It was the 2nd of January this new year. Tragedy struck a party of 50 villagers in Odisha, sailing homeward after enjoying a few festive hours on an islet, Hukitola, in the Mahanadi. The boat capsized. Ten people, mostly children, drowned. While only a few could swim over to the shore, most of the 40 survivors were rescued by the local villagers, led by two teenage girls.
The evening was bitterly cold. Savita and Purnima, friends, were warming themselves near an oven inside a hut close by the river. An unusual burst of noise drew them out to the riverbank. All was dark and a biting wind tried to push them back. But soon they heard heartbreaking cries from the swift stream that could have only one meaning.
The girls shouted for the villagers to dash out. But the cries from the river were shifting away. The tide was receding in speedy currents and every second mattered. The two jumped into the dark waters and started scouting for the distressed and hauled 13 of them, one after another, up to the shore. In a few minutes the villagers rushed in and saved the rest.
The men of the fire brigade and another agency too reached there promptly, although only to bring the dead ashore before they had been swept too far.
Amidst the gloom it was some solace to see that the next day all the major newspapers of the state dedicated their prime headlines to the deeds of these two girls, instead of to politics. Answering queries from newsmen the shy girls revealed that they forgot the familiar fears at that moment and the possible negative consequence of their actions like the danger to themselves or the reaction of their guardians.
They also forgot that not only was it dark and the water freezing cold and they were hardly swimmers, but also the scary knowledge that crocodiles were particularly fond of that bend of the river.
Since this author was then in Bhubaneswar, not very far from the place of occurrence, it was possible for him to gather these details of the action by the two girls and form some conclusions which, he believes, are worth presenting before the readers: (1) The girls had never been taught about exemplary deeds of bravery and sacrifice; (2) they were not members of any youth association with any inspiring social programme; (3) they had no occasion to learn from any holy mission about the value of compassion; (4) episodes in history or literature did not build up in their subconscious any dream for performing something unusual; (5) they had no idea of getting praise and publicity out of what they would suddenly do; (6) before them there had been no example of any similar mishap and rescue in that region.
So what they did was spontaneous in the noblest sense of the term; compassion was instinctive in them and it was so powerfully vibrant that it did not let doubts and reasoning to interfere in its instant manifestation the moment the crisis demanded it.
By the way it is important to remember that neither of these two was glued to the mobile and both were outside the octopus grip of gadgets. In other words their instincts had not been paralysed by perversely stimulated emotions which, in the cities, could lead a bystander to continue shooting pictures of an accident victim lying bleeding on the road instead of helping him in any way.
What the daring of Savita and Purnima represents is the action of a basic human quality, intrinsic though subdued. For long and for many, the Freudian diagnosis of human conduct had been the intelligent way of looking at human behaviour or social situations. We have taken for granted, whether we admit it or not, that self-preservation and indulgence constitute our nature. Research after research during the last quarter-century has dismissed theories like sex and death moulding much of human behaviour except at a superficial plane; yet for many, these worn-out assertions continue to be modern and their outlook is adjusted accordingly. The intellectual discourses we hear, the progressive literature we read and the avant-garde paintings we are called upon to appreciate rarely help us look beyond. Post-modern? That is still a concept without any convincing content.
A significant piece of research carried out by Prof. Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, currently receiving serious attention from several quarters, is a challenge to the ‘traditional modern’ concept of man. The essence of the professor’s research is that “compassion is deeply rooted in our brains, our bodies, and in the most basic ways we communicate.” Several researches in other universities are complementary to this conclusion, for example the groundbreaking finding by Prof. Karen Winn’s team at the Yale University establishing that even a six-month old child shows inclination for a symbol suggesting compassion and disregard for one suggesting obstruction.
It is relevant to mention that neither Savita nor Purnima sat glued to the mobile at that fatal hour nor they have been under the spell of any such gadget, being in an environment far from the madding crowd. But in the entire country, rurality is continuously bulldozed in favour of urbanisation. The question is, can the basic instincts of compassion, still manifested occasionally and unexpectedly, survive the impact of mechanisation? It is believed that the human psyche can withstand all external onslaughts if we live within. But do we care?
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship