An Encounter

There was a notice up on the wall. Not a brick wall, of course, it was the wall of news that feeds into my social network account, non-stop every day. The notice was a plea, asking for donations to give aid to poor people, in this hour of COVID-19 crisis. The plea was from someone I knew well. My old headmaster, from my school.

I like this man. Back when I was a student, he used to be our headmaster, a very good example of a headmaster too. He had an arresting personality, a noble presence. He was an excellent speaker. He had a very fine voice, fine enough that he could have pursued a career in music. We all loved to hear him sing. We had never really mixed closely with him, since he had been more in touch with the senior students, and he had left our school when we were in class eight. From what we heard, he was a popular monk among the students. But the reason why I like him most is that he is a man of culture. He loves art, literature, music, poetry. He is a poet and singer himself, and he has great respect for artistic people of any kind. He was the one who had started the Language Laboratory at our school. He has been the only editor of the monthly publication of his order, a religio-cultural magazine, who has endeavoured to use Indian paintings as the covers to the journal, instead of lurid photographs of temples and pilgrimages.

But in spite of my opinion of him, I looked at his letter, the notice, with disdain. I saw that I had no desire to contribute to this fund the notice spoke about.

I did not trust this organization with this job. Yes, this organization has been a forerunner, a trendsetter, even, when it comes to social relief work in this country. It has been doing it for not years but decades. But yet, I did not trust it anymore. Lately, I have seen this organization be bedfellows with some of the vilest people of this country. It has been devoured by spinelessness and fundamentalism. It is no more what it was, and was meant to be. So, I could easily come to this decision. I wouldn’t give my help to a zombie. I know, the end-receivers are not these monks. But I don’t trust these monks to get the aid to the end-receivers.

It is here where I realized something. I realized that I do not really care about giving aid to COVID-19 victims, even if there’s a guarantee that they will receive them as given. It was a very clear realization. It confirmed, again, that I am indeed sincere in my misanthropy. I may even be growing as a misanthrope, as days pass.

This gives me pause.

Because I have been a misanthrope for years now. I can trace it back at least to the year 2007. But there’s always been a paradox in me, a self-contradiction of sorts; I believed in selfless service to humanity and indeed all forms of life – at the same time as I was a misanthrope. But now, perhaps there is a tilting underway. Perhaps the hate is winning, and the love losing out. Because all this time, I have always felt the hate in my heart, yet I have always acted on the instinct of love. Now, I see, I have begun to distance myself from the lovingness when it comes to action, too. The contradiction is resolving itself.

Perhaps.

I had no way to be sure. Humans beings hardly ever do. So I decided to have a talk. A talk, with the only person who could have any idea what I would be talking about. That is, myself.

For the sake of clarity, let us give them names, the two parts of me who are meeting in conversation. One, the idealist, the other, the realist. Let us call one of them Marcus, and the other, Julius. You can surely tell who is who?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Julius: Hello, Marcus.

Marcus: Hello. You have been all right, I see.

Julius: I don’t think ‘right’ is the word you would use for me, Marcus. That’s why we are here. To talk about how we think each other wrong, isn’t it?

Marcus: I wouldn’t say so, actually. I don’t think it is about proving you wrong. I don’t think it’s about proving anything. I just think we could have a talk.

Julius: Well, then. About this – crisis. You don’t think I made the right call in choosing not to donate, do you, Marcus?

Marcus: Rhetorical question, Julius. But tell me, did I hear sarcasm in the way you said ‘crisis’? – Yes, that’s what I thought. Why don’t you think this is a crisis, Julius?

Julius: You know me. I think our species is a pestilence on this planet. This virus, which you call a disease, I call a cure. To my mind, it is just like a planetary antibiotic, one that is cleaning the disease up. And it is not the most efficient one too if I have to be honest. The biggest scourge of our species is our species itself, not any other life form. The good thing about this virus is, it is killing people without affecting other creatures very much. It is, in fact, giving them something of a vacation from coping with humans.

Marcus: Yes, this is true. But we always knew this, didn’t we? We always knew that we have a great potential for evil. We always knew that there were hordes amongst us who are a curse on this world. But we always knew that the reverse is also true. There are those who are a blessing as well.

Julius: Yes, there are.

Marcus: So why are you choosing to desert the entirety of our species in one swoop? I know you, like you said. This is blunt for someone like you, don’t you think? Not much justice in it. I could even say you are being lazy, Julius.

Julius: Maybe I am, maybe I am. That is the beauty of having given up on humanity, see? You do not have to hold yourself anymore to socially-accepted-standards of what is proper and what isn’t. I don’t care about humanity, I don’t even care if my judgement about it is correct. If I am wrong, I am wrong, – if humanity is wronged unjustly, let it be so.

Marcus: If you are wrong, then humanity wouldn’t deserve to be wronged unjustly. Your logic is flawed, Julius. But let that rest. Tell me, more specifically this time. Explain to me why you don’t want to spend money for a person who needs it, in this hour of COVID-19 crisis.

Julius: I don’t believe in philanthropy, Marcus.

Marcus: You stopped short of ‘- anymore,’ right there. I could tell. You have changed, is that it?

Julius: No, it was never me who advocated general love for people. I always saw equity with scepticism. There isn’t room for all in this world, Marcus, and if you try to force the walls, the room will burst.

Marcus: So who are they, these people you would have out of the room?

Julius: That’s not the original question you asked me. You asked me why I wouldn’t give money to someone suffering. Let me explain that to you first. – Not all people mean the same to me, Marcus. There are people I am close to, there are people I like, or love. And then there are people whom I don’t know, people I don’t know of, and people I dislike, hate or don’t care for. – That’s how it is for everyone, Marcus. – And I would only take the trouble of doing anything for those people who are close to me, those whom I especially like, or love.

Marcus: And the rest?

Julius: I don’t care what happens to the rest.

Marcus: You don’t care what happens to the rest.

Julius: Actually, I’ll correct myself. I would prefer, I think, if the vast seething mass of ‘the rest’ is cut down greatly in terms of number.

Marcus: You want all those people – most of those people you don’t know – to die.

Julius: I don’t want them to die. I just don’t care if they do.

Marcus: You mean you wouldn’t kill them, but you wouldn’t do anything if they’d be bleeding out to death.

Julius: … You are talking about a hypothetical situation here, right?

Marcus: Would you have a different response if it were not hypothetical?

Julius: Well, in a real-life situation it is hardly a sterilized, laboratory condition. Your actions, your choices rebound on to you. You ignore a dying person, that action of yours ends up getting you judged by other people. In real life, people don’t always help others because of an empathetic drive, Marcus, often they do it because other people are watching. Take away the eye of society, the judging scales, the audience and commentary. That’s a true test of one’s choices. You can see who someone truly is when no one is there watching.

Marcus: Then in real life, you would help a person.

Julius: If I am being watched, and judged. If I am not, I might ignore and walk by. But real life is hardly ever that clean.

Marcus: Hardly. So, what if it is a purely hypothetical situation? Would you help a dying man you don’t know, take the trouble of saving him from death?

Julius: In that case, no, I wouldn’t. I’d not try to save a dying person whom I don’t know. I will try to hasten his death – make it quicker and painless – if I have the means to do so.

Marcus: And that’s because you think he is a disease-particle, an individual block of a system that is like poison to this planet.

Julius: I see what you are trying to do, Marcus.

Marcus: Tell me.

Julius: You are going to ask me how I can be sure that the stranger, the dying fellow in front of my eyes, isn’t one of the angels; how I can tell he isn’t one of those people who’re actually trying to make this world a better place for everything, all the other animals, all the other forms of life. – Maybe you are even going to ask me how I can tell he isn’t another misanthrope like me, one who ‘has it right.’

Marcus: How can you?

Julius: I can’t. I am willing to take my chances, Marcus. For one, ‘angels’ are a minority. For two, even angels have devils inside them, – we are humans, Marcus. Why not wipe the slate clean, if I can? And lastly, – I think I wouldn’t be afraid of taking a chance, you know. If I were lying on the street bleeding, how many would come to save me? – No, that’d be okay. I wouldn’t blame the strangers for not helping me; I have had good friends do worse. But the same standards apply for all. If I should be accepting of undeserved misfortunes, then so should all the other good guys who ‘have it right.’

Marcus: And the people you’d save?

Julius: Yes. I would save, or try to save those who are close to me.

Marcus: Why?

Julius: Simple self-interest. I would do it because I feel like doing it, for them. It’s a purely emotional response.

Marcus: You’d even do it for someone, if they are ‘bad for the planet,’ if they are close enough to you?

Julius: Hm, doesn’t say much about my taste in people, in that case. But yes, I guess I would. – You see, I try to see things small scale, now. My own little circle. My people. I don’t believe there’s any use trying to see the big picture. Anyone who grapples with the big picture ends up trying to repaint it to match their own small picture, friend. I don’t want to be that. I’m out of it.

Marcus: So, who would these people be, those you would save… close friends, family…?

Julius: I can’t say I’d take the trouble for most of my family. Maybe some four, five people. Close friends, yes. Then again I have very few of those. Everyone has very few of those, but I keep a clearer picture in my head about these things. Mostly the ones people mingle with as ‘close friends’ don’t give a rat’s ass about them. Come to think of it, I guess I have more truly close friends than most. Now, how about that.

Marcus: I am not so sure about that, though. Who says you are not making the same mistake as everyone else? Who says that all these people, your ‘truly close friends’, actually give a rat’s ass about you? Sure, it appears to be so, in your eyes. But that’s the nature of the mistake, isn’t it?

Julius: Very true. But there’s really no way of finding out. I’ll just go with my gut. People change anyway.

Marcus: Alright. But tell me, Julius, how would you choose them, how would you decide which ones make the cut, and who don’t? You must have a gradation system in mind.

Julius: I have a few names.

Marcus: Yes, I realize that. But what I am saying is that your method of choosing is very questionable. What you are doing is following the myths you made for yourself. Just a few names, that you tell yourself over and over are close to you. There is no objective, systematic process here, Julius. You might be deceiving yourself.

Julius: Once again, I am not trying to be rational when I endeavour to save these people close to me. I am just being emotional. I am not concerned with being correct; I just want to feel right.

Marcus: Alright. So let me ask you this. You are in the business of working with children. You work to craft them, shape their minds. Malleable years, Julius. Your fingers play on them.

Julius: Yes. Therefore?

Marcus: Not a ‘therefore.’ I am asking if these children fall under the ‘close’ category. Would you help them, if need be?

               They are strangers, are they not? Or do you consider them close enough?

Julius: You are asking if I would help a child – a student – of mine, if they need it?

Marcus: I am asking you if you’d care if one of them is falling to their death. The premise hasn’t changed. We are still talking about the same thing. I just want to know how you’d react to this particular character in this scenario.

Julius: You have me at a quandary here, Marcus.

Marcus: I can see that.

Julius: You wouldn’t like the answer I am coming up with.

Marcus: I want to hear, anyway. We are not talking for the sake of enjoying ourselves here, not this conversation.

Julius: I would take the trouble for some. Not for all.

Marcus: Well, alright. That is understandable.

Julius: Is it? You’re not going to question the ethics of discriminating between students, all of whom I am supposed to care for equally?

Marcus: I wish I could, Julius. But, such is the way of the world… not even God can care for everyone equally. Or else, why was Abel different from Cain? I am an idealist, Julius, not an idiot.

Julius: I wish I could say I’d help them all, you know. That would be the honourable thing to do.

Marcus: But?

Julius: But it is more honourable to accept the truth when I am not really equally amenable to all of them. – They are human beings, as am I. I share human relationships with them, Marcus. Not some kind of a prescripted dosage of societal bond. They are not all the same.

Marcus: You would be prepared to see the others die? Those who don’t share that kind of bond with you?

Julius: I would be prepared to see them die. But I will not be uncaring. It will hurt me. But I have to let them die. Just like I have to let everyone else die, apart from my close ones. The fact that they are my children doesn’t make their lives more precious, does it?

Marcus: You are thinking rationally now, not emotionally. That’s interesting.

Julius: Tell me, whom would you define as ‘my students’? Anyone who has been on the other end of my instructions? My class? Anyone who addresses me as a teacher? What about someone who doesn’t address me as a teacher? What about someone whose class I have never taken? What about someone whose existence I am not aware of, but they are aware of mine? What about someone who hasn’t accepted me as a teacher at all, regardless of if I have taken classes with them? – There is no way of defining this, Marcus.

Marcus: Indeed there isn’t. So whom would you help? The ones –

Julius: – the ones whose names come to my mind reflexively when I think of ‘close’, that’s it. – There’s no rational process to it. There cannot be.

Marcus: Which ones would those be? Can you give me names? – No, I’d not ask you to speak the names aloud to me. But can you think of the names now, in your mind, and tell me that you have the names clear in your thought?

Julius: No, – I cannot – will not do that. – I could, of course. But I would not risk doing it.

Marcus: Why, what is the risk?

Julius: Let me put it this way, Marcus. If we play the harp too hard, we could end up breaking the strings.

Marcus: Very well. But, indulge me with the explanation too. I’d like to hear it, from you.

Julius: It’s that you cannot take that chain of thought so lightly, Marcus. Rifling through the names, rummaging through the memories you have of the people in your life. Trying to judge which of them you’d stamp with Life, and which of them with – oblivion. When you do this kind of a thing, it costs – consumes a little bit of your soul. I am not going to go through it now for a mere thought-experiment.

Marcus: Are you saying you are not willing to subject these people to such treatment? But you do not care about most of them, like you said, Julius. The ones you care about are going to make the cut anyway.

Julius: It is not inflicting unkindness on others that I am concerned about. It’s not just a list of external things I am making, Marcus, I am also constantly making myself. These strokes are way too heavy to be applied wantonly. They can corrupt you.

Marcus: When could you go the distance, then? Under what circumstance?

Julius: Only when, and if, I actually have to make that choice. If there comes an hour when it actually rests in my hands whom to choose, and whom to leave behind. Only then, and in only that hour, will I do it. Not before that – neither out loud, nor privately in my mind.

Marcus: But there would be a list.

Julius: There would have to be, wouldn’t it?

Marcus: But considering the fact that this hour, this unpredictable – though improbable – moment, when you have to choose – could come any day, – wouldn’t it be accurate to say that you have a phantom-list, a list not-quite-printed but a list nonetheless, in your head, everyday?

Julius: You could use a drink, Marcus. Yes, though. I suppose I have a list like that. Ready to be ‘printed’, as you say, but open to changes always, as long as it is not actually finalized and made use of.

Marcus: This list, – it must change from time to time.

Julius: The list changes from day to day sometimes, old friend.

Marcus: I think the list changes for you not just in case of your students, or your children, whichever way you prefer it. The list is inconstant in general, isn’t it?

Julius: Yes. Yes, it is.

Marcus: Down to a gamble, then?

Julius: Down to a gamble, then, I guess.

Marcus: Well, a man cannot argue with that.

Julius: You’ve always been considerate of the other person’s viewpoint, Marcus.

Marcus: Nothing but an old force of habit. – Well, I think that is it, then. I’ll take my leave.

Julius: We hardly ever leave each other’s company though, do we? – Let us hope we get to share a talk again soon.

Marcus: Any one of these days, man, any one of these days. Good-bye.

 

~

Guns of old dead soldiers in the mud
Bones of girls and dried up seas of blood
Under lucent blackness of the sky
Miles and miles we walk as years go by

Dreams end with grey sand and silver ash
On distant horizons lightnings flash
Earthern pots and jewelled fishes gold
All the thousand things we bought and sold

Smoky dreams cloud deserts of dead eyes
Twinkles of ten million far goodbyes
Resting fingers, voices whispering low
One by one at dawn the stars will go

White fog on the hills and birdcalls sound
We make approach of this foretold ground

 

4 thoughts on “An Encounter

    • The questions are legit. And it is not that it is entirely random, there are a few approaches to answering them – most of those approaches rooted in psychology and anthropology. They are pretty good. But I don’t have the mastery nor the enthu to type all that here 😅

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  1. The is a course by a Harvard Professor Michael Sandel titled Justice , it talks about choice , how does one exercise it when one has to choose who lives or dies, how many live or die.

    Your writing took me there not only to revisit but to add to that journey. Marcus and Julius to me did not represent a binary but a slope, and I am not sure when one starts and other ends.

    Remember in Vidyapith we were taught bond could be classified as ionic or covalent . In higher classes I learnt no bond is entirely ionic or covalent they exist together in varying degrees and the one with higher degree decides what type of bond it is..

    May be someday one is more of a Marcus and other more of a Julius . For each of us the gap between the two may vary for some the gap is less for some the gap is huge. Why do I feel ( I may be wrong) for you the gap is less or did I get it wrong?

    The take on death in this write up is like a breath of fresh air, to admit that the death of unknown people does not matter, does it make us love more,the people whose death matter to us ? Or does it make us love less the people whose death does not matter? I would like to believe I would love help even those whose death won’t matter to me and I am aware of the paradox here once I start involving with people whose death do not matter to me, they gradually become ppl whose death starts to matter .

    Like I imagine the death of every alive person I know and I mourn their death even though they are alive, are these the only people whose death matter. Have I even loved someone if I have not fantasized their death.

    Should stop now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me, the gap is definitely a narrow one, Sheshansh-da. I have found that my opposites lie in very close embrace with each other. That is what makes it so interesting – to talk to myself and discover who I am, from day to day, varying and yet constant at the same time. It is painful, and it is trying, but I think I prefer it to satisfied stolidity. Or perfect serenity, – which is still a long way away.

      I feel every day that we do not know where one thing ends and another begins. Our lines and boundaries fall short when it comes to truly describe life. This is like the concept of ‘uncanny valley’ in android robotics. It takes only a shift in the angle of sight, a hair’s breadth of movement and change, to turn something ‘right’ into something ‘wrong’, and even then it would not look the same to you if you had been standing at a different point. Things melt, merge and coalesce. We don’t know what waters we swim; all we know is that we get wet.

      And it is true that we imagine losing precisely those things that we cannot afford to lose. If we have not thought of losing something and been scared, – maybe we have not started discovering our love for it.

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