31 March 2008

The Times Are Changing...

“You mark my words! The times are changing from bad to worse…its God’s will- the end of the world is near!”

I was having a slightly heated discussion with Mrs.N, mother of a good friend of mine, on that favourite lamentation of the old and the middle aged alike- the changing times. For the space of a quarter of an hour or so we duelled, each presenting one case after the other. As the argument picked up speed, her points started becoming stronger and stronger until she pronounced the said words with such a vehement air of finality that I was forced to concede defeat. I had lost.

However, now that I think of it, are the times really changing for the worse?

Utilitarianism has reached unprecedented levels- the bonds that hold human beings to the bigger superstructure, society, have become narrow and fragile. In this day and age of ‘me and mine’, corruption and all sort of criminal activities have become multi headed hydra like problems which no single Hercules can club down to death. Competition, nay, unbridled and unchecked competition has lent to every human being’s public and private existence an element of the ‘cut throat’ that, to use a simile employed often for this purpose, makes the everyday life of everyday people worse than a “dog’s life”. Global warming, hunger, poverty, AIDS, jihad- all of these threaten the very existence of this most marvellous race.

So perhaps Mrs. N is right when she declares that the times are changing for the worse. Perhaps the end of the world is near. Perhaps…

Perhaps no.

Yes, perhaps no. What right, what moral and historical right does a middle-aged housewife, or for that matter, any ‘we-know-what’s right’ sort of a patronizing, condescending middle-aged person has to pass a judgement against the ‘times’?

He/she is, after all, alive.

I mean had the times been changing for the worse, then would life expectancy have increased? Let’s see, what was the average life expectancy in India a hundred years ago? Um, about thirty-five, wasn’t it? Thirty-five years just a century ago and undoubtedly not more than that in the preceding centuries.

So, to be alive at the age of around fifty is in itself a huge, huge indicator of how things have taken a turn for the good. And it’s not just life expectancy, it’s almost each and every aspect of modern life- electricity, cars, airplanes, Rajdhanis, houses, electric stoves, mixers, grinders, taps, municipal water supply, hospitals, public transport, T.V., radio, internet, shoes, nail cutters, combs, face creams, electric shavers, tables, chairs, pencils, lead, paper, pens, pins, clips- everything! Where would we have been had it not been for all this and infinitely more? Most probably, people like you and me, normal, everyday people with no royal blood and no great aristocratic lineage to boast of, would, even two hundred years ago in this city of Delhi, have been living in one room houses or perhaps straw shanties outside the walls of Shahjahanabad…

People say that crime is on the rise today- the rate of murders, rapes, burglaries is rising at an unchecked pace. Look back into the squalor of Delhi’s, India’s past-were there not rapes, murders, arsons, pillages? Did they not occur on a larger, more organised scale? Delhi has been looted, its men beheaded, its woman raped and its children carried away as slaves not once or twice but countless times, most notably and most horrendously by the Timur Lang, Nadir Shah and the British of the East India Company.

To say that all this happened in the times of the Mussalmans and that the Age of the Hindus was a much better one is nothing but an elaborate bogey, a hoax. Did not the princes of medieval, post-Gupta age raid each other’s lands for treasure and ‘bounty’? Was not ancient India, the India of the Mauryas, the Cholas marked by savagery and violence of the most barbaric and inhuman kind? Is not war a ‘dharma’ of the Kshetriyas, the rulers of the age of Hindu hegemony and did not war remain a never ending, never ceasing process all through the history of India, especially in the Age of the Empire, the Mauryas, Guptas and, more recently, Mughals, all of whom had large standing armies which, according to one expert, “fed on war”?...

Some people would say that all this lies in the realm of politics, that feuds of kings and rulers had little effect on the lives of common people, who, to these doom day sayers, lived simple and down to earth lives?

To these people, I say yes and no.

Yes, for I acknowledge that simplicity was and, decreasingly so, still is a virtue that characterises the rural man’s/woman’s life. Essentially a country of innumerable villages, many of them not more than a hundred houses strong, the Indian rural landscape was and still is of closely knit communities that share each other’s joys and sorrow’s. Slow moving, almost fixed, this ‘quasi-static’ way of life was more or less self sufficient and independent of outside interference, except, of course, in times of emergencies.

Which, considering the long history of fighting and warfare in India, were not all that rare. This, and some other arguments, lead me to ‘no’.

Agreed rural Indian lifestyle, the lifestyle of the masses, was simple. Simply horrendous in fact, for there is no better example of organised, officially sanctioned and justified slavery in the world than the one afforded by the caste system of ancient and, more so, medieval India. True life was ‘peaceful’, but yet that peace was naught but a floating castle suspended in mid air without any real foundation. The bubble was bound to burst and it did burst, sporadically at the time of the Muslim invasion when the condition of all castes except the Brahman and the Kshetriya was as pitiable, beggarly and appalling as possible and fully and completely in recent memory. If caste based politics and caste inspired violence have become blots on the history of democratic India, we have only our forefathers, our castist forefathers, followers of that disgusting demagogue Manu, to blame.

Talking of democracy, is not the creation of a democratic nation-a nation where there is ‘freedom, justice and liberty’ for all-in a land where political entities have always been forged by the might of the sword and the shedding of blood in itself a wonder and so, a sure-shot indicator of better things to come?...

Taking sides is always a tricky affair. What is needed, therefore, is, as (perhaps?) Buddha called it, a middle path-a place from where can balance both the optimist and the pessimist. For while it would be naivety to suggest that things are on a roll, it would also be stupidity to announce the Day of Judgement to be nigh. Human life has always been, is and will always be too complex to be defined and its one course predicted by sticking to just one extreme and ignoring the merits of the other. We, the members of this race, have an infinite capacity and potential for not just good but also evil and the cultural progress from barbarism to modernity has only helped in making the inner and, consequently, outer tussle between the two more pronounced. So while it must be accepted that there are many, if not some, very glaring aberrations and very cancerous abnormalities in modern life, it must also be acknowledged that all never was, never is and never will be lost and that even the realisation of the presence of these aberrations and abnormalities is in itself a step in the positive direction towards their final elimination.

This is surely not utopia.

But the times are changing…

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