www.sacw.net | January 14, 2005
A Sense of Perspective
by Mukul Dube
A friend of nearly thirty years, until recently a professor of
physics at the university in Lahore, wrote last week to say that he
and his wife were consumed by worry because their grand-daughter
needed surgery for a hole in her heart. He said that this seemed a
petty concern when so many thousands had lost their lives to the
tsunami. True to his vocation, he spoke of the universe and of the
atoms of which it is made up. Clearly he was burdened by guilt.
I reminded him that he had become a purveyor of rationality decades
ago. There is no way in which a hole in one child's heart can wipe
out thousands of miles of coast-line. Nor can any under-sea
earthquake create holes in the hearts of people on a mass scale. He
had reacted as he did to the destruction caused by the tsunami because
he was that kind of person. There are countless millions, many of
whom are far closer to the sea than he is, who just couldn't be
bothered. But he is also a grandfather, so he reacted as one. Each
person is at once many things. Sociologists call this "role
theory": today one role is dominant, tomorrow another is. In the
matter of the little girl, all that my friend can do is ensure that
she gets good medical attention -- and at least pretend to be strong
so that her parents can draw strength from him. In the matter of the
tsunami, he can continue to appeal to his colleagues, students and
friends to contribute in one way or another -- he cannot reconstruct
ruined coast-lines and he cannot breathe life into the dead.
Powerless here, powerless there, yet feeling a futile guilt only for
But I do not mean to write about a private exchange between friends.
What made me begin to write this was an expression he used: "a
sense of perspective". He meant, of course, one little girl versus
countless thousands across South-East Asia and South Asia. I shall
look only at India; and I shall speak only of thousands of
individuals, not of one little girl.
It happens that about a week back I wrote an article about stray
dogs. In it I cited the WHO's estimate that in 1998, somewhere
around 30,000 people had died of rabies in India. Just one year.
There is nothing to suggest that 1998 was an exceptional year: there
have always been deaths from rabies and it looks like there always
will be. Deaths in India caused by the recent tsunami are estimated
at 9,500 while another 500 people are missing. We pay little attention
to the 30,000 because they are spread out across 365 days and all
over the country, and we are panicked by a third of that number
because all is over in a matter of hours and is restricted to a part
of our coast-line and a small group of distant islands which we own.
No human agency can either cause a tsunami or stop one. What humans
can do, if they recognise such ideas as duty and responsibility, is
make arrangements to minimise the damage that is caused by a tsunami.
A tsunami is a natural occurrence, and it is not as if India has not
seen this class of phenomena and suffered on its account. I am
reminded of the havoc in Andhra Pradesh 27 years ago. I am reminded
of the quite recent cyclone in Orissa. Like all of us, I know about
the annual floods across large parts of our country but have become
inured to them.
What is the immediate aftermath, the stuff that fills the newspapers?
Ministers and other politicians make statements and take care to be
seen inspecting the damage, preferably from helicopters. Packages of
relief are announced by governments. Calls are made for aid from
other countries. And always, every single time, the "measures will
be put in place" flag is waved wildly.
Without doubt, action follows. Committees are constituted, deadlines
are set. Meetings are held in air-conditioned rooms, there is much
toing and froing in air-conditioned cars and railway carriages.
Aeroplanes too are air-conditioned: but the helicopter has a certain
romance about it and is a favourite with photographers and news
Nobody cares whether or not the reports and recommendations come out
when they should, because many other things have happened before then
to divert people's attention. The initial excitement having long
since died down, nobody cares about what happens on the ground
outside the air-conditioned spaces in which secret confabulations
have taken place. Here and there, favoured building contractors may
be paid to construct a few token shelters which are badly made and
are not maintained, and which soon fall down. The furies of nature
may come again to the same welcome.
On paper, though, "measures have been put in place". The members of
the committees, who are of course never themselves affected by the
natural disasters which they are appointed to guard against, have
received their remuneration and allowances and can go about with
bright new feathers in their caps.
And what of the 30,000 or so deaths each year from rabies? Rabies is
not carried by storms or on the surface of the ocean. In India,
rabies is enzootic in the canine population, and nearly every human
death from rabies is caused by the saliva of rabid dogs. Can this not
be remedied by human action? It has not been remedied so far because
of the powerful people who are concerned more with animals' rights
than with those of other humans who do not have veterinary surgeons
within driving distance, who cannot afford vaccine and immune
globulin or are miles away from them. These powerful people include,
of course, those at the top of the administration. Why should they
care when they are rarely if ever exposed to stray dogs? Small-pox was
another matter entirely, you see.
First, natural phenomena which cannot be prevented but from which
people can be protected but are not protected. Second, a fatal
disease with known vectors and known preventive measures which are,
however, not implemented. And the third?
I said I would speak of thousands, and I will. Who or what caused the
more than 2,000 deaths in Gujarat three years ago? A giant whirlpool
in the South Pacific, perhaps? Was it a mutant staphylococcus which
raped countless women and girls? Humans could have prevented that
blood-bath, but not those who were human in name only, not so-called
humans who had in them not a trace of humanity, not human jackals who
had tasted blood.
"A sense of perspective." Aid is pouring in from all over the
world for the victims of the tsunami. Ordinary people are giving sums
of money which, for them, are large. But the US and its appendage,
the UK, who took billions from their bottomless cash bags to buy the
bombs to fling at Iraq, are seemingly left only with pennies which
they send on fleets of war-ships.
"A sense of perspective." Who came to the aid of the hundreds
of thousands of Muslims of Gujarat who were literally left with
nothing but their lives? The government of that province, pledged to
protect all its people? No, since it had guided the butchers and
financed them, and since those who were butchered were anyway
enemies, "agents of Miyan Musharraf". The world community? No,
since it was afraid to "interfere in internal matters". Vajpayee
and Advani of the Central Government, aptly controlled from from
central India? No, since the "successful experiment of Hindutva"
was a matter of pride for them, and one maintained a sphinx-like
silence while the other told a dozen or two dozen lies each day.
This is the true meaning of "a sense of perspective". Humanity
can be the same as its own absence.
Go to the South Asia Citizens Web