I’m a rotten person. There can’t be any other explanation for it. After following the apocalyptic Bihar floods in the papers and on television for some weeks now, I am terribly bored. And terribly guilty that I’m terribly bored. Now, I’m usually a sensitive sort who gets moved quite easily when I read about people in distress. But even as the media bring the scale of the disaster in Bihar from multiple angles into my living room, my mind has slowly but surely pulled it off its yellow post-it corner.
One reason for my dipping interest could be that I haven’t been able to gauge how badly the floods have affected individuals. I know that the scale of the disaster is enormous. But, ironically, without being scaled down to single experiences, it is as enormously abstract as a meteor strike on Siberia. Now, there have been enough heart-rending stories of victims captured by the media. But the problem is that the victims — for me, at least — have come pre-packaged as ‘victims’. (‘It’s Bihar. Things like this happen to people all the time.’) What could snap me out of my shameful blaséness is either me encountering the story of a victim who is a ‘Person Like Me’, or — and this is way harder — being made to be in the victim’s shoes.
A certain genre of TV disaster reporting makes the viewer, even if it’s for a few seconds, imagine what it’s like to be there. This usually has a reporter with a microphone and a raincoat in the middle of a storm lashing in some (usually American) town telling the viewer how bad things are. What we really see is not how bad things are, but how bad things are for him — for Mr Jack who’s not a statistic or a screen grab but a ‘Person Like Us’ parachuted into a hellscape. Either because my ethical gene dropped off between generations or because I haven’t been reading/watching enough to have encountered any report on the lines of: “I’m in a village that was here till last night. Now it’s been washed away and I’m shit scared,” the end-of-the-world floods have left me relatively unmoved.
One way of tackling my guilt is, of course, to sign off a cheque and feel that I have done my bit for the wretched of the earth. The other way (which should also include signing off a cheque) is to put myself in the middle of the disaster and feel — even if it’s second hand — its effect on me.
Which is pretty much what Chhaya, a resident of Sarangpur in Madhya Pradesh’s Rajgarh district did after watching channels warning viewers of the end of the world on Wednesday. Unlike the floods in faraway Bihar, the disaster that made Chhaya down tablets of insecticide was the impending apocalypse predicted by some scientists that would result from the Large Hadron Collider experiment in farther away Geneva. Why was she moved enough to kill herself? Because she was moved enough to believe that an all-inclusive, all-consuming disaster was in the offing. Fear is a powerful mover. Can empathy be another?
The same channels, when they were commenting about the Bihar floods, went in the other direction. One channel had its anchor sitting in an inflatable raft inside the studio yapping away about the deadly currents of the engorged Kosi. Screen shots of the disaster were being shown behind the man who seemed to be anchoring an extreme sports programme rather than a ‘Breaking News’ one.
So while Chhaya was moved enough (by fear) to kill herself by a disaster that she thought would happen, I remain unmoved by a genuine, full-bloated disaster. Maybe it’s high time I put myself in the shoes of those in northern Bihar. Maybe I need to start believing that those people are real. Maybe I need to get washed away. For right now, sitting in my high tower, I feel as dry as a bone, not unlike what the authorities scurrying about today with concern will feel six months down the line — that is six months before the Kosi breaks its banks again.