A man and a child lie prone in shallow water — the child, tucked under his black T-shirt, seems to have a reassuring arm wrapped around his head. In any other situation, this could be a father and his child napping after an afternoon of horseplay.
This haunting image of death jumped at me from my Google news feed one morning in June 2019. I have a thick skin for graphic news images, but something about this image stuck with me, drawing me into a funk that day. I didn’t get much work done because I was scrolling through Google news trying to understand what this was about. It wasn’t a wanton voyeuristic hunger — more of a hypnotic and numbing sadness. In a few days, I knew one story about them. Oscar, a doting father of 23 month old Valeria, set off on a difficult and dangerous journey in the hope of giving his child a better life. When the goal seemed near, they found their way blocked, and Oscar decided to swim a churning river in darkness with Valeria lashed to his back, in a final push to prevail. They didn’t. The river consumed them and snuffed out their lives. Two weeks from that day, the US media was still talking about him, and Google kept pushing those stories up in my feed.
Perhaps his story resonated with me because of my private anxieties over the life that I want for my daughter Vivien. Perhaps that overactive story machine in my head has a parallel universe where I would face the choices that he did, and it would just take another layoff or another economic crisis to put me in his circumstances. Perhaps it was the ethereal kinship of fathers that the birth of your first child admits you to.
Work, life and other things soon drew me away, but this image has stayed with me as a little lump in my throat, that in quiet moments, chokes me up and floods my body with an inscrutable, hollow, yet anxious sadness.
There’s a part of me that wants to believe that this is what my former therapist called an “emotional hook” — a media device to bring my attention to a social or political viewpoint that isn’t relevant to my life. Incidentally, he made this comment during a November 2015 session, while discussing my emotional response to the picture of Aylan Shenu (Kurdi), another child in red, who perished in the Mediterranean sea a few weeks earlier. My therapist’s discourse on people having “emotional access” to me was relevant to a major personal setback I was dealing with at that point in time, but something unmemorable that he said that about latent maternal instinct, breaded in passive-aggressive shrink speak and deep-fried in Erhardian EST bollocks ended our 12-year relationship.
The empty sadness endured through July 2019. In August, the Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir was placed under curfew subsequent to a change in its political status. This time Google News was flooded with stories of children injured by buckshot from the 12-gauge pump action shotguns that security forces fire at protesters. Yes — combat shotguns — that the Indian Media officially refers to as “pellet guns”. While teenagers, children, and even toddlers were being blinded, maimed, and killed by shotguns used for “non-lethal crowd control” my social media feed was aflame with debates from two political perspectives. Somewhere in there was a story about a father whose child died on the way to hospital because of the delays caused by having to pass through seven security checkpoints.
The hollow sadness endured.
Seventeen years ago, I had a months-long correspondence with a Catholic priest that started with a query about insinuations against the Catholic Church in a madly popular pulp novel. I’d asked him why the Church chose to address outlandish statements in a work of fiction. He wrote that the Church’s mission is not an earthly conflict to be decided by the last man standing. It is a celestial war, in which even one soul lost to misinformation is a defeat for the Kingdom of God and a victory for the Forces of Evil. While the details of that interaction were lost with my yahoo email account, the metaphor of a Celestial battle stuck in my head. What will it take for the Men of our species to take a page from the Religious Zealots and decide that the death of even one Child is a death too many? When will these heart-rending tragedies stop being used as ammunition by political or economic ideologues and instead be seen as a blight on humanity that must be stopped no matter the cost?
In 2020 the world at large has been smitten by a pestilence that has caused entire countries to shut down. Here in India, on the first day of the lockdown I was frantically dashing from one shop to another looking for dry staples and baby supplies — diapers, wipes, and milk for Vivien. It took me three days to bring our household to a level of sufficiency. All this while my social media feed and Whatsapp Groups were flooded with videos of Indian police brutally assaulting men ostensibly out — just as I was — to purchase supplies for their families.
Each time I stepped out of my gated community, I would ask the security guards if the police had been spotted on our street. I sought advice from a friend — a man of some influence with links to the Hyderabad police. He suggested that I dress smart — trousers (not jeans) and leather shoes, with a pen in my shirt pocket so that I come across as “educated”, in the hope that the police would give me a chance to explain myself before they started swinging their canes.
Two days later, my Google News page and Social Media feed were flooded with images of thousands of migrant labourers queued up in Delhi hoping to find a way to get back to their homes.
Soon after came the heart rending images of families — often with children on their shoulders and meagre possessions stuffed into bags walking along highways trying to make their way back to their villages hundreds of kilometres away.
The breaking point for me was news that police in Uttar Pradesh, the nation’s most populous state, sprayed migrants with a bleach solution that was being used to sanitize buses.
What kind of a man sprays starving scared, and tired people with bleach? How does he justify this to himself?
Last night I spoke to a friend about what was going on. He agreed that things were getting bad. He agreed that we couldn’t play blind to the suffering of the people around us. He shared my anxiety that the privilege that shielded both of us from this sort of desperate suffering could evaporate at a moment’s notice. After a 10-second silence, he said to me — “you think too much. Get off social media and read one of your books”.
Is that it? This empty sadness, teetering on the verge of tears for days on end; this anxiety about the world that Vivien has to grow up in; the impotent rage at everything that’s wrong right now — just a Social Media disease?
Sources of all images — included in this article under fair use principles — have been credited in captions.