16 Jul 2016 15:10 IST

How many deaths will it take?

There’s just too many people being killed, there’s just too much anger and distress

No matter what, images from the promenade in Nice will not be wiped away.

No matter what, the picture of a toddler lying face down in the sea on the Greek island of Kos will not disappear.

No matter what, photographs of Iraqi children with tear-stained blackened faces staring uncomprehendingly as tanks and soldiers advance towards them through clouds of smoke and dust can never be erased.

No matter what, the loneliness of a little boy lying dead and alone in the middle of a deserted street in Mumbai, blood streaming from a wound, is palpable nearly 25 years after the event.

And over 30 years later, who can forget the image of the baby in Bhopal, eyes dead long before the little body succumbed to noxious fumes…

How many deaths will it take for us to know that too many people have died? It would appear that Bob Dylan was overly optimistic even in the questions he posed in the iconic song, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, because he hoped the answers would portend change. It has become only too clear that the deaths will never end because we carry too much hate, too much envy, too much arrogance, too much tyranny, too much ignorance… and far too little wisdom.

It would appear that John Lennon was too far gone a dreamer, possibly not the only one, when he sang:

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

We carry too much fear, too much self-loathing, too much intolerance… and far too little compassion.

All this may seem repetitive, but it can never be enough, the talking about, the writing about… we can never be accused of repeating ourselves when we seek to change the way we have submitted to the forces of hate and horror and venom. We have to keep repeating ourselves until the hopes and dreams of songs such as these come true.

Two generations on, can we forget the sight of the little Vietnamese girl running from a napalm bomb attack in 1972? Today, while world leaders and their minions travel to faraway and exotic places shepherding large entourages to discuss the need for regulatory measures on nuclear weapons, holding and engaging in political checkmating over daiquiri and Thai massages, all it takes is an insignificant, home-made device planted unobtrusively on a bus or a truck driven into a crowded street or two men walking into an office or a woman setting herself off… that’s all.

Technology has made the world smaller; we can talk to each other easily and quickly, information is conveyed instantly. When I was growing up, we had only the radio and the gramophone to listen to the protest songs of Joan Baez, for instance, as she strummed on her guitar and sang:

Just a little boy standing in the rain

The gentle rain that falls for years

And the grass is gone, the boy disappears

And the rain keeps falling like helpless tears

And what have they done to the rain

What have they done to the rain

We listened to and sang ‘Guantanamera’ with great gusto and feeling. It was Spanish and we didn’t know what it meant, but it seemed to say something deep. Much later, I discovered it was a poem by the Cuban poet Jose Marti, a cult figure in the Spanish speaking world; a poem closely linked to the political situation in Cuba. Popularised by Pete Seeger, its first stanza goes:

Yo soy un hombre sincero

De donde crece la palma

Y antes de morirme quiero

Echar mis versos del alma

Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

On the net I discovered the English translation of this song, the refrain of which I still sing because that’s all I could catch, and the poem is beautifully textured and so relevant. ‘Guantanamera’ means ‘a song from Guantanamo’ and ‘guajira’ is ‘a female peasant’. With the controversial presence of the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay and all that that implies, the song acquires greater relevance:

I am a truthful man

From where the palm tree grows

And before dying I want

To let out the verses of my soul

My verse is light green

And it is flaming red

My verse is a wounded stag

Who seeks refuge on the mountain

I grow a white rose

In July just as in January

For the honest friend

Who gives me his open hand

With the poor people of the earth

I want to cast my lot

The brook of the mountains

Gives me more pleasure than the sea

There have been many singers who sang about the futility of war and killing, calling for peace and healing, railing against religious divisions. There’s a haunting number in Earth 1947, for instance, about Partition. Written by Javed Akhtar and set to tune by AR Rahman, the refrain goes:

Ishwar allah tere jahan mein

Nafrat kyun hai, jang hai kyun

Tera dil to itna bada hai

Insaan ka dil tang hai kyun

Loosely translated it means: ‘In your universe, Ishwar, Allah, why’s there hate and war? Your heart is so enormous, then why are human beings so troubled?’

It’s a song I’ve quoted before, but will recall again and again for the simple way it reaches the heart on the issue, and for which there’s a simple solution, really, if only we would have the honesty and the self-belief to answer.

So, to ask a question I’ve asked before: Do we have the guts to put down our weapons, all of us, all over the world? As the folk singer Ed McCurdy said in a melodious song made famous by Seeger, Simon & Garfunkel and countless others:

Last night I had the strangest dream

I ever dreamed before

I dreamed the world had all agreed

To put an end to war

We all know killing doesn’t end anything; it sets fires of endless simmering discontent.

Then, the question begs itself: Why do we sing?


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