What indeed is humanity? Thoughts on ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy
I read McCarthy’s 2006 book The Road with a feeling of horrified fascination. That is expected from any post apocalyptic story of human survival, in this case a tale of a father and son duo walking towards the coast through a brutally cold and violent America that has been completely burnt down.
To illustrate a bit, the duo need to protect themselves from highway gangs who steal and kill and even eat other humans. The need to keep moving so no one would find them. A few scenes in the book took me right back to Leon Uris’ books about The Holocaust! Frightened humans who had been stripped of dignity and reduced to chattel. Macho men and women surviving by exploiting and dominating the weak. Another constant activity and challenge was the hunt for food from abandoned homes, shops and orchards. Calories to survive, to keep walking. One particular incidence illustrates the apparent conflicts in these two objectives of safety and nutrition: when the duo luck out and find a fully stocked bunker, only to abandon it a few days later so as to continue moving in order to stay safe!
But beyond the nitty gritty of surviving the violence and fighting hunger, this story is about the overarching question: What is humanity? What makes a human being human? How does a good human differ from a bad one? And when all else is lost, what does a human need to be able to survive?
Turns out it’s all about love and being needed. It’s all about keeping the “fire within” alive even when you face death. The father, who understands deeply that his love and sense of duty towards his child is the sole reason for his own survival. The child, who the author imbues with an unusual sensitivity and sense of justice. Who will not leave an old man dying on the road and make his father go back and give away some of their precious resources to a stranger. A bit of a ‘child is the father of man’ situation.
In the end (I won’t go into specifics) the enduring values of humanity appear to be bonding, love, nurturing and respect. The rest abnormal and unpleasant. Unsavory.
How do we reconcile that lesson with the brutal realities of the world around us today? For those of us who believe that the goodness in the world truly endures, McCarthy’s book is lyrical and beautiful but also unsurprising and comfort-giving. For the little cynical being inside me, it’s also a little unreal.
Read it if you can face the truth within you.
Change is a challenge, in every age
History is a magnanimous teacher. You can sit in your armchair and read about times gone by, people long dead and wonder how their lives were similar or different from ours. And it is fascinating that there is always a situation or a person you identify with.
I just finished reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. Set in the early 16th century, it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, who traversed the unthinkable trajectory in a single lifetime starting as a blacksmith’s son and becoming Henry VIIIs closest aide. At a time when England challenged the ubiquitous power of the Catholic Church, Cromwell is a man of commerce, almost a disbeliever. A cynic and a liberal. A man who educates his daughters and involves them in his business, a man who is unafraid of negotiations, who makes discipline and duty his ultimate religion.
What fascinated me about the book was the conflict between belief and religion. King Henry challenged and sought to bring down the confluence of money and power that vested in the officials of the Church during his time, primarily because the Catholic Church did not readily give in to his idea of divorcing Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell crafted around the king’s whim a web of laws and statutes that made him the head of the kingdom and the Church in England. And while he did this, powerful people warned of a downfall of morality, an end of truth, none of which happened because it was already an anarchic situation in what we know as Europe today- Turks attacking at one end, a dead Pope’s body being paraded around Rome and Munich being ruled by an autocratic tailor some among many crazy stories we know of now.
What is telling is how Cromwell manipulates the relationship between the citizen and the forces in power. On one side, he believes that citizens must have basic amenities and security of life, on the other he must work with the vagaries of the King’s mind. When push comes to shove, Cromwell sends his law all over the land and asks citizens to swear upon the Bible to accept their King as head of the Church, thus justifying all Henry’s actions. Cromwell knows what he does is wrong, asking innocents to swear upon an issue they barely understand, but he has no choice if he (and England) must survive!
These are the difficult compromises those in power and those close to them must make. Many of their decisions, when viewed in isolation, seem hard, unjustified and unethical. Yet, if we see the web of inter-related matters these men (and women, going by the formidable forces Katherine and Anne were!) must consider, one wonders how decisions get taken at all! In the end, strategic decisions are taken to keep the balance so that the machinery of State keeps running and the people, those poor citizens who know not what is at stake, can continue to lead their contented or wretched lives….
So what has changed, through history? At this point I look at the political situation in India, Egypt, Turkey…and many other places and I see that the citizen is still marginalized from the loci of power. I also see that citizens are given to rather myopic visions, overrun by their immediate concerns and that democratic gathering of opinion is not always possible because information, understanding as well as the well to be informed and understand is not equal among citizens. If we believe democracy to be the best solution for the modern State, we need to develop consensus building skills and powers of negotiation of a very refined and evolved nature. In parallel, citizens must have the means to be aware and involved in decisions that impact their lives. Most of all, we need systems that can wait till these processes of negotiation are complete and this is where I think democracy fails, repeatedly. As KC Sivaramakrishnan, eminent economist and Chairman of Delhi-based think tank said in the context of a recent workshop to support incrementally built neighborhoods in the informal parts of the city, “Every so often, there is an urge and impatience to do something world class and grand” that impinges on this patience. In an instant, we abandon the slower democratic processes to make sweeping changes without worrying about who they benefit. Later, when sense returns, it seems inappropriate to feel remorse, so we justify and we use sellotape to patch the fissures and so on, till things fall apart and a new age is ushered in…
Slums can inspire, but what of it? Review of ‘Poor Little Rich Slum’- 9 Aug, 2012
Who can put down a book that showcases a series of tear-jerking, heart-warming success stories? Not me! And in that sense, Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi are spot on with their book Poor Little Rich Slum on Dharavi in Mumbai.
However, as a writer and an urban planner, I viewed the book through my critical lens and I must confess I’m not too impressed.
Don’t get me wrong. I am completely in agreement with the idea that informal settlements like Dharavi are the energy centers of our cities. Certainly, the innovation and zesty approach to life’s seemingly insurmountable problems that we urban practitioners see among slum dwellers makes most of ashamed of the often-whiny note we strike in our relatively comfortable middle class lives.
As an attempt to place India’s slums in a positive frame of reference among middle class readers, this is a great book. And perhaps the starting point we need. It is no mean effort to say in simple words what many experienced and intelligent people fail to see. And every effort, small or big, is needed to turn conventional thinking about slums on its head!
What NGOs, social entrepreneurs and slum dwellers already know is what the world out there needs to recognize. Not because its general knowledge, but because when the educated middle class accepts and understands their interdependence on slums is when sufficient pressure will be built on the system to take a reality check. As long as we are willing to pay exorbitant sums to buy swanky apartments on land that is carved out of evicting poor slum dwellers, the battle is one lost before it even began. So speaks the socialist in me, at any rate!
Somewhere towards the very end, after many stories of success, the book makes its main point, according to me. That redevelopment the way governments (pressurized by developers) see it, is not a future that is fair to slum dwellers. Not only does it take away what is meaningful, replacing it with lip service in the name of housing and infrastructure; it also means taking away homes and livelihood from many renters who are part of the vital life force of slums. Somehow improvement in the modern world seems to be synonymous with leaching away character and homogenizing everything into cookie cuter homes and people with horribly predictable lives. Clearly that’s not the way life is and certainly not life in the slums, the vibrancy of which the book brings out admirably.
What don’t I like? The book reads very much like a self-improvement book. It has, hidden in it very subtly, but unmistakably, a preachy tone. The slightly philosophical twist at the end of each tale was a nice touch, but in many instances, the words didn’t quite fit. “That’s what humans beings must do, with the fabric of life” at the end of a case on someone who runs a ladies’ tailoring business is nothing short of cheesy.
Poor Little Rich Slum is an attempt to simplify an incredible complex issue and package it cleverly for readers who have no exposure to the subject. It is intended to be an inspirational book, but fails to give a well-rounded picture. Yes, we need to create awareness, but I don’t agree we should do this by oversimplifying the story, by only talking about the success stories while neglecting to carry even a single not-so-happy experience? As I read the book, with experience of working in other slum areas in other cities in India, I wonder about how Dharavi has come to be the Mother Slum. Glorified in its tattered robes, the ultimate symbol of messy urbanism, the pin-up hero for those of us who want to give the poor a space, a voice.
Despite my minor reservations, what the book is doing is making me want to visit Dharavi. Now! I grew up in Mumbai and have visited and even spent entire days in slums and chawls tagging along with Manda, who was my nanny. I called her Mavshi and we would go to meet many of her relatives who lived in chawls and slums and mill housing. It was fun. I felt completely at home. But Dharavi was not one of these. It has come home to me, through this book and from other people’s narrations that Dharavi is special. Having worked in slums in Delhi, methinks it would be interesting to experience the Mother Slum!
Trampling cultures, identities in the quest for ‘development’: Can we find a middle ground? #Posco #tribals #India- June 22, 2012
Read late into the night, after a while. ‘Two pronouns and a verb’ by Kiran Khalap. A story about three friends, destiny, relationships, strength, and searching for who you really are. The language is beautiful, even though the story is simple enough. The characters come alive. But this post is not about the book.
It’s about one aspect of the book that is haunting me. Dhruv, one of the three protagonists, makes working with the Madia Gond tribals of Maharashtra his life’s work. The mission of his Madia Rights Centre, set up with the objective of “returning to the madias, the original inhabitants of the land, their constitutional rights”. After many decades of documentation and struggle, Dhruv and his friends succeed in convicting the three contractors who were the mafia behind the rampant destruction of these teak forests.
This morning, as I read Freny Manecksha’s heart rending editorial in The Hindu about the plight of the villages resisting the Posco plant in Odisha, I found myself in tears. I just had this sense that, in reality, there is no one or very very few who understand the story from the tribal perspective and there is probably no possibility of a happy ending for the tribals. Everyone-the state, the industry and even the Naxalites- exploit them. These people who are one with nature, who weep for the river running dry, who hide within the folds of their unique culture many precious secrets about life-saving plants, who truly believe in equality between men and women and who value the life of each child….. And here we are, the so-called developed or developing world, hypocrites, opportunists, drunken with greed and fear for our survival (survival of the world we call it, as if we are the world!)…here we are, telling the sons and daughters of nature what is right, what is good for them, what they ought to do, how they ought to live….it’s rather lopsided, that logic if you ask me.
And yet, like everything else, we must find the middle ground. Between the need to fuel our reckless consumption and the need to protect their isolation. Between certain disaster and the end of life as we know it. Between bleakness and hope.