Irrespective of the philosophy, religion or spiritual path that we dedicate ourselves to, when death stands uncompromisingly before us or someone in our closest circle, we shudder and crumble. It is that one real possibility that shakes our every belief and principle. Yet, when this very well known “end to life” appears at someone else’s doorstep, someone far away from our address, or ruins the lives of those who do not matter to us, or people whose faces we have not seen, we have little time to empathise. And if the dead are just poor nobodies, “what do we care”? Death’s relevance is in direct correlation with the distance between me and the corpse.
India has just witnessed a terrible tragedy – more than 70 children have died in a Gorakhpur hospital in a week – and all we do is spend hours on social media fighting when everything in front of us clearly points to negligence, neglect and callousness. There cannot be anything more macabre. These were children, for god’s sake! Does our allegiance to a party or ideology make us so synthetic that all we are interested in is the laying or shifting of blame?
Gorakhpur is about multiple culpabilities – the hospital’s, district administration’s, state government’s and, yes, let us face it, ours as an increasingly cold-hearted people whose sense of humanity is plunging even as their sense of self-interest is shooting up. Dying, getting killed are now a cold routine. Cold in the print of news, cold on the TV or laptop screen. And those most culpable are the most vocal in denying responsibility.
Where is this rabid denial emanating from?
If this is 21st century Hindu assertion that aims to pull down leftists, socialists, pseudo-seculars, Nehuruvians, Gandhians, Islamic apologists, then I say to all of you, there can be nothing, absolutely nothing, more ghastly than using the deaths of children to keep proving that the Hindu Right is perfect. This is utterly shameful. Am I guilty of not speaking about some past crimes in this country? Yes, I am. Please go ahead and point it out, accuse me of selectivity and bias – I will accept it. But do not fling at my face the deaths of others in order to ignore or trivialise the death of innocent children.
Stalked by death
Across the country today, death seems to be chasing us. But in every case, like always, we are indulging in diversionary tactics, insulting and demonising the dead and walking all over whatever little humanity we have left. Rohit Vemula, the Dalit scholar who committed suicide in Hyderabad in 2016, and Mohammad Akhlaq who was lynched in Uttar Pradesh in 2015 on suspicion that he had beef in his home, are just two more entries in our nationally irrelevant death register.
In Kerala, we continue to witness a cycle of violence in which neither the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh nor the Left are innocent. They are both kindling the fire and the fumes are growing more toxic. The parties involved are debating the number of dead on each side and blaming each other for starting this back and forth assassination game. Soon, it will not matter whether the death was of a right-winger or a left-sympathiser. None of the above varied instances of violent deaths are new to our country. We have just mastered the art of forgetfulness.
Memory is a picky creature. Its job is to simply store experiences – in images, sounds and, by extension, in words – but it is not consistent in the recalling function. Obsession with ourselves leads memory to bury images, sounds and stories of distant people who were hurt, destroyed and killed. This chronic debilitation has led us to become selfish and heartless. And for this we cannot hold any political party responsible. Etymologically, memory is derived from the Latin “memoria”, which means mindful. Its Sanskrit equivalent “smriti” is used by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta (Smriti-Upasthana Sutra), which is about Mindfulness. Mindfulness is about being in charge of your mind, holding the keys to the vault called smriti, and, therefore, to thought and action. This too died in our country a long time ago.
However, there are some who fight relentlessly to resurrect and keep alive the memories of lives lost at the hands of reckless power brokers. One such initiative is the Remember Bhopal Museum. A non-government, non-corporate museum dedicated to the memory of victims of the 1984 Union Carbide Gas Leak, and built by the survivors and activists.
Many of today’s Facebookers have little knowledge of this industrial disaster. Thousands died because of negligence and greed. And the horrors did not stop with that fateful night, the nightmare continues to this day. A disaster for which the taking-for-grantedness of the governments of the day in Bhopal and Delhi, and the heartlessness of our society are as responsible as Union Carbide.
Lest we forget
The Remember Bhopal Museum is the voice of people who perished and survived the tragedy. Stories are told through the words, songs, artefacts, personal items of the affected citizens of Bhopal. Unlike sterile stony monuments, this museum is a home to the affected families and a reminder of what we human beings are capable of. Such museums are not capsules of the past, they are warning lights that keep us from slipping into insulated compartments in the present and future. Hence, they are constitutive of a caring society. We will be sounding our collective death knell if these initiatives become extinct. Unfortunately, the Remember Bhopal Museum, with its limited financial resources, is struggling to survive. Our continued disregard for such efforts is only a reflection of who we are. The 33-year-old tragedy projected itself into the narrative of ongoing violence and deaths through a call made by the museum for funds to keep the place open.
In this piece, I have wandered through the deaths of many people, belonging to various religions, age groups, geographies, castes and genders. It may seem disjointed but they are all part of the same storyline. A narrative of avarice and power. Whether it is the politicians, bureaucrats or corporate bosses, all of them work with one goal in mind, and that is self-aggrandizement. A craving to acquire wealth, religious strength, caste superiority or political market share. In the crude urge to achieve these targets, we kill, kill and continue to kill. Deaths are then ranked and we are careful to push “our kills” to the lowest step in the stairway of relevance.
I brought Bhopal disaster and the Remember Bhopal Museum into this chronicle because I fear we are going to need many such museums. A country that remembers every person who lost their life is a respected nation. But a nation that fights to keep its people healthy, spirited, thoughtful and compassionate is a borderless land. It is a land where there will be no need for such museums, and memories remain spectacularly strong, unforgiving, capable of self-correction, alteration and renewal.