions about Europe anymore, the doctors and healthcare professionals among the first to die in the line of duty during this coronavirus pandemic have almost all been immigrants, and overwhelmingly Muslim among them.

Becker makes a mention of her forthcoming book ‘Mosques in the Metropolis’ in which she makes the case that “exposing the deep and unrelenting inequality faced by diverse Muslim populaces, as well as their capacity to exert agency, the Mosque rises as both a threshold space and an interstitial opportunity for building solidarity.”

This solidarity, she continues, “may center on fomenting deep mutual support within, and yet extending beyond, Muslim communities into the cities and states in which they live. This includes focusing on shared concerns, from the natural environment’s decay to supporting vulnerable populaces, and building knowledge that can transcend taken-for-granted assumptions about Islam.”

Those taken-for-granted assumptions, as we know, abound, both there and here. They seep perniciously into society, and colour news reportage and societal and even the medical professions’ responses.

I am referring to the odious instance, emerging into the spotlight in the same first week of April 2020, where a government hospital in Rajasthan refused medical attention to a laboring woman, resulting in the death of her newborn baby, merely due to the fact that she was Muslim. The incident was roundly condemned, but the damage was done.

Becker also touches upon the debate around that troublesome word, “tolerance” which she describes as “a bitter civilising discourse disguised by a saccharine rhetorical wrapper of the enlightened, liberal sensitivity—a contronym perfectly synonymous with its own antonym: intolerance.”

She refers to late sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s “Postmodernity, or Living with Ambivalence” in which he argued toward talking about solidarity instead.

“A public adhan is arguably an expression of such solidarity rather than tolerance.”

True solidarity (in the words of Bauman scholar Shaun Best) emerges when “the ‘I am responsible for the Other’ and ‘I am responsible for myself’ come to mean the same thing.”

We can only hope and pray that this COVID crisis, (despite all the efforts those who wish to sow division) teaches us, as we mourn our dead all over the world, that “so much more unites us than divides us.” May the lesson be a lasting one. We owe it to our children, and to their children after them. We are in this together in solidarity, and we will also survive this, together.

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 April 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Spillovers and The Next Big One

I hadn’t seen the 2011 American thriller film ‘Contagion’ (with a star-studded cast that includes Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Jude Law and Laurence Fishburn among others) until now, nine years later, during this lockdown.

Coronavirus: since the beginning of the epidemic, the film ...

It seems eerily prescient of our present situation, and I was impressed at the way several scientific and medical issues were handled and explained to the general viewership.

Take R-naught (R0)  or basic reproductive number; an epidemiologic metric used to describe the contagiousness of an infectious agent. The film explained it really well.

An R-naught of above one means that each case is expected to infect at least one other person on average, and the virus is likely to keep spreading. If it’s less than one, a group of infected people is less likely to spread the infection.

A disease’s R-naught value only applies when everyone in a population is completely vulnerable to the disease. This means: 1. No-one has been vaccinated; 2. No-one has had the disease before; 3. There’s no way to control the spread of the disease.

The R-naught for COVID-19 is not even conclusively known as yet, (this is how ‘novel’ the virus is), but is believed to range anywhere between 1.4 and 5.7.

To put that in perspective, the R-naught of pneumonic plague is 1.3 and history tells us just how devastating those outbreaks have been. Comparative R-naughts for other airborne droplet-transmitted diseases are: smallpox 3.5 to 6; measles at a very high 12 to 18; SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) 2 to 5; influenza (1918 pandemic strain) 1.4 to 2.8.

The last statistic puzzled me initially. I had read up on the 1918 ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic before writing an earlier column when this lockdown started. The estimated death toll from that virus varied between 17 to 50 million, some citing even as high as 100 million. And this was before the age of air travel and tourism.

That mystery was partly explained in another book I’m reading (the earlier one was Bryn Barnard’s ‘Outbreaks: plagues that changed history’) that focuses on disease outbreaks, and also eerily prescient, ‘Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,’ (2012) by American science, nature and travel writer and author David Quammen.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic eBook ...

With the 1918 pandemic strain of influenza virus (as indeed with other influenza viruses, which is the rational for the seasonal flu jab), high infectivity preceded symptoms by several days. Quammen calls it “a perverse pattern: the danger, then the warning.” High infectivity among cases, asymptomatic before they experienced the most obvious, debilitating stages of illness explained the mind-numbing scale of that pandemic. “The bug travelled ahead of the sense of alarm.”

Quammen speculated in the 2012 book: “The much darker story remains to be told, probably not about this virus [he was referring then to SARS, where the progress was the reverse, i.e. symptoms tending to appear in persons before, rather than after, those persons became highly infectious] but about another. When the Next Big One comes, we can guess, it will likely conform to the same perverse pattern, high infectivity preceding notable symptoms. That will help it to move through cities and airports like an angel of death.”

Spillover

Well, his prophesied Next Big One is here, barely eight years after the book. Quammen also accurately predicted it moving “through cities and airports like an angel of death.”

Was Quammen also right about the other bit, high infectivity preceding notable symptoms? The honest answer at this moment in time, with this novel virus, is we cannot say for sure. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website, updated frequently, states that “preliminary evidence suggests that asymptomatic carriers may contribute to the spread of the disease.” And that, as we know, is the rationale behind our lockdown: better safe than sorry, flattening the curve, and all that jazz.

In an interview shortly after the book was released, Quammen had predicted, ”The world of nature and things we humans are doing ― disrupting ecosystems and then traveling ― those factors are going to be by far the largest measure of our risk.”

The book also underscores how much the field of medicine has expanded since my own undergraduate days in the 1980s. If memory serves correctly, our Microbiology syllabus focused mainly on bacteria, much less so on virology. When we studied about zoonoses (singular zoonosis) or zoonotic diseases, referring to infectious disease caused by a pathogen (an infectious agent, including bacteria, viruses, parasites, prions, etc) that has jumped from non-human animals (usually vertebrates) to humans, the list used to be a relatively short one. Names that I still recall from those days are brucellosis, listeriosis, toxoplasmosis, and of course rabies.

This ‘jump’ from non-human animals to humans is the ‘spillover’ that Quammen and the rest of the scientific community are referring to.

That list of zoonoses has swollen exponentially in the intervening decades, to HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, Nipah virus, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), avian flu, swine flu among a dizzying assortment of ‘bugs’ of all sorts.

We’re going to keep encountering all manner of ‘new’ or ‘novel’ zoonoses, which will continue to be a challenge to the scientific community and to governments and populations everywhere because they will be more often than not be “previously unrecognized diseases”  and also more likely than not to have increased virulence in populations lacking immunity.

The challenge, as both the film ‘Contagion’ and the ‘Spillover’ book demonstrate, will be to first somehow identify the causative organism, then tracing the reservoir host through retrospectively tracing the index case(s) and their contacts, and then taking measures to contain the spread while frantically searching for a killer drug and/or vaccine. An expensive investment in time, resources, with inestimable suffering to populations due to lockdowns and loss of income (to say nothing of the unconscionable, avoidable suffering our poor migrant and daily-wage workers have been subjected to here), and to laboratory animals (this pandemic alone has probably taken a heavy toll on long-suffering Rhesus monkeys in laboratories around the world in the race to culture COVID-19 and harvest it in the search for curative drugs and vaccines).

Quammen in the same interview termed it a “race” between two factors:  On the one hand, the inevitability of further zoonotic spillovers, “many of which could be extremely murderous.” On the other hand, he speaks of the scientific advances being made in public health and the advances in vigilance and response.

Or the more prudent thing would be to learn from this pandemic; learn to respect and nurture wildlife habitats, certainly to stop the wildlife trade, whether for trophy, pelts, tusks, exotic game ‘meat’, aphrodisiac or whatever. We think of this pandemic as terrible and we are living through the hardships it has brought us, to many of us more than others. But The Next Big One could well be much, much worse. It almost certainly will come, the only question is how soon and from where, unless we, all of humankind, sober up and learn a few hard lessons from This Big One.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 April 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

Gavin and Joanne at home with Wolfgang

Each of us is trying our best to keep occupied at home during this coronavirus lockdown. Music has played a crucial part in helping me to cope.

I’ve written before about the treats being offered for free from the Metropolitan Opera, the Digital Concert Hall of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Bolshoi Ballet and so many others.

There are also many ‘home’ concerts, concerts being streamed online. “Be an Audience of One”, screams the headline of the Moscow Times as it announces the launch of the ‘Armchair Concerts’ of the Moscow Philharmonic. The concerts are filmed at the Tchaikovsky Concert hall; a host introduces the performers, composers and music, and then “you sit back in your armchair, or desk chair, or dining room chair and enjoy a beautifully filmed and recorded concert.” The concerts are archived on YouTube for your listening convenience. It seems surreal to watch the concerts played to an empty hall, but the top-drawer performances are spell-binding enough to make you oblivious to all else.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (LA Phil for short) is also keeping abreast with our locked-down times. It has launched a series “At Home with Gustavo”, referring of course to their charismatic conductor, Venezuelan-origin Gustavo Dudamel, the wunderkind product of his country’s incredible El Sistema programme that has now been emulated in so many parts of the world, rich and poor.

In his bilingual (English and Spanish) introductory message, Dudamel says: “For me, and I imagine for a lot of you, music has been the thing that brings people together, even when we are apart. It’s important maybe now more than ever that we find ways to connect and find comfort and inspiration.”

In radio broadcasts from his home, he talks the listener through his favourite recordings and why he loves them so much. “Stay home. Stay Safe. But most of all, stay connected and inspired,” he says in conclusion.

The LA Phil has also begun a series of videos called “LA Phil at home”, featuring its musicians of the orchestra give performances at their own homes.

I was delighted to find on this new list of episodes a duo that needs no introduction to Goan classical music lovers. Many you will remember the piano duo recital by Gavin Martin and Joanne Pearce Martin several years ago. Joanne Pearce Martin is Principal Keyboardist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and is married to Goan-origin concert pianist Gavin Martin, with a musical partnership spanning several decades.

Gavin Joanne at home

In case you wish to locate their performance, go to the LA Phil homepage. Select ‘videos’ at the ‘Watch & Listen’ tab and the latest upload you find will be ‘LA Phil at Home: Joanne Pearce Martin and Gavin Martin’. “The LA Phil’s keyboardist and her husband treat us to a little Mozart”, declares the blurb over the video.

Joanne introduces the viewer/listener to the work the duo will perform in their two-piano studio (with a heart-melting cameo appearance with Lica, their pet dog in lockdown solidarity with the Martins).

They perform the middle movement (Andante in G major) of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448. It is eight minutes of a tonic for the heart, soul and mind, played with much feeling, sensitivity and mutual empathy, a true partnership in every sense of the word. Mozart’s part-writing has musical phrases sometimes tossed back from one instrument to the other, at other times they seamlessly complete each other’s sentences, in some cases developing the musical argument and conversation further and undertaking modulating journeys through the most searching keys as only Mozart knew how, tugging our heartstrings along the way.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote the sonata (one of his few compositions written for two pianos) in 1781, at the age of twenty-five, for a performance he would give with fellow pianist and composer Josepha Auernhammer. There is reason to believe that she had a crush on the young Mozart. On 27 June 1781, the same year he composed K. 448, Mozart wrote about her:  “Almost every day after dinner I am at H: v: Auernhammer’s – The Miss is a monster! – plays delightfully though.” He qualified that compliment by continuing in the same breath “however, she lacks the genuine fine and lilting quality of cantabile; she plucks too much.”

I did a little research into the work, and was surprised to find several references to K. 488 in particular as an example of the “Mozart effect”. Apparently, research by the British Epilepsy Organisation has revealed that this particular Mozart piano sonata “improved spatial reasoning skills and reduced the number of seizures in people with epilepsy.”  The April 2001 edition of Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine assessed the possible health benefits of the music of Mozart. Performing the K. 448 piano sonata for two pianos to patients with epilepsy brought about a decrease in epileptiform activity. The features of this particular Mozart piano sonata in eliciting this response were thought to be its “tempo, structure, melodic and harmonic consonance and predictability.” I am sure that such considerations would have been furthest from the mind of a twenty-something Mozart but he would have been gratified to know this, all the same.

Gavin and Joanne and Wolgang are just a click away from performing at your home. They will make your day!

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 April 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

Give me a Ring sometime!

I think it fair to say my dad was something of a Wagner fan. He had books about him in German, underlined and marked, with his own remarks scrawled all over the pages, as my dad was wont to do to anything he read. And he had stacks of spools of music (remember the huge spool-tape recorders? If you do, you’re “of a certain age”!) featuring several composers, but a formidable chunk of it was devoted to (and heavily labeled so), “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelungen), the cycle of four German-language epic music dramas composed by Richard Wagner (1813-1883), based loosely on Norse saga and the Nibelungenlied (song of the Nibelungs, an eleventh-century epic poem).

My dad was fortunate to be living in Germany (then West Germany) in the heady Herbert von Karajan era. Karajan was an ardent Wagner champion, and his recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Berliner Philharmoniker is a benchmark.

Karajan Ring

I still envy the fact that my dad could go to so many live concerts in Karajan’s heyday in the 1950s and 60s.

One of the books my dad possessed actually had the libretto of the entire Ring cycle, in the Gothic font that a lot of German literature from that era used. The font can be headache-inducing at the best of times, still more so to the young child that I was in the 1970s, having to learn English, and the ability to read German beginning to atrophy from disuse as a result.

The spools didn’t weather well in our heat, voltage fluctuations here made them sound wonky, and the player would often get jammed. Daddy didn’t have as many Wagner LPs, and initially I hated the few that he did have. It took several listenings, out of sheer boredom on lazy afternoons, for some of it to grow on me, and these were largely orchestral music: overtures, preludes.

The singing left me cold as a teenager.

Come the cassette and CD era, and although my familiarity with Wagner grew, it was still largely orchestral excerpts. I played violin in Siegfied’s Idyll with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, and Rienzi overture in Goa under Fr. Lourdino Barreto.

In England, that orchestral exposure would widen considerably.

But even living in London, going to a Wagner opera wasn’t a priority. Opera in general is expensive (although I learned later how to get cheap tickets) and lengthy (so if you’ve just finished a long day’s work and are on-call the next morning, a symphony concert or chamber recital might be a saner option than opera). And Wagner operas are lengthier than most others.

There are so many jokes about the Ring cycle, in cartoons

the ring cycle cartoon

the ring cycle cartoon

Richard Wagner Cartoons and Comics - funny pictures from CartoonStock

and sitcoms, about its length (over seventeen hours of music if you combine all four operas), and the number of characters (I counted 27 principal and secondary characters, not including choruses of slaves, attendants, Nibelung craftsmen, Valkyries) that it can be off-putting, a significant barrier to even dipping your toe in the Rhine saga.

Cut now to our blessed lockdown. When not obsessing about food supply chains, the principal thing that keeps me from tearing my hair out is the feast of music on offer online, for free!

I hadn’t thought I’d get hooked to the Metropolitan Opera, but it’s become a daily ritual, internet connection permitting, of course (thank you, Gwave!). At the time of writing, I’ve notched up twenty operas on as many consecutive days. And counting!

In the middle of this, the Met inserted a whole week devoted to Wagner, the highlight of which was the Ring cycle: Das Rheingold (the Rhinegold), Die Walküre (the Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (the Twilight of the Gods).

Initially I balked. But then, it seemed that the Universe, or the music gods, were sending me a message: When would I ever get the time and opportunity to give the Ring a proper listen? These were fantastic productions, featuring Wagnerian stalwart singers (Bryn Terfel,

Encircling the “Ring” | The New Yorker

Jonas Kaufman,

jonas kaufmann as Siegmunt in Wagner's Walkyre in MET | Opera ...

Deborah Voigt,

Eric Owens) and conductors (James Levine, Fabio Luisi).

Gods ascend to their castle Valhalla in Wagner's 'Ring' at the Met.

Spellbinding staging and set design. And I really had nowhere to go.

To my own surprise, I was smitten. It helped that I could follow a lot of the sung German, and I had the option of English surtitles anyway.

Everything about the Ring is over-the-top: the sinuous plot, the demands not only on the singers and orchestra but also on set design and costumes.

Very briefly, gold at the bottom of the Rhine river (Rheingold) guarded by Rhinemaidens is stolen by Nibelung dwarf Alberich (paying the price of forever renouncing love) and forged into a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world. When it is taken from him by Wotan, chief of the gods, to pay for the construction of their home Valhalla, Alberich casts a curse upon the ring. Long story short, everyone fights to possess it, but is doomed from the moment they do.

The plotline is peppered with incestuous love (Siegmund and Sieglinde are offspring of Wotan; their union produces the archetypal hero Siegfried), stuff-of-legend love (Siegfried and the Valykrie Brünnhilde, who also happens to be Wotan’s daughter, so technically also Siegfried’s ‘step-aunt’, but never mind that; it inspired some of the most romantic music ever written),

Wagner Ring

and leitmotifs of themes for almost every important character, prop (Siegfried’s sword, the magic ring, helmet) and emotion (love, hate, jealousy, anger, betrayal). Often the orchestra plays the leitmotifs in advance of the drama, so the listener can anticipate what will happen next before the characters themselves.

The saga ends with the downfall of Valhalla and the gods with the death of Siegfried through the convoluted actions of Wotan himself, and the ring descends back to the depths of the Rhine where it rightfully belongs.

It provokes much food for thought. The operas celebrate the gods, and we the audience root for them, but it is the Nibelungs, the inhabitants of the darkest caverns of the Earth, that are enshrined in the title. How much purer is Wotan’s agenda to Alberich’s? Wotan seems as fallible, vacillating and weak as any mortal. Was renouncing love a price worth paying by Alberich for the ring? Are power and love at opposing poles of the human experience? What sort of a hero is Siegfried if he can forget his ‘eternal’ love for Brünnhilde so easily? What did Brünnhilde gain by joining him in death? Will a post-Valhalla world be better or worse?

The ring can be and has been interpreted as symbolic of many things, greed and capitalism prominent among them. Wagner’s rabid anti-Semitism and Hitler’s admiration for his work have quite understandably alienated many from his music. But one has to acknowledge, perhaps grudgingly, Wagner’s genius in conceiving such a larger-than-life drama, writing not just the music but also the libretto for his operas, designing not just sets and costumes but a whole purpose-built theatre in Bayreuth, revolutionizing and forever changing the face of music, theatre and spectacle. Someday, in a post-COVID-19 world, I’d love to visit Bayreuth and be swept away by the magic.

If the Universe decides to give you a Ring, take the call. You won’t regret it.

(An edited version of this article was published on 08 April 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

 

 

‘Our’ Pandemic and its Aftermath

Exactly a century ago, the world was gripped by another pandemic, the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic.

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston

[By Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine – Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic (NCP 1603), National Museum of Health and Medicine.https://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com/news/20190923/mxfctter-museum-to-mark-historic-influenza-pandemic/1, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25513204%5D

No, it had nothing to do with Spain (it was merely reported first by the press in Spain, neutral in WWI and therefore exempt from military censorship) just as COVID-19 has nothing to do with China (in your face, Trump!). It had the world in its deadly grip (50 million deaths!) for two whole years. A sobering thought; one hopes ‘our’ pandemic ebbs away a lot sooner, with markedly fewer fatalities.

How did Goa fare in that pandemic? From ‘Health and Hygiene in Colonial Goa 1510-1961’ by Fátima da Silva Gracias, one gets an idea of its impact from the fact that in Siolim (my mother’s village, incidentally) alone, “eight to ten persons died daily. The inhabitants of this territory in panic would run away at the mere sight of a dead body being carried away.” (Is there any residual oral history of those terrible times, or has the link been broken by death and migration?)

Some considerations resonate even today: the government not acting swiftly enough to implement preventive or controlling measures; “acute shortage of provisions” (due to panic buying by citizens? Or closure of the border with British India? Or both?); directives to refrain from sneezing in public or to use a handkerchief to cover the mouth; funerals held privately; free medicines to the poor at some hospitals; and “free machilas” (palanquins; I guess the ‘flying-squads’ of their time) to the “two physicians in charge of the epidemics”.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Outbreak: Plagues that Changed the World’, a really gripping book by Bryn Barnard.

Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History by Bryn Barnard

It looks at six of the most extraordinary pandemic-causing diseases: bubonic plague, cholera, yellow fever, tuberculosis, smallpox and influenza.

They do have some common features. All of them (except for smallpox which has no host other than humans) co-existed with birds or animals, sometimes for centuries, and at some point crossed species, with devastating consequences. The crossing-over was either caused, or accelerated, and disseminated, by one or more of the following: poor sanitation and hygiene; overcrowding; all of these reflective of poverty (“the elephant in the room”) and compounded by it; societal upheaval caused by war, fleeing refugees, poor nutrition and famine; and ‘exploration’ (whether motivated by trade or domination) to ‘new worlds’, into forests and habitats that had hitherto been untouched by humans.

Take bubonic plague: Historically it had “been confined to populations of rats in isolated mountain regions, one in South Asia and the other in East Africa. When human activities like war and trade and disturbed these ancient reservoirs, the plague escapes its natural confines.”

Furthermore, all of them have left their mark on our world, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The Justinian Plague (541-542 AD)

10 Scary Facts About The Justinian Plague - Listverse

so weakened the Byzantine Empire that it never recovered. The Black Death (1347-1351)

decimated Europe’s population, irreversibly overturning its social structure. But while it raged, Jewish populations were made scapegoats, with horrific pogroms.  (We have modern-day parallels, of racist attacks on ethnic Chinese abroad and people from the North-East in India over coronavirus).

The third plague pandemic (1894)

Third plague pandemic - Wikipedia

killed 13 million people and has not really been declared ended, although under control. To quote Barnard, “a global Black Death” is a “remote nightmare”, but “not impossible.” A drop in vigilance and sanitation standards and it could flare up.

Cholera outbreaks are even more directly connected to sanitation and hygiene. Indeed, it catalyzed the development on modern sanitation.

Barnard blames the British empire directly for spreading cholera, invading and connecting hitherto isolated areas.

The lethal cocktail of pathogens (hepatitis, influenza typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, measles, mumps, and smallpox carried by ’explorers’, conquistadores and ‘pioneer-settlers’ from the ‘Old’ World to the ‘New’ was “like the detonation of a biological bomb” (Barnard calls them “virgin soil” epidemics) to a native population with no prior immunity to these, among which smallpox was the most devastating.

Why Disease Conquered the Americas | Father Theo's Blog

Barnard terms it the “decisive factor” in the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru, the Portuguese invasion of Brazil and the colonization of the Caribbean.

Conversely, yellow fever became the white colonists’ scourge, but the African slaves brought from across the Atlantic had prior immunity. Barnard remarks how “the same people who had once concluded that Native Americans were inferior because they died from European disease now assured themselves that blacks were suited to slavery because they were immune to yellow fever. The logic of bigotry is a marvelously malleable thing.” Quite.

The disease crushed the sugar industry in Haiti hastened its independence. It scuttled plans for the Panama Canal until a cure and vaccine could be devised.

Between epidemics, the virus has found a permanent reservoir in the New World tropical forest, cycling between tree-dwelling monkeys and their mosquito parasites. But each time a tree is cut to clear more land for habitation or agriculture, the prospect of another epidemic increases.

Indeed, an article in this month’s Scientific American reinforces the message:  Destroyed habitat creates the perfect conditions for Coronavirus to emerge, and COVID-19 may be just the beginning of mass pandemics. Please read it; it should scare us all into action.

Barnard discusses the variolisation versus vaccination debate in combating smallpox in Asia and Africa; it reminded me of my great-grandfather Gen. Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias (1854-1936)

in championing the cause of vaccination in Goa during his tenure as Director of Health Services (1902-1913). That period saw several outbreaks of smallpox, cholera and plague. His energetic anti-plague campaign and sanitation policies earned him the Ordem de Avis and other commendations.

Miguel Caetano Dias - Wikipedia

 

His eldest son Col. Dr. Vítor Manuel Dias (1892-1949)

Col. Dr. Victor Manuel Dias

would do him proud in the same post, culminating in the Saneamento da Velha Goa (Sanitation of Old Goa), combating malaria and other communicable diseases, the exertion of which brought about his own premature death. In terms of outbreaks, Goa seemed to be in a quiescent phase under his watch, in the 1940s.

Barnard reminds us of the etymology of quarantine, from the Italian ‘quarantena’, for forty days, the isolation period of plague-infected ships and peoples in Venice, inspired by the forty-day period of Lent. It’s ironic that our own mass home quarantine overlaps so closely with the Lenten season.

On 24 May, World Tuberculosis Day, WHO reinforced its pledge to “ensure no one is left behind” in ending “the world’s largest infectious killer.”

Barnard ends his book with some sobering thoughts. Most wonder drugs soon encounter microbial resistance. The Red Queen (from Alice in Wonderland) hypothesis states that “organisms are constantly struggling to keep up with one another in an evolutionary race between predator and prey species.”

Red Queen Hypothesis (Wonderland Alice Red Queen) Ceramic Tiles

It is counter-productive to think of human health and disease in military terms, as a ‘war’’. In a warfare-obsessed world, we think we can ‘beat’ microbes. “Trouble is, nobody told the microbes.” They’re living beings like us, (although viruses are a special case, considered by some biologists to be “organisms at the edge of life” as they possess some but not all the key characteristics of life forms) and adapt for survival over generations. Our generation turn-over is measured in decades, theirs in hours. “In an evolutionary race, they always win.”

What will a post-COVID 19 pandemic world look like? Will it lead to a more equitable social order, at home and abroad? Epidemics have helped abolish serfdom in Europe, and slavery in the New World, but left India’s oppressive, odious caste system intact.

Will social distancing persist as an after-effect in a microbe-wary world?

Will we learn not to mess with Nature? Destroy pristine landscapes (driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanization and population growth), and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from. As the Scientific American article warns “We can’t predict where the next pandemic will come from…The only certain thing is that the next one will certainly come.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 01 April 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Knuckling down during Coronavirus Lockdown

I feel like I’m living through one of the medical thriller novels of Robin Cook. Remember him? His bestsellers were all the rage not too long ago, with many of his ‘hits’ turned into successful films. I particularly remember ‘Coma’, but there were also ‘Brain’, ‘Fever’, ‘Outbreak’, ‘Vital Signs’ and so many others.

Perhaps someone with real clairvoyance could have foreseen the rapidity with which the coronavirus pandemic and the frantic measures to control it and to keep it at bay have swept the world. Rich or poor, literate or illiterate, there must be very few people alive today who are still completely clueless about our predicament, it has permeated everyone’s lives in small or large measure.

Image result for coronavirus

Who could have thought it would have such far-reaching consequences? I have a few students with one parent working overseas or on board a cruise vessel, and through them I hear of the anguish of enforced separation, of worry on both sides of the divide. Thank God for Skype, Whatsapp, Facetime and other wonderful means of staying in contact, even in visual contact.

For many long-suffering São-Tomé-ites, particularly those of us close to the riverfront, the lockdown has had the welcome side-effect of turning back the clock to the pre-casino era. All of a sudden, one doesn’t have to circle one’s own house in search of a non-existent parking spot; there are no casino vehicles, no rent-a-cars, no out-of-town vehicles, no boom-boom window-rattling din from ‘pleasure’ cruises or late-night parties or insensitive car stereos turned up in the wee hours of the morning.

Image may contain: night, car and outdoor

Image may contain: night and outdoor

Yes, I’m aware of the downside in terms of the economy, but perhaps this is also a quiet wake-up call to our state to think of alternatives that do not disrupt the lives and well-being of residents and locals. Tourism has been doddering for some time even before the coronavirus pandemic added insult to injury.

We at Child’s Play had scheduled another piano recital by Karl Lutchmayer on 3 April 2020 as part of our ongoing tenth anniversary celebrations, but decided to cancel in the interest of public health.

Another aspect to the lockdown for those of us who have school-going children is the school closure. A necessary step, for sure. But it means that children have to stay home. For those parents who are also having to work from home, either because they did so anyway or because their workplace has recommended that they do, it means children have some adult supervision. But what happens to children of daily-wage workers, or whose professions (doctors, nurses, hospital and paramedical personnel, fire services, police among many others) just do not permit them the option of working from home? Not every family has another responsible adult, perhaps an able-bodied grandparent to take on the role of guardian. There is really no easy solution, and each family copes as best it can.

That aside, what are children supposed to do with the unexpected, early-onset, extended holiday?  Play-dates are out of the question, again for health reasons. So are vacations, in terms of travel. Even a stay-cation has the limitation of avoiding public spaces, libraries, most of the usual places one would have taken a child to during the holidays.

So it’s down to playing in a backyard if one is lucky to have one. Card games and board games if one has handy playmates nearby. And all activities have to be punctuated by frequent hand-washing, and avoiding face-touching. Easier said than done.

There’s reading, of course. It’s a God-given opportunity for children (and adults if their non-working hours have suddenly been extended) to catch up on all the books on their bucket-list. Even if one can’t visit libraries, there are so many e-books available for free, especially the classics.

It’s the perfect time to brush up on a language. It could be school-syllabus Konkani, Hindi, Portuguese or French, or cast the net even further. For those with internet access, there’s tons of study material and YouTube videos to help.

We live in a dangerous time, but from an epidemiological, a journalistic or diarist’s point of view, it’s also a unique and therefore exciting time to be living in. Hopefully, if we survive this (and the odds suggest that most of us will if we take sensible precautions), we will not live through another pandemic in our lifetime. A diary or blog whether written by child or adult will serve as a vital record for posterity, a first-hand account of what it was living through a lockdown from day to day. A child’s viewpoint will add a very different perspective to that of a grown-up, and when the child grows up s/he will value the archive.

For those of us, of any age, who play a musical instrument, this is a silver lining in the cloud. We should have been practicing anyway, but now we have no excuse. I’ve given our students practice charts, which they are filling up with gusto and with much competitive spirit. For all but the more advanced student (who should be devoting much more), an hour of focused practice can accomplish much, and is not much to ask.

A big lacuna among all music students is the lack of serious listening, and there has paradoxically never been a better time to address this. There’s anyway so much available in terms of internet radio (Classic FM, BBC Radio 3, NPR). But now, with concert halls and opera-houses shutting down at an alarming rate (with terrible economic consequences to performers and the music industry in general), several are magnanimously offering  unlimited free access to concerts online. The Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall and the Metropolitan Opera New York are two prominent examples.

Likewise, many museums and art galleries (e.g the Musée d’Orsay Paris) are offering digital access to their trove of art and artefacts.  Perhaps it will inspire some of us to get out our pencil, paper and paints and unleash our inner artist.

It’s an opportunity to hone skills at, for example, chess. My son uses Chess Titans, chesskid.com, but there are so many more. There are interactive phone apps where you can choose the level of difficulty, and get useful tips along the way.

Could there be a better time for children to learn how to make themselves useful at household chores from cooking to gardening to just helping at tidying up?

It’s also a time to reflect on how fortunate we are. The poor and frail are always hardest hit by any disaster. At a time when ‘social distancing’, hand-washing and ‘work from home’ are the new mantras, try telling that to our multitudes who live in overcrowded cramped conditions with no access to running water and to daily-wage workers whose families will starve if they don’t turn up for work. It’s also a time to think of populations around the world who have had lockdowns (and internet shutdowns as well to add insult to injury) imposed upon them for reasons other than public health. I needn’t spell it out for you.

Stay well, stay healthy. This too shall pass.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 March 2020 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)