The most fundamental difference between ordinariness and the capacity to achieve, this is the least known thing called - power to receive.



Plenary Address at 19th World Anthropology Congress, University of Delhi.

Plenary Address at 19th World Anthropology Congress, University of Delhi.

I am greatly honoured to be with all of you today. When COVID-19 broke out, I was appointed the Chief Spokesperson of the Government of Odisha on the Pandemic. My first challenge was to explain to millions of people of Odisha, what is a virus, what is quarantine and subsequently, what is a lockdown? These words meant nothing to most of them. The critical need of the hour was to communicate to people in a manner they would immediately pay attention to and follow advice and instructions. For this, we turned to mythology and folklore.

The Anthropology of Memes

In this picture, you see the Lord Jagannath of Puri on the right, His elder brother Balaram on the extreme left and their sister Suvadra in the middle. Jagannath is the reigning deity of the forty-five million Odia people. The idea of Jagannath, literally meaning Lord of the Universe, transcends religion. Every Odia considers Jagannath as a family member.

To explain what a virus, quarantine and lockdown is, we used the cultural memes and metaphors associated with Him. As anthropologists, you understand the value of customs and rituals. An annual ritual of the Gods is the bathing festival or snana yatra. Once a year, they come out of the temple after the sweltering heat of summer and devotees bathe them with 108 pitchers of water. The three then catch a cold. Following this, they are kept inside the sanctum sanctorum for 14 days. During this period, normal food or prasad is not offered to them. Devotees cannot go inside the temple. The Gods convalesce. They are given herbal medicines and rested.

We explained to the people of Odisha that the cold they catch is essentially a virus. Then they could immediately catch the concept that COVID-19 is a virus albeit, more dangerous virus. People also understood, the 14-day isolation is what we mean by quarantine. And that anyone who encounters the virus must follow the quarantine process just as the Lord always does.

The Anthropology of Fashion

In the ensuing years, as COVID unfolded, I began to realise the enormous implications the virus was having the world over; how it impacted people and their lives with perhaps irreversible change in what it means to be human. One of the universal imageries of the Pandemic was the face mask. But while common people struggled with getting an ordinary mask, the better off using N-95, whoever thought of designer masks? The issue here is not just a mask but how COVID impacted what we wear, the supply chain of what we wear. As shops and malls closed, people started buying everything online. Fashion included. That is here to stay, altering the future of fashion forever.

The Anthropology of Food

Anthropology studies food, what we eat, how we eat, how we source our food and who cooks it. The first impact of the Pandemic was perhaps hoarding. It was a survival response. As eating out stopped, many people learnt how to cook. Men started to cut vegetables in the kitchen, some learnt to cook. People who had never baked before, took to You Tube to learn how to bake.

“Take out” became part of universal vocabulary, cloud kitchens sprang up. Struggling for business, 5-star hotels delivered food through apps and the smartphone became lifeline. We hunt, we gather, eat, and share food very differently now. More people tried food they had never tasted before and eating habits have changed through the course of the Pandemic.

The Anthropology of Work

As people holed-in, home became where work is. The first to conjure the vision of work and school in the 21st century were futurologists like Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt who had predicted that people may no longer go to work, work would come to where people are. That became a reality for everyone, from government employees to the corporate world. It became so pervasive and habit forming that large corporations like Meta and Google and Facebook are having a hell of a time today, getting people back to office.

The WFH concept led many young people to take multiple jobs, someone became an Infosys engineer in the morning and wrote code for a competitor at night, causing a potential restructure of the idea of employment. Moonlighting no longer casts a dark shadow. The time saved on commute expanded time on hand for learning new things as well. More skilling happened with people with digital access than ever before.

The Anthropology of Sex

The Pandemic has had pronounced effect on sex and sexual mores. In India, despite regulatory restrictions on adult content, initial period of lockdown showed 95% increase in porn consumption. In New York, the department of health sent out a memo that said, you are your safest sex partner. The Pandemic saw new shades of grey. Porn creators wove fantasy of sex in hazmat suits. Entirely new vocabulary of sex emerged including words like coronalingus.

The Anthropology of Lost Childhood

Children all over the world were hugely impacted by COVID. 1.5 billion children, almost half girls, were out of school or college during COVID. Rearing children during lockdown at home saw increased time with parents, with presumably both positive and negative impacts. Children who missed pre-school and kindergarten are experiencing different post-COVID socialising challenges even today. Before COVID, most parents fretted about their young ones spending time on mobile phones but post-lockdown, digital time spent was encouraged for learning and recreation. Today, the smartphone has become both the classroom and the playground.

The Anthropology of Massification of Desire

Let us now turn to leisure like concerts and arena sports. As we all know, these vanished for a while, creating an interesting void in people’s mind. That void has to do with a basic question: Why do we go to concerts and sports stadia and lose ourselves in ecstasy and agony with rank strangers? It has something to do with increased serotonin flow when we are part of a mass activity. It is what is called massification of desire. With lockdowns worldwide, event organisers had to reinvent themselves and we saw the advent of T-20 cricket in a bubble. The idea of human bubbles and pods extended to become part of many other activities that people yearned for. Social contact got redefined, reinvented at many diverse levels.

The Anthropology of Lost Authority

It was interesting to see how the idea of authority and entitlement broke down. A senior bureaucrat who had just retired, had his father taken to a COVID hospital. In India, hospitalisation for the rich and powerful means, constant attendance of friends and family, VIP patient updates by attending doctors and such things. Now, a COVID hospital was a completely unique experience. Unable to control events inside the ICU, the loss of power became palpable. The gentleman threatened me that unless his father was properly treated, he would sue everyone, he would call the media. His father died the next morning.

This time, the same man called me, heartbroken and crying, asking if the hearse of the municipality could stop on the way to the crematorium at his house, only for a few minutes, for the family to have a last glimpse. Of course, that was not going to happen in violation of COVID guidelines on handling of dead bodies. Stories abound on how power structures broke down as many some bodies became dead bodies in a body bag.

The Anthropology of Isolation

COVID brought isolation of a kind that most of the present population of the entire planet had never before experienced. My elder brother and his wife had cared for their 95-year-old mother-in-law their entire life. During COVID, both husband and wife were moved to a COVID hospital. His son and daughter-in-law had COVID and stayed at home. The 95-year-old lady was left at home where she too contracted COVID. The government was monitoring senior citizens and upon the old lady getting infected, she was immediately shifted to a COVID ICU. There she died among strangers.

She was cremated by the municipality the next day where her immediate family was not allowed. I was the lone representative of the extended family at the crematorium. For my sister-in-law, the closure has not yet happened. I know many families, I am sure, some are right here, where closure has not happened. Yet, it is not about death alone, COVID brought forth multiple levels of isolation that continue to impact individuals and groups in very unexpected ways. Relationships have broken down among people, many are still struggling with newfound fears, anxieties, and adjustment issues.

The Anthropology of Disinformation

Moving on, let us look at the world of news, fake news and now we deal with what has come to be known as deep fake. The object, the lens, the viewer – at every level, the truth changes in a manner like never before. The Pandemic brought out deluge of information, misinformation, and disinformation. From conspiracy theory to questions about how the vaccine may alter the human DNA, to reporting of numbers. This extended to illusory ideas about how the Indian summer would kill COVID, how people of certain ethnic origin or religion were responsible. These very often fanned flames of fear, hatred, and technology itself became a superspreader. The World Health Organisation used the term “infodemic” to describe a parallel scrouge.

The Anthropology of Human Displacement

Covid-19 was the hardest on migrant workers the world over. In India, when lockdown was clamped, it resulted in displacement of 43.3 million migrants who worked mostly in metros and cities. Of these, thirty-five million walked home, cycled, hitchhiked on trucks and tractor trailers. This unprecedented internal refugee crisis happened for a reason that does not engage policy planners and leaders. It is about housing. You and I in this conference, did not have to overnight pack and go because we had a house with water and electricity. Ninety-six percent of Indian workers work in the so-called unorganised sector. If the factory is shut, there is no food. They live in sub-human conditions.

That means, they have no agency. Faced with displacement, they just must quietly move back to their villages where nothing much awaits them.

The Anthropology of Resilience

And where are these folks after COVID-19? Perhaps, back to work. Back to cranking the GDP numbers for us to become one of the most powerful economies in the world. They have moved back. We have moved on. This brings us to the question of resilience. At the height of the Pandemic, the man who saved the day in Mumbai was Municipal Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal. When the hospital system was almost collapsing, he ran war rooms to direct patient flows, he, and his team democratised access to the medical system. Chahal and his team were under intense pressure for months on end. During the crisis, he observed that the well to do people were the ones who tried to jump the line, manipulate the system, and complained even after being attended to and in contrast, the people from slums, showed gratitude and maintained discipline throughout the crisis.

The Anthropology of Lost Conscience

Whether it is during a Pandemic or war, whenever people are captive to a system, we see demonstration of unusual human behaviour in otherwise normal beings. This can range from insensitivity to brutality by people who are agents of a system. People can become monstrous because in the moment, they have the agency and those who are captive have no other way but to cower. The picture here shows migrant workers being doused with insecticide by a fellow man who thinks he is doing what is the right thing to do. This is symbolic of a crisis of conscience that repeats whenever large-scale upheavals take place throwing millions of people into a state of uncertainty and helplessness. We can argue, the man spraying insecticide is simply doing his job. Or carrying on orders. Just the same way, police beat up refugees, jailors brutalise prisoners, advancing armies violate human rights because they think they are carrying on orders.

The Anthropology of Godhood

As anthropologists, you are very aware of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the role of the gene, more particularly the Selfish Gene as propounded by Richard Dawkins. Where Dawkins left, Susan Blackmore took over and propounded the idea of memes in the book, The Meme Machine. She has famously theorized that like strong genes, strong ideas replicate. They use humans to replicate themselves. Interestingly, ideas are propagated through humans and not through any other life form. Religion is a meme, more specifically, called a memeplex or an idea of ideas. Rituals in every religion are designed to be staging platforms of memes.

During COVID, organized religion was impacted from Rome to Mecca to Jagannath Puri through the suspension or modification of centuries-old rituals. In Puri, every year, a million people congregate to pull the Lord’s chariot. In COVID, devotees were barred. Five thousand police personnel and servitors who were kept in a quarantined bubble pulled the chariots. Even the Gods adapted to the new normal. Birth to Baptism, Matrimony to Memorials, became accepted in a virtual mode in an altered world.

The Anthropology of Social Innovation

Any prolonged crisis has unexpected consequences on the idea of hierarchy. Usually, in situations that are Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – in other words, VUCA, it is hierarchy that begins to collapse. Interestingly, when hierarchy begins to collapse, it is the “hetroarchy,” the unseen structure, the invisible communities that swing into action. This has its roots in the idea of altruism as a genetic design. Self-organising structures and volunteer forces come to save the day. In Odisha, when we realised that a million migrant workers will suddenly comeback, bringing with them the risk of the virus, the Government was in no situation to set up and run quarantine centres in every village.

This is where the Village Panchayats stepped in and took the responsibility upon themselves. The government gave the head of the Panchayat with powers of a collector to maintain law and order. The women’s self-help groups took on the task of feeding the migrant workers at the quarantine centres and the reverse migration was managed without incidence.

The Anthropology of Humanity

Any humanitarian crisis brings out the worst in human behaviour. At the same time, it also brings out human greatness, virtues that make us human come to the fore. Heroes emerge from among ordinary people who make unimaginable sacrifices. Imagine the amount of sacrifice that faceless government servants made, imagine the sacrifice the health workers, paramedics, lab technicians, municipal employees, truck drivers who carried food across the length and breadth of the country. They kept us alive till the vaccine came. It was also a time of unbelievable courage shown by ordinary people. Here is Jyoti. At the time of the first phase of the lockdown, she was 15 years old. Her father, an auto-driver had a bad accident in Gurugram. She had come to take care of him. The lockdown happened. The landlord wanted them to move out. There was no food. Not able to take care of her father, Jyoti cycled 1200 kilometres with her father on the bicycle carrier, all the way from Gurgaon to her village in Darbhanga in Bihar.

The Anthropology of Inhumanity

This December, we will complete 4 years since COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, China. In the apocalyptic developments in a brief period of 4 years, there were 696 million known cases of Covid-19 and a staggering 6.9 million died. The world economy came to a standstill. We were all thrown into unprecedented level of pain and isolation. A staggering 10.5 million children lost a parent. From pre-Pandemic number of 144 million jobs, globally the number shrank to sixty-eight million. The virus affected everyone, rich and poor alike. It was borderless. Perhaps the first Pandemic that covered the entire planet. Entire humanity suffered as one. After so much human suffering, we should have realised, how fragile we are as a species, how vulnerable. The Pandemic should have taught us to be human for at least some time, to be respectful of life for a while. But look what is happening in Ukraine and now in Israel and Palestine. People do not register that the Russian War in Ukraine has already killed a staggering half a million people!

The attack on Israel and the impending war with Palestine has taken brutality to another level. Why do human beings forget a collective calamity so quickly, so soon? Our ancestors, apes and monkeys fight over reproductive rights and food over territory but even they draw a line. Why we are not able to?

The Anthropology of the Narrative

Anthropology studies human behaviour by synthesizing knowledge from every other discipline to tell us what it means to be human. This includes stories we conjure. Tales we tell. During COVID, I personally turned to read a lot of fiction that was based on the real-life suffering that ensued during the World War II. These books are based on actual human experience set in the backdrop of time. These narratives provide powerful insights into human behaviour during times of great upheaval. I hope, in time, we will have similar chronicles on humanity, particularly capturing the story of ordinary people.

More than being a particularly important academic discipline, I see anthropologists as “sense makers” of human civilization. I am glad I got an opportunity to speak to you today and I hope my presentation will nudge you to look at COVID-19 as a watershed moment in time that requires closer, deeper search, synthesis, and sense making by all of you that can leave lasting imprints in the minds of people, particularly those who are in positions of influence.  

Thank you very much for giving me this platform to share my thoughts. Stay healthy, stay safe.


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