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OP-ED: The new purgatory

  • Published at 10:27 pm June 16th, 2020
We can survive the end of the world REUTERS

Armageddon we have seen -- as many times as history cares to recall

Megiddo represents a triumph for the archaeologist. Situated in Northern Israel, a mere 30km south-east of the port city of Haifa, the 26 layers of the rich mound so far excavated are testimony to its importance to the civilization which developed and tenuously clung to this much-contested sliver of land.

A fortification originally built by King Ahab (869-850 BCE) to dominate the beautiful and fertile expanse of the Jezreel Valley, the Bronze Age showcased Megiddo as an important Canaanite city-state whose status was further elevated to that of a royal city in the Kingdom of Israel.

Thus, fortified settlements were inevitably constructed on the same site time after time to guard what came to be known centuries later as the Via Maris, the ancient trade route of the Bronze Age linking Egypt with the northern empires of Syria, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia along the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

The “way of the sea” was the life’s blood which nourished and sustained the commerce so crucial to the survival of humankind in the fertile crescent. Commanding the heights of the northern reaches of the Promised Land and holding the Plain of Jezreel in its jealous and possessive gaze, those who coveted access to the bounty of the southern soil and a sea route to the land of the Pharaohs would need to contend with the man-made obstacle that was Megiddo.

But this story, with geographical or ethnic variation, is essentially the story of thousands of years of recorded civilization. Evidence of long and uninterrupted periods of settlement built for strategic advantage is revealed in any number of excavations the world over, as a search for physical security and control of sources of food and water have been the constant endeavours of the human community.

Thus, while Megiddo, archaeologically speaking, was crucial to the dynamics of nation-building in the region, the name has assumed an unparalleled significance for posterity only through its rendition in the Greek language as “Armageddon.”

The “mount” of Megiddo is not so much a natural mountain as it is an accumulation of material culture and the precious mud of material evidence through layer upon layer of human habitation. But for the name to resonate and assume its fearsome associations, we must first refer to the Holy Bible.

Surprisingly, however, Megiddo is mentioned only 12 times in the Old Testament with no greater significance than that of the recognition of its geographical reality. And even more mystifying that the solitary New Testament reference in the Book of Revelations, that ultimate penmanship of grisly fire and brimstone, also does not bear witness to the belief drummed into every hapless pupil, who put through the excruciating rigours of morning scripture reading and Sunday School, would testify to, that Armageddon is a Doomsday reckoning played out by a grand collection of armies in final battle at the end of the world.

The inherited belief further inculcated by the modern-day syllabus is the certainty that Armageddon is the biblical call for an assembly of kings at this chosen place for the final confrontation between good and evil that has become the gospel truth of generation after generation of those educated in the Greco-Roman tradition.

HarMagiddo, or Armageddon, shall be enacted at the base of this mountain that is not a mountain but which, so the founding fathers of Judaism and Christianity ordained, connects heaven and earth. What more appropriate venue could one ask for? Accordingly, Armageddon is the final commitment, the burning of the bridges, the point of no return at this sacred conduit between the present and hereafter.

Or so we thought. However, a school of scholars of Christianity would have it that the day of reckoning is not envisioned as one climactic event, but a series of such events, each one more cataclysmic than the last, with each such event bringing the faithful a step closer to final salvation and unity with God.

This perspective would admittedly make more sense, what with the destruction and madness wrought by human existence and punctuated by those rare periods of tranquility before the next upheaval. But what if each round of Armageddon actually brings with it a frightening purgatory, rather than an amelioration of the life past as was the fond hope of the prophets? Let us examine this thought with the benefit of the facts of human experience.

A history of wars and epidemics

Ponder for a moment on the unending series of organized mass murder recorded in history by kingdoms and empires through the instrument of war and conquest, which “boasts” as a part of the grisly muster the experiences of the two World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the slew of genocides and ethnic cleansing witnessed by the African continent in the post-colonial period of the 20th century.

Studies show that anywhere between 108 million and 231 million people have fallen prey to this state-sponsored killing in the 20th century alone, and from 150 million to 1 billion for the rest of recorded history. Surely, these match the sanguine descriptions of the final book of the Bible. But there has been no correspondingly transformative improvement in the human condition, which continues to be underlined by an extended purgatory.

And consider also that nobody applies the algorithm to calculate the possibly true number of the untold millions who would have perished due to plain human neglect and callousness, the outcome of ignorance and the expediency of chauvinistic and supremacist politics. Can there even be a reasonably accurate figure attributed to this greatest of sins?

Bubonic plague, Black Death, Spanish flu, MARS, SARS, and ebola. This is the roll call of the epidemics that were visited upon mankind. And how can we ever forget the terror that gripped the Western world when it was confronted with the scourge of AIDS, a fear compounded by the seeming lack of remedy? Repent or ye shall die!

What better affliction could organized religion have been gifted with to belabour a cringing populace to accept the Word of God while precariously balanced on the lip of extinction? The fear of this novel Armageddon succeeded in bringing back a handful of the wayward flock into the fold, but medical technology has emboldened a world to reconcile itself with the thought that if there is still no complete cure for the dreaded disease, at least for most victims, it is no more the unavoidable death sentence that it was three decades ago.

But a life of purgatory, no less.In the space of a mere 15 months, the Spanish Flu pandemic infected a third of the world’s population, and the death toll is estimated to have been from anywhere between 17 million to 50 million and, if mathematical modelling is to be believed, even as high as 100 million.

What is the verdict on Covid-19?

As of date, official figures place the afflicted at seven and a half million and the fatalities at upward of 400,000. Medical science is racing to reach the final frontier and introduce a cure (complete or otherwise) into the mainstream as early as yesterday. What is the nature of the new purgatory that engulfs us?

As with the plagues of the medieval world, does it need to decimate the population in their millions before the virus is satiated and disappears, exhausted, into the folds of nature from whence it came? Does medicine prevent King Corona from running its natural course, therefore ensuring that the spectre of infection remains hanging over us forever?

Are the new absurdities of the permanent face mask and social distancing a permanent fixture of this puzzling new life which we are compelled to live? What are the consequences of the health and emotional wellbeing of Generation Next, already stunted by a lack of physical activity and easily accessible smartphones and internet? This isn’t just purgatory, but an enduring curse.

For several weeks now, we have experienced the occasional undulation, but thought nothing of it. They have persisted, and done so with greater frequency. In May, two earthquakes of significant intensity disturbed the Covid-induced tranquility that we had grown accustomed to. They have in turn provoked a barrage of reports by seismologists that the series of minor quakes display a pattern which may culminate in a cataclysmic collision of tectonic plates.

We can only wait and watch in trepidation. It is difficult to shake off the feeling of a deepening purgatory in the face of our helpless vulnerability.

The analytics show that we are being buffeted by unseasonal weather. The onset of the lockdown has coincided with frequent occurrences of rainfall, from gentle drizzles to torrential downpours. The drastic reduction in temperature has been pleasant on the skin, but precipitation out of season does not bode well for an agricultural society which depends upon timely sowing, growing, and reaping as per the known progression of the seasons and which is not sufficiently nimble to circumvent the disastrous consequences of destroyed crops. We continue to enjoy relatively good weather before the onset of the monsoons. But the possible downsides of this fleeting pleasure are too frightening to contemplate.

Since April, swarms of “immature” locusts have entered India from the Sindh province of Pakistan and fanned out over a wide swathe of land. The ultimate bane of the farmer, when these grasshoppers hover and descend in their billions, they refuse to take wing again before they have stripped the land and its trees of the last blade of grass and leaf.

Over the last several weeks, a swarm so huge as to cast a shadow on the land over which they flutter have sped thousands of kilometres, cutting a wide swathe of destruction through the states of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh. The legion of marauders now rests, as they have not been sufficiently nourished in the wake of the harvest just completed and continue to physically develop to the full extent of their destructive potential.

While they prepare for breeding to coincide with the onset of the monsoons, international bodies have warned that India and Pakistan might not yet have borne the full brunt of their depredations. We can only wait and watch when they decide to take flight again.

Bengal has not been spared

The experience of Armageddon and purgatory are not new to the Bengali nation. Assailed by human wickedness and the vagaries of weather, it is almost as if a combination of divinity and nature has willed that the inhabitants of this fertile crucible of land be occasionally punished for being so fortunate as to occupy a corner of this natural green bounty.

The Great Bengal Famine of 1770 claimed 10 million lives, and the famine of 1943 took a toll of between 2 million and 3 million. The first was due to the tender ministrations of the Hon’ble East India Company, that most rapacious and revenue-hungry corporate entity to have existed, and the second was caused by the diversion of the harvest by their successors to feed British troops involved in a fight to the end of the demonic Third Reich.

The turbulent waters of the Bay of Bengal churn up storms with alarming regularity to agonize a hapless people. Cyclone Amphan, the first super cyclone since 1999, lanced through West Bengal in the third week of May. The gale force of 260 kilometres per hour flattened everything in its wake, and caused unprecedented damage calculated in the billions.

The third super cyclone to hit the state since 1582 did not bode well for an administration embattled by the cumulative effects of King Corona and outflanked by an unfriendly central government determined to exhibit the Mamata Banerjee dispensation as a failure in its efforts to control the effects of the pandemic.

The grim forecast for the sub-continent over a span of the next 80 years may be summed up thus: Average temperature will rise by four degrees, significant when you consider that it probably did not take much more to render the Jurassic Park extinct, and crippling heat waves the likes of which have not been experienced thus far, be countered in ferocity only by deluge-like floods. That there will be crop failure of epidemic proportions is axiomatic.

And to compound the woes of a perennially-suffering people, apparently we are not constitutionally equipped to fight this adversity of biblical breadth. Even the gene sequence would appear to militate against our proven resilience.

But in this innate strength lies our salvation. While the oracles offer scant comfort, it is the steely inner strength born of adversity and an acceptance of the strangeness of life that fuels the resilience of the suffering population of the sub-continent and, indeed, the world. Armageddon we have seen, and seen as many times as history cares to recall, and we have time and again willed a softening to the edges of the constant purgatory.

Whether every battle in the future will open a path to our betterment, time will tell. But in our hunger for survival, we will live, and we will thrive. Perhaps this is the lesson of Megiddo that the prophets wished to impart on a parish beset by adversity, both human and natural and, therefore, suspicious of the intentions of a world which even to this day is difficult to fathom.

We can only think and act and hope that we find ourselves a way out of the absurd madness that we live in today.We can only hope!

Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in Gurgaon, India and is a freelance contributor.

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