It was a morning ritual, at least in English-speaking South Indian households — a cup of filter coffee and The Hindu in hand. That was the time to review the state of politics, the economy, society and, of course not to forget, sport. This morning dose of news was our connect to the world. But today, news is a 24×7 happening and all of us are connected with the people of the world, feeling a common sense of partnership, empathy, joy, sympathy, anger and frustration, thanks to TV stations, social media, blogs and websites that feed us non-stop ‘breaking news.’ The feed can reach us anywhere, anytime. Sitting in a small village, Thirupandurthi in Thanjavur district, I knew, in almost real-time, of the Malaysian airline crash on the South China Sea. Almost every day on Facebook, my friends discuss articles on women’s rights, child abuse, Ukrainian politics and the travails of minorities anywhere. The ‘like’ button signifies much more than its linguistic meaning. Intense and profound ‘status updates’ are noted with the greatest interest and the Internet has replaced the drawing room. I receive numerous petitions from Change.org for many worthy causes. We are one with everything and everybody, participating in the happenings around the world and raising our voice at least in virtual public spaces. But the question that begs to be asked: Does this connectedness and participatory nature of the new media make us really care about life beyond ourselves? Are we more sensitive than when all we had was The Hindu or Hindustan Times, with a few radio and TV bulletins thrown in?
What a question? When Aamir Khan brought to light the struggles of so many men and women, did I not say ‘Bravo!…Never even knew you existed…’? When Abdul Kalam spoke about ‘Vision 2020’ did I not get so excited as to blog about it? I supported Anna Hazare actively online. I even sent out emails regarding the need for saving India’s beaches and, let us not forget, I tweet!
The saddest funny thing is that I have almost begun to believe in this virtual bubble.
But the fact is that, inside all this, the divisive, self-centred, hierarchical ‘me’, who will not see that every small act of negligence towards the real life that exists around, is a violent one. The earth does not seek a virtual vote, comment or a discussion over dinner. She only asks us to open our minds to her. Once we do that, it will not matter whether or not we actually signed an online petition.
Has all this information that is constantly fed to us made us even fractionally more sensitive to the vegetable vendors on the sidewalk or the human ruins we see such as the ‘halt and maim’ stopping us at street corners? At the sight of an approaching transgender we roll up our car windows with the same disgust with which we avoid the stench of garbage. Nothing seems to have changed. Much of what we will see and pass by is exactly the ‘cause’ for which we would enthusiastically sign on an email request or have an animated discussion about on Facebook. But do we actually sense the condition when it presents itself? I am not talking about things that directly affect us but of facets of life that at least at that moment seem beyond my personal purview.
A few months ago I was driving down a busy road in a newly developed Chennai suburb. As we stopped at a traffic signal, I noticed a young girl clutching ‘Angry Birds’ colouring books, rushing to almost every car. She was asking the ‘car people’ to buy at least one from her. Even as I sat in my vehicle, about 10 cars behind, I could see her crying and imploring the inhabitants of a Mercedes Benz, Maruti, Honda, Ford and Audi. Nobody was interested, which was understandable. But the most disturbing aspect of this incident was the fact that not one person even lowered the window to give her, a visibly distressed teenager, the courtesy of a moment’s hearing. No one took the time to ask her “Why are you crying”? She ran from one car to another keeping an eye on the timer under the signal. She came to us and my friend asked her that very question. Through her tears and her exhaustion, all she could say was “I have been standing under the sun all day and I haven’t eaten; I am hungry.” Do we really care?