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January 31, 2001
What the Thunder Said
Cry, the beloved country, yet again. The photographs from Bhuj and other parts of Gujarat after the great temblor are extraordinarily powerful. The magnitude of the disaster is overwhelming: our senses get dulled by the enormity of it all, and our own insignificance in the order of things. I was reminded of Kumaran Asan in Veena poovu (The Fallen Flower):
Kanney madanguka! Karinjum alinjum aasu
Withdraw, mine eye! Scorched and withered
Kanney madanguka! Karinjum alinjum aasu
Withdraw, mine eye! Scorched and withered
Natural disasters will happen. The real question is how we respond to them. The frightening earthquake in Gujarat which has claimed so many lives and caused so much damage to property is a time for us to rise above our petty day-to-day preoccupations and to address what we owe to our fellow-Indians. After all, it is the contribution of the average Indian, including the urban and rural Gujarati, that has built the infrastructure for all of us to become whatever we have become.
Indians start with some handicaps in disaster relief. One is the perceived, and real, inefficiency of the state. The other is the astonishing and brutal cupidity of those in power who will almost certainly steal and divert the funds and the contributions in kind that are pouring in from all over the world. Why have we become so inured to the public good? Why do we have such a tendency for moral corruption?
Perhaps it is because we have forgotten self-control, the idea of charity, and compassion. In The Waste Land, T S Eliot quotes from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad the story of what the thunder said: "datta, dayadhvam, damyata" That is, "Give, Be Compassionate, Be Self-Controlled." This is a particularly apt metaphor for the earthquake, for Bhuj and Ahmedabad and much of the Rann of Kutch and Saurashtra have become waste lands, and we, the living, are apathetic in our efforts to help.
Eliot has changed the order from the original Sanskrit, which had the story of the Prajapati, the Creator and Preceptor, and his interactions with his offspring, the devas, humans and asuras: the gods, the humans and the titans. (Renuka Narayanan recounted this myth in her excellent Faith Line column in The Indian Express, and I liked the way she called asuras 'titans' instead of 'demons'. There is no need to, as it were, demonise them unnecessarily.)
The Upanishadic story is beautiful. The devas, humans and asuras are students who want Prajapati to teach them.
First the gods say to Prajapati: "Teach us, please, sire!" and in response, Prajapati utters a single syllable: "Da". Then he says to them: "Have you understood?". The devas reply: "Yes, we have understood. You said to us, damyata: be self-controlled." Prajapati says: "Yes, you have understood well."
The humans ask Prajapati: "Teach us, please, sire!" and once again Prajapati utters: "Da". He asks them: "Have you understood?" The humans reply: "Yes, we have understood. You said to us, datta: give." Prajapati says: "Yes, you have understood well."
The titans ask Prajapati: "Teach us, please, sire!" and yet again Prajapai utters the single syllable: "Da". He asks, "Have you understood?" The titans reply: "Yes, we have understood. You said to us, dayadhvam: be compassionate." Prajapati says: "Yes, you have understood well."
And the voice of God, the rolling thunder, repeats: "Da, Da, Da". It says, "Damyata, Datta, Dayadhvam, constantly reminding us. For, it appears that the gods and the titans have remembered, but humans have forgotten their command: "Give!"
In fact, I would say modern Indians have forgotten all three of the commands. We are neither self-controlled, nor giving, nor compassionate. This is perhaps why things have come to such a pass in this kali yugam.
I am ashamed that we did not have the self-control to recognise the scale of this human tragedy. 100,000 people feared dead. This is 0.01per cent of the country's population. We did not have the self-control as a nation to declare national mourning and to cancel all the festivities of Republic Day. They should have canceled everything in Delhi. I was in Trivandrum, and I wish they had canceled the dance performance by Mallika Sarabhai: she who might have had no information about her mother Mrinalini Sarabhai in Ahmedabad. Damyata!
Eliot stressed "Datta!" In this time of trouble, I can only echo that. Give. Be charitable. For it is a characteristic of our civilisation that we have forgotten to give. When a hundred thousand people are feared dead, and untold millions in a state of shock and total helplessness, we have to give. There is no use falling upon the old excuses: that the aid will not go to the deserving. That it will be diverted to the pockets of greedy men.
No, "Datta!" Give. For it is Gujarat today, possibly your home tomorrow. I have lived through earthquakes in California, including the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 or so. I know how it feels to be utterly helpless in the face of the fury of nature, as the distant thunder of the quake comes toward you. Even in the well-constructed buildings in California, designed to withstand massive quakes, we cower in primal fear when we face nature's wrath.
Dayadhvam! I know there are those who have given unselfishly. The armymen and the airforce personnel. The RSS volunteers who rushed to the scene. The Ramakrishna Mission. The countless good samaritans who pulled people out from the rubble. The worldwide charitable organisations. Medecins sans Frontieres, and the Red Cross.
But for the rest of us living comfortably in our homes, we must think: it could be our children, our parents, our siblings, our spouses out there buried under the wreckage of fallen homes. In Ahmedabad, it is the solidly middle class citizens living in well-appointed apartments who have suffered the most. People like us. There, but for the grace of God, go you.
I have been thinking of my beloved Kerala. We have lived in the comforting illusion that Kerala is somehow immune to all natural calamities. But in the recent past, the hill areas around Kottayam and Idukky have been rocked by a series of small temblors. Then I remembered, we have had considerable seismic activity in Kerala. For instance, centuries ago, a temblor caused the river Periyar to shift its course, thus spelling the end of Muziris (Kodungalloor) as a great port, and opening up the natural harbor at Cochin.
And untold centuries before that, Kerala arose from the Arabian Sea because of an underwater quake. This is when Parasurama, according to legend, raised the state by throwing his axe out to sea. Yes, Kerala, God's Own Country, too, is susceptible to tectonic shifts.
So are Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, the Garhwal Himalayas, the Northeast, in fact the entire country. Can you imagine your home town demolished like Bhuj?
So I repeat, give. If not in cash, then in kind. Rush medicines, water, canned food, blankets, construction material, fuel, tents, if you have the capability to organise all this. Give it to the nearest Army cantonment: they will direct it to the right place. The aftermath of the carnage is the possibility of epidemics. Let us at least help the survivors. If you can, send goods.
Otherwise, give money. There is no tithe in Hinduism, so I suggest that we should all give something that is absolutely fair: one day's salary. This is still much lower than what the traditional Muslim is expected to give in zakat. And give this money to the Army, or to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund. The address that I have from The Indian Express is:
PM's National Relief Fund
Those who live abroad sometimes have a tendency to give a measly sum, say $ 50, thinking of the multiplicative factor of the exchange rate. This is nonsense. Give one day's salary, people! This is the least you can do. Let the pain be equally shared amongst all of us. One day's salary will not bankrupt you, by any means. If you make $ 100,000, give $ 274. Do not scrimp. For, one day, the shoe may be on the other foot. Do unto others…
If you are working for a company that matches employee charitable donations, this is an easy way for you to double your contributions. There are also a number of major corporations that will solicit donations from all their employees whenever there is a tragedy anywhere in the world. So tell your friends and colleagues about the enormity of this human devastation in Gujarat. Get them all to contribute.
In the US, here are some of the addresses to which you can send your money:
IDRF, 4807 Phebe Ave., Fremont, CA 94555-2502
Prime Minister's National Relief Fund
Wire Transfer Information:
Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (Riggs Bank, Washington, DC)
Datta! Give. For, as John Donne said, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
The Uttar Pradesh government should be congratulated for managing the enormous undertaking of handling 70 million pilgrims on a single day (Mauni Amavasya) at the Maha Kumbh Mela. That a penurious state administration was able to build hundreds of miles of pipelines for water, several hundred miles of roads, and all the other elaborate infrastructure to handle the largest assembly of human beings ever seen on earth for a single purpose is nothing short of wondrous. It is true, if Indians put their minds to it, the most complex organisational problems can be overcome.
I read an article in the Indian media that alleged that some number of old people have been deliberately abandoned at the Kumbh Mela by their relatives. This may be true; and if so, it is a callous act. But there is an old custom in India and elsewhere that the truly old, when they have reached a stage where they are a burden to their families, voluntarily take sanyasam or even in some cases starve themselves to death.
I once saw a stark Japanese film by Imamura Shohei, The Ballad of Narayama, which is set in the remote interior countryside, an area of snow-capped mountains, where the peasants led a hand-to-mouth existence. The film is set perhaps two hundred years ago. The carrying capacity of the land is limited: only a fixed number of people can be accommodated. So, when a new baby is born, it is also an indication that some old person has to die.
There is a custom that the truly old are taken to the snow-clad mountains and left there to meet their end. In the film, the old matriarch of the family realises that the time has come for her to go. She forces her loving and reluctant son to carry her to the mountain peak where she will die, peacefully, amongst the snows, composed and prepared for her fate. In many ways, a more dignified end than being forced to live as a vegetable in an old-people's home, ill-treated and abused by some uncouth attendant.
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