Opinion

The TM Krishna column: Response to Gorakhpur deaths shows we’re losing the last bits of our humanity

Does our allegiance to a party or ideology make us so synthetic that all we care about is laying or shifting blame?

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.

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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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.