We, the Olympians of Stupidity

POV

We, the Olympians of Stupidity

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

I

must have been in the third standard when I first heard the term “playing with fire.” I was watching a movie where a nun believes in a miracle and the priest warns her using those words. I remember pestering my cousins—all much elder—about how someone can play with fire. One of them was decent enough to reply, “Come Diwali, I will show you.”  And he showed me alright. By dropping a fire cracker on my toe.

There’s something up with us and fire. Fire accidents keep happening around us at an alarming pace. Just two days ago, a fire in Odisha’s SUM hospital killed 24 people, becoming the latest in our long list of tragedies. Apparently the hospital had “overlooked a 2013 advisory of the state government to improve its firefighting mechanism” and did not even have a fire safety certificate. Well done, folks – this is what they mean when they say that the smell of death looms large in hospitals. Even our temples are a good place to go out. In April this year, organisers of an annual pyrotechnic show in Kerala flouted safety warnings of the district administration and went ahead to stage a forgettable fire tragedy in India that left over a hundred people dead.

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A (WHO) factsheet states that in India there are over one million burn injuries every year. Records from our National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicate that 19,513 people died due to fire accidents in India in 2014 (latest available data). That amounts to about 54 deaths a day. Accidental fires are the third leading cause of unnatural deaths in India after car accidents and drowning.

Our first reaction, as always, is to lash out at the creators and overseers of the system – the government. After all, ensuring compliance with fire protocols, emergency responses, and safety regulations is the duty of the authorities, isn’t it? But, I can’t help but paraphrase what Barack Obama said at the funeral for police officers in Dallas a few weeks ago. For long, he said, we have put too much blame on the government without being conscious ourselves.

Into this already crackling mix of idiocy, callousness, and entitlement, we will soon be throwing a lit matchstick. Diwali the festival in which we literally play with fire and encourage our children to do so, is upon us.

The fact is we’re a reckless country made up of relentlessly stupid people who will switch on their mobile phones before landing to tell the driver to “get the BMW, not the Endeavour” (#truestory). The sort of folks who rush to the boarding gates breaking all protocol, as if the pilot has some proven record of leaving passengers behind. Who will stand when we’re told to sit, who will repeatedly drive drunk, who will think nothing of texting while driving, will steadfastly refuse to use skywalks. We are a people who will spend a small fortune on a refrigerator but never think of installing a fire extinguisher. How can a country of so many smart people suddenly strike gold repeatedly in this Olympics of stupidity?

I think the answer lies somewhere in a complex knot of uniquely Indian attitudes. Somewhere between our fatalism, our belief in the afterlife and rebirth, our ignorance, and our “chalta hai” attitude. But there’s more to it. We, especially those of us who belong to privilege, also have what has been labelled “a ferocious sense of entitlement”. Entitlement is the handmaiden of a cavalier attitude and superciliousness. When we skip a traffic signal or dive into a sea of oncoming traffic, it is with the assurance that it is the duty of the world to align itself to our behaviour, no matter how dangerous or egregious it might be.

Last week, just as the light turned green at a signal, a young lady no more than 15, suddenly started her pirate’s walk-of-death. With her umbrella tilted to her left, she walked headlong into raging traffic, earphones plugged-in, eyes trained on her phone screen. The car on my right screeched and I too put all my weight on the brake to avoid hitting her. The youngster looked up for a second before going right back to tap-tap-tapping on the cellphone. Forget offering anyone an apology, she was oblivious to the fact that she’d almost been run over.

Into this already crackling mix of idiocy, callousness, and entitlement, we will soon be throwing a lit matchstick. Diwali, the festival in which we literally play with fire and encourage our children to do so, is upon us. Yesterday, Sivakasi or Tamil Nadu’s Cracker Central, got its once-a-year place in the news cycle when nine people died after a firecracker godown went up in flames. Soon we will begin hearing of horrendous burn injuries, all of them wholly preventable.

Last Diwali, I saw the grown-ups in my colony go into an orgy of bursting crackers. One guy – a grown-up – flung a firecracker from his balcony that landed on a biker, who perhaps thought the Armageddon had arrived. He skidded hard but managed to escape unharmed and instead of dragging the pyromaniac-psychopath to the cops, the biker embraced him after a small exchange of invectives. Bura na mano, Diwali hai, after all.

I don’t know if the solution is to go the American way and put a blanket ban on the sale and use of consumer fireworks (I can already sense the Hindu brigade looking at me askance) but I know that a solution needs to be found. Giving unregulated, unsupervised fire in the hands of the irresponsible is like giving a child a fully loaded gun. He may not necessarily shoot with intent, but if he plays with it long enough, you can be fairly sure that someone’s gonna die.

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