Every disaster is also an eruption of truth. Truth activates sentiments. But cultural dispositions pull sentiments towards sentimentality, which obscures the truth. Enduring rehabilitation, as against coping with chronic traumas and displacements, can happen only on the basis of truth, just as beneficial treatments are based on valid diagnoses. No amount of sentimentality helps. Indeed, sentimentality suppresses remedial interventions.
It is superfluous to delve on the massive scale of human suffering in the wake of the recent disaster that paralysed the state of Kerala—12 out of 14 districts being devastated. It is a reality brought home to all by visual and print media. There are, however, aspects to this vast tragedy that remain not so obvious and need, hence, to be reckoned.
The very first thing that stands out from this scene of sorrow and bewilderment is the irrelevance and futility of the many things to which we habitually attribute extreme and irrational importance. All religious differences were swept aside by a single flash of nature’s fury. Religious outfits that thrived for long on their pretenses of being able to sell supernatural remedies were exposed to be as helpless and vulnerable as the wretched of the earth. The floods dismantled many a castle of make-believe and hypocrisy. Labels were swept away. Pseudo-saviours of fellow human beings were nowhere to be seen. Several of those who sought refuge in places of worship were drowned. The God, showcased by conventional peddlers of religion, fled from the scene. People did not wait to take permission from their religious ventriloquists before they sought, and got, refuge in the houses of neighbours and acquaintances, who were in a position to help. Religious differences did not matter. Homes at a distance, rather than places of worship nearby, provided relief.
Politics and ideologies? The floods were partial neither to the Left, nor to the Right, nor to those who were neither Left nor Right, but were always on the right side of Mammon. It would be shocking indeed if the people of Kerala fail to see this truth that stares them in the face. It is an oddity of human nature that, until it is shaken by disasters, people tend to attach excessive significance to what is trivial and trivialise what is significant. Political activists in Kerala kill and get killed in the name of parties and ideologies. Politics of violence and politics of polarisation: All for what? For whom? To what end? If even the eruption of truth that this tragedy represents cannot open the eyes of those who, blinded by propaganda and untruth, plunge themselves into the sewer of hate and vengeance, what hope can there be that common sense will ever prevail?
As for the heartlessness of politics, consider the cold, calculating callousness of the Central government that fails to respond amply to human suffering likely due to political considerations. An offer of Rs 500 crore as interim relief, when compared to the allocation of Rs 3,000 crore for the 600-feet tall Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue, is an insult to the people of Kerala.
The Modi government feels uneasy about the offer of Rs 700 crore by the UAE government, and at the prospect of securing relief and technical help from the United Nations, because the name of Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, a parliamentary constituency that the BJP covets, is attached to it. The destruction suffered by the state is currently and conservatively assessed at around Rs 25,000 crore. How much of the cost of rehabilitation is factored into this estimate is not clear as
Unlike some other leaders, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan kept a low profile, monitored the work in progress, and ensured that the best, under the circumstances, was done to mitigate human suffering and to minimise loss of life. He was due to leave for urgently needed treatment overseas, but postponed his departure to be with the traumatised people of Kerala.
The real heroes of the moment, however, were the fishermen of Kerala. They were quick to respond and sacrificial in reaching the endangered people at the expense of their daily livelihood. They reached where the Army and the Navy could not. The picture of one of them lying prone in water to serve as a makeshift step for the rescued to board the boat to safety shall remain etched in the memory of Keralites. The organisational ability so spontaneously displayed by the fishermen who from far and near reached the sites of devastation is truly astounding. But for their prompt intervention, the loss of life would have been several folds higher.
Great Floods (or pralayas) figure in the narratives of religions. In such contexts, they presage new beginnings. It is the prospect of this new beginning, rather than sentimentality about what has happened, that should guide Keralites now. Such a new beginning involves a renunciation of the follies of the past that contributed, directly or indirectly, to the disaster in question. It is this that comprises the ambit of ‘truth’ of such situations. The worst thing about a disaster of this nature and magnitude is not that it has happened, but that it leaves a people no wiser.
As a Keralite, I see this tragedy also as a challenge to the self-respect of Keralites. They should not have to stretch their arms for grudging alms from indifferent sources. The new Kerala, as against the new India that the prime minister is touting, should be distinguished, apart from other features, by a new political culture that values humanity above religion and politics; and life, including nature, above power and profit.
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi