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We're all in it together

Midway through swotting for her geography exam, Ananya, my 15-year-old looked at her watch and said, urgently: "9pm. It's time to pray for Japan". I frowned at this unwarranted interruption. We were locating India's various nuclear power plants from Kaiga to Narora on the map. But this stop-pray-for-Japan had a powerful appeal that went beyond geographic borders. The thought of a world collectively empathising - at the same time - with a stricken nation was hard to resist. We stopped and prayed.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2011 22:27 IST

Midway through swotting for her geography exam, Ananya, my 15-year-old looked at her watch and said, urgently: "9pm. It's time to pray for Japan". I frowned at this unwarranted interruption. We were locating India's various nuclear power plants from Kaiga to Narora on the map. But this stop-pray-for-Japan had a powerful appeal that went beyond geographic borders. The thought of a world collectively empathising - at the same time - with a stricken nation was hard to resist. We stopped and prayed.

On March 26, a few days from now, in another instance of simultaneous universal action, millions of people will switch off their lights to commemorate Earth Hour. This act has less to do with saving electricity and more to remind the world that it is possible to do with less. It's a reminder, and a warning, of a potentially dark future.

In the time of social media, it is easy for causes to go viral. The 'pink chaddi' campaign launched by the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women after Sri Ram Sene thugs beat up women and men in a Mangalore pub in January 2009 collected 40,000 members within just one week. I don't know how many panties were finally collected by the consortium or, for that matter, what the Ram Sene did with them. But not a peep has been heard from those fellows since.

Earth Hour is not a one-off campaign nor is it a response to a one-time provocation. Born in 2007 and organised by the World Wildlife Fund, this is a relatively young commemoration. Yet 1.3 billion people in 128 countries are already involved, and this year such places as Kota Kanabalu and Swaziland will be joining the party.

India signed up three years ago, and last year five million people reportedly switched off their lights. It is, according to the official website (www.earthhour.com) the 'biggest environmental grassroots movement in history'. Next week, all over the world, those who are participating will switch off their lights between 8.30 and 9.30pm.

So, what happens at 9.31pm when the lights come back on? What life-altering meaning can 60 minutes contain? In India the idea of voluntary load shedding, over and above the power cuts we already endure, can be outright laughable.

I have mixed feelings about commemorative and largely symbolic actions. I think Valentine's Day is ridiculous for anybody over the age of 16. I think mothers and fathers need 365 days, not one day randomly picked out for sentimental cards and wilted roses. I totally draw the line at hug your dentist, adopt a goldfish - or is it the other way around?

But some causes are larger than personal irritation. When you set aside a minute, a day, a week or a decade, you focus the world's attention on the huge challenges that continue to confront us. You don't have to be a girl in Djibouti to declare zero tolerance for female genital mutilation (February 6) and you don't have to be disabled, autistic or diabetic to set aside a day (December 3, April 2 and November 14) to raise awareness around the world.

Yet, commemorative moments go beyond awareness-building. The point surely is to stop everything, even if it is for a minute, to remember events in history (Hiroshima, the Holocaust) that are so horrible that they must never be forgotten lest history repeats itself. Or else, pause from a maddening schedule to remember a life well lived. Can a minute's silence on January 30, lead us to question the relevance of Gandhi to contemporary India? Or has his life been reduced to cliched tributes delivered by khadi-clad politicians?

But ultimately, simultaneous collective action - whether it's a candle in the window or the simple act of switching off a light - links us to our collective humanity. It's the symbolic equivalent of raising a fist and deciding what and who you stand for. On Saturday, March 26 at 8.30 pm, the lights will go out in my house. In doing so, I'll be joining millions of fellow humans around the world to say: please, pause, think.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.