The cannon fodder ladder

wpid-dscn4097.jpgI can’t shake the awful feeling that we are cannon fodder here in the third world. Last month, in the northern Indian state of Chattisgarh under-privileged, poor village women were taken to be ‘sterilized’. Thirteen of them died after operations designed to stop them from having babies. The state government quickly executed a cover-up blaming pesticides in medications for the deaths. But independent fact-finders revealed on December 5 to television reporters that what killed these hapless women were horribly unsanitary conditions. The doctor allegedly did not even change gloves between operations.

On the news again was the story of a group of poor villagers in the state of Punjab who attended an eye-camp and went blind. This is a blip on the news, with added footage of the member of parliament for the area arriving chewing gum, in a big people-carrier carrying only him, in between mouthfuls of gum he mouthed customary utterances like `we are going to find out what happened’. That was it; scapegoats will be found and the blinded will be forgotten in the mess and chaos of this large country.

I am not able to shake the feeling that on an individual level too I am expendable cannon fodder, only that I was lucky to be better educated and could save myself somewhat from the self-seeking of people around me. You need sufficient pull in a still largely feudal India where influence and who you know among the-powers-that-be is everything. I am wary of visiting even a hospital here without the all-important passport of influence. If you are recognised as the cannon fodder that you are, almost instantly your world transforms. Your treatment by doctors and nurses will leave you feeling shorn of humanity.

Our lives are mostly about finding meaning in the universe, but some of us are taught very early on that you have to stick to the place given to you in family and society, and looking for meaning is meant for the privileged who can afford that luxury. In other words, you have been labelled cannon fodder and you have to make do. And so you rebel from the outset. Slowly, as you move through the community, you start to distinguish the different grades of cannon fodder and the varying criteria for grading. It may depend on your income, race, influence network, caste, gender and skin colour.

Depending on all these things, what you will experience in life will differ. Someone higher than you on this ladder sometimes will look down on you and ask you what you are complaining about, as it is difficult for them to discern the existence of these different hierarchies, and that they enjoy a more privileged existence because of it.

Conversely, it is easy to spot those who live higher up on this ladder. They carry around a sense of entitlement; `they are special’, a subliminal motto inscribed on the higher rungs of the ladder; they have been spoilt in a sense by the advantage of higher grading, either of gender, race, region, pale-skin, smarts, or they belonged to an entitled caste; or they had the assistance of influence peddling, which again is when you are connected to a web of privilege, consisting of people who wield influence in government and society, and doors are opened for you.

Take the case of the Indian film industry or politics. In Bollywood, practically every young actor belongs to an acting family. Thanks to pedigree, they have access to film sets in their teens and easily earn the concession of interning with the choicest directors, which sets them up in the industry without the arduous struggles involving the casting-couch and other daily discriminations endured by ingenues who try to enter the system from outside.

Indian politics rather like Bollywood thrives on dynasties. Very few non-family persons possess the muscle or resources to leave behind their professional lives to participate in politics, if they feel they have something to offer. And it’s not just Bollywood or politics, it’s everywhere. If you want to get something done you can follow all the rules, apply, submit, wait your turn, but all that matters is your network of leverage and nothing else.

People higher up on the cannon-fodder ladder were never given a set place to occupy or called arrogant if they tried to improve upon this place. They will never be taught lessons in humility, which is a crucial lesson in these modern times. Too many of our urban children are growing up without this lesson. Later in life, their egos or an inflated sense of self will butt heads with just about everything. Because they are uncomfortable with a world where everyone else is also special. They feel they know more than everyone else and feel threatened when confronted with new knowledge from other people who they in turn accuse of assuming they know more. Confusing? But see that’s the catch.

We have to be willing to learn something new every day, no matter where it comes from. Usually, most people will tell you that they are more than willing, they read books, do research, but it unsettles their sense of self when this knowledge comes from someone beneath them on the ladder. We are all guilty of this, so let’s not be kidding ourselves.

The cannon fodder will experience habitual rudeness in government offices, high society, molestation in public spaces, just about all-round victimisation. The cannon fodder will never enjoy the sweet relief of justice as their cries for it mostly go unheard. Furthermore, if you ask for justice you are marked out as the one who tried to break the ladder and exceed their rung on it. Woe betide you then.

There is perhaps only one means of escape from this life of being chained to a rung on an allegorical ladder. Education.

You have heard this many times from the likes of people like Oprah Winfrey, the queen of pop wisdom. But nothing truer was ever said. If you begin to sense that you are cannon-fodder in your own life, you cannot afford to drop out of school, aim for every college scholarship you can find, and keep going, don’t stop for anything. Never, ever look back at that ladder and all the resentful faces on it telling you to come back to your place.

Watch enough National Geographic documentaries on cruel hierarchies in ape/monkey troupes, and you begin to grasp a correlation between the human ladder and that long distant evolutionary past. It is a touch Darwinian and not all just my imagination.

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