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Dubai: When celebrated English poet William Blake wrote about the power of the ‘romantic imagination’ to ‘See a world in a grain of sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour,’ it was perhaps one of the most evocative invocations to his ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’. Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ was, to a large extent, a study into the dualism that’s inherent in human nature, whereby childhood stands for a state of guarded ‘innocence’ that is gradually lost to a world of ‘experience’ as the human mind and body progress from a state of bliss and pristine vitality to one that is increasingly marked by prejudice, fear and corruption.

That was Blake, one of the foremost among the poets of the ‘Romantic’ era in English literature. That was 1789.

Jump cut to April 2020 and over to a serpentine lane in the dustbowl of India’s hinterlands. It’s Punjab, to be precise. And it’s lockdown time, with perhaps the most dreaded pandemic in human history sweeping the globe. A child barely six or seven, is on his way back from private tuition.

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Mind you, India, like the rest of the world, is also in a prolonged phase of shutdown with severe movement restrictions in place. Offices and business establishments are closed and academic activities hitherto conducted from brick-and-mortar classrooms have either come to a halt or are being held on remote-learning platforms from the confines of homes. Under the circumstances, the sight of a child out on the streets, being led by the hand by an adult member of his family, draws the attention of a high-ranked police officer who happens to be doing the rounds of this particular neighbourhood, to ensure strict adherence to stay-home guidelines. Upon questioning as to why they were out on the street, the male adult member, who is the child's uncle, tries to mumble a bunch of lies that obviously do not satisfy the man in uniform. Even as further interrogation ensues, the child lets the cat out of the bag, saying that he had been to one of the houses in the vicinity for his tuition class – again, a strict no-no under lockdown and social distancing protocols. As the man tries to dissuade the police officer, saying it was nothing major and attempts to implore the child to keep shut, the child has other plans. He keeps providing further details to the police officer, saying that the house he went to was close by and even names his teacher. Curious as a cat, this deputy superintendant (DSP) of Punjab Police asks the child to show him the way to his teacher’s house and literally led by the child, he soon lands up at the tutor’s doorstep. Seeing that his knocking on the door has elicited no response from those inside the house, the cop turns to the little boy for help. Frantic cries from the boy finally get the teacher out and soon a dressing down follows from the DSP for flouting lockdown norms. The teacher takes recourse to lies as she tries to fudge the number of students who were present at the tuition class. Once again, the police officer checks with the boy who promptly calls the bluff, forcing the teacher to apologise.

Apparently a rather innocuous incident. Nothing much to write home about, or so one may think.

However, if one sees this in the context of the times we live in, there could be a rather disturbing sub-text to this entire episode that takes place at a nondescript neighbourhood in a Third World country. At a time when terms such as ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ have gained so much coinage in our daily parlance; at a time when lies are sometimes peddled as gospel; at a time when even some heads-of-state have been caught relying more on propaganda and less on truth; and at a point of time when the whole world has been forced to stay confined to the morbidity of many an unpleasant ‘home truth’ – thanks to lockdowns – the moot point that arises is: Are we living in an age and time when innocence is dying early because there’s too much of falsification and distortion of our immediate reality -- just to suit an adult narrative? The post-COVID-19 world will definitely have many unpleasant truths to grapple with – untimely loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, unimaginable blows to the global economy and supply chain, loss of livelihood for millions and most of all, the fear of an invisible enemy that’s no thicker than one-hundredth of a strand of hair. But along with these collateral damages in numerical and sociological terms, could COVID-19 also see a hastening of the process of a premature demise of childhood?

According to some child psychologists and sociologists, the very fact that children across the world are being forced to spend most of their time indoors for fear of the pandemic, they are now far more likely to be subjected to sexual abuse and physical and mental trauma by some of their immediate family members. This is particularly true of those in the developing world whose predicaments have left most of the boxes for mental and physical health parameters unticked for most of the time. Abject poverty, lack of nutrition, paucity of physical and mental space, abuse at home and beyond … and a world full of lies have probably left our children more vulnerable than ever before. For instance, just think about that child in a 10X6 shanty in Dharavi – Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India – where he or she is witness to lies and perhaps also some truths that are not age-appropriate, day in and day out.

With mental and physical space both getting constricted, as children are being forced to stay confined within the four walls of their homes and in close proximity to adults, a child is actually far from being able ‘to see the world in a grain of sand …’ And there’s perhaps very little ‘song’ left in childhood as children are increasingly trapped in a prosaic world marked by a plethora of abhorrent ‘experiences’.