Open the day’s newspaper, or switch on the TV, and what you get is a series of reports on some scam or the other – politicians exposed for their roles in illegal sanctions, nepotism, unaccounted money.
However, I find the ‘other’ news reports, about non-political, social aberrations, equally alarming and distressing. The first week of June in particular saw a series of such reports that hold up a mirror to what is happening in the city, right next door to us, in so-called ‘ordinary’, nameless middle class urban families.
On June 4, the police “rescued a naked woman in her thirties who had been confined in a room by her parents for four years, starved, dirty and neglected.” Hemavathi’s toe and finger nails were protruding like predators’ claws, untrimmed for years. And this was not in some isolated, godforsaken outback but right in the middle of Malleswaram, one of Bengaluru’s busiest hubs. The available details say she is a commerce graduate, and was hungry and tired when the police got to her after neighbours had alerted them to the plight of this woman.
A day later, the media reported on the case of a 94-year-old man who had been found abandoned on the terrace of the house he was living in, hungry and desperate enough to find his way down to the street to beg passersby for help. A father of six, he was living with his third son, while his youngest son lived next door.
Another news item on the same day reinforces this picture of social aberrations in a city boasting about its reputation as an “IT capital”. The son of a businessman and film producer rammed his posh Audi car into an auto rickshaw killing one passenger and grievously injuring two others, and reducing the rickshaw to a pile of twisted metal. Preeti Rathi, victim of an acid attack, died despite treatment. Although this last incident was in the north, it dovetails into the three other incidents of Bengaluru, because it reveals the deep undercurrents of increasing social and familial callousness as we climb up the ladder of “progress“ and “prosperity.“
The two cases of forced incarceration and ill-treatment of family members (the old man was reportedly even chained) shock, but we need to go beyond the facts and look for why it happened. The full details of both cases are not yet out, as of this writing. (both Hemavathi and the 94-year-old father of six are still under medical observation) but ponder over the ramifications – it is possible that the woman was psychologically disturbed, and the old man was acting in ways that his children disapproved of (begging by the roadside.)
But every human, from childhood onwards and at all stages, becomes prey to a variety of stresses leading to aberrant behaviour. The toddler throws a tantrum demanding to be carried when his mother thinks he is perfectly capable of walking on his own legs. The adolescent feels it is perfectly alright to be out at midnight while his or her parents think this is unacceptable behaviour. The jilted lover, the student facing crucial examinations, the young mother who suffers sleep deprivation because her infant keeps her awake through the night, the bride who is ill-treated by a domineering mother-in-law, the retired breadwinner worried over how he will cope and keep the family fed, the unemployed youth, the widow who has no children to turn to for succour in her old age – each one of them is under stress, which causes different kinds of behavioural aberrations (slapping a bothersome child, getting drunk to forget one’s worries, seeking peace from dubious godmen – whatever.)
The difference between two generations ago and now, is the increasing levels of callousness, intolerance and violence. Once upon a time, in joint families, there was someone, an elderly aunt or grandparent, to whom an adolescent or bride in distress could turn, for a shoulder to cry on or for what we call “saanthvana” (words of compassion). In addition, communities were knit closer, everyone knew everyone else, a neighbour or relative or village elder could, and would, intervene, to lend a hand in defusing stress.
Today, in nuclear families, there is no one. Even in blocks of flats, often people living in adjacent apartments don’t know what is going on next door. The old man’s family probably felt pushed beyond limits (we do not yet know the full details of why he was chained and left alone in filth). Likewise, Hemavathi’s parents perhaps could not cope, if it is true that she was deeply depressed. Why? We do not know. While it is good that neighbours took the initiative in calling the police, why was it that the families in both cases did not feel like taking their neighbours or relatives into confidence earlier, and seeking support, in dealing with aberrant behaviour?
Is it because it is considered “not done” in modern lifestyles? Or because we are all too busy running the rat race, to be able to chat with neighbours and keep abreast? (That is considered “wasting time” – in fact, women who chat are ridiculed, as “gossipers,” whereas gossip served a purpose, both in terms of providing a channel for interaction and in terms of sharing information about what is happening around us.
Reduced human interactions, plus bottled up stress (personal, familial, professional) leads to callousness, a diminishing of compassion and the capacity for reaching out. We become hardened.
And that leads to the other two cases – of the acid attack on Preeti and the rash driving of an Audi by a youngster who killed one and maimed two others. As the son of a businessman and film maker and owner of seven “high end” cars with four chauffeurs, this son thinks nothing of killing and running away. What was he driving at 150 kmph and heading for a hotel for, at 2.30 am? In addition, his father uses his clout to cover up for his son by trying to implicate his driver (the driver is powerless, and can be brought round with offers of money) though the police could prove that the driver was not at the scene of the accident. “Have money, will get away with murder (literally)” is the norm today – Salman Khan was arrested for running his car over and killing pavement dwellers in Mumbai many years ago, he is still out free, making films and strutting as an icon with a fan following.
From Salman Khan to the 94-year-old man, the woman in her thirties and the Audi case, there is a common thread, of human callousness, connecting them all. Taking a car out and driving at fast speeds is “cool” for college kids. If they are well-heeled, they get away, with bail and lawyers to get them out somehow, even if they kill. For the poor who get maimed or killed, even money compensation can never make amends. Can even lakhs replace a father, son, husband, breadwinner, companion? No school curriculum teaches compassion or ethics. We used to have moral studies when I was a student. Today it is more important to learn computers rather than human values, community responsibility, or respect for elders and parents – even if the 94-year-old father was not in very good health, he still was the father and in that capacity, entitled to respect, compassion and care.
Violence, in varied manifestations, is what dominates our lives today. It may not always make the news, as a daughter kept starved and filthy, or an old man abandoned on the terrace, but lesser callousnesses do not make the news – because the media only go for what shocks or titillates. It is not one family’s problem., it is the society’s, on a larger canvas.