Goodbye, Cruel Year, Goodbye

For once, the television channels in India on New Year's Eve are not full of inane celebrations. For once, the tick-tock of clocks and countdowns does not seem like a mere routine. Instead, every news channel is full of people, hundreds and sometimes thousands of them, in dozens of cities, in the cold, furious with their candles and their placards, and I can see what they want, more than anything else, now.

At the heart of it, that is what I want too. I want an end to it all -- the rapes, the brutality and the violence. And I want out of whatever depravity has seized this world and made us feel so helpless about out our lack of power to stop it. I want out of these dark days, and this gloomy year.

I want us to believe that 2012, the year the world was supposed to end, was as bad it will ever get, and no more.

Twenty little children in Connecticut.

One young woman in New Delhi.

If these were not signs of the end of the world, I do not know what else we need to tell us that. The end of the world wasn't about falling asteroids or alien invaders the way our pop culture has entertainingly told us to think about. It was just this. There may have been many tragedies and disasters, great and small, in the past year, and in years before, but what it feels like at the moment to me is that nothing has been as bad as this. There are various ways we can define "bad" and dilute it. We can say there were worse times in history. We can say there are many more horrors we don't hear about in the media. But the end of this year to me is marked by just two horrors and the numbness around them.

Newtown and New Delhi. Children and women.

Brutal planet.

Stupid world.

Cruel year.

And yet, I want a new year, and a new life for this world. I want 2013 to be the year everything changes for the better. I want 2013 to be the year we begin to turn the tide on cruelty in our culture.

I know 2013 won't be free of cruelty. But I hope, sincerely, with all the faith human beings put in observances like festivals and new years, that this will be the year in which we begin to have a deeper conversation about cruelty. We need to start thinking not just of crime and punishment in some distant world, but about what each of us believe and want for ourselves.

At the moment, there are a lot of angry voices in India talking about punishing violent rapists with the death penalty or at the least chemical castration. We hear pained voices in America talking about the need for gun control. We hear rumors and allegations, not easily ignored, about the broader role of our culture in all this, about our movies that celebrate guns and make spectacles of sexual violence. We hear debate. We hear protest. And beneath these public discourses and displays of political positions, I believe, we still strain to hear our inner voice, our human nature that cries at the needlessness of it all. There is a place in us, even if it sounds mystical and vague, that we must revisit for meaning. We need to learn, I think, all over again, what exactly it means to be cruel, and what exactly we must do to stop it.

It is inevitable that we think of Mahatma Gandhi and his ideals of Ahimsa at times like this. Ahimsa is not just non-violence, but really non-cruelty. Most of us are really not violent, at least not physically. But being non-cruel is a very different matter. I do not say this to say we are cruel by nature, but only to point out that we live in an age when cruelty has been tremendously normalized by our culture. Our movies, videogames, books, theories about nature and human nature, everyday language and mannerisms, so much of these are steeped with tiny cruelties that we rarely even stop to think about them. We do not stop to wonder, for example, if it is conscionable for us to find pleasure in watching the pain and humiliation of people on reality shows. We do not question if the enjoyment we feel in watching fictional violence should owe something, at least a thought, to the fact that violence is not just a fiction, but a reality to many in this world.

I do not know if we live in the most violent time in history or not, but we certainly live in a time when our ability to make sense of it has been tremendously colonized by the storytellers of our day. We don't even realize this except on the rare occasions when we challenge a little cruelty, and we are mocked. We stop a group of boys from throwing stones at an animal in a zoo, and they laugh at our solicitousness. We withhold our laughter at a dirty joke about a woman, and they mock our "political correctness." We object to a harsh word or action from a friend or colleague, and we are told not that such harshness is wrong, but that all we ought to do is to give it right back. We refuse to consume cruelty, to participate in the pleasure some find in it, and we are called cowards and party-poopers. We may not be the life of the party, but if the party is based on the pain of other living beings, than perhaps we are not wrong in staying at home.

It may seem like there is a vast difference between the little cruelties of our daily life and the enormous outrages of the sort we have seen in the past few days. But I wonder if this is not how big changes in the world begin. We may wish we were Batman or Charles Bronson and rid the streets of crime. But in the real world, that battle, I think, always begins with one's own self. To conquer the world, we must first conquer ourselves, our senses and our thoughts, words and actions. I do not know what exactly that entails, because each of our journeys is our own. But since I am a student of culture, I can't help thinking that the way to end tragedies like Newtown and New Delhi, in the long run, will have to go beyond debates over law and punishment to a fundamental change in the stories that run the world today. I do not know what the new stories will be, but I do know what stories I would like to see disappear.

Even if it will take more than a few generations for this to happen, I wish that human beings would find themselves in a place where no child will ever grow up to learn the meaning of words like "kill," and worse, the ways to do it. I wish our stories will change so much that one day we will not even know what weapons are meant for. I wish our stories will change so much that we will all begin to think of women the way we normally think of human beings, and not as objects of our fantasies, or worse, as pieces of dead animal flesh. I wish we could be rid of stories that we carry around in our head that our pain and hurt deserve to be answered by causing more pain and hurt to others. I wish our stories will change so much that one day they will suddenly stun us, not into naïve innocence, but into enlightenment.

It has been the heaviest and darkest December in both the countries I have had the honor to call my home. And yet I have never seen so many feel the pain of others so deeply, and so honestly. I hope we will not forget what we are feeling today, for we well may, once the barrage of this synthetic, contrived and wholly toxic creation we call the "culture" of today gets its stories into us again. The onus on change though is not on the government, the media, or anyone other than our own selves. We must change the story, and start from the story within. We alone can decide what is cruel and what is not. We alone can resolve to give the future generations of this world that so-called, so-elusive, and yes, so-beautiful "better story."

Happy New Year.