Every­body Loves a Dis­as­ter

Our fa­tal­ism is a cover to keep our­selves pro­tected from the law

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - In­dra­jit Hazra

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

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