Its lockdown on a cold day in the Shimla hills. There’s not a soul in sight. No construction workers at the house that threatens to take away half the view from my porch, no tourists blaring loud music or littering the hill with plastic, not even the villager walking down the slope with his umbrella hooked on his shoulder.
Only the mountains rise above the empty silence, only the clouds move at their own pace. Far away, towards Kulu, the snows rest in eternal peace. Close below my window the apricot blossoms are out and the first plum blossoms are now showing their blushing face. The bees are busy; the daffodils smile undisturbed.
A pair of turquoise birds have found a favourite perch on the leafless branches of the apple tree. Nature is proud and unconquered and man is humbled, huddling inside, hiding behind masks from an unseen family, washing hands bloodied with the guilt of over-reach, the guilt of playing God.
Only an opthalmologist, a man who knew all about seeing things, Dr Li Wenliang of Wuhan saw it coming.
How Dr Li Had ‘Lifted the Veil’ of Secrecy in China
However, like many a wise man before his time, he was denounced and in a manner of speaking, burnt at the stake. But it’s the scourge that made the whistleblower its target; the hooded man with the scythe got him, and moved on unhindered, spreading devastation in every direction.
Thoughts of Dr Li take me to the bookshelf. Ultimately, I find it: a fragile old edition of The Painted Veil, Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel that I last read in college.
But then Maugham is difficult to put down; he weaves a relentless, insidious web of immortal characters, psychological insights and unforgettable settings.
Maugham patently disregards Shelley’s advice to “Lift not the painted veil which those who live call life…” He sets his story in China, the China of “peasants in faded blue and huge hats on their way to the market and now a woman, old or young, tottering along on her bound heat…” A deadly cholera epidemic is raging in the interior. Maugham’s central character, the restrained and sensitive Dr. Walter Fane deliberately walks into this epidemic, taking along his young wife, Kitty who presumes she is being punished for her infidelity.