Do bridges matter anymore?

(On the occasion of Gandhi’s birth anniversary, I dedicate this post to the memory of late Rajnarayan Chandavarkar among the finest sons and historians of India. Raj was based at Cambridge, England.)

“We can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal” – John F. Kennedy

I have a fetish for bridges! I have been puzzled by it myself: whether its those small structures across our very own Cooum , the Thiru.Vi. Ka bridge across Adyar or the Napier Bridge near the Madras University or the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata or the Laxman Jhula in Rishikesh or the Blackfriars bridge across the Thames or the San Franscisco Golden Gate. Recall the movie the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ or the TV ad zooming in on the magnificient Tower Bridge of London?! Bridges have me all excited and thrilled. For a long-time I thought this was a fascination promoted by TV and Cinema.

Until I came across this book by Ivo Andric titled the “Bridge over the Drina” It is a fantastic book and clearly ranks as one of the greatest pieces of world literature. Over a period of 300 years, the destiny of the town and the individuals and communities living near the river Drina get inextricably interwoven with the history of the bridge. The bridge becomes a metaphor for the life around it. Andric’s masterpiece documents the unities and challenges between ethnicities and faiths, Bosnians, Serbs, Jews, Muslim and Christians and their relationship with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. The bridge is a silent witness to the history of Europe over centuries.

Cut to the chase. I turn to the contemporary developments across the world including our country. It seems as if some storms are causing bridges to break down and the chasms widening. There seems to be a growing passion for hate! Horror of horrors. Why would anyone want to have a passion for hate? Nicholas Fraser in his book ‘The Voice of Modern Hatred’ sets out the contours of this problem in Europe. This is truly a global problem. Hate is like a ‘malignant tumour’. Young innocent minds have been poisoned to dislike entire cultures through the sustenance of stereotypes. This is because increasingly one can notice a gross distortion in the way entire cultures, communities and identities are being represented especially in the electronic media mainly because of the violence of terrorists. There are other kinds of institutions and organizations too that indulge in violence but that is a separate subject.

I find myself very concerned with the manner in which society and media creates ideas and images of groups of people and their impact. These images to cite a few often take the form of ‘Muslims’ versus ‘Hindus’, ‘Maharashtrians’ versus ‘north Indians’, ‘Hindus’ versus ‘Christian’, ‘Dalits’ versus ‘upper-castes’, ‘Sunni’ versus ‘Shiah’ , ‘Sinhala’ versus ‘Tamil’ and ‘Christianity’ versus ‘Islam.’ The stereotypes and caricatures of ‘us’ and ‘them’ seem to be on the increase. The blame game as to who is responsible for what mess goes on endlessly.

In this madness, where are innocent, peace-loving people to go? Whom can they turn to for solace? Most sober people have adopted the posture of “Forgive them, O’Lord for they know not what they do!” The less said about the political class the better. Of course, there are always exceptions among them. What about the intellectuals? We are reminded of the ‘Prophet of Gloom’ in the form of Samuel P. Huntington who is (in)famous for his theory of the ‘clash of civilizations.’  His theory of clashes found its practitioners in the person of those hawks who promoted the invasion of Iraq and the ‘war-on-terror’ with all its attendant disastrous consequences. Such hawks made the world a more dangerous place. As for me, I draw solace from my favourite subject ‘history’ which would indeed judge these hawks and their global disciples very unkindly.

History is a great teacher. The problem with us is that we are poor students of this subject. The common refrain is that our teachers made this subject boring for us. Alas, if life were to accept such excuses, then everything would be a cakewalk. We would have often heard that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. I would like to add repeat it at a huge cost to themselves and everybody. I wonder why anybody in their right mind would want to incur these costs. My friends and colleagues often ask me ‘what is the solution to all this? I wonder when an individual falls mentally ill, we escort him/her to a shrink. When a whole society falls sick, what do we do? Which physician knows how to treat ‘collective schizophrenia’? As I write this, there has been terrorist violence in Delhi and attacks on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka.

We are now faced with an epidemic of hate of sorts. Those who believe in religion say that these are signs that the world is coming to an end. Yet others attribute the problem to primordial sentiments and say that it has always been that way and will continue to remain that way. I refuse to buy any of these arguments. I firmly believe that human beings are capable of acting in their self and collective interest in a positive and enlightened manner.

There is still hope for and in reason. I believe that rationality can still play a role in the face of the madness of hate. I believe that millions of people are puppets on a string, or pawns in a chessboard or gullible creatures following the pied piper. It is the ability of ‘vested interests’ (the list is long depending on the context)  to elicit consent from the people to their being manipulated. There is adequate proof in historical studies that masses get easily and unknowingly misled through a set of motives different from what is in their interest. And that is indeed what is happening in this world. If there was no perception of threat to each other’s community, several politicians would be called upon to deliver on issues of bread and butter which are far more difficult than pitting one group against the other. This is true of the East and West, North and South, whether its of India or the rest of the Globe. Distraction by peddling hate is a favourite form of politics for those who are desperate for power. We have all seen in contemporary politics, the love for power. We need to show ourselves the power of love!

Now that the picture is clear, what can individuals do? To start with, we can borrow Nancy Reagan’s famous slogan “Just Say No” to hate. To prejudice. To disunity.

We can then build bridges. Bridges of Love. We can all do it small ways.  Begin with our neighbours and colleagues – do we in the first place know who they are? Do they have families and children like ours? Take an active interest in their well-being. Move beyond that to the residential area or the street or the locality in which we live. Can we build bonds of trust and oneness? As Kennedy rightly argues are we not all faced with the same challenges? We wake up, go to work, fend for our families, return take care of our near and dear ones. We all have children about whose welfare we are worried about. We all have elders who in the sunset of their lives need our company as much as we need their blessings and counsel. There are plenty of interstices and intersections where these bridges can be built. We just have to think creatively about it. Festivals, Ceremonies, Family occasions, Music, Movies and so much more are unexplored arenas of building a sense of togetherness among individuals and communities. Can the effort of an individual in this matter? Certainly. Drops make the ocean. Its better to light a candle than to curse the darkness!

The challenge before us is to build bridges -across time and space; across castes, communities, religions, races, languages and not to miss gender. We need these bridges badly. There will always be naysayers. The villains. The troublemakers. Is it not noteworthy that during war, bridges are the first structures to be destroyed to prevent the movement of people and supplies? To those who believe in a God, (s)he made us such: different from each other. Varied and Diverse. Tomes have also been written on the ‘unity of existence’ that brings together all these differences. There is no religion that by itself preaches hate – that religions can be used to create tensions is a different matter. I believe that the ties that bind people with one another are sacred. Let no one undo those bonds of togetherness.

It is the bridges that connect us all. I for one am a die-hard romantic. Its high time that all peace-loving people resisted the stereotypes promoted by the media and thought beyond them. I raise a toast to several friends, colleagues and the ‘common man’ who have rejected these caricatures. I was brought up on the staple of ‘Enlightenment’ with the firm belief of a ‘common humanity.’ I believe friendship and love will prevail. I think we need to take ‘bridge-building’ more seriously than ever before. We have to work at it.


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said October 7, 2008, 9:50 am:

    BTW, Surendar is right. If you go down the route of mythology – it is a slippery slope. For every Sudra who attained greatness i can show you atleast one that didn’t. As i said before, the fact that someone is being discriminated against is not easily understood. For instance, many people think that because India was a peaceful (which is debatable as well) country, there could not have been caste based discrimination. The peace was a negative peace with quite a bit discrimination which was not understood by the population that was being discriminated against. To think that it is all the British people who created all these divisions, allows us to continue on our merry ways discriminating and if pointed out, blame it on the British or whoever else is the favorite whipping boy.

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    Venkat’s inappropriate and inflammatory comments have been moderated out by Sukumar

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    Another inappropriate and inflammatory comment from Venkat moderated out by Sukumar

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said October 11, 2008, 7:09 am:

    I have moderated your last two inappropriate/inflammatory comments out. Please refrain from posting inappropriate and inflammatory comments.

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    I loved your post. It is so true how very little we know even about those people who sit in the next cube at our workplace. Most people are just familiar strangers. Wonder why it takes such an effort to turn that familiarity into friendship and love.

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    Abdul – Great post. I loved this line – “Is it not noteworthy that during war, bridges are the first structures to be destroyed to prevent the movement of people and supplies?”

    Politicians mislead the dumb & the willing. Take the “Human Chain” formed recently by the Tamil Nadu politicians to alleviate the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils. When was the last time a “Human Chain” helped?? And these bastards want us to stop thinking, hate the Sinhalese & believe that LTTE fights for the Tamils. The unthinking masses have already been hypnotized to believe all this. Why do they do this? Our politicos can’t love Velupillai Prabhakaran! As you rightly pointed out, they want to distract the people from focusing on the failures of the ruling party.

    I call it the “Kakistocracy” – Rule of the worst. I rather like Soumya’s quote from the “Hithopadesa”. Bharathi Dasan echoed the same thought. Its funny how people who claim to follow his words (TN Politicos) stir hatred.

    I believe in the inherent goodness & badness of people. There is a strong need within people to hate, to band against “others”. Enlightenment is rare – which is why The Buddha is a novelty. I also believe that the majority of people are dim bulbs. And when someone is stupid, they don’t reason their hatred out of their system. Rather, they channel it more & more.

    I think culture is a great way to build bridges. Music. Movies. Painting. Food. Clothes. And travel. Nothing expands one’s minds like travel. We can’t expand our minds without building bridges here, there, everywhere.

    I’m surprised that some people think history is not a teacher. Anything can be a teacher. It is the student that chooses the source to learn from.

    BTW, the Rude Mr Venkat needs a brain transplant. Revisionist history is the surest sign of a feeble mind.

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    Abdul – A timely and well written post. Everyday it is depressing to see people being killed in the name of religion and hatred and getting provoked by the cheap tacics of petty politicians. Bridges are mute witnesses to the politics of hate. I am reminded of a recent Tamil movie where God comes down to earth and lives in a Chennai Mansion. To a question posed on putting an end to suffering, God says – “Why should I put an end to their suffering, these men will kill one another and put an end to their own lives?”

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    lakshmi subramanian said October 31, 2008, 8:02 pm:


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    Just came across this link on the state of brahmins.. this is in reply to vamsi’s comment..

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    Abdul Fakhri said November 8, 2008, 4:37 am:

    Thanks Priya (Raju). Since the publication of this post, Obama has won the US elections. Perhaps his winning itself is an example of a successful bridge.

    I am talking about the contest and victory in the electoral race itself – the matter of his performance as a President a subject for discussion in later days. But there is not an iota of doubt that his victory has inspired hope and optimism around the world. We can begin to breathe now after the suffocation caused by several hawks over the last 8 years.

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    Abdul Fakhri said November 8, 2008, 4:38 am:

    Thanks Priya.

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    Abdul Fakhri said November 8, 2008, 4:45 am:

    Thanks Divya.

    For profesional goals to be achieved at a work place amity, congeniality and friendliness are vital. If this becomes a lasting friendship, nothing like it.

    With the passage of time if people manage to continue good relations beyond their offices too and that becomes a strong friendship great. Yes, but your point is taken, office space too is critical for certain kinds of bridges. 🙂

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    Zaheer (subscribed) said November 12, 2008, 1:07 am:


    Great post. The bridge analogy is wonderful. History has taught us a lot of things and is meant to teach people and illustrate from the past as to what has worked and what created doom..The saying is clear on the wall. “learn not to stereo type people based on groups/castes etc, avoid hatred and build bridges” and hopefully the world would be a better place to live!

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    Nice post Abdul. You have a pretty impressive thread going here, including some devil’s advocate. While you’ve captured the ethos pretty eloquently, I was slightly disappointed at the end to not see a plan on how you’d like to build these bridges. We are living in interesting times where zealots have hijacked society in the name of religion. I do agree that hate breeds terror. But isn’t it intense love that spawns hate of such proportions? It exists everywhere be it hindus, muslims, christians etc. All you need is one fanatic with the gift of gab to proselytize and fire up those emotions. The media further glorifies this by providing center stage for these fanatics. Human tragedy has become a commodity for the media to capitalize on to boost their viewership. Bridges we must build, and I look forward to your sequel on this.

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    Even a brooklyn bridge can be built easily again, compared with building bridges between hearts!!

    Kudos for picking up such a sensible topic.

    But I cannot fathom anyone even daring to take up such a task today in my home town….Hyderabad.
    Hearts are torn asunder and people polarised beyond redemption.

    What Gandhi achieved (unifying people) by sathyagraha, mainly fasting, these petty politicians have unmade today sadly using the same tool!!!

    We are choosing to break the existing bridges, rather than build new ones….

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    Cheers Revathi for perceiving the sense and sensibility behind such a topic (or for the lack of it in the wider world, shall we say!) 🙂

    Yes, we are all witness to the chaos galore in Andhra Pradesh today. Vamsi Poondla has contributed two extensive fine posts on the subject on this blog.

    Regarding Gandhi, can one ever recover or re-create the Mahatmas. That is why they are called as such!

    I am a believer in the Enlightenment tradition of a “common humanity.” Please see JFK’s quote at the start of this post to understand what that means in simple terms.

    (i.e.) irrespective of the planetary divisions in terms of castes, creeds, races, ethnicities, genders, classes and what not the challenge of human life everywhere is the same.

    Nothing exemplifies this better than the environmental challenges and all the debates that happenned around the Copenhagen summit and beyond !

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    /** What Gandhi achieved (unifying people) by sathyagraha, mainly fasting **/

    If Gandhi had actually unified people, then why did partition happen? Gandhi was alive then..

    Sukumar often asks for data, and i hope, i can expect the same for this statement..

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    Hi Sukumar,

    I have come across your comments in another post too about vaishnavaites and shaivaites killing each other or how the hindus killed off the jains in Tamil Nadu.
    I am very much interested in the history of Tamilnadu from 8th to 15th century.
    I keep trawling the net, but i am not able to find lot of stuff about that period. (Maybe my search terms are not good)
    Could you please give some references (books or websites) where i could find such material.
    More specifically about the slaughter of jains in Tamil Nadu.


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    Sukumar (subscribed) said February 13, 2010, 1:45 pm:

    You are taking up a tough subject for your research. The historical record is sparse. For example, there is a historical event that happened in Madurai in the 7th century AD where 8,000 jains were allegedly impaled (impaling is an ancient method of killing) (page 356 Romila Thapar’s Early India). Thapar goes on to say in the same page that this story is unlikely due to the large number of 8,000 being cited.

    In the Peria Puranam (Saivite Holy Text), there are several references to Nayanmars fighting against the Jains.

    The way i have tried to make sense of it is – jains and saivites/vaishnavites were fighting to establish their religion as superior using various methods – propaganda, conversions, mass conversions by convincing a king to embrace the faith and violence such as the madurai impalings. there also references to jains throwing the saivites in lime kilns (sunnambu kalvai in Tamil). So violence must have been used by both sides. Ultimately, the fact remains that there are no Jains (Or a few thousands left is what people think) left in Tamilnadu if you exclude the recent migrants from Gujarat. That means that whatever techniques the hindus used succeeded extremely well.

    On the saiva/vaishnava fights also, the same kind of thing. Historical record can be sparse but you can pick up some pointers from the puranas and research them.

    Additionally, there are also several instances of tolerance shown by the fighting religions. There have been Saiva kings who have erected Buddhist monuments (Rajaraja Chola and/or his son Rajendra Chola have done this). Emperor Ashoka has even left an rock edict which talks about why tolerance is important. Though he became Buddhist, he encouraged his citizens to tolerate other faiths. Emperor Akbar even tried to come up with a new amalgamated religion.

    Indian kings have encouraged religions from other countries also – the famous story of Parsis in Gujarat, Jews in Kerala etc.

    Good luck with your research.

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    Thanks Sukumar,

    I will take a look at Romila Thapar’s book Early India.

    So we have one instance of Hindus allegedly impaling 8000 jains which the author herself doubts to be true.
    I was looking forward to more specific references.

    In the periya puranam which is the history (more like hagiography) of the 63 nayanmars, it says that nayanmars in particular and saivaites in general had to face lot of hostility from the jains because of their faith. The jains are shown to have the upper hand as the kings of that time were jains. Tirunavukkarasar was subjected to the hot lime kiln treatment, poisoning and as well as getting trampled by elephant treatment. He is said to have escaped by singing hymns to Shiva.

    The jains i guess have not written their side about the happenings of 7th to 9th century. Maybe they had written it but did not publicise it :-).

    State patronage seemed to be have been very important for the sustainment of Jainism in Tamil nadu because being a non theistic religion they did not get any help from the gods. I guess the Bakthi movement was a reaction against the rigidity imposed by the jains.

    But i am curious about the patronage Vaishnavaism seemed to be gotten around that time because the kings of that time were staunch saivaites. But vaishnavaism flourished in Tamil Nadu during the same time with huge temples being built and maintained at that time. This is not possible without the support of the state.

    Alwars and Nayanmars lived around the same time and were sort of in competition for the hearts and minds of the same set of people.

    I think i will keep searching.

    Thanks again for your response.

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