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Old Vijay Merchant and the Tsunami

Famous first as star batsman and then captain, later familiar to millions of Indians as a fixture in the cricket commentary box, the late Vijay Merchant had a standard observation guaranteed to raise a smile the first few times one heard it: “Why can’t India play their second inning first?”

Heaven knows Merchant had occasion enough to ply this punchline. Cricket has just two innings to baseball’s nine and almost routinely, India would put in a disastrous first inning to teeter on the brink, before gaining an eleventh-hour redemption by some dogged and determined rear-guard action in the second inning. Unlike the first inning, where Indian batsmen would throw away their wickets in a showy display of a devil-may-care flashiness, the Second Inning would be a model of responsibility and care.

You could say it didn’t matter what was scored in each inning, because what counted ultimately was the aggregate. But it made a huge psychological difference to know that what should have been an easy victory or at least an even contest, was turning into a national nail-biter with an anguished population huddled around radio and television sets. Now you know why Indians empathized with John Kerry’s campaign.

To cricket lovers life is but a pale imitation of the game, and Merchant’s nostrum about getting it right the first time seems applicable in many situations: the wisdom of getting the homework finished by Friday night may be obvious in theory, but I suspect Sunday evening at many homes is still the scene of a last minute scramble capping a guilt-ridden weekend of furtive enjoyment.

All the same, Merchant may have been on the verge of another insight — namely that for us to rise to the occasion, we must first have an occasion to rise to. And so it is that some 3 billion dollars have now been pledged towards Tsunami relief (including sizable contributions from Australia, Japan — and, eventually, the United States — the last bringing to mind Winston Churchill’s remark that America will usually do the right thing — after it has tried everything else).

No doubt many billions of dollars will be spent on a Tsunami warning system, even though, if history is any guide, giant Tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean. But to people and politicians caught up in the moment, these are minor details.

Colin Powell and Jeb Bush (the latter’s inclusion – not to put too fine a point on it – an early testing of the waters for 2008?) are currently touring the East, doling out lots of commiseration and promises of cash. Surveying the damage, Powell felt moved to say that no battlefield he had encountered was any match for nature’s fury. For all his pretensions to be hailed the next George C. Marshall, Powell does not possess the honesty to point out the real difference — that wars, especially those of choice, are avoidable, whereas tsunamis are not.

Over on the internet there is much hand-wringing over what might have been done to prevent deaths in the 2 hour window of warning. We need not feel so badly. What, after all, did it avail us to be given even a whole year-and-a-half of warning? If Vietnam was the televised war, Iraq surely was the advertised one. Not one country broke off relations with the aggressors.

Nor are ‘official’ wars the only disasters known in advance. Writing in the New York Times this week, Nicholas Kristof estimated that around 165000 people die per month from malaria, 240000 from AIDS, and 140000 from diarrhea. That’s per month, in case you missed it. And that’s not counting genocides like Rwanda and Darfur.

While the outpouring of concern and coin is wonderful, let us not forget the man-made tragedies, many conceived, planned and executed with meticulous care, some even with the best intentions, all of which may not pack the visual wallop of a single monster wave towering over a row of palm trees as panic-stricken Western tourists scram, but that totally dwarf the Tsunami in the damage they cause.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His writings can be found on http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

 

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/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

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