even Malaya in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries and even well into the 20th by the district administration to convey announcements of varying import to the villagers. None could miss the tom-tom or ignore its howled messages.
Government spokespersons are not a tom to the tom-tom, no, nor the visual media. And so, even if those two tried to convey an urgent or important message they would not have the little drum’s impact. They do so much else besides, so much that is just tinselly entertaining, crassly commercial or nakedly propagandising, that they will not be taken with a fraction of the focused seriousness that the tom-tom generated. And goodness knows there are enough reasons for us to hear in maniacal fury and protracted howls certain sharp messages from the State.
Are those messages coming?
They are not.
What could the messages be?
In a country where collective disasters fly around like colonies of bats, there are a million messages that could be, with purpose and point, howled out.
But leave howling aside, are they being spoken of even in whispers?
They are not.
‘Earthquake’ is a word from the geography class. Or something one has heard of and even felt but a while ago and then forgotten. But for someone, anyone, who is actually standing on a ground that is a-quake, that is heaving or shivering or rattling, ‘earthquake’ is not a word. It spells the cold shuddering fear of death. And for someone, anyone, who is inside or beside a high-rise building that is being shaken by a quake the word is, again, no word. It is a swirl of shock, fear, and disbelief. Will it stop? Will it worsen, turn from a jolt to a series of jolts that will then hold me in a crushing embrace, at once loud and voiceless, from which there is no escape? The moment is a moment long but how agonisingly slow!
Nirad Chaudhuri has described in his autobiography his experience, as a child, of the earthquake that shook the Dhaka-Sylhet region on July 9, 1918, turning their Kishorganj home into a heap of crushed masonry: “There was a low all-pervading rumble, but it seemed to be part of a vast preternatural and unconquerable silence by which that familiar and reassuring source of sound, the human voice, had been wholly stifled. Men were running about, but everything was unreal and trance-like, although intolerably distinct. The earth was quivering without interruption, but its progress towards destruction appeared to be agonizingly slow. I saw the north wall of our house coming down, and could note every stage of its descent from the roof level to the ground as if the collapse was being demonstrated from a slow-moving cinema projector. I also saw the blocks of fallen masonry roll across the ground like croquet balls… ”
Nine people were killed in that earthquake. Only nine? The fatality figures were low because the buildings affected were not made of cement, concrete and steel which, falling and twisting as it falls, pulverises all that lies in its field. The 7.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan and Pakistan’s Baluchistan last Tuesday killed, according to early estimates, 40 people in Iran and 20 in Pakistan. The final tallies may well show a larger figure but even if they do not, the reason for there not having been more deaths is that the areas affected were, like Nirad-babu’s Kishorganj, essentially para-urban and not over-built, over-crowded, over-heated cities.
So, where does the beat of the tom-tom come in?
There is a dangerous and criminal silence in South Asia, like Nirad-babu’s “preternatural and unconquerable silence”, about where we stand in the matter of earthquake threats today. No one, but no one, tells us, what the chances are of earthquakes occurring in the zones that have been made a while ago, what is being done to mitigate the impact of falling concrete and steel on unsuspecting human beings. To be sure, there are bound to be expert reports absorbing the dust of neglect that do speak of this. But they are not tom-toms. We need the howling truth about earthquakes and us. What are the high-risk, moderate-risk, low-risk areas, what is being done on high-priority, priority, low-priority to de-congest the zones that are really danger zones, prevent high-rise or too-tightly configured structures coming up there? Have any restrictions on new structures been clamped there, have old and insecure buildings there been given notice for evacuation?
The Himalaya may be theologically ancient; they are geologically juvenile, seismologically unruly. And on that surface, we intelligent humans have built our city look-alikes of poor design and worse stability in the tightest imaginable configurations of density. Our hill stations are like rabbit warrens of congested dwellings, high-rise offices, twirling alleys and twisting drains. What will become of these nightmares of civic mal-intelligence when Richter 9 strikes them? Shimla, Dalhousie, Mussoorie, Nainital, Almora, Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong may all become rolling croquet balls if no one acts in time. No one is talking. No one is telling us how many nuclear installations lie in the high-risk seismic zones.
Water is the other ‘thing’. The last monsoons were a failure. Let no average-sum white-washer tell us we had a normal monsoon ‘by and large’. One does not quench one’s thirst by and large. Whole tracts of the country lie parched. The majority of our rivers are dry, riverbeds as pathetic as beached and blanched whales pecked at by crows and dogs. And as for that mythological being called ‘ground water’, you can dig and dig and then dig away and find rock, hard, dry rock. Our groundwater tables are not tables right now; they are groundwater deserts, subterranean deserts. Ever heard of underground deserts? Our groundwater aquifers are that or becoming that.
Do we, in the country as a whole, have enough water to see us through the water-lean months ahead? If the next monsoon fails, as well it might, will we able to pull through that drought? Will that drought then become a famine? Are we headed for a water shock?
Yet, no one is talking. The talk is about elections, kaun banega mukhya mantri, kaun pradhan mantri. Premchand’s Shatranj Ke Khilari needs to be written anew. We will duel ourselves to death over izzat, when the country is being laid bare to destruction by an improvident mindset.
We are in denial about the forms of death that face us. We need to be woken up from that denial.
Where is the beat of the tom-tom? We need the modern equivalent of the beat of the tom-tom.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal