March 9, 2001


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The Beavis Society
The common-sense fix

Ashwin Mahesh

The warmth of a vanishing piety

We at Deoband, distt Saharanpur, UP, India have a dedicated team of surgeon, orthopaedic surgeon, anaesthetist, helping hands, funds and the team can reach you after knowing the address & destination with their own expenses by road with a vehicle full of required medicines with a certificate from local administration. Please respond at the earliest. Knowing exact place to reach & work will help in saving precious time.

I received this email message during the first few days after the earth moved under western Gujarat. As it did for thousands of others drawn to relief efforts in their local communities, the weekend after Republic Day turned into the hardest working one so far this year for me. Friends, relatives and acquaintances around the world scrambled to keep each other informed of on-the-ground developments, and of various groups mobilizing to confront the unfolding crisis. Soon, my mailbox began to overflow with messages of exhortation, information, hope and agony, and every mixture thereof.

A week before I received the letter, I would have guessed that Deoband is a little short of Peshawar, a far-away gangland town rife with mafia farmers and their bonded labourers, some uninspiring little place with an axe for the law and an ass for a judge. There simply aren't very many positive images of our large northern states, and more often than not, one simply despairs of them. Saharanpur, I had never heard of, although from the map next to my dining table, I now understand that it is the bigger of the two places. Deoband is about 50 km southeast of Saharanpur, and roughly the same distance southwest of Hardwar. Of Dr. Anuj Goyal, whose letter I quote from above, I know nothing.

Half a world from the epicentre of the tremor, relief work takes on the predictably limited roles of fund-raising and gathering materials for dispatch. From Boston to New Ulm, from software engineers to green-grocers, academic groups and taxi-drivers, the desi hat went out to collect heartfelt contributions. A million calls to Red Cross chapters and long-overdue runs to local temples kept the resources flowing. Web sites to hunt down missing relatives came up overnight, information relay teams from around India fed us a steady stream of updates. Art groups in Manhattan held auctions at $ 250 a plate to put food on faraway tables.

Several of us will have stories to tell of this quake, and mine as anecdotal as others. Weeks after the tragedy, I continue to receive updates from relief teams that set out from Bangalore and Chennai. In following their progress, I have learned all sorts of things. Of death and devastation, yes. But also of gas cutters, monstrous cranes, building codes and relief trains, and of unpronounceable names of medicines for injuries I didn't know existed. Of Hindus, Muslims and Christians stepping beyond the confines of their ordinary, segregated lives.

To the degree that I could, I put out word that Dr Goyal and his fellow volunteers may be available to assist in relief efforts, and could someone steer them to a meaningful destination? The following morning, I received responses from a few of the recipients, some to say they would attempt to contact the Deobandis, and others providing numbers at which the relief crew could reach someone to guide their efforts. With a few clicks of the mouse, and a few brief lines in explanation, I relayed the messages to the respective parties, leaving them to their further devices.

More than a week after the tremor, rescue workers continued to find survivors, an extraordinary testament to the tenacity of the victims, and the persistence of the searchers. Some people simply refused to give up, holding fast against incredible odds, and the search for such survivors, however futile it might appear at most times, found needed assurance in an occasional rescued victim. The victim's instinct for survival is understandable enough, but where-from stems the rescuer's determination to press on amidst rubble and pressing futility? From a distance, it all seemed unreal, a little like a scene from the movies that one imagines simply isn't plausible.

It is inevitable that some stories of this tremor will bear signs of the everyday decay that is Indian society. Bureaucratic bungling, politically motivated decisions that delay or withhold succour to sections of the population, profiteering from disaster, and chaos. These failings, seen even in orderly and wealthier nations during moments of turmoil, naturally flood the landscape of an Indian disaster. There is much to regret in such observation, and plenty that deserves punishment, even.

Even the summoned decency of such calamitous times eludes a few. Some people see only that volunteers at rescue sites are members of the RSS or the VHP, others see the destructive hand of divine judgement in such natural calamities. Even some victims lacked the integrity to look past the petty divisions of caste and faith, demanding an unfair share of relief much as they would the loot of ordinary times. The armed forces co-ordinating relief in large parts of Gujarat should have insisted on a fairer distribution of relief material. They have acquired the moral stature to speak above the pettiness of local politicians in the nation's interest; that they did not exercise this more vigorously is troubling.

The apparent futility of such negatives, though, is the best reason to look to the positives instead. Of those, there were many as well, and much that was endearing, despite the overwhelming appearance of loss. There is a little gratification in stopping to ponder them. More than mere nationalists, some people are points of light around us. In the warmth of an otherwise vanishing piety now resplendent in their lives, hope springs anew.

There is an honest purposefulness to a person who would abandon the normal passage of his/her life, and travel a thousand miles and more bringing succour to the devastated. That a materially deprived people can still muster the conviction to strive beyond this calamity, is heartening. In an age of diminishing personal integrity, we find ourselves stirred by the sight of compassionate strangers reaching across substantial barriers. The charity of their hearts is inspiring, even if also a compelling reminder of the total absence of such sentiment in everyday life.

An honest piety, however momentary in its appearance, transcends the losses. Travelling in little comfort, and living in difficult conditions themselves, and possibly exposed to the illnesses of ravaged conditions, ordinary people travelled the length of the country to lend a hand, rousing millions more from habitual apathy. Intriguingly, I found even the mere observance of goodness around me to be uplifting. In the final analysis, it must matter than people who are nothing like you and I, who merely imagine that we hold a common destiny despite overwhelming evidence of our material and other separations, take to the highway to human dignity.

Unexpectedly, service is the highest privilege of our wanton times.

Ashwin Mahesh

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