The Cyclops lesson

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In Homer’s “Odyssey” the great seafaring Greek warrior and king of Ithaca, Ulysses, who along with his men, got lost in the sea for ten years while returning after the war in Troy over the “abduction”, or “elopement” if you prefer, of the famed Hellen from Sparta, once docked at a very interesting island where lived Cyclops and his tribe of one-eyed, man-eating giants. Ulysses and his men become the captives of Cyclops and the giant begins feeding on them one by one at every meal. Ulysses hatches a plot and feeds the giant with the wine from his ship, and pleased at this gesture, Cyclops awards him with a great favour and promises to eat him last of all his men. This is a theme that has occurred in many fables from all over the world in all cultures: A giant arrives at a village and demands to be fed with a villager a day. In the village every family is made to supply the giant’s human fodder in turn, and this goes on until the village is either wiped off, or in the case of a very lucky few, a giant-killer in shining armour arrives and offers himself to be the giant’s food for the day, meets the giant and then kills him. Everybody lives happily ever after. In real life, everything is not so simple.

But Cyclops’ promise to Ulysses is interesting. It is such a peculiarly tragic irony to be promised life and death at the same time. It is a promise of life because Ulysses would not be killed immediately, but it is also a promise of death because he would be ultimately killed in a very finite period of time. One can almost sense the claustrophobia of a closed space and time that define a terrible certainty – the certainty of death. The helplessness in avoiding the fate is simply nightmarish. But nimble Ulysses overcomes Cyclops’ terrible sentence, and it is his iron will and quicksilver wit which get him out of situations such as this that have endeared this literary figure to humanity through the ages, ever since Homer created him. He is even more endearing because the challenges before him were the challenges everybody in this world faces in his or her own way in every age. It is another story that not everybody is able to live up to the challenge.

Manipur’s predicament today provokes thoughts of Ulysses and the Cyclops’ promise. Our fates seem sealed and there seem to be no easy way out. Moreover everybody has either lost the courage to speak his or her mind, or have convinced themselves that there is nothing as independent thinking, all out of a state of petrification resulting directly out of the establishment’s abject inability to guarantee a sense of security to them. Everybody’s immediate concern today is to literally buy themselves their private peace even though each one understands it fully well that it is just a matter of pleading to be eaten last. It is not a question of tolerance either, which in reality is a facade we hide our impotence behind, for only a fool will not know that the present lawlessness that has enveloped the entire state will ultimately consume us all. And so we end up with our lives dictated at every turn – by the students who have no interest in studying, by the civic organizations which have no civic senses, by law-keepers who break the law, by lawbreakers who claim to be the law, by street-fighters with self-assumed peacekeeping missions, by leaders who would rather follow… Most atrociously, all these roles are self-proclaimed loudly to be executed on behalf of the people. As to how they managed to receive this mandate of the people is a mystery nobody will bother or dare to probe either. Nobody wants to confront the situation although it is everybody’s knowledge that taking the bull by the horns is our only way to salvation in the current circumstance. Nobody wants to confront it because in his silent panic, he has convinced himself that it is a great favour to be eaten last.

IFP Editorials

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