Fin de siecle, the philosopher within would opine but Mirza Ghalib has something else to say. Read on to find out...
Identifying our victims
I remember the upturned boats strewn like boulders in the dusty yard of the Sessions Court in my hometown. They appeared to be an anomaly in the hot and dry plain where monsoon arrived in August after having mostly spent itself. Perplexed, I questioned my mother. For times of flood, she replied. Flood? I was eight years old and completely baffled by the prospect of water surging through our arid city, converting roads to canals. And yet, floods are integral to the story of Punjab – literally, the land of five rivers. Fed by Himalayan glaciers the rivers course through the plains, swelling in monsoon months and diminishing in winter. The ancient civilization of Indus Valley owes its origins to the fertile basin created by these rivers in the western part of the Indian subcontinent.
During the partition of British-ruled India into Muslim Pakistan and secular India, the five rivers of Punjab were apportioned between the two new nations – in a newly communal land even water was religiously denominated. Partition saw one of the largest migrations in history as nearly 15 million people moved borders for the relative safety of their religious majority. Punjab accounted for a bulk of the population exchange. I grew up in a border town in Indian East Punjab, whose boundary with Pakistani West Punjab was marked by the Sutlej river, the longest of the five rivers. Expectedly, I was acquainted with stories of Partition and the communal riots that followed in its wake. As people trudged east and west through the sunbaked plains of Punjab in summer, the monsoon failed. Water level fell so low that in places the dry riverbed became a road of sorts. Historians estimate that in the violence that occurred across borders nearly one million lives were lost. Partition chronicles talk about dried blood that streaked deserted fields and dusty trails. And then, inexplicably, the rivers swelled and flooded the plains across Punjab, heedless of borders. It added to the misery of a ravaged people but the sins of the land had to be washed off, my grandmother maintained.
In my years of growing up I never witnessed a flood, and the boats lay in disuse as grass grew around them. In 1988 the town was deluged but I was in the safety of a hostel in a distant city. When I called home the house was filled with the chatter of relatives and friends who had sought refuge – apparently we were lucky to be situated on a relatively higher plain.
Now with the floods in Pakistan Punjab I have been following up with my mother from Hong Kong on the situation in our town. The low-lying villages have been evacuated, paddy and cotton fields have been swamped but the town center is safe, thus far.
Recently we were discussing current news with friends when I mentioned the Pakistan flood situation. One of them grinned, and teasingly said, “Your country”. This is an old buddy and I know what he is alluding to – scientists call it ‘the identifiable victim effect’. According to Paul Slovic our sympathy is directly linked to the extent to which we identify with the victim. Figures leave us cold, and thinking statistically about a disaster – number of dead, extent of damage, cubic meters of floodwater – diminishes our sympathy. However, people often become entranced by specific, identifiable victims – the plight of Ali Abbas, a boy wounded in the Iraq conflict, captivated the European media resulting in 275000 GBP raised for his medical care.
We live in a global world. In the past week I have followed the plight of the Chilean miners, the Hong Kong tourists taken hostage in Manila, the mudslides in China, the floods in Pakistan. In an interconnected world we find ourselves aware and yet disconnected. Perhaps it is the surfeit of news, or the overwhelming numbers or the lack of rootedness, but this is not the malaise of a new century. Mirza Ghalib, the great Urdu poet of the nineteenth century, commented on the nature of humanity: it is difficult for things to be easy, to be human is not a presumption to being a man.
Daily charities ask for our donations – for the welfare of third world children, for victims of natural disasters, for the war-affected, for fighting disease. How are we to respond? With less thought. Research shows that deliberation in such cases leads to callousness. The mighty rivers do not ruminate over borders and boundaries, nor does the earth when it is quaking or sliding. Go with the specific victim that appeals to your sense of humanity, and give.