Is Kali A Wimp?

A Hindu myth that should help frame our response to Islamist terror

December 13, 2008 in Columns
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IN THE
wise creation myths of Hindu civilisation, there is a fascinating story about how the churning of an ocean throws up both divine nectar and lethal poison. The poison threatens to destroy the three worlds, until Shiva, the all-powerful, steps in to drink it and contain the damage. The poison, of course, is difficult to swallow; it would have been easier to let it spill. But in swallowing it, Shiva places himself at the head of the divine pantheon. For eternity to come, he is revered as the Blue-Throated One.

There are important cues for us all in this ancient myth. The past week has churned the country — or at least the parts of the country that get heard — in unimaginable ways. The 60 hours of siege, the simultaneous attacks on hotels, stations, roads, cafés and cabs, the tragic democracy of the dead. The sight of fresh-faced boys in cargo pants and rucksacks — not bearded men with kohl-lined eyes of Bollywood fantasy — at the heart of the mayhem. The numbing fusillade of AK 47s and grenades and RDX and bombs. The proof that 10 such boys could hold hostage the nation’s combined strength. Just the tiny human thought: how could they stay awake for 60 hours? We have had brutal terror attacks before and many dead, but for sheer audacity, for sheer bafflement, Mumbai 26/11 perhaps has no equal.

But the churn is not just about the attack. The aftermath has been equally brutalising. As never before, we have been laid bare as a society: the clumsy bankruptcy of our political class, the selfish panic of the elite, the termite-eaten state of all our institutions, the divisions between us all.

A lot needed to be said — and has already been said — about the way India’s television media and elite have responded to the Mumbai attack. The disproportionate mourning of the Taj Hotel and food critic Sabina Sehgal Saikia is only a symptom of larger, historic unconcerns. To have to point this out is itself a brutalisation. There would be no unseemly competition of grief if this media and elite had had similar concern for those dead at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, or the dozens of journalists and activists killed or arrested in recent years, not caught by stray bullets, but in active line of duty — exposing scams, questioning power. When Shobhaa De says she was appalled that the attack should happen in Colaba because South Mumbai contributes most to the exchequer and Ness Wadia on NDTV’sWe, the People urges everyone to join a “revolutionary” boycott of taxes, they are embarrassing proof that India’s elite thinks civic amenities and security are the domain of the rich. It is not collective good they are after, merely bombproof stockades for themselves. When Arnab Goswami of Times Now leans into the screen and says, “I hope Arundhati Roy and Prashant Bhushan are listening. We haven’t invited them to our show because we think they are disgusting”, he is stunning proof not only of graceless amateurism but proof that a section of the media is not interested in discourses of justice. Does mourning the death of ATS Chief Hemant Karkare and the other 14 cops preclude questioning possible police malpractices in Batla House and elsewhere? All of this is only the most visible face of a large, frightened, indignant wave of elite opinion expressing itself through television shows, SMSes and internet sites: how have we, the chosen, been brought to this pass? Enough is enough.

For all this, the churn of Mumbai 26/11 has thrown up divine nectar. In sucking India’s elite into the commonplace tragedies of ordinary Indians, it has offered a ‘new moment’ in the life of the country: a possibility of renewal and real change. If tragedy and indignation can make India’s elite — with its disproportionate voice and influence — get involved with all that it has turned its face away from, we might yet see ourselves embark on the road to a healthier society and more robust democracy. But first, we have to find the impulse of the Blue-Throated One. We have to find it in ourselves to contain all the ugly fear, paranoia and kneejerk panic that this attack has thrown up.

There is another ancient story with urgent lessons for that fear. Over the past few days, imperceptibly but surely, the righteous anger and humiliation triggered by the attack has begun to transform itself into an appetite for swift redressal. We may not be war-mongering yet, but egged on by a jingoistic media, we are entering that mindset. Media houses have taken to leading audiences and their office staff in solemn pledges against terror. Simi Garewal is only the most dilettante voice urging air strikes on the terror camps in Pakistan.

IT IS futile to marshal empirical proof that this will get us nowhere. Futile to point out that the US has been devastating Afghanistan for seven long years without any victory. Futile to point out that Iraq has become an albatross. Or that Pakistan is a nation pleading friendship, a nation as bloodied as it is bloodying. Futile to point out that Israel is now both historic victim and historic perpetrator. Or that covert and overt wars of every hue have been fought in recent time, but none have stopped the flow of terror and counterterror. The US has lost more men in its war against terror than it did in 9/11, and it has killed several thousand more innocent people elsewhere. They may not have had another strike on their soil, but others have reaped their whirlwind.

Azam Amir Kasav — the boy the Indian State is interrogating — it appears is a wretchedly poor boy from Faridkot, who wanted a story for his life; he wanted a sense of ‘being’. His alleged Islamist controllers gave him that story: showed him footage of atrocities and massacres and tortures and transformed the idea of an inhuman crime into a moral act. How many Kasavs — fresh-faced boys in cargo pants — can we bomb out of existence, unless we start plugging that footage?

When facts fail, we turn to stories for our lessons. In the rich arsenal of Hindu myths, there is one such. In a time of great turmoil, the demon king Shumbha held the universe at his mercy. The gods sent powerful devis to quell him, but they could not. There was a demon — Raktabeeja — in Shumbha’s army who proved a thorny riddle. Each time his blood touched the ground, hundreds of new Raktabeejas sprang forth. The more the righteous goddesses killed, the more demons were born. That is when Kali, the saviour — most fierce, most powerful — was summoned. “I will ensure that not one drop of blood touches the ground and not one new demon is created,” she said. And she absorbed all the blood. And so the cycle of evil was vanquished.

To absorb poison. To not shed new blood. Powerful metaphors for real victory. Curiously, all those who urge war and strikes and reprisal do so in the language of masculinity. “Do we have the balls to attack?” is the dominant talk in urban homes today. Or as, copying the BJP line, Sonia Gandhi said recently, “We are a tolerant nation, but don’t see that as a weakness.” Or as Rahul Gandhi said at another election rally, “We are tired of being a nation of wimps.” From when did absorbing, and thereby transforming, evil and violence become the work of the weak and the wimps? It is no coincidence that the gods who save the earth from destruction are Shiva and Kali — most dreadful, most powerful, most virile in the pantheon. It is Indra, the god of the thunderbolt, who often cringes on his knees.

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