Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How cheap is human life?

My head is full of the horrendous events in Kolkata on last Friday. Having a party to attend in the city that evening, I had woken up in a fairly good mood, and planning outfits for my little monkey and myself, wrapping gifts, driving to the venue, these were some things I expected to be doing that day.

Not someone to normally watch the news, I had no clue about what had been going on since just after midnight. The first intimation of the tragedy was a phone call from a colleague of my man’s, asking us to turn the TV on and switch to a bangle news channel. And immediately my day went to hell. A massive fire had broken out at the basement level of the high-end AMRI hospital at Dhakuria, and while the actual fire had not yet appeared on upper floors, over forty people were feared dead from smoke and toxic fume inhalation.

The news just kept getting worse through the day. The toll rose from “forty feared” to ninety confirmed deaths by evening, all of them helpless patients of the orthopedic wing, the ITU and the ICU, all of them slowly and painfully asphyxiating to death while unable to get the hell out. Staff was nowhere to be seen, and no attempt was made by the nursing staff or doctors, or anyone else connected to the hospital to evacuate the most helpless of patients. The only shining stars were two Keralite nurses who pulled quite a few patients to safety on one of the floors before succumbing to the fumes. A sad loss that only added to the weight of the tragedy.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, as more and more facts emerge, it is clear that sheer greed and the systemic negligence we are so blasé about are the direct cause of the death of ninety one people, all but two of whom had gone into a “top class” and very expensive hospital to get better and come home well again. The first rung of those responsible, is obviously composed of the employees, management, and directors of this establishment, who are almost directly responsible for the huge disaster. The fire originated in a lot of stored cotton, surrounded by other highly flammable objects such as paper records, wooden crates, various chemicals, and other junk stored illegally in what was supposed to be the basement car park for the facility. Not only was the car park no longer a car park, but it had been turned into a series of offices and store rooms, along with labs for radiology and filing systems.

Apparently, a routine fire department inspection – probably the only one undertaken since the facility opened, -- had found these lapses, and the hospital had been warned that they should empty the space ASAP. This was six months ago, and the hospital had filed an affidavit claiming that action would be taken at the soonest. Of course, no action was taken, and no follow up done by the fire department to ensure that instructions had been followed, leading directly to the tragedy. In addition, all kinds of chemicals, diesel cans, and surgical spirits etc were stored there, again illegally, leading to the noxious and poisonous fumes which claimed so many lives.

When the fire started, no call was made to the fire brigade. Some calls went to the directors and upper management, mostly unanswered (it was after all 2.30 am, u cant expect them to lose their beauty sleep over something as trivial as an inferno in a hospital), and not much action taken to evacuate the patients, or to curb the fire. None of the patients’ relatives were informed either. When one or two of the patients called home to say breathing was becoming difficult and black smoke and fumes were pouring in through the central-air-conditioning ducts, and relatives rushed to the hospital to take the patients home, they were denied access, and told that everything was fine and there was no emergency.

As the hours passed, and the situation worsened, some of the private attendants of the patients, and some of the patients themselves tried to leave the wards, only to find no staff to be found anywhere, and all the windows sealed (for better functioning of the AC). Without recourse, they broke some windows (not an easy task as they are thick ones to prevent weather damage and such like which would entail frequent replacement) to try to let some fresh air in, and maybe to escape. The fire department was finally notified at about 4.30 am, two hours after the smoke first started pouring into lungs weakened by disease, surgery or medication, and they were notified by the cops (themselves notified by relatives of the patients) and not the hospital management.

When the fire department arrived, and tried to enter the basement to put the fire out, they were actually prevented from doing that by the employees of the main branch, and the management. The annexe, a deathtrap at the time, had no staff inside, and a wall of them outside preventing the fire department from doing its job, and stopping volunteers from surrounding areas from going in to try to save lives. When the police and fire department finally pushed through, they had to break through multiple walls to try and find the source of the fumes, and to try and put out all the fires, and it was already too late for most of the patients upstairs.

Patients’ families had arrived by this time, all informed by various friends and relatives who were watching the breaking news bulletins, and none of them were given any kind of clear version of what was going on. There was no list of patients in those affected wards, and no word on who had made it out and who hadn’t. The fight to find loved ones went on all day, and well into the night, as did the unavailing war against the fire. Ugly black smoke could still be seen billowing out the windows as late as the next afternoon.

Total tally of loss, ninety one people, some of them about to be discharged that very morning but most helpless and immobile, and almost all of them very much awake when their oxygen starved lungs finally gave up the struggle to keep them alive – and the two selfless nurses who saved lives before giving up their own. As of now, the six members of the board of directors are residing in police custody. The new chief minister of the state was there, at the site of the tragedy, facilitated and smoothened the process for the relatives to claim the bodies, and immediately suspended the operational license of the hospital and ordered the arrest of the directors.

While that is a good thing, deeper questions need to be asked, and lessons learnt. Why were the fire alarms switched off? Whey were there no fire exits? Why were the windows un-open-able in an emergency? A hospital making 11 crores per annum, officially, couldn’t afford fire fighting equipment? Why were the staff not trained in rescue, evacuation and fire drills? Why were the sprinklers non functional? Why was there never a follow up on the basement storage issue even after it had appeared on the radar? Why are there still no regular checks or stringent measures to check and implement fire safety measures at ALL public buildings?

And …biggest Question of all – will the villainous greedy six, who saved a few rupees in training and equipment jeopardizing so many lives, be punished? Or will this end the way all other tragedies end in India? I’m afraid that the moment the media glare shift to the next big tragedy (or political comedy), the six will be handed their “get out of jail free” cards and go and open another deathtrap somewhere else. I am afraid that the victims will go unanswered in their silent plea for justice, that the survivors and loved ones will go uncompensated and without closure, and that the greedy but wealthy will continue to accrue more wealth at the cost of more innocent lives.

I do hope that does not happen. Time will tell.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The fantastic Indian role models

As anyone who knows me, offline or through my blogs, knows – I am, and always have been unhappy, irritated, angry and disappointed with the way I see many of the people around me behave, and with how they ARE. While venting about my understanding of the “why” behind how the new generations are turning out (Kids today!), I got to thinking about why the people I hate are the way they are. When you really think about it, it is hardly surprising, given how problematic I find most of the greatest cultural role models that we grow up with.

The epics are more than just books in India. They are all pervasive, underlying a huge number of festivals, traditions, daily lore, and even anchoring much of the language. So, we grow up with the stories and the characters, and overtly and covertly they are set up as role models, as ideals for us to follow or emulate. Considering what some of these characters and ideals are about, this can be a hugely problematic thing.  

Possibly our biggest ideal, the most IDEAL of role models, the one beacon that pretty much all men are supposed to aspire to be and all women are supposed to aspire to marry or give birth to is Ram. The title character of the ubiquitous Ramayana (practically THE cultural icon of India – worldwide), is otherwise known as the maryada purushottam – literally the best among men. Held up as the shining example of the ideal dutiful son, the perfect brother, the perfect husband, and the ideal warrior and king, he is the man who does no wrong, whose every move, every decision is another step on the path of righteousness.

This is drilled into us, in myriad spoken and unspoken ways, from the day we are born. Most of us never bother to think about or question these assumptions, and as I attempt to do so now I am expecting a large amount of flak, especially from the orthodox, traditionalist, narrow thinking, blindly following majority. If you really think about it, how does the life, and actions, of the great role model Ram stand up to scrutiny? Not very well in my opinion. What I find instead is a sometimes selfish, sometimes callous, sometimes egotistic, sometimes unethical MAN. Not a god, not an avatar, not the shining example of all righteousness, not the ultimate perfection in manliness, not an ideal anything, just a man, and not a particularly likable one either.

A man who kills from hiding (the Bali episode), kills someone he has no personal enmity with, who has done no harm to him or his, merely to form a political alliance may be human, and even shrewd, but is certainly not an epitome of ethical behaviour in my book. A man who spends roughly 10 years planning and executing a revenge for a slight to his ego, fighting a war in the process, killing thousands and laying waste to an entire nation, is hardly the best of men. OH wait! The war was supposedly about getting his beloved kidnapped wife back…right? WRONG! If that was true, the first reaction after rescuing her would not be “walk through fire to prove you have not been fu*#ing your brains out with that demon everyday”.

Even as an average woman with an average man as a partner, I know that the moment I have to PROVE my innocence/purity/chastity whatever is the minute I walk out of the relationship. And here we are talking about a GOD! An incarnation of Vishnu himself! One would expect a modicum of trust in his long suffering wife who has followed him into exile and lived in hardship all those years just to be near him! Also, she was kidnapped. So if she is no longer “pure” how is that her fault? RIGHT! It’s that old monster of victim blaming. Rape is the fault of the woman right? Now we are told in the Ramayana how Sita fended off the amorous advances of the demon with the sheer power of her fidelity … good for her, but unrealistic. If someone is strong enough to kidnap you, and really wishes to do further harm, chances are, he will. Does that mean the woman no longer has the right to be a wife? And is unacceptable to her family? No wonder we are still murdering the VICTIMS in the name of honour.

So what are we to learn from this IDEAL man so far? It’s ok to drop or ignore all your so-called much vaunted ethics if you have something to gain. Hmm that sounds about right, sounds like most of the people I know, and most human beings. It is ok to cause as much harm as necessary in order to avenge a perceived or real slight or insult. And it is not just fine, but divine to suspect your spouse and demand proof of purity and blame the victim. My! What an amazing role model so far. Already I begin to feel my insides churning in that special way that is reserved for the narrow minded MCP’s of the world.

So, now that the war is over, and the wife rescued and PROVEN 100% pure, one can head back to the long abandoned kingdom being looked after by the brother. Arrival, ascension to the throne, blah blah. Once he gets a taste of the throne, like all others who get one, he does not want to give it up. He is willing to throw his pregnant wife out of the kingdom, into the forest, because people gossip about her CHARACTER (a word which means only sexual purity in India), rather than relinquish the throne.  Not only that, he does not have the basic guts to face her, and tell her to her face that she must be sacrificed under the wheels of his royal ambitions. So, he sneakily sends his brother instead to take her for a nice drive, and then abandon her without any warning! The word of one narrow minded washerman, beating his wife for having stayed out all night, is worth more to him than any trust in his partner, any sense of the respect due to her, or any love she is owed. WOW! How perfectly divine!

So now, the pregnant wife lives in the forest, without any knowledge of what caused her fall from grace. She is lucky that she is taken in by a sage and gets to live, and give birth to her twins, in his hermitage. She could equally easily have become a fine meal for some wild animal, or been murdered or worse by bandits. Now, many years pass. In the meantime the chariot of royal ambitions rolls on until just one nation is no longer enough, and he sets out to perform an Ashwamedh yagya, a proxy way of establishing dominion over the neighbouring nations. In the course of this great proxy war, the horse is captured – and its escort regiment soundly defeated – by two children, preteens who live in an ashram, and appear to be the offspring of some ascetic.

Now what does our paragon of all virtues do? Does he go to bow to these amazing children? Does he laugh it off and move on? Neither! He sends an ARMY against two kids, again not led by himself, but by others. When this too loses, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna sent back in shame, and hanuman captured, he finally arrives himself, not to laud and praise the children, but in anger, to fight them. Presumably he too would have been soundly defeated, if the sage Valmiki hadn’t intervened to prevent the fight. He still doesn’t seem too interested in such amazing children (as any normal human being not jealous of their prowess would have been) and makes not much attempt to find out who they are, returning to his own capital instead.

When the sage Valmiki finally takes matters into his own hands, and takes Sita and her two sons to court, and their identity is finally revealed, much melodrama occurs. Of course, now that heirs have been found for his not inconsiderable empire, much of it newly acquired, the past is forgotten, and all imagined and real trespasses forgiven. Until, that is, another murmur arises about Sita’s chastity. After all, if she could have slept with Ravana during her captivity, how much more opportunity for being unfaithful in a jungle hermitage full of handsome, fit, young sadhus? So, YET AGAIN! Sita must walk through fire to prove she is PURE.

FINALLY! She shows some backbone, refuses this new test of her chastity, and basically leaves the man! Should have happened much earlier…but whatever, better late than never and all that. But what, let me ask again, does all this say of this paragon, this role model, this demigod? Nothing particularly good as far as I can see, and mostly things I would not stand for in anyone, let alone my partner or significant other!

No wonder we are the way we are. No wonder we have such screwed ideas about duty, love, relationships, marriage, honour, and what have you. And this is just one of the role models which permeate our consciousness as a nation. I will continue to analyse more, both men and women, in the next few blogposts, in an attempt to understand where a lot of our TYPICALLY Indian thought processes come from. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kids today!

It’s a common theme at most gatherings these days, especially ones where people of “a certain age” are present. Psychiatrists and pop psychologists, agony aunts and parental advice columns, the next-door aunty and the maid servant, everyone is losing sleep over how badly the “aaj kal ke bacche” are turning out. It’s an incessant refrain wherever I turn. Kids today just don’t measure up! They are too selfish, too aggressive, too materialistic, too brand oriented, too rude, too mercenary, too something or the other.

While I do see the signs of all this in most kids, it would be wrong to say ALL kids are this way, because many are not. And as for the ones that are, I think it is important to look at the why, what, and how. If the kids, and by kids these discussions mean anyone between 2 and 32 these days, are the way we think they are, the way we hoped they wouldn’t be, the question is haven’t WE made them this way? As parents, teachers, role models, and general authority figures, haven’t we set all the wrong examples that have created this generation of self centered materialistic human beings? After all, no matter what big WISDOM we cram in their books and how much we lecture them on right and wrong and values, monkey see monkey do.

When a parent at my daughter’s school, the guardian of one of her classmates, complains for 40 minutes at a time about how her kid keeps watching this particularly disturbing cartoon, which the parent disapproves of, and doesn’t listen to directives to change the channel or turn the TV off, I wonder which is the parent in their house, and who makes the rules. How does a barely-six-year-old have the temerity to ignore parental directives so easily? Obviously it has never learnt that no means NO. and that’s hardly surprising given how I see most parents handling discipline (and no discipline DOES NOT mean hitting your child). At home, in malls, in cinemas, the scene is almost identical. The kid asks for something, parent says no. kid throws a grandmother of a tantrum, screaming, crying, kicking, falling on the floor and in general making a scene, parent gives in.

What the child has learnt – all it takes to turn a no into a yes is a little waterworks and public embarrassment. A valuable lesson that the child is NOT likely to forget in a hurry. I really don’t get it. If I can get the child whatever it is, and if I think my child should have it, I wouldn’t say no in the first place. If I can’t, or won’t get it for the child, then I simply WON’T. initially my monkey tried the tantrum routine, until she realized that mommie has an exceptionally thick skin, does not get embarrassed at all, and the no never changes to a yes. In restaurants, especially in India, kids are a menace! They run around, getting under the feet of the serving staff, running into chairs and tables, disturbing other diners and making a godawful racket. The parents seem to be blind and deaf! Assuming the kid has never been taught to behave itself and keep its seat in a restaurant or other public spaces, I don’t find it surprising that these kids grow up to be obnoxiously loud in restaurants and plexes, and NEVER turn their phones off in a movie or a play.

Increasingly, the ONLY focus of the parents seems to be the GRADES of the child. With all consuming obsessiveness about grades, parents ignore all transgressions as long as the RESULT is good. The child need not socialize (in fact socializing is often actively discouraged), and need not have any hobbies or extra curricular interests. In addition, relatives and friends are discouraged from coming over, or coming to stay, especially around exam season, and every whim of the child, healthy and legitimate or otherwise, is indulged in order that the child is in the RIGHT frame of mind for the EXAMS (even if they are the mid term evaluations of a 5-year old). Then, when they grow up, we suddenly expect them to care about relatives? Having taught them that nothing matters except their academic records, and that people are unnecessary, we suddenly complain when they behave as we have taught them to.

We complain ad nauseum of how materialistic these kids are, and how they talk brands all the time. We compare them to how simple, down to earth, and innocent we were at their age, when all we cared about was climbing trees and playing kho-kho. How accurate that self-portrait is, is anyone’s guess, but what we don’t examine is how we are making them that way. I know of mothers who throw away dadi ma’s home made roti and bhindi ki sabzi (in front of the kid) to replace it with salami and pizza for his packed lunch. I know parents who don’t buy any electronics, not even their own phones, without the advice and permission of their pre teen kids! I see kids in school, and not even high school at that, who sport the latest brands in everything, who carry expensive and high tech phones, tabs and what have you. They obviously didn’t buy all this for themselves, so who taught them the BRAND thing?

We don’t socialize anymore, not really. At best our CIRCLE is a small set of people of similar social and economic background. We have done away with the gift giving and family gatherings, because they cost too much time and money, both of which can be better used elsewhere. Time….in making more money, and money … in buying the next dress, bag, pair of shoes, phone, etc. so the kids don’t learn to share or give. They don’t learn to tolerate nosy or irritating relatives, just because it is something that is done, and they don’t learn that some friends may have a LOT less stuff than others. They only learn the importance of having the PS2, and of going to shop in DUBAI. We don’t give to charity, and would rather buy more clothes we don’t need than sponsor a child. We would rather throw away discarded clothes than bother to cart them to an orphanage.

And we still expect our kids to grow up to be amazing human beings with all the right values? That’s a little childish isn’t it?