My father, who doesn't have cable, called up Doordarshan, the TV channel you can still get through the air. Anxious to know out more about the tragedy that slammed into South and Southeast Asia, he was hoping to find it on his TV. "When will you carry your next news bulletin?" he asked.
"Oh, we don't know," was the reply. "We have to wait for the one-day match to get over." That's Bangladesh and India, cricketers going at it while tidal waves do their worst, killing in both countries (though only 2 in Bangladesh, last heard). Hours later, my father was still steaming: No news about this huge disaster because there's a cricket match on.
What if, I wonder, the tidal waves had swept away some of the cricketers' homes? I have a feeling Doordarshan might have interrupted the game for a bulletin.
Then I called family and friends in Chennai. Everyone is fine. If they answer the phone, they've gotta be fine. But without exception, they made a point to tell me who the greatest sufferers were: the poor. The street and slum dwellers, the fishermen's colonies along the coast. "As always", they said. Indeed, as always. You look at the pictures and you know: the wailing mothers, the families carrying their dead, the people lining the roads asking for news of their missing -- if not entirely, these people are overwhelmingly our poor. Not the investment bankers or the Page 3 dudettes.
The same in every disaster.
Though it sometimes takes months to comprehend the true magnitude of that sameness. In Kutch in 2001, a gigantic quake killed by the thousand. In particular, several high-rises collapsed, killing their middle-class residents and leaving the survivors to spend nights on the streets. But when I went back exactly a year later, travelling across Gujarat showed me just who was still feeling the after-effects of the quake. All over Bhuj, for example, I found hundreds of people still sleeping in the open, on the rubble of their hovels and tenements. Still waiting for what their government had promised them by way of help, so far unable to right their own lives, living on a generosity shared by their fellow residents of the rubble.
So yes, nature's cliched fury knows no lines of wealth or class. On Chennai's Marina beach as on the Sri Lankan and Thai coasts, joggers and tourists were swept away just as surely as fishermen in their huts were, if in smaller numbers. But go back in six months, go back in a year. The fishermen's colonies will still look like disasters, their residents will still be trying to pick up their lives.
In these globalising times, nobody likes to hear the old shibboleth from the past. This is the era of the markets and how they will improve everybody's lives, after all. But it takes a disaster like this to remind us how true the shibboleth still is: our poor are our most vulnerable. They are vulnerable because they are poor. They are vulnerable because, at a profound level that goes beyond the labels of "socialist" and "leftist" and "rightist" and anything else, nobody really gives a damn for them.
Here in Bombay, "over 30,000 huts" have been destroyed in the past few days. This includes 6200 shanties razed in Malad on December 24, the greatest such destruction "ever recorded in an area in a single day"; in the rest of Bombay, 1400 more were destroyed that day. (Times, December 25).
What did this damage that, except for a death toll, is comparable all around to what's happened in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka? Another tsunami? A quake? A cyclone?
Nope: the Bombay Municipality. The Municipality that is on a drive to destroy "illegal shanties." The same Municipality that is funded, in great part, by taxes that those very shanty residents pay. You see, our Chief Minister wants to make "a Shanghai" of Mumbai -- globalising, didn't you know -- and apparently the road to that Shanghai is paved with the wilfully destroyed homes of our most vulnerable people. (Aside: suppose a tsunami had done what the Municipality has done, here in Bombay. What kind of headlines would it get? If different, why do the Municipality's efforts not get those kinds of headlines?).
The road to Shanghai is not paved, you will note, with the wilfully destroyed homes of our urban middle- and upper-classes, many of which are also illegal.
And until it is, or far more preferably, until it isn't paved with anyone's destroyed homes; until DD decides disaster in Chennai hutments is a little more important than a cricket match; until the poor in this country and others find a measure of security from the ravages of both man and tsunami; until these things happen, allow me and many like me a measure of scepticism about globalisation.
Questions: did December 26 in Chennai see that Malad record (6200 shanties) topped? What will December 27 in Bombay bring? Whatever the answers are, I know I won't find them on Doordarshan. India and Bangladesh are playing again today.