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February 22, 2001
Why this tamasha?
Why do we always turn everything into an overbearing tamasha? Even the biggest of tragedies or the most soul-churning of calamities ends up looking like a full-fledged production out here. Whether it is the Bhopal gas leak or a tragic war on our borders, we tend to respond in the same silly way. With too much melodrama.
Every time we have had a natural calamity of enormous dimensions, be it the Orissa flash floods or a high intensity earthquake as in Gujarat, we go over the top dealing with it. We are rarely serious. Our response is often insensate and childish. A savage and bloody caste riot in Bihar and a surcharged communal flashpoint as in Ayodhya get the same treatment. For we have this unerring capability to turn any tragedy, however serious it may be, into a huge song and dance. As a result, nothing is ever taken seriously. Everything is grist to the mill. Every death unfurls yet another political rhetoric.
Bhopal was gruesome. Thousands of lives were lost in what was possibly the world's ghastliest environmental disaster. Thousands survived, sick and genetically injured forever, to keep the pain alive. Yet its frightening long-term impact remains untold till today and those who were guilty of one of the worst crimes of all time still walk around as free men. Companies like Union Carbide continue to risk the lives of innocent citizens all over the world and no one, truly speaking, gives a damn. Instead, what we get are sloppy romantic movies, silly half-baked novels and didactic poems and plays about the gas leak that would make any sensible person want to puke.
Kargil was another tragedy that claimed many lives. It was a sad and particularly painful episode in our political history but within weeks of the crisis we had reduced the whole thing into a ridiculous charade. High melodrama and preposterous dialogue- baazi in the movies, hugely theatrical speeches by political leaders who have never ventured outside their own constituencies, and a turgid play staged by the redoubtable Aamir Raza Husain, always ready to cash in on any such opportunity, managed to morph one of the greatest human tragedies of our time into a ludicrous vaudeville act pampering to closet jingoism. As a reward, guess what, Husain got a Padma Shri this time!
Gujarat is even worse. The earthquake there has destroyed thousands of crores worth of property and killed off, if the Defence Minister is correct, more than a 100,000 people to leave what was one of the nation's most advanced states in complete shambles. Millions more have lost their livelihood. But instead of dedicating our efforts towards swift and noiseless reconstruction activity, we are back to staging our usual mindless tamashas. Birthday parties are turning into instant fund raisers. Socialite wives are holding kitty parties to collect aid. The usual gaggle of page 3 celebrities are hogging headlines by putting up art auctions and movie star nights to pick up money that may or may not eventually reach the people they are meant for. But they will certainly get the sponsors photo ops in the newspapers. Audio cassette companies are making huge money flooding the traumatised state with recounted horror tales of the morning after.
It is nothing but sheer exploitation. Photo journalists get awards for their pictures. Playwrights get Padma Shris for their melodramatic garbage. Movie stars get acclaimed for their sense of social responsibility. Businessmen get their pictures into the colour supplements. Politicians look appropriately grief-stricken on location. It is a wonderful opportunity for every carpetbagger.
What we need to acquire is a dignified response to grief and pain. We need the State to respond swiftly and adequately to a crisis. But with minimum fuss and maximum impact. We need corrective action so that such tragedies do not recur and, even if they cannot be entirely avoided, as in the case of natural calamities, at least we should be better prepared to deal with them. In other words, what we need is a mature, informed response strategy.
We must remember that grief is not a spectacle. We are not catering here to voyeurs. We are dealing with human tragedy, with death. Every time a politician jets in with his gaggle of sycophants and photographers in tow, the entire State machinery is put under further strain. The aircraft and choppers meant for relief work are pressed into service for VIP duty. The police force, already under considerable strain, stops aiding the rescue and relief efforts and turns it attention towards providing security. The normal work goes for a toss every time a leader stops by and expects to be fussed over. No one can dare say this to their faces because they do not want the aid to dry up. But everyone prays that they be left alone to put together the shattered bits and pieces of their lives with the help of the local NGOs.
So give but give quietly, with no tamasha. Those who are in desperate need can do with your money, your old clothes, used utensils, other household stuff. But they can easily do without all your singing and dancing, your silly birthday bashes, your cocktail parties, your art auctions, the tearful dialogues in your movies, the silly poems you are dying to read out. Stop giving long lectures on what you are doing. Instead, go out and help those who are actually trying to make things easier for those in pain. Stop using the word charity. Focus on help, support, aid. No one needs your pity. They need real things to put their lives back on the rail.
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