The Dance of Death


We grew up believing that God alone was the arbiter of death. People died when He willed it. Man had no hand in this dispensation.

But today, the world around us seems to be revelling in a dance of death. The worth of human life has never been at a lower premium than now. Everywhere, the societal bastions human civilizations strove so hard to establish, are being decimated. Wilfully and ruthlessly.

In this new over-zealous and lawless world, ethics, morality, order and even humanity receive scant regard. From repeated shootings in schools in the leading nation of the First World where defenceless children are brutally gunned down, to the unrelenting, merciless bombings in Syria, and the complete meltdown of sanity in the Middle East, murder and mayhem seem to be de rigeur for the perpetrators of violence.

When we look at the state of our own country, international issues pale into insignificance. News of appalling deaths scream out from the pages of the newspapers every morning. The audio-visual media lustily regales its viewers with endless gory tales.

Earlier on, we used to be somewhat affected by the tragic deaths of jawans fighting in the borders or by stray deaths of farmers, unable to make their ends meet. Murders and killings did not make the headlines with such unerring continuity. An occasional shocking incident like the killing of Jessica Lal, or a Sanjeev Nanda or a Salman Khan mowing down pavement dwellers would jolt the national consciousness for a short while. But most of the darker underbelly of violent and sadistic deaths were kept in the closet, away from public gaze.

With Nirbhaya, it was as if India’s murky Pandora’s Box of iniquitous secrets split open. When the entire nation mourned for the hapless girl, no one ever thought that this was a beginning of perhaps one of our country’s most inglorious phases regarding the treatment of its women. More horror stories kept emerging. Instead of being curbed, such deaths escalated. As if the rapists were snooking a finger at those who dared to criticise them. Kathua has added its own indelible imprint on the Indian psyche, when an eight-year-old girl was gang raped and murdered savagely. The list of deaths caused by rape and assault defy belief and logic.

Then again, the cold-blooded assassinations of intellectuals like Narendra Dabholkar, M. M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare — three brilliant rationalists — and that of Gauri Lankesh, merely affirm the fact that in the India of today, freedom of expression is no longer a fundamental right. One has to be erased if one does not conform. Most recently, Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari paid with his life for being a moderate voice in an increasingly polarised region.

Instances of such wanton killings have become a regular adjunct of our daily lives. Look at our own state in recent times. The Xonor Axom we grew up in has suddenly turned into a killing field. The secret killings from 1998 to 2001, one of the darkest periods in Assam’s political history, remain a tangible blot in Assam’s human rights records. Today, death has become a favourite form of dispensing mindless justice for a mob. Innumerable cases of ‘witches’ being burnt down have been reported across the state. No benefit of doubt has been given to any of them. The Nagaon incident reiterates the inhumanity that is blighting our civic society. A minor girl studying in Class V is raped and set ablaze when she threatens to reveal the identity of the rapist. A man rapes his daughter and kills his wife in the court because she dares to expose him.

The lynchings, of course, have been going on for some time. But it needed the irrational viciousness of the Dokmoka incident to focus public glare on this barbaric atrocity. This tragedy has also effectively burst the bubble that life in our state is safe. We, Assamese, raise a hue and cry when our students are under threat in other states. How well does Assam protect its own? Who is safe here? These are unpalatable questions that need to be answered.

My personal equation with death has been a lot kinder. I have so far witnessed three deaths from close quarters and each person had reconciled to the inevitability of death as a kind of release. Hence when the final moment came, they passed gently into the good night. There was no raging against the dying of the light.

Of course, as time went by, the spectre of death did loom larger even in my small personal universe. Many close friends, colleagues and family members passed away, some peacefully and some heart wrenchingly. I have learnt that death has many faces, and most of them cruel.

But, whereas personal tragedies can be rationalised to a certain extent and one learns to live again, albeit the pain of loss and the big holes in the heart that the death of loved ones leave behind. It is the imposed deaths which have become a recurring motif in our social canvas that augur ill for our society. And they are destroying the fragile harmony of our everyday lives.

The ominous scenario created by these recent needless killings fractures my faith in human nature. Is this the legacy to leave behind for our progeny? It is almost as if death is performing a rudra tandava, a dance of destruction, engrossed on the annihilation of the world. The people at the helm of affairs seem clueless about stemming the rot, while every day new black pages are being added to the history of human depravity.

In his apocalyptic poem, The Second Coming, the poet W. B. Yeats had envisaged such a situation of humanity spiralling out of control into utter moral confusion. He had predicted the complete collapse of systems and society in a world devoid of empathy and reason. The prescient lines, written in 1919, seem to be a telling testament of our troubled times as well:

…. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

Perhaps the time has come to introspect how to save man from the malignity of man….

Aditi Chowdhury retired as Associate Professor, Department of English, Handique Girl’s College, Guwahati.