Everybody Loves a Disaster
Our fatalism is a cover to keep ourselves protected from the law
We live under divine protection. We also live in safety when this divine protection is removed from some of us. Last month, when a flyover collapsed in the country — by specifying where in the country it took place would automatically diminish its shock value, the way the outbreak of any disease becomes less horrific if it happens in ‘Africa’ — the construction company’s first reaction to the man-made disaster was that it was “an act of god”.
Perhaps, this was an attempt to trot out the argument of ‘vis major’: “an overwhelming, unanticipated and unpreventable event, usually caused by a natural force, the occurrence of which may exempt a party from performing the obligations of a contract”. Here, the obligation to be performed could be going to jail.
One awaits a detailed report explaining without frills of adjectives or politics what actually caused the flyover’s collapse that killed 27 people and gave us the iconic aerial image of a monster earthworm lying splayed with old buildings looking upon that corpse.
But as has been widely reported, the horror was, in all probability, caused by bad construction methods, corners being cut, and regulations being thrown out of the window.
Effectively, the matter of a flyover not collapsing, despite humans intervening to make it highly collapsible, was left in the hands of god. As has been the case with so many other structures that have indeed withstood the laws of safety without cau- sing deaths and headlines. But in this particular case in Kolkata, divine protection ran out and the laws of physics seeped in.
On Sunday morning, God — once again — decided to take a break from his benign watch. And this time round, it was closer to his own eminent domain: at the precincts of a temple in Kerala where a fireworks display led to a devastating explosion resulting in the death of over 100 people and the injury of five times that number.
Here again, God — in this case, Goddess Bhadrakali — may indeed have acted. But it was left to the temple authorities to proceed with the fireworks despite not being given permission by the district administration. Corners were not cut by temple trust office-bearers. They were lopped off.
God’s Video Game
Even if no one, to my knowledge, has claimed this ‘tragedy’ as the doing of a divine mass murderer, the effect is the same if it was deemed as being beyond the purview of men. The land that fetishises jugaad, cutand-paste and spit jobs, and heroworships the ingenious cheapskate is the flag-bearer of fatalism: ‘Sab hi ishwar ki ichha/ Que sera sera’.
This is the kind of luxuriant guiltlessness based on the idea of sin that not just blames god for criminal negligence, but also draws out an insurance against one’s own culpability by making ‘We are like this only’ a civilisational credo.
At the heart of why both the disasters in Kerala and West Bengal will be deemed as ‘unfortunate’ — having, or marked by, bad fortune; unlucky — even as they are admitted to have been man-made, lies the fact that laws and rules and regulations are seen just as silly ‘First World’ luxuries, like seat belts and minimum wages. They are mostly impediments to ‘getting things done’.
But, most fundamentally, laws and regulations are treated the way they are in this country because of the national genius to ever-so-quietly empathise with the lawbreaker, the perpetrator, the guilty party.
What if you, or your son, or your brother, or your flunkey, was behind the wheel in a hit-and-run case? What if he had raped someone? What if he was responsible for storing inflammables in a godown that blew up the whole locality? What if he was the one who didn’t give the bribe, but took it?
It is the stress of believing that this could well be your loved one — who needs to be protected not by the law but from it — that gives our collective, unspoken non-divine consent to laws coming jugaad-style with escape routes, rules with exit hatches and regulations to be hung on the wall.
And all this can happen by not taking all these ‘decorative items’ — cars stopping at signal crossings, sticking to safety norms while constructing a building, conducting nonlaughable security checks at public spaces, etc — seriously. Fireworks or flyovers, after the shedding of outrage and anguish is done, life will return to normal in which where everyone is reckless. Fortune favours the least unfortunate.
In the 18th-century narrative poem Maharashtra Purana, the poet Gangaram describes the yearly Maratha raids in Bengal between 1742 and 1751. But what stands out is his description of a terror-stricken people strangely tolerant of the terror they are subjected to.
War is Interactive
His explanation for such miseries falling on the populace: “No one worshipped Radha-Krishna, filled they were with sin/ Day and night they pleased themselves with other men’s women/ All time was spent in lusting and abuse/ No one knew what might happen at any excuse/ Avarice and greed all day and night/ There was no other thought in anybody’s mind/ So great was the burden of sin on Earth/ No longer could she bear such a weight on her girth.” To save Earth, explains Gangaram with the straightest-of-straight faces, Lord Shiva directs the Marathas, his devotees, to destroy Bengal.
The thought that any resistance may be required or attempted never crosses the mind of the local populace — ever. Some 300 years later, does it cross anyone’s mind that to not have the sky fall on one’s head or the world burn to the ground, one must bring the fear of god into the laws of the land?
Divine self-inflictions: Goddess Chinnamasta, early 20th century print