Waiting for ‘Aal Izz Well’

Immediately after that fateful November in 2008, security and police vigilance were visibly stepped up across the country. Bombay’s famed night life was put on hold, multilayered security in public places reminded you of the attack; now called 26/11. Fear gnawed inside us as armored police vans patrolled the streets and industries where customer service and guest experience play a critical role, like hotels, adopted new security protocols and all visitors were subjected to frisking and baggage scanning.

To all of us who witnessed the terrorists attack Bombay’s venerable symbols on live television, our own sense of safety was destroyed and the cops, the multilayered security, the patrols were important to inspire confidence and make us feel safe once again.

However, over time, many of these visible symbols of security slowly disappeared from the public eye. But the State continued its vigil with security cameras, drones, satellites, tracking, signal intercepts and gathering intelligence to thwart future attacks. Hotels and Service industries invested in cameras, new protocols and technologies offering security – all increasingly unobtrusive. Today’s weapons that keep us safe in hotels are mostly invisible, a web of wireless cameras and mics transmitting information over Wifi and controlled from Control Rooms tucked away from the Hotel lobby.

But some very public tools of security remain, like the frisking and baggage scanners. They are part of the “new normal” we have adapted to and have come to expect while visiting hotels and Malls. And these visible symbols of security serve a very important purpose as this analogy from the 2009 film ‘3 Idiots’ can help explain. In the film, Rancho narrates a story of their village watchman who yelled “Aal Izz Well” (All Is well) while on his nightly patrol. This reassured the villagers who slept peacefully until the day when robbers struck, and the villagers discovered that the watchman suffered from night blindness. Just as the watchman’s cries comforted the villagers, these visible symbols of security, in addition to aiding security efforts, assuage our fears, reassure us that precautions are being taken and we can safely watch a movie, shop or enjoy dinner with our families. Even if the frisking is perfunctory and scanning machines may be faulty in some places, they lend us a sense of security.


Today, as we combat an invisible enemy, our return to work protocols include installation of sanitizers at entrances, usage of masks, infrared thermometer and guidelines enforcing social distancing. These are very visible symbols of the efforts being taken to prevent the spread of the disease, reassure consumers and inspire confidence. While these efforts are important at this stage of the pandemic, they are also a very visible morbid reminder of the lurking invisible enemy; a Damocles sword hanging over consumers across the world.

All economic rebounds are fueled by consumer demand, by a hedonistic shopping frenzy of people hauling shopping bags and swiping credit cards. This leads to more economic activity, more jobs and more money available to be spent. This virtuous cycle is at the core of the modern market economy. Unfortunately, under the present circumstances and the current state of mind, consumers will not reach for their wallets to shop, instead they will cower inside their homes – not spending but saving money. Hence, at some stage as the current scale of the threat diminishes, companies will need to devise new unobtrusive protocols and adopt new technologies that protect consumers, keep them safe against the virus and similar potential threats in the future, yet remain invisible. This receding to the background is an important phase of our collective healing effort and stoking demand.

But some of the visible symbols of the fight against the virus may stay with us, as part of what experts describe as the “new normal”. (whatever this means). This is our equivalent of the “Aal Izz Well” cry, reassuring and comforting us that precautions have been taken to keep us safe. Ironically, the very objects that remind us of the pandemic, when in plain sight, also help assuage our fears, help us sleep peacefully, travel confidently, spend our money and resume living a normal life trusting that indeed ‘All Izz Well”

First published in afaqs here