05 Nov 2017 15:39 IST

Walking a tightrope

That’s just another way of describing the choices we have to make

The latest issue of National Geographic carries a feature on Dagestani tightrope walkers. Dagestan is a Russian republic in the North Caucasus, by the Caspian Sea. It’s capital is Makhachkala. What’s the connection between Dagestan and tightrope walking, you may ask. And anything else?

Jeffrey Tayler, who’s written the article, says: “Some say tightrope walking got started here as a way to negotiate the remote region’s precipitous terrain. (Dagestan means “land of mountains”.) ‘One day,’ (trainer and manager of a group called the Dagestani Eagles, Ashkhabali) Gasanov explains, ‘Ali shouted to his neighbour on the other side of the gorge, Hey, Ahmed, come over for a visit. Just throw a rope and walk across!’ ” He goes on to quote a local historian, Sergey Manyshev, as saying “tightrope walking began in the 19th century as a way for warriors to cross between cliffs”. From those practical and daring beginnings, it grew into a spectacle performed on special occasions.

If that’s how tightrope-walking was born, wow! It’s come a long way since then. People have crossed from hightower to hightower above heavy heavy traffic, they have crossed fearsome waterfalls. Some have died in their efforts to be dramatic. But tightrope walking even at the fundamental level, not so many metres off the ground, is awesome to behold, and inspiring. You don’t even need to go to the circus to witness this. Sometimes, driving, walking, you hear drum beats. If it’s not a funeral procession, then you can be sure a family of acrobats has set up a show. While the father plays the drum, the child walks the tightrope, and the mother collects the fee from a gathering crowd. Some pay, some don’t but when the crowd melts away, the acrobat family packs up and walks to its next venue, maybe some streets away.

Speaking up

We’re all tightrope-walkers, the rope we negotiate is life. All the choices we make, the decisions we take, the journeys we undertake… at every point there’s a perfect chance of falling, failing. Frequently we fall comfortably into the various safety nets our families, friends, society, community, country provide. On those occasions, we get quickly up on to our feet and continue on, most often unaware of and indifferent to the fact that we’ve been rescued. Many suffer physical damage, others sustain psychological scars that remain with them for life. Some take their lives.

Recently, social media in particular has been the platform for a campaign that goes simply as #MeToo. Begun as a movement to denounce sexual harassment and assault in the wake of the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, it quickly gathered momentum as mostly women from all corners of the world began to speak up about what had happened to “me too”. Many of them are celebrities, but larger numbers are not. What they have in common is that all of them finally managed to pluck up the courage to speak about what had happened to them.

Now, Pandora’s box will not shut. We have lists naming and shaming perpetrators, starting with a list of high-profile teachers in high-profile educational institutions. Even then, human nature is such, as long as you don’t recognize the names, it’s fine. But the moment a known name pops out at you, things change, your feelings change, your opinion changes. What do you believe? Whom do you believe? How do you react to this phenomenon of releasing the names of persons supposedly having misbehaved with students, to a greater or lesser degree? That’s tightrope-walking from mountain to mountain, as Ali suggested to Ahmed.

How do we verify the truth? How do we know the allegations are fair? But we know that the victim’s voice is rarely, if ever, heard because most often the victim has little or no heft. No power. The victim is weak because the perpetrator is powerful, is strong, has a loud voice. A louder voice. The perpetrator doesn’t even have to be a politician or a professor or a policeman or a priest, though he (sometimes she) often is. It could be the amiable-looking old man down the street engaged in voluntary work in a charitable organisation. Or the uncle who is your father’s best friend who always has a smile on his face and a kind word on his lips. It could be your grandfather. Often, you don’t even know that what is being done to you is unacceptable, plain wrong.

Conspiracy of silence

For instance, when I heard about how an amiable-looking old man down the street engaged in voluntary work in a charitable organisation pulled two little children into his car and made advances on them, I wanted to shout his name down every street in the colony so everyone would know him for what he was. When, for instance, I heard about a middle-aged woman who had gone to a supposedly respected religious leader for guidance regarding family problems, and she was raped by this supposed “respected religious leader”, I wanted to lop off his member and denounce him at every discourse he gave. When, for instance, I came to know how a tabla master made disgusting physical overtures to a student barely in his teens and the boy ran out of the room, trembling, I wanted to wring the man’s neck and shame him every time he performed in a concert.

But we also know that sometimes, allegations can be false or misinformed or misleading. As someone once told me, once someone throws mud at you, the stains remain. How do you deal with stigma? How do you live with shame and fear and loss of confidence? The victim and the innocently charged — they find themselves in similar circumstances. At every stage, there are choices to be made.

However, the fear that we may be wrong cannot be the reason for silence. We have to learn to speak up, or else what’s education for? We know the powerful, the strong, the loud-voiced, the bullies will continue to do what they always do, no matter what legislation is in place. It requires an individual to function with a decently calibrated moral compass to end such behaviour. When that day will come, we will never know.

Tightrope walkers often carry a pole to help maintain the balance. Indignation is our pole as we walk the tightrope of life. Be outraged. Speak up. For yourself. For others. Against injustice.

Would you say, then, that if you don’t speak up you are guilty of a conspiracy of silence?