March 27, 2020. Today is the eleventh day since the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In China, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus, the disease appears to be under control, but today the US is the new epicenter of the pandemic with more than 81321 known cases.
There is a massive disruption in daily life. More than a third of Americans are staying home. Offices, factories, schools, churches, bars and restaurants are closed. There is no revelry at the beaches now. In the aftermath of the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, infections have soared in Louisiana. Even the national parks are closing. Italy, Spain, and the UK are overwhelmed by the toll the disease is taking. Boris Johnson the UK PM has tested positive today. In India the entire country is under a strict shelter-in-place.
The huddled masses are reinventing how to live in their homes. Everything from head to toe and all surfaces are sanitized. Millions are soaping, scrubbing and rinsing their hands to wash away traces of germs. Every time I wash, I chant the Gayatri mantra but the image of Lady Macbeth’s constant obsession – washing the blood off her hands – flashes in my mind.
My eight-year-old grandson, Ayush, has been home since the first week of March. He has completely broken free of his school routine. He has immersed himself in cricket and tennis with his playmate Bahadur and did not come indoors to FaceTime with me. But now he has lost his playmate. Bahadur, like so many other Nepalis, has gone back to his village and the borders have closed. When I ask him about Bahadur, Ayush has a wistful look in his eyes and a hollowness in his voice. We stopped playing monopoly, chess, cards, or other board games because the most important element of play for Ayush was his interaction with Bahadur and teaching him the nuances of the game.
Images of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwallah and Mini float up in my memory and a lump forms in my throat. I hope that Bahadur has reached home safely and his family members are well.
Now, Ayush plays for ten to fifteen minutes with me and those are the brightest moments of my day. It’s usually late at night for him and mid-morning for me. He has downloaded games on his iPad and we play Words with Friends, Chess, Ludo, and Snakes and Ladders.
He is a patient teacher when it comes to computers because he can download and install almost any application at lightning speed. I move ponderously, watchful about privacy and security issues.
Yesterday we played Saanp-Seedhi. This ancient game originated in India and was originally known as Moksha Patam. Today it is a worldwide classic – Snakes and Ladders. We used to play this game as a family with my parents. Every time I play with Ayush, reminiscent childhood laughter spills through my veins. As per Eckhart Tolle, the world is not here to make you happy but to make you conscious. I think that the only exception to this truth is the joy of playing with children.
In the thirteenth century, a saint called Gyandev invented Moksha Patam with lessons in morality ladders representing virtues – asceticism, generosity, faith, reliability, and knowledge. Snakes were vices: anger, lust, pride, and theft. To win the game was to achieve salvation. In his honor, it was also called Gyan Chauper.
In the original game, ladders were fewer than snakes indicating that the path of goodness was more arduous. Snakes were plentiful, showing that our life path was replete with bad elements.
When the Brits took it to England it became popular as Snakes and Ladders and also acquired Victorian connotations. Generally, every player tries their best to roll the dice so that they can race quickly from 0-100 on the 8 x 8 square, red and yellow gridded board which originally had 12 snakes and 5 ladders. Children love it because they think of it as a game of luck but still try hard to roll the right number on the die. They are jubilant, shimmying up the ladders and tiptoeing silently by the snakes. But invariably squeals of disappointment erupt when the snakes swallow their tokens. They also learn that the ladders are not straddling the squares so they have to pay close attention to which square the leg of the ladder touches.
This game of probability is not simplistic but embedded in the game is the innate duality of life. The strong ladders sooner or later balance out the surreptitious serpents. I think of the sinuous snakes as unavoidable incumbrances in our spiritual growth. They remind me of irrational behaviors by people who interrupt conversations, spill vitriol on social media, or blatantly scoff at social distancing even though people are dying of COVID-19.
The worst snakes are strategically positioned on the 99th square. Many human interactions, especially in these gloomy times of the pandemic, remind me of the energy of the 99th square. When I look at all the anger, anguish, and frustration of health care workers facing increasing patient loads and vanishing global supply chains, I am alarmed. Our failings have culminated in a humongous COVID -19 serpent poised on the 99th square to swallow frail humanity. I wonder if this is an important life lesson teaching us that if we hold tight to the five ladders of virtue and do not take life on this planet for granted, we might survive. Now that we are all stuck on the 99th square, let’s look inward and try to reinvent better habits. This may be our last chance to roll the dice.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner. She drew the featured image as a symbol of her love for her father.
Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents