July 22, 2007

A Question of Death

Could it be that wisdom appears on earth as a raven, drawn by the faint smell of carrion?

--- Friedrich Nietzsche


Adoor Gopalakrishan's film, Nizhalkkuthu [literally, Shadow Kill], is the story of a hangman, Kaliappan, set in 1941 India. In the final episode of the film, he is about to hang a man — I'll take some liberties with the scriptwriter here, and call him Krishna — convicted of raping and murdering an innocent village girl, Mallika. Mesmerized by his flute, Mallika had fallen in love with Krishna. Poignant in its simplicity, it's a timeless romance celebrated by thousands of poets, over thousands of years, in the region of the world that we call today, India. Only, this one ends in a tragedy, with the girl being raped and murdered by her sister's husband.

With the acquiescence of the hapless father driven by his desire to save the surviving daughter's life, Krishna is framed for the heinous crime, and ordered to be executed. The king, as per tradition, grants a pardon moments before the appointed hour, but too late to prevent the punishment, and absolves himself of all responsibility for the hanging. Agonizing over having to be an instrument of death for another innocent life, Kaliappan loses consciousness, and probably dies. His reluctant son, a budding Gandhian, takes over and fulfills his father's duty.

Is Kaliappan or his son responsible for Krishna's death?


I am driving home after working late, well past midnight. It's January in Minneapolis, and bitter cold. With a bone chilling 30 below zero, my car's exhaust would freeze to black ice when it hits the road, as would those of the other motorists ahead and behind me, turning it into a killing field. As I negotiate a sharp curve, the headlights briefly sweeps over the icy shoulder. I catch just a glimpse of the pink bassinet. What the heck is a bassinet doing there at 2 in the morning? I roll down the window slightly, and then I hear her, quite clearly, in the still of the windless night. Judging from the baby's cry, she cannot not be more than a few months old.

My colleague, a libertarian, constructed this situation for me. Knowing well that I was an atheist and recognized no received morality, he asked if I would stop the car to rescue the baby. If I chose not to, the baby would surely freeze to death. Those who know me personally will have no hesitation in answering in the affirmative on my behalf. And, so did I.

If I had chosen not to rescue her, then would I have been responsible for the baby's death?


A newly wed couple, Babli and Manoj, were mercilessly murdered in Haryana. They were forced to drink pesticide, their hands and legs tied, and then thrown into a river to drown. Why? To uphold a senseless taboo against marriage within the same gotra, that is, the descendants of one of the seven or eight sages who may or may not have existed countless eons ago. The killers have not been caught, although Babli's family members are suspects.

The Constitution of India allows any consenting woman 18 or older, and man 21 or older, from any race, religion, caste, or creed to marry. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 abrogated and modified almost all of the previous laws governing marriages within the Hindu religious community. In the process, the Act did away with the caste and gotra restrictions that limited the field of marriage. Nonetheless, the State — in this case, the village council — winked and looked the other way.

Who is responsible for Babli's and Manoj's death?


Not for a moment did I think that my colleague's poser to me would become a reality for an entire community. According to the The Times of India, a newborn baby was abandoned on the banks of the Hoogly river near Kolkotha, India, presumably by her parents. Bathers-by and passers-by ignored the baby and went about their business as usual. A couple of youngsters, Manohar Shau and Santosh Shau, however, called the cops. Officers at the two police stations nearby bickered over their respective jurisdiction for hours, before one of them relented. It was too late by the time they arrived.

One of the two youths, Manohar, is quoted as saying:

"We kept waiting for them to arrive, but they didn't seem to care. Neither did the local residents bother to try and save the baby. We had requested a local doctor to come and examine her but he refused to get into a police case ... It is a shame that the locals are always keen to save and claim abandoned male children. But when it came to a girl, nobody even made an attempt to save her life".

The Communist government of West Bengal would likely dismiss the incident with, "The society is not in the service of the self; the self is in the service of the society"! Should I even bother about asking who was responsible for the baby's death?

Am I a fool to raise these existential questions in this Age of Unreason? When insane men and women would not hesitate to kill the meek and the unwilling, if only to impose their culture, language, law, religion, or whatever, when fanatics who don't want to live will bomb the lives out of those who want to live, along with their own, when their apologists would seek to justify the acts of terror with, "Nothing justifies terror, but ...", what is the point of agonizing over the death of a fictional rapist, an incestuous couple, and a wretched female infant?

1 comment :
  1. touching article .. truth that exasperates .. questions that disturb..


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