As the brassy 'Breaking News' logo swept across the television screens in the newsroom yesterday, my first impulse was to reach for the phone and call my brother. He works in a mall, several kilometres away from Posta in north Kolkata where the flyover had collapsed. Ideally, he should have been safe. But what if he was at a client meeting somewhere near? What if he was meeting friends for a cha break between meetings? What if he was just in one of the cabs passing under the flyover? After all, it's a route taken by thousands of people everyday to travel.
He was fine, he said, slamming the phone down hastily. He had to make calls to make sure friends who worked nearby are safe.
My next call was to one of my closest friends, a journalist, often out on the streets for stories. A guy who loves taking long walks, especially in the crumbly, warm, north Kolkata bylanes. He was fine too.
After a couple of calls and WhatsApp messages made to make sure the most important people in my life, most of them in my hometown Kolkata, were safe, a strange anxiety still left my stomach in knots. As television cameras swooped down on huge chunks of concrete and rods twisted out of shape, crushed cars jutting out from under them, people reaching out from under the debris to beg for water, it crossed my mind, could there be anyone I know trapped, fighting for their lives? There was a fair possibility there was. Having spent a better half of my life in Kolkata, I know innumerable people in the city. And every situation I imagined my brother and my friend to be in, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, applies to each one of these people I know or half-know.
It crossed my mind, could there be anyone I know trapped, fighting for their lives?
Girls from my schools whose pictures with their fat-cheeked babies I dutifully like on Facebook. Boys from my college who have gone back to teach in the city, and whose angry status messages I gawk at and crib about in equal parts. Parents of school classmates just getting a hang of Facebook and its tagging business. Colleagues from the first job who I haven't spoken to in ages, but whose articles occasionally surface on my timeline. Sources who have helped me get great interviews. Public relations professionals who I have chased and chased away alternatively. People, human beings, I may not actively engage with, but people I'd still like to know are safe, alive.
A general view of the under-construction flyover that collapsed in Kolkata.
While some people I knew started sharing articles, helpline numbers, information on Facebook soon after, thereby indicating they are fine, some others resorted to Facebook's safety button. And no sooner than they did that, telling people who may care that they are fine, another group of Facebook users surfaced cracking loud jokes about the futility of the process. "Really, can we mark ourselves dead?", "Dude, ABC was watching a movie in south Kolkata. Why has he marked himself safe? He wasn't even there!" The point of the the 'safety button' is precisely that, to indicate you weren't in the vicinity of the site of the tragedy. But that was lost in loud cackles, studied cynicism and the general social media compulsion to say something 'different', to be 'cooler' than the rest.
All that is probably fine — the very premise of social media is to focus on the what you want the world to know you as — but it's misguided in times like this.
Let's get this straight: the road on which the flyover collapsed is an arterial road. It connects the entire northern half of Kolkata to its busy suburb Howrah, which also boasts of arguably the most important junction stations in the state. If you have spent most of your life in the city like me, could someone you have known been a victim of the disaster? Face it, yes. It's fine if you think you don't need to tell the world that you are safe, but what sense does it make to pick on those who do? Sitting in Delhi, as Facebook status messages and safety button notifications kept popping up on my notifications, the deep anxiety that clawed at the back of my throat ebbed a little. Little, because nothing can quite smother either the feeling of how fragile our lives are in the stone-and-concrete, self-assured looking cities. Or the taste that the knowledge of death and devastation leave in the back of our throats. But it's a selfish, but hugely reassuring feeling when you find out people who you know have been caused no harm. It's strange, but it's human.
As Facebook status messages kept popping up, the deep anxiety that clawed at the back of my throat ebbed a little.
Why does our blood run cold when terrorists gun down children in a school in a Pakistan province many of us can't even point out in the map? Why do our stomachs churn when a flight crashes in a continent we have never been to? Why do we feel just that wee bit glum when we spot a Facebook acquaintance RIP-ing a teacher, a friend, a relative we have never known? That's because of this curious gift called empathy. And our knowledge of how mortality works.
Like my friend and photographer Shan Bhattacharya pointed out on Facebook, people marking themselves safe in Kolkata right now aren't quite endorsing an offensive political agenda. At its worst, it's just a harmless, if slightly lazy, attempt to let people who may care you're fine. At it's best, it's a way to tell people who care — there are many who do — that you're safe and alive. It doesn't really deserve the bile that has come its way.
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