One of my tattoos quotes a phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid – “Sic itur ad Astra” (Thus one journeys to the stars). Spoken by Apollo, addressing Aeneas’ son Ascanius as he goes to war, the words embody a well-known practice of hero-worshipping and promising fortune in this life or the next in exchange for hard labor or even extreme sacrifice. Now, if you are wondering, I got that phrase inked for its message of service and journey, and not least in the hope of receiving divine gifts.
Cut to 2020, nothing much has changed – deification remains just as popular as it was a thousand wars and revolutions ago. Although, what would perhaps have been a reason for survival at a time when people carried blades to save themselves and theirs seems a little fraudulent in an age of robots and space travels. It is almost as if people are being conned out of their just rewards with the wordsmithery of few. This practice attained severity amid the losses and sacrifices caused by COVID-19.
Much like the Syrian uprising, the world stopped counting daily COVID-related deaths after a point. India, with one of the world’s largest counts of active cases and fatalities, has also trudged back to normalcy even as hundreds continue to die daily. The healthcare professionals have been the worst-affected, working inhuman hours in severely understaffed spaces and often without essential medical supplies, and with months of unpaid wages. India has lost more than 700 doctors to COVID.
Now, if one wonders what has India been doing to aid frontline healthcare workers, we have been clapping from our rooftops and clanging our utensils to show our support. Governments across the country, busy erecting statues and places of worship to tickle popular sentiments, asked the nation to applaud healthcare workers while sending them to die at their places of work. Millions of Indians clapped, with a job in a safe environment and steady paychecks throughout the pandemic.
Developing nations like India are especially vulnerable to deification, and the people in defense forces have been an easy target of this practice. Over the years, governments and various bureaucratic institutions have buried their incompetence and failures behind the hero-worshipping of soldiers – the soldiers who are sent to battles unprepared and without the necessary resource and intelligence. If they returned alive with complaints, they were either hushed up or labeled seditious. And if they died, a hero, a martyr.
In the past few years, hundreds of defense personnel have lost their lives across India, an odd record for a country not at active war. And almost always, it was due to intelligence or diplomatic or governmental failures, but no one was pulled up. There have also been complaints of harassment and poor facilities, not to mention the neglect of mental healthcare, that have gone unheard. When anyone did dare question, they were branded malicious. We are only interested in a steady supply of heroes.
The roots of this harmful habit of deification run deep in countries like India. Nothing can prove this better than how India treats its daughters. Here we worship women as goddesses of prosperity, but their independence is discouraged. We put them on a pedestal as a symbol of chastity. Women are a mark of honor for a household – one that must be protected, if required, even violently. And somewhere amid all the deifying, we forget to regard women as human beings. A tragic irony!
A nation that reveres its women also has one of the world’s worst records in crimes against women. Do we ever ask why? It’s because of our traditions – those that give men free reign but discourage women from thinking and deciding for themselves. In India, a woman can either be a goddess or a witch. Governments, institutions, politics, media have upheld this idea – and it is borne widely, from the urban youth to village elders. The idea has been nourished by some women too, unfortunately.
Since every good deed begins at home, maybe it is time we started challenging ideas of sexism and misogyny as well as those related to ideological support for institutional corruption at every level within our closest circles. We are living in a tumultuous time, a time of great disruptions that will irreversibly change the world order and many of our understandings. Herein, political correctness can easily slip into complicity, and we need to ask ourselves if we are being complicit in destroying our future.
Image by PTI