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Why people help in crisis

Why people help in crisis
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First Published: Fri, Jul 22 2011. 01 15 AM IST

On an impulse: Zaveri Bazaar, Mumbai, where passers-by and shopkeepers helped the injured on 13 July. Photo: Saurabh Das/AP
On an impulse: Zaveri Bazaar, Mumbai, where passers-by and shopkeepers helped the injured on 13 July. Photo: Saurabh Das/AP
Updated: Fri, Jul 22 2011. 03 17 PM IST
Unlike the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus nearby, or the skyscrapers of Nariman Point down south (both sites of terror attacks in 2008), Zaveri Bazaar’s qualities are relatively difficult to commit to film. Its warren of bylanes, criss-crossing between the Jama Masjid and Mumbadevi temple, are signposted, but the most reliable way to find a shop or person is to ask for directions. Its geography is reminiscent of some of the gracious, centuries-old markets of Gujarat and Rajasthan, but deluged by metropolitan grime and plastic.
When the bomb on 3rd Agiari Galli went off on 13 July, many traders in the warren had left for the day. Satyavan Pandey, with some others, had gathered to talk shop in the narrow, low-ceilinged office of JS Kothari and Sons, jewellery and metal craftsmen and traders. The noise momentarily confused them. The fire galvanized them.
For 20 minutes, until the aid vehicles showed up, the men at JS Kothari and Sons joined colleagues from neighbouring businesses to wade through carnage to rescue the injured and put out the fire. Buckets of water, which Pandey and others carried through after the first shock, did not seem to help. But snack shops with kitchens, like the nearby Jagannath Chaturbhuj Halwai, keep small fire extinguishers on hand, which they used to douse the fire.
On an impulse: Zaveri Bazaar, Mumbai, where passers-by and shopkeepers helped the injured on 13 July. Photo: Saurabh Das/AP
“I don’t remember feeling any fear,” Pandey says, a week later. “There were women who ran in to help, older people who have worked here for 50 years—all of them holding, carrying others without hesitation.” The bomb site where they converged to work was a mess of rubble, burning debris and human remains. But by the time the fire brigade came, the flames were under control, and many of the injured had been driven to nearby hospitals on cars, scooters, cycles—even handcarts.
“That fear you would expect?” Pandey says. “It wasn’t on a single face. Not in a single heart.”
In a crisis, “how you behave depends on whether you think your neighbours or fellow citizens are a greater threat than the havoc wrought by a disaster”, writes the American journalist, Rebecca Solnit, in her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell. We commonly assume that people in crowded cities don’t know or remember this, and look out only for themselves.
Why? Is it because most cities, as important commercial centres, reward self-interest above public interest? Do they encourage us to think of alienation as the price of progress? Do urban resources lead us to believe that someone else will take care of things?
We are wrong on all counts— and disaster, Solnit says, shows us up for who we are. In A Paradise Built in Hell, she studies five North American crises, ranging from the 1905 San Francisco earthquake to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and finds instances of crime, callousness and negligence of responsibility—but largely, extraordinary goodness, altruism and reaffirmation of community and city bonds, which have the power to save life and dignity; and also, sometimes, to affect social change.
In the absence of that change, grief can turn quickly to anger. This is demonstrably true in Mumbai, which, in the last decade, has borne an exceptional number of natural and human-created crises. But these also reveal a human truth that deserves closer reporting and more recognition than state-sanctioned lip service to public spirit.
The truth is that human beings are often at their best in disaster. In Mumbai, come flood or terror, the aftermath of tragedy is remarkable for the spontaneous “disaster communities” it creates, so powerful that they can come to public aid with much greater ease than almost any institutional help, and can transform public memory, as well as future crisis response.
A great number of those who survived the city’s July 2005 floods remember it for the kindness of strangers, who opened homes, offices and created spontaneous rescue missions. Reportage on 2006’s train bombings contains extensive evidence of passers-by and street-dwellers jumping in after attacks to create chains of transport to hospitals, provide food and water to those stranded in the brief paralysis of transport networks, and ferry emergency supplies to blast sites.
“I can’t speak to Indian cities such as Mumbai,” Solnit says in an email interview, “but in American cities I think we now know the difference between a place like Phoenix, Arizona, where people are spread out and little happens outside cars, and a dense city like New York, which responded so beautifully to the emergency of 9/11 with brave, generous, and deeply creative behaviour instantly.
“What fascinates me about disaster is that people often contradict their own ideology and context by their actions: Wall Street brokers did not remember they believed in social Darwinism and laissez-faire capitalism when the towers came tumbling down,” she says. “But I do think that living in public among strangers is good training for an emergency.”
Surendra Kothari, of JS Kothari and Sons, unconsciously echoes her. “People used to say the vyapaari (businessman) has no heart,” he smiles. “You have no idea.”
The shops in Zaveri Bazaar have huddled together for so many years that on the day of the bombing, the people milling around the fire were pulling out old friends and neighbours. But it is also crucial that they are already used to the massive public trust that develops in an area where life is lived on streets and shopfronts, always ready to improvise, protect and salvage space.
This is also true of the area around Dadar’s Kabutar Khana, the site of a simultaneous attack. It is in the middle of a bustling all-day market, a stone’s throw from a Jain derasar and the Pir Baghdadi mosque, and populated by buyers and sellers from all over India: great potential for chaos— but also great potential for spontaneous rescue.
The Hanuman Mandir bus stop is faced by a row of shops, small- to mid-sized, that sell furnishings, glassware and jewellery. As at both other locations, especially the Panchratna building in Opera House, where the first attack occurred, people are wary of visitors and journalists, mindful of the post-incident frenzy that often creates a second-wave problem of misinformation and harmful attention. Many say they were shut at the time the blast occurred. Some of the smaller hardware stores, however, were open.
“We blanked out when it happened,” one of the owners, who prefers not to be named, recalls. “We couldn’t run to the bus stop to see what had happened—it was as though we were glued to where we stood. People outside ducked in to take shelter here, shaking.”
He does not quite describe the scene Suketu Mehta writes about in his despairing paean to Mumbai under attack in 2008, where “people run towards explosions, not away from them”. Yet, this is exactly what happened while the immediate bystanders near the bus stop were frozen in shock. Passers-by, nearby residents and traders in other lanes came pouring in at the noise, and began to help out.
“They all came from elsewhere,” the shopkeeper says. “They were the ones who did the real work.”
It was also from around the Kabutar Khana that the bombings created a fourth alternate “disaster community”: on the Internet. Some of the earliest messages on Twitter offering help came from users around Dadar, Mahim and Bandra, asking readers if they needed help or shelter.
As night fell over a driving rain, people shared phone numbers and addresses in public forums—more than 200 added their details to a public spreadsheet started by Twitter user Nitin Sagar in New Delhi—heedless of privacy and security concerns. As far away from the blast sites as Borivali, Twitter users were welcomed into strangers’ homes until conditions stabilized.
Updates on news, traffic and weather conditions circulated to keep as wide a range of people in the loop as possible. Part of the panic of disaster is simply the darkness of not knowing, as communications are cut off or slowed down, and affected areas become gigantic spanners in the works, paralysing operations through the length and breadth of an interconnected community.
“It’s not a new thing,” Dina Mehta, one of the first people to broadcast her coordinates on Twitter, says. “It’s just that it went mainstream now. We’ve been sharing numbers as far back as the tsunami (in 2004).”
These efforts, Mehta says, “come about spontaneously—you can’t institutionalize them. It becomes very difficult to give them structure.”
Anecdotal reports from users on Twitter that night suggest that offers of assistance far outstripped the needs of those who communicated. “A good problem to have,” a user commented on the site later that night.
“Disasters are first of all horrible,” Solnit says. “But they are often occasions when people wake up to uncertainty and ephemerality and empathy—these things that religion and philosophy sometimes also try to wake us up to.”
This may explain why, in the days after a disaster, the resumption of daily routines can seem like meek acceptance of old failures. As institutions focus on short-term solutions, the sense of wider injustices that tragedy exposes, grows narrow again. Hurt is recast as helpless anger—a journalistic byword in the days following the blasts. What happens after disasters often runs contrary to initial human impulses.
“Sometimes (injustices and divides) don’t resume, because people are awakened, connected, indignant, opened up in some way,” Solnit says. “That depends partly on your values and priorities going in. And partly on how your society and your media tell the story of the disaster.”
Spontaneous altruism interrupts a city’s regular narrative of self-absorption, lack of resources, and poor civic spirit. In a community’s most vulnerable moments, it becomes apparent that its best citizens—brave, resourceful and generous—already exist. And change becomes a question of completing the transformation, not beginning it.
“Everyone helps,” as Satyavan Pandey says in Agiari Galli. “Everyone always helps.”
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First Published: Fri, Jul 22 2011. 01 15 AM IST