We have a curious penchant for anthropomorphism in all things. Giving a human face or human emotions to neutral and indifferent entities comes naturally to us. Time and again, in the face of disasters like riots, bomb blasts, floods and road accidents, we ask ourselves, “Does this city have a heart?” We invoke hearts, souls and spirits in our helplessness at being unable to control events. In the recent spate of road accidents in N. Delhi and Mumbai, as lives have been smashed, chopped down, quartered and mowed down recklessly, these questions have popped up again. In Mumbai, as a young man lay writhing in his blood on the side of a busy road, a witless policeman stood by while people just continued on in their daily tumult. Even a police van didn’t bother to stop. The victim got his fifteen minutes of fame in the papers the next day but was too dead to appreciate it. So we all came to the conclusion that Mumbai lacked a heart until a few days later, when a similar situation was averted by a passer-by, who had the presence of mind to rush another such victim to the hospital in time. Apparently he, the rescuer, had read the news, and had felt acute embarrassment and shame at how low Mumbai had fallen. This was in his mind as he went about doing his good deed. He proved that Mumbai had a heart, after all. We felt collectively redeemed and sighed thankfully.
At the risk of sounding cynical, let me point out a few facts.
When any such situation on the ground occurs, on a busy highway, especially during rush hour (and nowadays it’s always rush hour) there are oncoming vehicles traveling at a reasonably high speed of 50 to 60 kmph. More often than not, it is practically impossible for them to stop as this would lead to a pile up. We also live in terribly stressed out times. There are too many immediacies that we have to juggle. It is really the job of a vigilant police force – trained in dealing with such emergencies–– to divert the traffic, provide first aid and send for an ambulance – which has professional paramedics. The government of a civilized nation does not – should not, leave disaster management of any scale to the vagaries of the local populace and the occasional kindly soul who might just happen by.
This sounds even worse but I will say it all the same. When bodies are pulled out of wreckages, blasted train compartments, and rubble, who comes to help? How many CEO’s and senior executives do you see on their hands and feet doing the actual job? It’s usually always the locals – bumbling and well intentioned, but with time on their hands. The vada-paowallah, the jobless (and clueless) local boys of the carrom club, auto drivers…salesmen… I could go on but I don’t really see a Suit among these people. The Suit doesn’t have so much time on his hands even though he may have a heart of gold and whip out his checkbook the next day to contribute to the community effort.
When we talk so loosely about the heart of a city or its spirit in these contexts, we are actually discussing the ability of a man on the street to rise to the occasion, shelving his immediate concerns and playing good Samaritan, for free. In other words we are cheerfully delegating him with a function that we actually pay taxes for, which should be carried out by various departments of the government. In sentimentalizing the issue, we are overlooking and glossing over the fact that our government bodies work in an ad hoc manner, that there is no planning for sudden emergencies and a civic structure in place that can withstand sudden calamity. At the end of the day, it’s probably some local jobless young man whom you may have normally curled your lips with contempt at, who will come to save your life with no knowledge whatsoever of first-aid if, god forbid, you get into one of these situations.
In the mid 80’s, Calcutta was dubbed the city of joy, where the people were expansive and where there were helping hands when you needed them during a sudden accident or a personal tragedy. There were always the ubiquitious para (neighborhood) boys ready to lend their shoulders to the cot headed for the crematorium. Or menacingly “talk” sense to the abusive drunken husband on behalf of the neighborhood “boudi” (sister-in-law). One misses those days, but one also realizes that they had the time, and therefore the inclination. Present day Kolkata has come out of the economic slump of the 80’s and those lovable, but unemployed young people have become far less in number.
As we become more prosperous and our economy thrives, our infrastructure has to keep pace with overcrowding and rapid development – in housing, education, basic civic needs – and on the roads. Our mindset has to change from knee-jerk reactions and hurried compromises to a more articulated and professional response during catastrophes.
Instead of searching for souls and hearts, I’d rather settle for a well regulated police force and trained paramedics any day.