Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Question in the Mirror

By: Tarun J. Tejpal

In Auschwitz, the exposed-brick barracks sit in neat rows. The sweet boxy buildings could be town-houses, or school blocks, or military quarters. Or killing factories that smoothly sucked in human beings, separated them from their clothes, their hair, their gold teeth, their reading glasses and their children, and then processed them in a furnace. The imagination can never fully get around the horror of Auschwitz – and adjoining Birkenau – where in less than three years the Nazis gassed and incinerated nearly one-and-a-half million men, women and children, many no more than a few years old. In a world full of memorials to our creativity and genius, this is a memorial to the darkness that ever lurks in the heart of men.

The battle of life against death is the battle of memory against forgetting. To not look the beast in the face is to have the beast on your back all the time.

Because we do not remember, we repeat; because we do not look the evil in the eye, it dogs us all the time. This special issue of Tehelka shows us the beast in us. For five years since the carnage, we have heard charges and counter-charges. We have heard the victims, the government, the police, the judiciary, and the civil rights groups. Now for the first time we hear the story of the killings from the men who did it.

One problem is, we live in an age of spiraling hype and sensation. An age of cheap spectacle in which the indulgences of sports and cinema can be so easily deemed landmark and historic. An age in which words like chilling, appalling, inhuman, outrageous, have all lost their charge. We are all desensitized viewers set upon by a turbo-fuelled media. Image is chasing image at such blistering speed that we dare not hold on to anything – lest we burst.

Of the many things that are uniquely appalling about Gujarat 2002, three are particularly disturbing. The first, that the genocidal killings took place in the heart of urban India in an era of saturation media coverage – television, print, web -- and not under the cloak of secrecy in an unreachable place. The second, that the men who presided over the carnage were soon after elected to power – not despite their crimes but seemingly precisely because of them (making a mockery of the idea of the inevitable morality of the collective). And finally, as Tehelka’s investigation shows, the fact that there continues to be no trace of remorse, no sign of penitence for the blood-on-the-hands that – if Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky are to be believed – is supposed to haunt men to their very graves.

Like Germany and Italy once, Gujarat begs many questions. How do a non-militant people suddenly acquire a bloodthirsty instinct? Does education not diminish the impulse to bigotry? If tolerance and wisdom will not flourish in a garden of well-being and learning, then is there any hope for these things at all? Today, it is the overwhelming question in the mirror. Each of us needs to see it and to answer it.

Is it possible, that contrary to all the hoopla, we may have already lived out the high tide of our democracy? Many Indians may get richer and richer, but as a people – a deep civilization – we will now only get poorer and poorer? Is it possible that a country sprung from the vision of giants can now only sustain small men with small concerns? Once a few good men shaped a modern egalitarian nation out of a devastated colony; are there none now to staunch the rot?

Today, India has a thousand mutinies awaiting an opportunity to violence. We could still become other things, the beast within us could still tear us apart if we do not look into the mirror and fix our face.

[Condensed by Mahendra Meghani from Tehelka weekly, 3 November, 2007]

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