A matter of heart
People are asking themselves that question, deciding it is important to remember and reclaim our better selves
I spent some of last week in a friend's living room in Bengaluru, working, playing with her baby, listening to discussions about bleaching powder and pressure washers (as I learned, these are machines that use high pressure water jets to clean surfaces).
At some point the doorbell rang. An elderly gentleman and a middle-aged woman stood outside. They had come to collect two power washers. The man's house in Kerala was on the river's edge and they were going to check it. Through the network of connections that have been building fast on social media for Kerala flood relief efforts, they had offered to carry two power washers with them. A few hours later, a slender woman, who looked 18, but was perhaps 24, arrived. I was informed that she had organised local delivery services for intra-city transport of supplies, as that that had been turning into a problem. We helped her load into her car five washers, which she was dropping off to a collection centre for further transportation to Kerala.
Though they had all been strangers to each other before they got involved in the relief efforts, now they had the pleasant interactions of people involved in a project together — efficient, breezy, even excited, when they cracked a particular problem. There was no self-aggrandisement, no performative solemn, do-gooder expressions. In between, my friend's nanny came in to discuss how many nighties, or alternatively, bras she could possibly buy with her savings for return-home packs. "If we get 4 for Rs 100, how much will Rs 20,000 cost?" she asked. It took a fair bit of persuading to ask her to work backwards, to calculate the number of clothes she had the money for.
As long as I can remember, people around the country have always rallied round to help in times of disaster, through school, neighbourhood and local religious groups. But during these last few days of the Kerala floods, there has been an overall sense of human kindness and initiative that feels more than the usual.
It seems significant at this particular moment, when our public culture is gripped by a perplexing small-heartedness. We are encouraged to think and utter unkind, even cruel things in the face of human misfortunes. There is a political permission aided by certain forms of digital cultures, to vent every resentment in violent terms. Murders, lynchings, the rape of a little girl in a temple — even such horrors seem to meet with a sly response of whataboutery, gaslighting and pretence of logic (for instance, the WhatsApp forward of one Suresh Kochattil, which encouraged people not to donate money for Kerala relief). Perhaps it all adds up to a feeling of power for those who take easily to this. Whatever the historical explanations of why a certain culture of polarisation has grown, there comes a moment when one has to ask oneself a simple question: to what extent can we allow social or political resentment to rob us of our fundamental humanity?
Looking around at the many ways regular people of all backgrounds have surged forward to help with Kerala; looking at how the Centre's stinginess with aid has not gone unremarked, perhaps the moment has arrived when people are asking themselves that question, deciding it is important to remember and reclaim our better selves.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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