I was five when we lived briefly in Bhagalpur, next door to my mother’s cousin and her large family. The cousin was amiable and I was often in their home, playing with her large brood. On an occasion the tie-string to my pajama came loose and, seeing me struggling to retie it, the woman said, “Come here, my child, let me do it for you.” I went to her in full trust. She untied the string completely and then, before retying it, pulled my pajama down, exposing me naked to a roomful of kids. Her intention was quite clear, for she guffawed as she did it, and so did a whole chorus of her children and their friends. I wanted to die of shame. Ignoring their plea to stay and play, I went home. I mentioned the episode to nobody, but I never went anywhere near that home again.
A second’s merriment, a roomful of laughter. But no one knew the deep scar it left on my psyche. So deep and enduring that, decades later, I can recall it as if it happened yesterday.
Twenty years later, I had gone to Mumbai for some office project and was struck by a serious case of food poisoning. For three days I lay in a hospital bed and was advised another two days of rest when the first acute spell was over. Homesick, I took the rash decision to fly back home to Kolkata. Weak, nearly tottering, I somehow made the flight, arrived in the airport and stood near the carousel on uncertain legs waiting for my suitcase. Suddenly, a tall, burly middle-aged man, dressed in a three-piece suit, the style then for senior executives, brusquely pushed me aside to approach the carousel. I nearly fell, but I managed to mutter, “Why are you pushing me?” The man looked at me with contempt, the way I presume he looks daily at his subordinates, then said peremptorily, “Shut up!” and went forward. I was too ill and weak and too stunned to say anything at all.
Years have passed and I am a little surprised that I remember it so well. The reason perhaps is that the rudeness was so outrageous and shameless for a man clearly in a position to know better. This too was a person who knew he could hurt another man without any consequence for him.
I have since met many executives, businessmen and bureaucrats who consider what they do so important – and, in consequence, consider themselves so important – that they feel they can arrogate the right to break the social rules that ordinary people follow. They feel entitled to break into a queue where others have been waiting patiently for hours or to circumvent traffic rules by tipping an impecunious traffic cop. Donald Trump expressed the attitude well when he said he was smart enough to cheat on taxes which others were foolish enough to pay. Such people are not only invincibly convinced that they are very valuable people, they are also, if only implicitly, equally convinced that many others are of no value and can be fairly pushed aside.
But it is the first incident which is perhaps even more interesting. Why did an educated middle-class woman expose a young child in front of several people, including his friends and playmates, and make the display of his nakedness a matter of amusement? What made her think of a child’s helpless shame as a joke to regale the young and old?
It is an exquisitely perfect example of human evil, where people find an occasion for laughter in human suffering. To me it seems almost more repulsive than Nazi surgeons performing medical torture on Jewish girls or Saudi pilots bombing Yemeni children in schools and hospitals. The surgeons and bombers were doing terrible things, but did it with gritted teeth; they were not laughing at the same time. Scott Peck writes of real evil in the human heart and uses the Biblical expression “people of the lie” to designate the perpetrators. How else to understand men who amuse themselves by burning cats and setting dogs to tear open other dogs?
I fear not just for the helpless child and feeble youth, but for the hundreds of the vulnerables, the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the easily displaced and exploited, who remain at the mercy of the evil protagonists among us.