Every man is a part of the main

As literature and history show, crises, which are great levellers, can be overcome by banding together

Updated - March 21, 2020 01:26 am IST

Published - March 21, 2020 12:02 am IST

In the Kannada novel, Samskara , by Jnanpith awardee U.R. Ananthamurthy , the upper caste Brahmins in a village deep in rural north Karnataka, who are caught in the grip of an epidemic face existential dilemmas. Their deeply held religious beliefs and rituals are on test. The chief priest of the village, Praneshacharya, a devout, austere Brahmin, has to provide the answers. His neighbour, Naranappa, an irreverent, rebellious Brahmin, who has a hedonistic lifestyle, and who mocks the Brahmins and their rituals and their superstitions, suddenly takes ill and dies.

Story of contrasts

There is no one to bury him even as the body begins to decompose inside his house in the ‘Agrahara’, the Brahmin quarters, because the Brahmins fear they may invite the wrath of the gods and worry about being excommunicated by the head priest of the mutt for cremating a renegade and heretic. They appeal to Praneshacharya to consult the scriptures and find an answer to the problem. Praneshacharya immerses himself in holy texts and prayers but no revelations come to him.

As time rolls by, rats in their thousands die and lie strewn all over the streets, while vultures begin hovering over Naranappa’s house. More people start dying in the village and the epidemic kills without discrimination. The village is under the deadly scourge of the plague. The Brahmins are hungry and are not allowed to eat till the cremation is completed. Chandri, Naranappa’s companion, is distraught as Dalits cannot enter the Agrahara and refuse to come to her aid. She offers all her jewellery to Praneshacharya and urges him to give it to the Brahmins to bury Naranappa. The Brahmins have by now eaten stealthily. A few relatives of Naranappa lay claim to the jewellery and lobby with Praneshacharya; if they get the jewellery, they will cremate Naranappa. They argue that there may be some provisions in the holy books whereby Naranappa can be cremated under the circumstances they find themselves in.

The scholarly Praneshacharya, who is steeped in iron-clad traditions, is aghast by the unscrupulous behaviour and the greed and does not give his consent till he finds an answer in the holy books. Unable to find any guidance he heads to a temple beyond the village across the woods, and seeks refuge in prayers in the temple. On his way back to the village well past midnight he meets Chandri in the forest who stops him and falls at his feet. He is soon swept away by her irresistible attraction. When he wakes up as the sun rises, he is overcome by shame and remorse, unable to face the Brahmins who are waiting for an answer. He leaves the village under the cover of darkness, devastated.

Chandri, who is desperate to get Naranappa buried at all costs before the body is devoured by rodents, gets a Muslim merchant, a friend, who commiserates with her helplessness, to cart away the rotting body with her help and cremate it.

This is a powerful story that shatters you and exposes the venality and hypocrisy and heartlessness of the upper castes and at the same time juxtaposes it and reveals the joyful, earthy humaneness and magnanimity of the peasants, Dalits and the robust, healthy cheerful outlook of a lone Muslim merchant of the town, who finds strength and common purpose in fraternity and solidarity rising above petty differences.

Many meanings

Then, there is another era and continent. In a different context, in Albert Camus’The Plague . Here, in the city of Oran in Algeria, an epidemic of bubonic plague breaks out. As dead rats start piling on the streets and people start dying, the authorities, who are in denial and indifferent to the deaths, finally impose a quarantine. Overnight, the people of the city find themselves imprisoned. The total seclusion affects their daily lives and the impact on families suddenly separated from their loved ones throws the town into hysteria and panic. A priest uses the opportunity of the plague, and, invoking his god, preaches refuge in religion to overcome the deadly attack to advance his own standing in the town.

The Plague can be read at many levels. At one level it depicts the human condition when natural disasters sweep a city and affect everyone without discrimination and hold sway over the destiny of human beings caught in such a tragedy. It is also about sacrifice, love, friendship, generosity and connectedness while facing death collectively through stoic courage by confronting external forces beyond one’s control through fraternity and solidarity. And the story also speaks of the pettiness and the cowardice of those who flee from one’s responsibilities to the community. At another level it is an allegorical depiction of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation during the Second World War. The plague is a metaphor for Hitler and the invading German Army.


On the other hand when you are under siege (as it happened to the Jews under Hitler, and France and other countries of Europe which were under occupation by the Nazis Germans during the Second World War), or condemned to live under dictators who are an embodiment of evil (as in Stalinist Russia), when life and death were both uncertain or when you are caught in the inexorable vortex of events of history (such as the partition of India and Pakistan, or the Sikh massacres of Delhi in 1984, the Gujarat riots of 2002, the Syrian war or the recent riots in north-eastern Delhi), and when you have nowhere to run or hide, you realise you may be swept away in the tsunami of hate. You are fated to die, may be perchance to live and your house, shop, or factory may go up in flames depending on your caste, religion, belief and colour of your skin. In times of riots and sectarian clashes that may suddenly flare up or which are stoked by vile politicians and community leaders, and if it rages across regions, and if you happen to be a Jew in a Muslim neighbourhood, or if you are Black or coloured caught in a white supremacist area, or a Hindu in a Muslim-dominated mohalla, a Muslim in a Hindu-majority district or a Dalit in an upper caste locality or a Yazidi or a Christian in a territory invaded by the Islamic State, your destiny is not in your hands. It is determined by your race and religion and colour. It is decided by the vile things men do when their heart is ruled by hatred, bigotry, obscurantism, stupidity and fanaticism and a lust for power.

Only destruction

When a pandemic, a tsunami, an earthquake or a flood ravages mankind, it devours everyone — infants and the old, men and women, the sick and the healthy, all races of all religious and people irrespective of their ideological and political denominations. It is blind in its fury and swallows everything in its path, relentless and implacable as it marches on.

A communal or racial flare-up though may appear to the blinded zealot to be to his benefit or to his community’s advantage; in the end, the blazing fire of hate will engulf everyone. It will spare no one from both sides of the conflict. It is more destructive than the natural disaster wrought by the gods and is sure to annihilate all.

There is only one way. We must all band together to fight evil. Whether the evil is a scourge of pandemic such as the novel coronavirus outbreak or whether the evil deeds are perpetrated by a few who stoke the fire of hatred, in the end, let us not forget that it will devour us all.

As the poet, John Donne, poignantly said: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, ... Any man’s death diminishes me, because I’m involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


Captain G.R. Gopinath is a writer and founder of Air Deccan


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