My friend Ben used to shave my head for me. Yep, some years ago when I decided I liked the shorn look, he came over with a snazzy little electric razor, plugged it in and went to work, back and forth across my head. In seconds, I was hairless on top and delighted, if a little stunned at how quickly my locks had vanished. Ben visited to repeat the favour every few days, every time he noticed me sprouting fuzz. But every time, he had a different snazzy razor.
You have a collection of these? I asked Ben once as he ploughed my pate.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I’m nuts about the little gizmos.”
I don’t know anyone else who collects razors. Ben, he’s like that.
Today, he has a blog. (Doesn’t everyone?) The razors, I thought, he’s going to tell the world about the virtues of his elegant razors. But no, the blog is about shoes. Nearly every day, Ben puts up a photograph of his feet encased in a different pair of shoes – wingtips, sneakers, oxfords, something called Bapestas – and a few paragraphs about that particular pair.
You have a collection of these? I asked Ben.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I’m crazy ‘bout shoes.”
That’s great, Ben, and what happened to the razors?
“Oh come now,” he said, with a hint of sheepishness. “That’s so 20th century! Get with it, dude! Haven’t you heard of climate change?”
Huh? Climate change? And razors? It explains a lot of things, climate change. But Ben wants me to believe it also explains his progress from squirreling away razors to squirreling away shoes. I couldn’t really care less what Ben chooses to collect, but he apparently felt some guilt over the razor betrayal. What to do then? Invoke climate change.
Thing is, people ascribe all kinds of phenomena to climate change – poor monsoons and droughts, excessive rains and floods, the rise in ocean levels, the extinction of species, the retreat of glaciers, on and on. All valid of course, and me, I think climate change is a reality. But the ease with which people blame it for everything that happens – rightly or wrongly – always reminds me of a curious tendency: blame the amorphous, the inanimate, the dead and sometimes even the outlandish, anything but your own doings. The climate change effect, I want to call it.
For example, we have an official report on the Bombay tragedy of 26 November last year prepared by a retired public servant. If that horrific event set off a storm of public outrage directed at apathetic and corrupt politicians, the report paid no attention. It named no politicians, and by and large ascribed blame to a vague “standard procedures were not followed.” With a formulation like that, nobody need or will be punished. Maybe, somewhere in its pages, the report blames climate change for the success of the attacks.
Consider the less well-known but perhaps more insidious example of what happened to a young Indian Air Force pilot, Flight Lieutenant Abhijit Gadgil, in 2001. Gadgil was in his sixth year with the Air Force then, and had been flying MiG-21s for four. Posted in Suratgarh, Rajasthan, he was immensely happy at his job. At about eight pm on 17 September, Gadgil took off in his MiG-21 into a moonless sky. Exactly 33 seconds later, nose-diving at 470 km per hour, the plane tore a nine-foot hole into the Rajasthan sand. He and his flying machine became part of one of the IAF’s stranger statistics:
1963-70: 7 MiG-21 accidents, 1 per year
1971-80: 21 accidents, 2.1 per year
1981-90: 32 accidents, 3.2 per year
1991-2000: 75 accidents, 7.5 per year
2001-02: 22 accidents, 11 per year
I cannot imagine that anyone could look at these numbers and not be concerned: what on earth is going on with India’s MiGs? They are getting older, sure, but is that the only explanation for this alarming rise in accidents? And even if it is, what is the IAF doing about it? That is what Abhijit’s parents wanted to know. In 2002, they formed the Abhijit Air Safety Foundation, as a platform to raise questions about the safety of these aircraft. As they wrote: “The idea was … to stop the loss of young lives in the ancient aircraft of our Air Force in general, and MiG-21 in particular.”
The IAF’s first response to the Gadgils’ several letters came from one Air Marshal Ashok Goel, the inspector-general at Air HQ, in March 2003. He delivered this tongue-lashing:
A venomous attack on the Air Force or its hierarchy does not, in my opinion, offer any solace. At worst, you may demoralise the Service. Such an act would not be in the best interest of the Nation … It would be most unfortunate if your intentions are to disrespect the IAF … So far we have turned a blind eye to your tirade in public.”
Yes, he actually insinuated that it was the responsibility of Abhijit’s parents and friends – their patriotic responsibility, no less – to stop asking questions. Don’t ask, don’t think, you’re a patriot. But as if this was not perverse enough, he blamed the crash on Abhijit. The young pilot, said Goel, was “disorient[ed] during a dark night take off [and] weak in certain aspects of flying”. If Abhijit was known to be “weak”, why hadn’t he been grounded?
In the face of evidence of something seriously wrong with these MiGs – what else would you conclude from that accident record? – this officer of the IAF found it easier to blame a young pilot’s death on the pilot himself. To its credit, some years later the IAF apologised to the Gadgils and expunged Goel’s letter. Yet the sorry episode showcased that same climate-change effect: blame someone else. Blame anyone, anything, except actual, real, serving people who have failed in their duty. Deny all responsibility.
Climate change. It’s like that. Get with it, dude.
~ Dilip D’Souza, trained in computer science, now writes for his noodles and rice in Bombay.