Around the World in Few Minutes

In French novelist’s Jules Vernes book published in 1873 we are introduced to Fogg, a very precise man who regularly goes to the Reform Club every evening. At one such visit to the club to play cards, he gets into a conversation with his fellow card players as to whether it is possible to go around the world in eighty days. He believes that it is and is challenged to complete the adventure himself. And so he sets out from England and manages to complete his world trip in 80 days, at a time when the modes of transport were limited to ships to cross the seas, and on land railways were the fastest means of travel.

But times have changed enormously, and nowadays it is quite possible to go round the world in only a few minutes – at the touch of a TV-remote control or at the click of a mouse or touch-button. While doctors lament that for many people that is the only form of ‘exercise’ that they indulge in, against all their best-intentioned advice for these fellows to hoist themselves up and GO! for their own good, all of us can access news in real time anywhere in the world. Whether we like it or not, we are now bombarded with information, which comes right into our living rooms, and the marvel of technology makes us feel so sorry for Jules Vernes’s guy!

But of course the choice is ours: we could still take a world tour that would last as long as we wish, kind of being on a permanent holiday after which, like they say, one would need another holiday to recuperate! Not many, though, can afford this luxury in our world of fierce competition and daily grind, with crisis upon crisis in many countries, and millions of people unemployed.

Indeed, as we take a TV tour of the world, which is possible on a 24-hour basis, and in a variety of styles and languages, what we see reminds me of the title of a movie: ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’ To these categories we can add several more, such as the marvellous, the unbelievable, the wonderful, the sublime, the dirty, the unpleasant, the violent. Feel free to add any more…

Looking back over a few minutes of TV time, and shifting from one channel to the other, I realized that we cannot get away from the fact that this is a hard, cruel world, although on a thousand counts it is much better than it was within the living memory of many. There are good things happening too, in the midst of the chaos. But still, the conclusion is that there will always be a mix of light and darkness in the world, and we have no choice but to continue to act and hope that goodness prevail, while accepting that we have to face the harsh realities of daily life, many of which are beyond our control.

The tornado in Oklahoma in the United States is one such event. The desolate landscape after the devastation sent me back to 1960, when cyclone Carol struck the island: a benumbed constatation des dégâts, houses reduced to rubble consisting of wooden beams, twisted iron sheets, wooden planks, personal belongings and other paraphernalia, all of them wet from the incessant pounding rains that had accompanied the cyclone. We tried to salvage books and copybooks, clothes, some souvenirs and so on – exactly as the thousands of victims of the suburb of Moore in Oklahoma were doing.

One old man, with a blank look in his eyes, sat on the only thing that was left: a rocking chair, with volunteers attending to the bleeding from his forehead. A guy sitting next to an officer driving a vehicle across that area was told by the driver that the same spectre of destruction, resembling a war-torn zone, stretched for 15 miles in the opposite direction too! Unbelievable! I tried to imagine what that meant: all the buildings from Curepipe to Port Louis flattened out: a frightening scenario that we can only pray will never take place. A friend of mine who studied in Oklahoma many years ago told me that when he took lodgings there, his landlord told him that as soon as he heard about a tornado coming, he must report immediately to the landlord, and they would all go to the underground shelter.

This made me wonder why, knowing very well that they are in what is called the ‘tornado alley,’ all — or more of — the inhabitants did not have a shelter? I have also asked myself why the Americans continue to build lightweight houses made of wood and plastic, the equivalent of what we had before Carol and Alix – which taught and forced us to build in concrete? After all, they do know the vulnerable regions, and given their means, capacity and expertise, surely they can consider this possibility? I was also led to reflect that tornados are not named, unlike cyclones. Would be interesting to know why.

The saddest part of course is that apart from the physical damage there has been loss of many lives, 24 at the last count, including nine schoolchildren. Although this number pales in comparison to the tally of people being killed everyday in conflict zones around the world, it is no less heart-breaking, because of the suddenness and unexpectedness of the event.

But, as was implied above, in spite of all this, the world must go on. Even as their unfortunate fellow American citizens were battling to pick up the threads of their broken lives in the many shelters that have promptly come up, the Hollywood crowd were enjoying themselves with their counterparts from around the world in Cannes, where the lavish film festival is being held. We may call it irony, but there you are, that’s the way the world goes round.

Not that far away in Southeast England, two men attacked another one belonging to the Armed Forces after running him down with a car, using a knife and a butcher’s meat cleaver, and beheaded him. And having accomplished their heinous act, in the name of Islam they said, they requested passers-by to take pictures of them on their mobiles! This is being considered as a terrorist-related incident, and has forced the British Prime Minister David Cameron to cut short his visit to France.

Terrorism used to be others’ affair, and India could not get its case across and obtain the support that it needed and deserved to fight this scourge until 9/11 made the world wake up brutally. And since then the multiplication of terrorist attacks has continued to grow, with a new term being coined for a hitherto unknown phenomenon: home-grown terrorism. It started in London, with attacks on trains of the underground. Sadly, one of our compatriots fell victim to the attack. The US, indeed the West, now lives under a constant threat of further attacks of the sort. And the bomb explosion that killed and maimed participants in the Boston marathon a few weeks ago is still fresh in the memory.

One fails to understand what is it that gets into the head of someone who was born in the US of parents who had been welcomed in from a country that was war-torn, who went to school in his adopted country and was even awarded a scholarship. Where’s human sense, dignity, gratitude for all that has been given so freely? Incomprehensible to say the least.

But fortunately, in the midst of all this, and the various other scams and acts of violence such as rape that seem to have no end – the Opposition in India spoke of ‘one scam a day’ on the part of the UPA government – we have heroes who redeem us and give us glimmers of hope in humanity. Such as the young lady amputee – sustained after being thrown out of moving train for resisting an attempt at molestation – who has scaled Mount Everest, a feat accomplished too for the third time by an 80-year old Japanese mountaineer, breaking the record held by a Nepalese Sherpa. He is 81 years old, and has said that next week he is going for the climb!

May I end by quoting Mahatma Gandhi:’ Life persists in the face of death. The universe continues in spite of destruction incessantly going on. Truth triumphs over untruth. Love conquers hate’ – although ‘so-called civilized men and nations conduct themselves as if the basis of society was violence.’

When, if ever, will men and nations mend their ways sufficiently so as to leave the world at peace?

* Published in print edition on 24 May 2013

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