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Reflections under the shadow of death

Published On : 10 Dec 2016

By Valson Thampu

They came in their hundreds and thousands. A heaving, sorrowing, near-hysterical mass of humanity. Many of them looked like they have not had food or water for hours. Looked beside themselves with anguish. As if something deep from within has been snatched away.

They lined up the roads. They thronged every square inch in front of the Rajaji Hall. They filled the Marina Beach.

Why would they do so? What was it that tied their hearts to this lady who, by her own admission, was a reluctant entrant into politics?

Jaya understood politics. She knew that politics is, literally, the “art of living together in a city” (polis, being Greek for city). She also knew that a caring culture is the heart of living together. From Amma idlis to Amma health, everything is stamped with this core human value: a culture of caring.


Jaya is not a demagogue, as we know demagogues. She does not unleash a Niagra of rhetorical vehemence on people. She speaks in a clear, measured fashion. Speaks thinkingly. She doesn't resort to dramatic measures to mesmerize the masses. Her unmatched mass appeal is anchored in the vocabulary of caring in which she communicates her political creed. She loves the people and they believe, gratefully, her love to be genuine.

Now think of living together (the defining aspect of politics) without a caring culture. It is like cat and mouse, or snake and mongoose, marrying and living together happily ever after. (I can offer more acute Homo Sapien pairs, but these two lower sorts should serve our purpose.)

What is not understood is the link between mortality and the caring culture. A simple illustration would suffice. It is when we are young, at the height of our physical wellness, that we remain most indifferent to the value of caring. Even as health and strength ebb out, and the shadow of death creeps upon us, we begin to increasingly appreciate the value of caring.
Paradoxically, it is death that illumines the value of life. I have had a near death experience. I was paralyzed in my neck as well as in my left hand. I lay under 24x7 traction for three months. I was written off. Doctors told me I’d never get up and walk again. That was in 1992.

Life has never been the same for me since then. I realized the value of life in a way I’d, otherwise, never have. My entire outlook changed. I felt as though I walked, since then, on a new earth under a new heaven. So, I should know what I am writing here….
One of the reasons why many of the personalities we look up to in public life behave the way they do is that they do not factor the reality of death into their view of life. It is as if their days have no nights. Or, the sentences that their lives are, have no full stops. But, pardon me, a sentence without a full stop has no meaning!

There are some immutable truths that need to be stated. No one, no matter how old, is ever ready for death. That includes even those who seek death in the form of suicide, or those who abandon themselves to resignation. Even, those who seek refuge in euthanasia. They are sick of life, but not ready for death. 

In the case of every one of us, death will come before we complete the coveted edifices of worldly achievements or our grand schemes. Human life is necessarily partial and perishable.

And, what’s more, death will have its way. Death will triumph. But not over life. Life is defeated, if at all, not by death, but by us. The tragedy of life is not that it ends, but that it is made meaningless and perverse. Unlike death, we destroy life, its worth, its dignity, by wasting it over subhuman and worthless pursuits. Remember the accursed death –suicide- of Hitler in a Berlin bunker?

Many political big-wigs have visited Apollo in the recent past. I cannot help wondering, “What thoughts did this experience awaken in them? Did any one of them go back, wondering if they are hitched to truth or are chasing vain shadows?”

In terms of what our humanity needs to be, some of them may be in a more precarious condition than the patient they went to visit.
I envy Jayalalithaa on the deep and profound feelings of affection and gratitude she commands from the multitudes. The river of prayerful tears shed for her by tens and thousands have no reference to the camera. They are monsoons of affection bordering on adoration.

The message I read over all of these is simple: all it takes to find a place in the hearts of millions is to care for them. You don’t have to shake a nation or breathe fire against other nations. You don’t have to move mountains, ride tigers or tame elephants. Your task is a lot simpler. Can you be humane? Can you care? Can you respond to the needs of those who you are duty-bound to serve? Those who cast their faith in you?

The pollsters did not give Jaya and her party a chance in the last state elections. What they did not reckon was the power of caring in the symphony of politics and popularity.

It is a terrible mistake to think that pulling off economic miracles, and staging administrative coups one after the other, can be a substitute for the culture of caring. This mistake stems from overlooking the difference between governance as stunning a people with one’s power and smartness on the one hand, and caring for them even in small measures because you love them, on the other.
Caring, after all, is a function of love. There is no substitute for love. Also, there is no fig leaf that can hide its absence. If there is love, it will show itself in a variety of ways. If it is not there, nothing in the world can hide its absence.

The only death over which we need to break our hearts and cry our eyes out is the death of love. What we see at Apollo, Chennai, is the triumph of love.

You may impress multitudes, but you will never connect to their hearts or command their affection. You will, at best, be a fleeting presence, a shifting shadow, in their hearts. They may applaud, cheer and shout for you, but they will drop you like a hot potato when the next demagogue comes along with a different bag of tricks….

So, the pageantry of history will continue. History will repeat itself. Few will learn, though. Our cussed unwillingness to learn compels the cyclical repetitiveness of history.

Death is not repetitive. It is linear. It stands alone. It is a tangential break off from what is mistaken as a closed, repetitive cycle: an illusion that bursts into regrets at the pinprick of truth in the hour of death.

 (Rev. Dr. Valson Thampu is the former Principal of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi)

Rev. Dr. Valson Thampu has recently retired as the Principal of the premier college of India, the St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. He has had a tumultuous tenure of 8 years as the Principal of the College where he first joined as a student in 1971. The next 45 years of his life was devoted completely to this college.

He fought a relentless battle with vested interests that tried to foil his sincere attempts to introduce the concept of social justice in his college. An admission in St. Stephen’s being a status symbol it was long the bastion of the well-healed and well-connected. Valson tore into this bastion to give elbow room to the less privileged but academically gifted students. The media predicted the collapse of St. Stephen’s, but on the contrary, during his tenure, the college rose in its ranking among colleges in India to the No 1 position in almost all courses, thus proving that intelligence is not the monopoly of the rich and the mighty.

His forthcoming book "A Temple in Turbulence" will tell the whole story of his 8 year saga as Principal at St, Stephen's, and the intricacies of the entire struggle.

As narrated by his friend Mathew C. Ninan

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