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The fear FACTOR

If we are too easily spooked, the media are culpable in no small measure



"How safe are single women in the city?" doesn't stir you but "How safe is the drinking water in the city?" makes you sit up.

THERE IS a very nervous car in our parking lot. It has a hair-trigger alarm system. In the next compound a carpenter is assiduously hammering away, and each time the hammer hits wood the car emits a sympathetic "ouch". Even a dog's bark is enough to make it whimper. The tiniest raindrop that brushes its roof makes it blink its lights like an agitated starlet fluttering her eyelashes. I heard it squeak in consternation the other night and looked out to find that a dry leaf had fallen on its windscreen.

The car that cries wolf reminds me of what we could become if we let our fears run away with us. We city dwellers look over our shoulders more often than we need to. Some of our behaviour is in response to longstanding middle class notions of security: the steel cupboard, the bank locker, the window grill. My favourite is the suitcase chained to the leg of the train berth with a large padlock for the express purpose (it would seem) of advertising the valuables within. A close second is the key permanently inserted in the keyhole of the refrigerator. As times change, new fears emerge: car theft, credit card fraud, and the hazards of shopping online.

It all boils down to our fear of losing our possessions. We keep them locked up, and while we do so, we fetter our bodies and minds as well. Not for us the pleasures of sleeping under the stars on a hot night. Should an idea creep into your head of adventurously camping out on your apartment terrace, you can dispel it pronto. "Door to terrace locked by 10 p.m." goes the rule. Why? Security reasons. A burglar could hide there during the day and sling down at night — to do what? Stare at a whole lot of firmly fastened doors?

If we are too easily spooked, the media are culpable in no small measure. They must alert us to dangers, to be sure, but sometimes they go overboard. When they dub a road or building unsafe they have facts to prove it, but when they declare the entire city unsafe, they are vague and unconvincing, the say the least. "How safe are single women in the city?" doesn't stir you but "How safe is the drinking water in the city?" makes you sit up. You know that the probability of your getting diarrhoea after drinking tap water in summer is much higher than the probability of your getting murdered in our own bed. You can measure the level of pollutants in water, but not the level of danger in a city.

Raising too may bogeys can be counter-productive. A recent newspaper article solemnly warned tourists about the perils of foreign travel. Before you vacation abroad you should apparently check the "travel health index" of your destination. There is no part of the globe that's not swarming the diseases, so if you're planning a world tour, immunise yourself against typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, meningitis, encephalitis, hepatitis A and B... it's a cheery list. Going to North America? Don't forget your plague and rabies shots, and guard against the West Nile virus and Lyme disease. The latter spreads through ticks (don't pat that dog, for heaven's sake!) and "if left untreated, it can lead to arthritis, heart trouble and mental disorder". If reading this doesn't put you in a state of mental disorder, the section called "other health hazards" will. It notifies you that practically every continent can give you "traveller's diarrhoea" (also known as weird-food-not-agreeing-with — stomach), and begs you to watch out for onchocersiasis in South America and schistosomiasis in the Caribbean.

A travel guide to the kingdom of Paranoia is what it is. But before you snigger, tell me something: did you inoculate your child against chickenpox before the annual exam? Aha, so the fear got to you, did it? The most insidious (though not the most grammatical) word that needles you into being over-cautious is this one, best written with an extra "p": "Supp-posing... " It pops up too frequently for your own good. Supp-posing the house catches fire... Let's insure it against fire. Supp-posing there is an earthquake... Let's insure it against fire. Supp-posing there is an earthquake... Let's insure it against earthquakes. Better still, let's demolish it and build ourselves a quakeproof home. Supp-posing lightning ruins the TV...

There are no lengths to which we will not go when spurred on by the demon fear. Having said that, we in Bangalore have not yet grown paranoid, like our friends across the Atlantic. The burglar alarm is unpopular despite the best efforts of security agencies to foist it on us. (One of them had the gumption to suggest, at our association meeting, that we install an electrified fence!) This is a city where you constantly come across front doors left ajar during the day — a ghostly memory of the ancestral village home, perhaps.

Now let me extend an invitation to housebreakers. I rarely peep through the magic eye embedded in our front door, so you could knock, and muscle your way in. Alternatively, you could enter our (first floor) bedroom window, which has sliding glass panels and no grill, by scaling the building wall conveniently decorated with brick protuberance. All our cupboards are unlocked.

The catch is that only a thief who reads Metroplus will know how to rob us. And that's a thief I'll be glad to shake hands with.

C.K.MEENA

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