Life has always been about survival, and will always be. For all animals, humans included.
At present, I am reading ‘The White Queen’ by Phillippa Gregory, an author better known for her book ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. As I read about the rise and fall of the fortunes of Edward IV, Yorkist King of England in the 15th century, I marvel at how hard life was for royalty, nobility, peasant and serfs in Medeival times. To lead a regular life even as a moneyed landlord or a noblemen in the King’s Court, one had to be remarkably astute, alert, politically savvy and brave enough and talented enough to go to war several times for your King. If you lost or fell out of favor, the change in your fortunes could be so dramatic as to cost you your life, your wife, your children and your lands. People lived in constant fear in the years before and during the first half of Edwards’s reign, when Edward (claiming right to the throne through his York lineage) and Lancastrian forces under Henry (with support of the French owing to his wife being Margaret of Anjou) clashed time and time again.
Boys went to war in their teens, women learnt to survive in difficult times through remarriages and by changing loyalties, and royal women were constantly under pressure to produce mail heirs to continue the line. Boys and girls were given away in alliances when they were as young as three or four!
A lot of what went on sounds remarkably like what we still see in conservative Indian society. Marriage is still regarded as a method to consolidate kinship, make strategic alliances or improve fortunes and is a decision your parents take for you. Clan (in our case caste) is more important than any sensibilities you might acquire through education and exposure.
Medieval nobility was also amusingly irreverent. Men married women far older than them for their fortune. Men accepted the children of their wives by other marriages because they saw advantage in marrying her. Edward of York married Elizabeth Woodville (who is the heroine of the book I am reading) who was older than him, a widow of an opponent and a mother of two sons because he literally couldn’t keep his hands off her and she wouldn’t sleep with him unless he married her! Royal women had to accept mistresses and whores their husbands took on and live with the knowledge that their husbands sired many children outside their marriage and provided for these families as well. A far cry from the almost prude workings of Indian society today, whether rural or urban, conservative or relatively modern.
As I read on and look around me, I am amazed at the final truth. In the end, no matter how much society progresses, human beings are animals too. Viciousness, pettiness, infidelity, lust, jealousy, a fanatical desire to be superior (and to procreate to further our species) are attributed coded into our DNA. We can thank our stars that ‘civilization’ and the rules of modern society protect us somewhat from loot, plunder and rape at the hands of the victor when we are on the losing side. We can also lament that the negative side of human nature asserts itself anyway and we get looted, plundered and raped by people who sometimes don’t even know us too well or bear any serious grudges against us (or are on the other side of the war in a very different sort of conflict, as we have analyzed in the recent rapes and molestations in Gurgaon)!
We would all be wise to be warned that it is and will always be a wild world where survival is of the fittest and success goes to those who seize opportunities confidently and give no second chances to those they defeat.