Hope and despair in the festive season

May we slay the demons of bias, harassment and violence with the gift of empathy

By Sudipta Bhattacharjee
  • Published 12.10.18, 2:10 AM
  • Updated 12.10.18, 7:36 PM
  • 2 mins read
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A Durga idol on its way to a pandal from Kumartuli. Pradip Sanyal

The run-up to Durga Puja in Calcutta catalyses a sense of euphoria and foreboding, much like the reflections of Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. The juxtaposition of the best and the worst in the age of wisdom and foolishness, where belief challenged incredulity and light dispelled darkness, are just as prevalent today with the same “superlative degree of comparison.”

Nowhere is this trigger of hope and despair more visible than on the city’s public transport, where frenzied shoppers and regular commuters reveal traits that are both entertaining and alarming. On the metro, the preferred mode to beat traffic snarls, the seats allotted to the elderly and differently abled are invariably occupied by younger travellers, who seldom relinquish their comfort zone to the old and infirm. Some even pretend to be asleep! In the section marked for women, mothers prefer to remain standing with heavy school bags while the children sit, are fed and allowed to play with a cell phone during the brief journey. Ample girth and weak vertebrae often compel many to transfer their weight to the knees or shoulders of those seated.

With shoppers packed in like sardines, humanity takes a back seat, whether on an autorickshaw, bus or the tube. Young adults are so addicted to their mobile handsets that they are oblivious to the plight of co-travellers. Last week, a cancer patient, the tell-tale signs of chemotherapy writ large on the balding head and bloated body, reeled from exhaustion at one end of the compartment but not a soul offered her a seat. Where was the magnanimity one associates with this festive season?

A recent conversation with classmates on social trends pitted altruism against the virtues of selfishness. A school administrator opined that many parents were too preoccupied to inculcate values in their children. “Nowadays even teachers are less respected,” she said. Our school had laid great stress on values, given that the founder, a soldier to boot, had even made a will specifying that along with academic excellence, a medal be presented for good conduct.

My former class teacher, who had kindled my interest in words, however, refuted the contention that Generation Y lacks concern. Asserting that students were caring and responsible, she said, “I find the definition of good quite ambiguous. There are different notions of goodness.” The perception of youngsters lacking in courtesy was a generation paradigm, she added.

Yet the body of evidence to the contrary is substantial. Is it possible that students confine courtesy to the campus? At the other end of the spectrum, a young scholar said: “A flawed socialization process, hectic daily life, lack of friendly bonds and the fear of being judged by others are some of the main reasons for us becoming self-centred and obsessed with various e-gadgets and phones. Through these channels, people can express themselves without being directly identified.”

A 20-something professional working in the city elaborated: “I am not obsessed with my phone. But living on my own, away from family, a mobile phone and easy internet connectivity came as a big blessing. I found myself checking out apps like Instagram while being bored or unoccupied. I have put a stop to that now and deactivated my Facebook and Instagram profiles to see how long I can go without it. I feel more youngsters nowadays are aware that they shouldn’t be on their phones all the time and make an effort to be more in the present.”

While this debate is bound to remain inconclusive, may the festive season be a harbinger of an enduring benediction, enriching minds beyond a preoccupation with the self, slaying the demons of bias, harassment and violence with the gift of empathy.