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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 19 New Delhi, April 25, 2020

The Truth Is: We Are Meaningless

Saturday 25 April 2020, by T J S George

IMPRESSIONS

Sardar Patel’s statue at Ahmedabad was recently advertised for sale at Rs. 30,000 crore by "unknown persons." Clearly it was someone’s idea of a joke and could have been dismissed as such. But the quality of humour is strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain for only the cultured. It blesseth him that provides comedy and him that enjoys it. But it curses those bereft of a sense of humour, politicians for example. No wonder the politicians of Gujarat filed an FIR against the unknown persons on charges of cheating and forgery under the Penal Code, the Epidemic Diseases Act, and the Information Technology Act?

Epidemic diseases? Administrators see the world in ways ordinary citizens cannot. The Sardar statue episode proves this yet again. This is a monument that openly copied the Statue of Liberty in New York, as is clear from the very name, State of Unity. But the unity theme was a contrived one unlike the liberty theme which was a natural one. That naturalness echoed in its immortal lines: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

India had no such message to convey and no golden door to open. The Patel statue with its grandiose name was merely another attempt to show that those who put it up had a grand vision. But all that they could do was to make it the world’s tallest. For that the tribals were deprived of their land and 300 crocodiles were evicted to make way for tourist infrastructure. Even then it did not become historically significant.

The offer to sell the Sardar statue may not have culminated in a deal, but it shed light on the way life has changed for all of us. Overnight as it were, humour has become suspect if not undesirable. Ideas and assumptions have undergone wholesale changes. Neighbours, friends and relatives are no longer what they were before. What we have known is gone. What we do not know has taken over. Where we go and how is unknown to us.

The transformation the word is undergoing is unprecedented. There were several Great Plagues in the past. One in the Istambul area in the 6th century saw deaths at the rate of 10,000 a day. But at the end of each devastation, the world returned to what it was before. This time it will be a new world to which survivors return. In the past we shaped our world. Now the world will shape us in ways to which we will have to adjust whether we like it or not.

A look at just one factor is enough to bring out the catastrophic nature of the new changes overtaking us. Restrictions on movement and on gatherings of people mean that most work places have to close. Consequently, people are losing jobs en masse. Early estimates said 400 million Indians will be devoured by unemployment and pushed into poverty. Even the IT sector in Bangalore has companies announcing 30 percent salary cuts and terminations that run into hundreds. Unemployment on this scale will shake the foundations of any nation state.

The days beyond may be worse, not better. Reports are out recalling a conference of scientists in Germany last year. Apparently they had sounded a warning. The frozen earth of Arctic, they had said, was home to microbes that had remained dormant for centuries because of the ice. Now the Arctic is warming up, rapidly at that, and the microbes are getting released. One virus, described as a giant, was found to have remained frozen in an ice core for 30,000 years. The giant is now free.

May be now we will pay attention to authors who wrote novels on microbes. I wish I had read some of them. But till yesterday microbes were a boring subject and I could not have been the only one who considered reading fiction about them a waste of time. Now they say "Vitals" by Greg Bear (2002) is very much about the bacteria phenomenon that we have run into. Look up Google and you will see that the "Bacteria Book List" is pretty long. I found the term "bioterrorism" there. And a book with the title "Apocalypse by Epidemic."

We think that we, mankind, is the ultimate power wielder. We can declare lockdowns as we please, criticise prime ministers, promote communalism, even team up with VIPs to break the law. But before the bacteria, we are not just powerless; we are meaningless.

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