What Chennai’s flooding taught us about freedom and un-freedom

Some will get back their milk and honey, others will slide from one unfreedom to another
What Chennai’s flooding taught us about freedom and un-freedom
What Chennai’s flooding taught us about freedom and un-freedom
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By Dr V Krishna Ananth

Chennai flooded; as I read TV channels running scrolls of this, I could not but recall my friends back home. Satish and his family, with whom I had breakfast just a couple of weeks ago was among those who cared a lot to keep his home `clean’. Their’s was a second-floor flat (as mine there) and I was too sure that they were safe. And their little daughter, with whom I spent the little while I was there last on transit was even otherwise `bored’ staying indoors and not being able to go to school. Life in Chennai was disrupted, due to heavy rains, for a while even before I passed through the city and schools were declared closed then. I just thought I might ask her how she felt with more rains and more holidays. Alas! They were `not reachable’.

All their mobile phones (four of them) had run out of power and with the power lines switched off (to prevent electrocution), they were out of reach. The same story about Sankar, another of my neighbor and Menon, my wonderful friend. I had held Thomas Friedman’s The World if Flat (one of the celebrated books of the mid-1990s) with some contempt even otherwise. But now I had an argument that would work with Satish, Sankar and Menon; all of whom were among those who celebrated the ICT revolution (even while none of them had read up Friedman) and try telling me that things have changed. It’s freedom now at long last, they felt and proclaimed.

Well. I managed to speak with Satish finally on Saturday. The rains had disrupted life, this time, since Monday. And Satish declared that he got to realize what can happen to one’s life even after all the freedom had come. His mother was in hospital in the couple of days before the last round of rains had begun and he had just about managed to reach home on Monday evening; only to spend the next few days, indoors, with his wife and daughter, having to stay without news of his ailing mother.  Just as the Menons and Sankars, the Satishs too had to eat frugally and go without milk and vegetables. Even when they had all the money to buy these and drinking water that they were buying for long.

Frugal meals and life without vegetables and milk is indeed a way of life to many in Chennai. And their system had got immune to contaminated water they had been having for long in their lives because they could not afford buying so much water to drink!  The rains, to this kind of people, who are not our kind of people, meant loss of livelihood for days on end and to depend on food-packets that came as relief. But then, they did not consider themselves `free’ in the way the Satishs, the Sankars and the Menons thought. The ICT revolution had made their lives different. They spent some of their money on mobile recharges (available in such small denominations as Rs. 10 too) and sometimes cut down on their already small budget for food. Those people had not cared as much as my friend Satish did on keeping their house `clean’ and pouring harpic into the flush tanks in their washrooms. `Freedom’ had evaded them for long.

But then, the deluge had made Satish feel that he too was not free. Freedom, as it had come to be defined in our Constitutional sense included the right to know and this right as essential to the right to express. In other words, my friends had thought that they now were bestowed with the right to know and the right to get others know, thanks to the mobile phones, the DTH transmission that brought them news of the quake in Nepal and Sikkim (when they thought of me and managed to be informed that we were `fine’ because mobile links were not disrupted then for too long) or about The Taj under attack; or even about the fall of the WTC and the revenge on Osama bin Laden subsequently. But now, their flat screen TV hooked on to the Dish that `connected’ them to the rest of the world was just an object on the wall. No picture on that.

They were `disconnected’ even from their friends within the locality and there was no way Satish could know, for a few days, about his ailing mother in the same city. `We now know what life is all about…. Everything can change in a moment.’ Well. I was reminded of one of the influential philosophers of the last century: Jean Paul Sartre, in his conversation with Simone de Beauvoir, explains how his own idea of freedom as merely an abstract notion changed with his increasing contact with the people. “I came to understand” says Satre, “that freedom met with obstacles, and it was then that contingency appeared to me as being opposed to freedom…’’ This indeed took Sartre to where he established his own self as a trenchant critique of the status quo.

Well. The Satishs, Sankars and the Menons will soon get back their `freedom’ and will eat vegetables and drink milk also with honey. Meanwhile, the large number of those who produce goods and wealth thereon will soon begin to earn their livelihood; the food-packets and water sachets, after all will stop before long and they will slide from one kind of unfreedom to another. And our TV channels will soon declare life as normal and celebrate the resilience. It means milk, honey and vegetables for some and a frugal diet for the many. Freedom and Contingency as Sartre would help us explain!

(The writer is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Sikkim University.)

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