From Sridevi to Syria: Unequal in Death

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Members of the Syrian Civil Defense group working to remove victims from under the rubble of a damaged shelter that was hit in airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta. — AP

Upset over the endless coverage of Sridevi’s death by the media, ignoring far serious tragedies like the continuing carnage in Syria’s Ghouta, a friend sent a meme noting that “more than 400 people including 117 children had been killed in Syria over 5 days and no one reacted while an actress died and the whole world has gone into shock! Hats off to humanity!”

AIJAZ ZAKA SYED | Caravan Daily

THE passing of a loved one makes one acutely conscious of one’s own mortality.  In a country crazy about cinema and cricket, the massive public interest and outpouring of grief over the sudden death of Bollywood icon Sridevi coupled with the non-stop media coverage is understandable. It came as a shock to many of us, especially those who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s when she reined over the box office.

Long before the aficionados of Hindi cinema fell in love with her histrionics, Sridevi had been the reigning queen of cinema in the South.  Although immensely successful in the Mumbai cinema, thanks to Yash Chopra’s Chandni, Lamhe and Shekhar Kapoor’s Mr India, her work up north doesn’t constitute even a quarter of what she had accomplished down south.

She was loved and admired in regional cinema for her extraordinary performances in some landmark films, which later went on to become blockbusters in Hindi cinema. Films like Sadma with the gifted Kamal Hassan represent the milestones not just of her career but of Indian cinema itself.

Incredibly shy and humble in real life, the doe-eyed beauty had been a powerhouse of talent. She proved all over again what a gifted actor she was with her recent comeback films, English Vinglish and Mom, the latter with remarkable performances by Pakistani actors Adnan Siddiqui and Sajal Aly.

No wonder there is so much grief over her departure, and not just in India. Many of my Arab and Pakistani friends admired and loved her, just as they do many other Bollywood stars. The Pakistani media has eagerly followed all the developments, in sync with its fellow travelers across the border.

The unusual circumstances of her death at the relatively young age of 54 make the tragedy even more poignant.  Still, does it justify the endless, ceaseless 24/7 over-the-top coverage by the media peddling what can be described as a pornography of emotions.

It is because of this perpetual need of the media to feed the popular hunger for information — any information – and trivia that it brings its experts and close friends out of the woodwork, dishing out all sorts of absurd conspiracy theories.

Sridevi died February 24 night but she has remained ubiquitous everywhere – in newspapers, on television and radio and in cyberspace.

Every time one turned on television, one was greeted with the same spectacle of assorted talking heads and anchors debating the tragic mystery shutting out everything else.  It seemed as if the world had come to a standstill. Everyone called it an ‘untimely tragedy’.  But all deaths are tragic, aren’t they? Who has come here to live forever?

Sridevi has departed today and, rest assured, we will all follow her, sooner or later. Untimely? Who knows whose time is next? Death is the biggest reality of life and we all know it. We might pretend otherwise, in the hectic chaos of our everyday lives.  But the stark reality stares us in the face all the time while we are busy making money, building a career and our little castles in the air. It goes without saying when our time eventually comes, as it must come, none of these lovely possessions go with us.

As the Quran warns, “every living being must taste death.  Or as God says in the Bible, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden.

So at the risk of sounding morbidly callous and insensitive, let me say this: All this noisy clamour over the death of an icon would make sense, if all of us were here to stay forever. But to grieve over one’s loved ones is human nature.  As I said, more than the pain of losing people we love, their departure reminds us of the transient nature of our own existence in this world.

Only humans seem to think that their death or that of a loved one is the end of the world although we are repeatedly warned by all scriptures that this is but a tiny fraction of what lies ahead in eternity.

John Donne, the great metaphysical poet and a Christian priest, wrote:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.     

Upset over the endless coverage of Sridevi’s death by the media, ignoring far serious tragedies like the continuing carnage in Syria’s Ghouta, a friend sent a meme noting that “more than 400 people including 117 children had been killed in Syria over 5 days and no one reacted while an actress died and the whole world has gone into shock! Hats off to humanity!”

Again, it is human nature to respond to what is immediate and easy to relate to and ignore what is distant albeit much more painful and tragic. There is no hypocrisy involved. After all, tragic as it is, the carnage in Syria is an everyday occurrence now.

Besides, when the relentless bloodshed and unprecedented humanitarian tragedy in Syria, now in its seventh year, raises few eyebrows in the neighborhood, it’s far from realistic to expect people in the distant India to lose their sleep over it.

Truth be told, the world community with all its lofty institutions and august conventions and laws gave up on Syria and its besieged, helpless people long ago.  The carnage in the besieged Ghouta killing hundreds of trapped civilians, most of them women and children, is hardly new.  We have seen the same sorry spectacle, again and again, in each of Syria’s great, timeless cities, with mind-numbing familiarity.

Since the Assad regime began its murderous onslaught on its people, more than 500,000 or half a million Syrians have died. That is, well over a thousand killings a week. More than half of the country’s population now lives as refugees in neighboring countries and further afield in Europe and Americas.

As Ian Bond argues in the Guardian, the world is simply waiting for Assad and his loyal backers, Russia’s Putin and Iran’s Ayatollahs, to run out of people to kill!  Moscow has vetoed at least 11 UN resolutions on Syria, rescuing Assad and propping up his regime again and again so he could kill and kill his people until no one is left alive.

Can you blame the media then, if it has become fatigued and weary of Syria’s tragedy? One death is a tragedy, one million a mere static, as Stalin reasoned.  And that’s what has happened in this case.

For the media, the sudden death of a superstar in the dazzling setting of an iconic Dubai hotel in mysterious circumstances represents an endlessly promising, salacious drama to be made the most of.

Syria, on the other hand, epitomizes pain, tears and epic failure of humanity.  Who would like to be reminded of pain and failure when they can celebrate the beautiful and the spectacular?

(Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and former newspaper editor. Email: Aijaz.syed@hotmail.com)

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