In an undiscovered country

by NANDITA DAS, The Indian Express, February 5, 2005

New Delhi, India -- I remember hallucinating about tremors long after I had experienced the earthquake in Ahmedabad. Having personally felt the anxiety of a near-death situation, I wondered why the tsunami tragedy didn?t even make my eyes moist?

We have all got so numbed to tragedies through electronic overload. We watch death and devastation on TV, over a sumptuous dinner. We read about the anguish and pain of innocent people in the dailies while sipping our morning coffee. Our movies create such special effects on human anguish and suffering, that the evening news seems almost insipid in comparison. Sensational journalism and entertainment compete for our emotions. We have begun to comfortably coexist with the deep horror of human suffering.

We sigh, mourn a bit, feel helpless and move on.

What has happened to us? Why do we shy away from experiences that could transfer pain into our hearts? All these thoughts were making me very uncomfortable. Was I being selfish in thinking of what the tsunami did not do to me, instead of of what it did to the millions affected by it?

Then there were questions that others posed, ??How come you aren?t going??? ??Have you donated??? Apart from struggling with questions and trying to connect people with funds, with those who needed them, I had done nothing. My conscience had begun to ache.

In the midst of all this, a friend working with the Red Cross in Sri Lanka invited me there. I asked myself what help would I be, that too for just a week? Will I be reduced to being a mouthpiece for the Red Cross? Will I be a disaster tourist? When I shared these apprehensions with Bandula, I was assured that I would go as an ??independent empathiser?? to boost the morale of the volunteers who had been working tirelessly.

I saw many raised eyebrows wondering why I would go to another country when ??my own?? people were suffering. I asked myself if people in Nicobar or Cuddalore were any more ??my own?? than those in Sri Lanka? The rebel in me got provoked with every ??why Sri Lanka??? And I found myself replying, ??why not Sri Lanka?

So there I was in Galle in southern Sri Lanka with figures of over 4,000 dead and countless homeless. It was eerie and ghostly. I was there exactly a month after the tragedy. All bodies had been cleared, but the ruined coastline told the sombre story. Some sat around with vacant eyes, some tried to pick up broken blocks of cement where once stood a house.

I met a child who screams with fear every time she sees water flowing, even in a drain. Many children wake up from nightmares of the sea choking them and taking away their loved ones. The adults try to be brave and tell themselves (and us) that the worst has happened and it surely cannot happen again. Do they truly believe that? After December 26, 2004, how will the islanders live by the sea?

I thought to myself surely it?s not going to be easy for them to befriend the sea again. But this was my logical mind assuming that the response to such a tragedy would invariably be that of anger and betrayal. But as I talked to people, I realised they had no anger! They felt that the sea, their provider, had been much abused by the human race and she was expressing her anguish. They believed she knew that the lesson had been learnt and they now ought to apologise to the sea in all humility. Was this Buddhism speaking or the native wisdom of the islanders?

I understood that tragedies are not only about sadness and grief but also about hope and camaraderie. As the devastation overwhelmed me, so did the undying spirit of people who had been engaged in relief work round the clock. Their work could entail anything from clearing cement blocks, pitching tents and distributing relief items to the much-needed psycho-social counselling.

The Indian Navy and Army, trained to operate firearms, were seen with brooms and shovels clearing up the debris. Their discipline and alacrity helped them conduct systematic distribution of relief items, pitch tents and reconstruct broken bridges.

The cynic in me saw Red Cross banners all over and wondered if big organisations were less about work and more about show. But thankfully I was proven wrong.

On my way back to Colombo, my eyes were still refusing to come to terms with the calamity as we drove past miles of destruction. Much after the media, you and I will stop thinking, the work will have to carry on. How long would canned fish and milk powder sustain? How long will people continue to live in tents? Is there a cost effectiveness to the relief work? Are we all responding arbitrarily to put our conscience at ease?

By the way, I was told that nobody in Sri Lanka celebrated the New Year. Not even one fire cracker went up in the sky.

I?m not trying to present a melodramatic or romantic picture of the experience by not focusing on some of the mismanagement, corruption, loot and even rape. We all know that while tragedies bring out the best in us, they can also bring out the worst. But it is optimism and hope that makes us go further, not cynicism and apathy.

I come back to my own country, a whole week older and many emotions fuller. I realised that we all don?t have to donate or go to the affected areas, but it?s important to understand the enormity of the situation and stretch ourselves a little more. We cannot control tidal waves, but could we at least try to diminish inhumanity of man to man? Is there a way we can restore peace and solidarity on this wounded planet?

If each of us took some responsibility for reducing the amount of suffering in the world, it would be a different place. From our shared suffering, compassion would be born. And in the birth of compassion, there would be a possibility for healing.

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