It was the American flag dangling from the rear view mirror of his 2018 Hyundai Verna, a car whose Equated Monthly Installments he’d missed for three-out-of-six months, and a red, white, and blue ‘Jesus Saves’ sticker on the bumper that stood out.
One, Bah Wallang (not his real name) had never been to America.
And two, he’d always been a critic of Christianity. On a number of occasions he’d referred to it as the white man’s poison.
During the first wave of Covid-19, while countries like the United States, Italy, Brazil, Spain and the United Kingdom witnessed deaths by the hundreds and thousands every day, especially among the elderly; Shillong, in Northeast India where I and my neighbour Bah Wallang live saw few cases of people testing positive and even fewer deaths.
“Why do you keep wearing that mask?” Bah Wallang asked me.
“I’m trying to follow the protocols and directives of the government,” I responded. “Why aren’t you wearing one, Bah Wallang?”
“Because I’m not a puppet and I can think on my own.”
Bah Wallang, stout, spectacled, and sixty-three opined on everything. The state of the economy. The role of women and outsiders in local elections. The superiority of homeopathy. Why polygamy should not be frowned upon. Why America would never win the war in Afghanistan.
As far as he was concerned, the pandemic and the lockdowns were nothing more than the real-life and real-time experiments of a group of people who control everything in the world- global finance, higher education, the weather, aids and cancer, the Olympics.
I laughed it off. In moments of the most mundane and least interesting during the first lockdown, my text messages with Bah Wallang brought chuckles and giggles.
But they also bewildered me.
Why would Bah Wallang, a sextagenarian with diabetes and a learning disorder, who had never owned a passport and rarely ventured out of our tribal and indigenous lands parrot many a talking point of right wing evangelists and political commentators in America?
The answer? YouTube and WhatsApp.
Our tribal and indigenous lands are a place called the Khasi Hills. The capital Shillong is an unplanned and increasingly over-populated town with a majority Christian population. In the middle of the 19th Century, Presbyterian missionaries from Wales landed here and converted the first tribal and indigenous folks in all of Northeast India.
Bah Wallang, a loud and vocal former critic of Christianity discovered American Jesus in all his glory when he discovered the internet.
In American Jesus, lover and defender of freedom, guns, and prosperity, Bah Wallang became a born-again Christian.
“But you’ve never been baptized, Bah Wallang!” I messaged back when he sent me a long and rather moving WhatsApp message about his new-found direction in life. “How can you be a born-again Christian?”
“See, I told you it was all a lie,” Bah Wallang said to me three weeks before the first case of what is now referred to as the Delta variant was reported. Cases and death had been on the decrease for a few months then and life was slowly limping back to before-Covid normal.
“Please get vaccinated, Bah Wallang,” I messaged him in April.
“Please don’t,” he messaged me back. “The vaccines are a way of controlling you and they are a form of population control.”
Bah Wallang sent me numerous videos of sermons by American preachers and forwarded messages that proclaimed the following-
- The vaccines are a method of controlling the world population.
- Covid-19 is like the flu.
- The second coming is upon us.
- There is a global conspiracy to take away our Jesus-given freedoms.
In April and May of this year, the second wave struck India and our little town in the middle of nowhere that had largely been spared the difficulties of the first wave witnessed a horrific few weeks.
Overrun hospitals, overworked medical personnel, dwindling supply of oxygen.
Too many sick. Too many dead.
348 news cases and 21 new deaths. 457 new cases and 19 new deaths. 631 cases and 27 new deaths.
And then the numbers turned into names and faces.
A neighbour whose octogenarian grandmother had recovered the week prior. Someone I went to school with who was in the year above mine. The mother of an acquaintance. A former barber. A nurse who didn’t trust the vaccine.
A grandfather too old to be vaccinated.
The aunt of a friend of a friend.
Author: Babatdor Dkhar
Babatdor Dkhar is the Founder of Ka Ktien Media and Chief Editor of Half and One.