The Tragedy in Allahabad

Oh, the Power of Faith and Frenzy

More than thirty pilgrims  who had come to wash away their sins at the confluence of two actual and one no-longer existent river, died in a stampede at the Allahabad railway station a couple of days ago on their way back to wherever they came from. This was another tragedy: an unexpected byproduct of an act of deep faith. There have been previous accidents of this kind. In 1954 a few hundred people died during this event.

Every years millions go to Mecca – a required visit for all Muslims. So it was that in 1990 in the Al-Ma’aisim tunnel, more than a thousand pilgrims died in a stampede. Since then hundreds more have perished in holy Mecca during their devout trip. It is said that in 1834, during a fire ritual in Jerusalem a good many Christian  pilgrims caused a stampede when they were  leaving the church. According to one report, hundreds of  people died in that rush..

One might be tempted to condemn pilgrimages on this account. But that would be a rash linking of cause and effect. Pilgrimage to holy spots is part of every religious tradition. Dipping into the water for purifying oneself or ridding oneself of one’s sins is older than John the Baptist.

We live in an age when transportation to holy places is easier than in past centuries, so the influx of pilgrims is much greater.

Scores have died in soccer-match stampedes over the years, as also in stampedes at night club fires and cruise-ship capsizing. When hundreds of thousand gather in a place – with or without religious fervor – stampedes and deaths are more likely to occur than when people file into a theater to watch an opera or listen to a lecture.

What is impressive in all these instances is the power of faith in religious contexts, and that of frenzy in sports: Most people who go for these are well aware of possible accidents in such contexts. It is no secret that there is a high risk of fatalities when accidents intrude in large gatherings of people engaged in harmless entertainment, enjoyment, or experience. But often faith and frenzy are stronger than fear and probability.

So such events will continue, as such accidents too.

February 11, 2013

On Two Short Stories

Finished re-reading Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener in which the taciturn hero is hard-working and focused in his job of copying documents, but is adamant about not doing anything else he is asked to do by his boss at the Wall Street Law Firm where he was working.

The story was at times tedious, because it was repetitive, yet it kept my interest because I was eager to know what exactly was the problem with the poor fellow. I couldn’t believe he was put in prison for no serious crime at all. But the easy-going atmosphere of the prison was good to know.

Later I read some commentaries on the story. Some have suggested that the character was a projection of Melville’s own self when he felt he wasn’t very successful or productive. My own interpretation is that Mr. B was suffering from some kind of autism of which people in those days were not very aware.

I was also surprised to learn that this short story was written in 1853 when Guy de Maupassant was only three years old. I vaguely reading somewhere that Maupassant was the first to start the genre of literature called short stories: Maybe it was so in French, but Maupassant was certainly one of the most prolific short-story writers. I recall reading his Les Bijoux years ago: a beautifully written sad little story about a necklace. The woman who had borrowed a diamond necklace  from a friend to go to a party lost it. She and her modest husband borrowed a vast sum of money to buy an identical diamond necklace to return it to the friend, and ten full years to replay the loan. In the meanwhile they had sacrificed a lot. In the end they discovered that the borrowed necklace had been a fake. A story beautifully told, and with an unexpected ending.

February 1, 2013