Till the pandemic I’d only heard of hybrid cars (those smart eco-friendly, impossibly expensive vehicles where the car switches from gasoline to green fuel depending on the speed or the whim of the owner or a tap of the driver’s finger). Now, we have hybrid meetings where some people attend in person and others by Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

There are many learnings from the pandemic – the lockdown, post lockdown, the staggered openings and broader unlocking over many stages by the Central and various State governments.  Most of these are personal learnings, some of them are organizational, and still others are out of a group experience.

Let me start with a few things that we’ve all heard about, read about and seen, whether on the small screen (mobile) or the bigger one (television) – there is no big screen as we can’t enter multiplexes and other cinemas, not in the near or foreseeable future. First of all, hand washing. As Amitabh Bachchan continues to intone in his unique rumbling voice, in Hindi and English, “Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.” Then comes a crucial pause which gave rise to much confusion in my mind, probably not in the minds of others. Bachchan pauses and then says: “And for 20 seconds avoid participating in large gatherings.”

Even if you listen to this today, as I’ve done, it sounds as if he’s telling us to avoid large gatherings for 20 seconds. The 20 second reference is, as we all know, to the washing of hands. And how could the master of diction and delivery miss this or make this mistake? Because it is a delivery error.

Also, when reciting this mantra, I am sure Mr Bachchan must have asked the ad developer: in a country where many still lack access to adequate and safe drinking, cooking and washing water, how can you wash your hands regularly? Or what if you don’t have enough soap? What are the answers to these basic questions?

The NITI Aayog put out a comprehensive report in 2018 which said, and I quote the news report from the Business Standard: “With nearly 600 million Indians facing high-to-extreme water stress – where more than 40% of the annually available surface water is used every year – and about 200,000 people dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water, the situation is likely to worsen as the demand for water will exceed the supply by 2050, said the ‘Composite Water Management Index’ (CWMI) report, released on June 14, 2018.… While Indian cities are grappling for water supply, the Aayog has called for ‘immediate action’ as growing scarcity will also hit India’s food security.”

Well, the ring tone still comes on many phones. And, truth to tell, I’m pretty fed up of it and I can sympathize with the chap who filed a PIL asking for it to be removed and for the voices of well-known personalities who would not charge a fee. I am not sure if Mr Bachchan charged a fee for this act of public good, aimed at national safety and wellness. So when The Voice comes on, I just keep the phone on mute or at a distance till I realize the called person has actually picked up the phone. Sorry, Mr Bachchan, no offence meant. Don’t worry, I’m still a fan.

The second is about washing hands – because those with access to water must be having the cleanest pairs of hands ever, because we wash regularly and often with coal and if possible with warm water. The danger is that your skin becomes dry and brittle and as a result you tend to apply more cream to soften them. Again an act of privilege. For those who’re using sanitizers and sanitizing liquids, the problem is that it becomes so sticky that we prefer to wash that off as well. So more of the precious water gets used. And we are fast developing OCD issues – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (apart from any others).

And masks – what would we do without them? They come in all shapes, colours, sizes and styles. I have 10 masks at last count. I use them, not according to my mood but according to what is most readily at hand. Usually it’s white or grey. The mask has several advantages and some pretty bad disadvantages. Let’s start with the latter: you can’t jog with a mask on and even walking fast becomes a problem leading to breathlessness and the realization that you’re actually breathing the same air that you’re breathing out! Not healthy, but if you take if off unless there’s no one around, you run the risk of being prosecuted under the nearly 200-year-old epidemic law. That’s in places in Delhi. But of course as a trip to Guwahati showed me, people have not just conquered their fear of the virus, I think they think they’ve conquered the virus because many are wandering around not with masks hanging around their chin or under their nose as is the Indian habit but completely without them.

One key advantage is the fact that most masks help, well, mask bad odours whether it is of a garbage dump or a place where men are given to urinating (yes, there continue to be many such places in many metros).

We are in a place when new words, lexicons and vocabularies have taken over in the new normal (can we remember what the ‘old normal’ was?) such as hybrid meetings/events and hybrid openings of offices. Till the pandemic I’d only heard of hybrid cars (those smart eco-friendly, impossibly expensive vehicles where the car switches from gasoline to green fuel depending on the speed or the whim of the owner or a tap of the driver’s finger). Now, we have hybrid meetings where some people attend in person and others by Zoom or Microsoft Teams (I don’t know why we have to give the company name instead of just saying video conferencing).

Indeed, if there is one enduring image of last year, it is of the multitude of exhausting (and often boring) Zoom calls that one had to attend (and endure). Often, you would start with the same remark/s: Can you hear me? Can you see me? Or a barked ‘Unmute yourself’ from an irritated moderator when people persisted in speaking without switching the unmute button. We were ‘zooming’ in and out of meetings and at the end of the year, one was completely zoned. Of course, one advantage of switching the video and audio off was that one could actually multitask and make other calls, edit and write without being noticed (except when it was one’s time to speak!).

However, one experience of just a few days back will stay with me – I had come down from the apartment to go for a long walk. The neighbours were sitting in the sun and staring at me. They were all masked. Instinctively I put my hand to my face. Of course, I wasn’t wearing one. So as my neighbours burst into laughter, I scurried up, donned my (white) mask and ventured out into the world, made safe again by a simple piece of cloth. The neighbours were, of course, still gurgling with laughter when I left.