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Image of Man in Disaster

Man’s fear and fascination for the possible evil in his own nature is exaggerated and exploited by traders making use of art and media, keen to project a situation as extremely poignant, even when it is already poignant as is. A sudden fire wrought havoc at Kumbakkonam, Tamil Nadu and extinguished scores of budding lives. An aspect of the tragedy, widely publicised, which has spread a sort of cynicism about human nature itself, is the impression that the teachers abandoned the  building the moment the catastrophe started, without bothering to save or rescue the kids from the devastation.

It is not easy to make an objective assessment of their conduct. The instinct for self-preservation could very well have made some of them behave the way they did, but most of them could have just become a part of the crowd and felt as helpless as the crowd itself. Probably the suddenness with which the scourge came and the absence of more than one entry-cum-exit did not leave much scope for the teachers to translate their concern into any practically helpful mode. But that requires a factual study. What is important at this hour is to assert that human beings are not necessarily irresponsible in their conduct during a crisis, that nothing dominates their mind at such crises, except the need for self-preservation.

An American movie entitled “Earthquake” made a very depressing impact some years ago. The thesis it propounded, through expertly employed cinematography, was that men were reduced to monsters when confronted by the terror of destruction. It showed multitudes of men and women fighting for survival, clawing one another during a disastrous earthquake.

The illusion of reality, the excellent photography and other manipulations created must have convinced thousands of spectators about the soundness of the thesis, but there was at least one man to emerge from the “successfully” running shows not only unconvinced, but also provoked. He was Dr. Dennis Mileti, a professor of sociology at the Colorado State University. He delved deep into the reports and studies on some three hundred disasters and the spontaneous behaviour of men and women caught in them. His well-documented conclusion focused on a truth staggeringly different from the cynicism the film generated. He said, “When people go through a disaster, they don’t panic, they don’t look and try to steal from their neighbours. Instead, they experience a burst of altruism. It goes shooting through their bodies like adrenaline. They want to go around rescuing one another.”

Further he observed, “This feeling of good, this euphoria, is definitely contagious. You find blacks and whites and Chicanes who may have hated one another before the disaster suddenly becoming the best of friends. They even share each other’s clothes.”

The pity is, not even one in a thousand of those who saw the film will read Mileti’s research. The message the film gave is bound to mould to some extent their attitude towards their fellow beings and their negative expectations from them. “Art is significant deformity,” said Roger Fry. In the hands of many a film-maker, it is a mere deformity devoid of any significance.

Every individual has some reason to feel guilty about something. (We are not speaking of either the abnormal or the supernormal.) Even when for the sake of argument we conceive of a human being who had nothing to feel guilty about personally, the sense of guilt will chase him because he is after all a member of a society which tolerates a lot of injustice. To feel guilty is to be reassured, in a negative way, that one is essentially good.

Man has both a fear and a fascination for the evil in his nature. Traders who enslave art for vending their wares, like the makers of the aforesaid film and several of the same category, exploit this bizarre human trait. Each age has its Dracula, representing concentrated vices. They are only individuals and exceptions to the forces characterising the general nature of humanity. But popular psychology seems to have made us over-conscious of several negative, devouring and atavistic laws and we have begun to suspect ourselves of imaginary sins and peccadilloes. Oedipus had no so-called complex of any sort. He was a victim of a set of unfortunate circumstances. But we have constructed an Oedipus complex and have begun interpreting human behaviour accordingly. Modern knowledge of the subconscious inspired T. S. Eliot to reconstruct a 14th Century character, Thomas Becket (Murder in the Cathedral) and to examine if the would-be saint could nurture a secret temptation for the glory of martyrdom. There is nothing wrong in such a retrospective review as long as the examiner had the restraint and creative sensibility of an Eliot. But most of such examiners, be their object a character of yesterday or a patient of today, apply their knowledge like the reported Malaysian monkey which had been trained to pluck coconuts and in its zealous drive for action, one day at twilight jumped on a tallish gentleman and tried to pluck his bald head.

There is a tableau amidst the ruins of Pompeii showing the petrified bodies of five robbers trying to snatch a moneybag from a resident – seconds before all were buried under the surge of lava. It is expected to remind man of the vanity of their greed. Like many other valuable lessons, this too is a monument to their ineffectuality, for some men will continue to grab at things as long as there is life in their arms. But this unfortunate reality fades into insignificance when contrasted with the gestures of good Samaritans – something to be hopeful of our time and of times to come.

We have come a long way from the time Pompeii was destroyed in the 1st Century. Indeed, we have come a long way even from the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which saw 60,000 dead – with the survivors left to fend for themselves.

Technology, communication and media – when they stand up with determination to help the people caught up in a whirlpool of crisis – can convincingly justify the high price the modern world has paid for promoting them. This also tells us what a wonderful world this can be only if man used the scientific and technological means at his disposal, as well as the organised state and private machinery, with an inspired goodwill.

Manoj Das

(Manoj Das is an internationally known creative writer. He is the recipient of India’s national recognition, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the nation’s most prestigious literary award, the Saraswati Samman. As a social commentator, his columns in India’s national dailies like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman, revealing the deeper truth and the untraced aspects behind current issues, have been highly appreciated.)