And, that's a wrap!

Looking back

And, that's a wrap!

It was a year marked by change at the helm, disasters, betrayals, gaffes... But, it had several rare sparkles ofhope too. As the year 2014 draws to an end, SUDARSHAN PUROHIT offers a glimpse of the highlights of what has generally been a year defined by ‘people power’

So, here we are, at the end of another year. Time for us to look up and say “Already?” like software engineers on the day of the deadline. We’ve spent this year, like the ones before it, living from day to day, dealing with thousands of complications life throws at us.

Small wonder, then, that in spite of all these articles reminding us of the upcoming change in the last digit of the date, we tend to keep doing whatever we have always been doing.

The big things, the ones that affect the world and our lives, tend to not follow the calendar either — they don’t start when a digit changes somewhere in a date, and they don’t end when the digit changes again.

They spring from the deep-rooted convictions that humans have, or from the random moods of chance, and they have influence far longer than their actual span. These are the events that we’re more likely to think about as, “Do you remember the time before that happened? Do you remember the days when this hadn’t happened yet?”

All the same, the year 2014 has been home base for several such events that alter our world in large and small ways. As we move into 2015, it’s a good time to remember those events and try to gauge their impact on our lives.

For Indians, the big event of the year was undoubtedly the General Election. We’ve had elections before, and there are more to come. But the tectonic shift that the 2014 elections signalled has been unprecedented.

When this newspaper posted the year-end wrap up for 2013, it had noted the emergence of Narendra Modi as a force to be reckoned with. Was he for real? Would he actually win the election? Can he actually change the country for the better — bring in ‘acche din’?

Some of those questions can be answered this time around. Modi’s BJP/NDA not only won the election, but for the first time in decades, won with a real majority. Bye-bye to the pussyfooting around coalitions and keeping partners happy at the cost of agendas. The country erupted into either fountains of joy or paroxysms of sorrow, depending on what you thought of Modi.

Things began to change right from the swearing in: Modi invited the leaders of the SAARC countries to attend the swearing in ceremony, signalling a larger vision than just governing a country. He stooped down to pay his respects when he entered the parliament, rather like a wrestler entering an akhaada.

He made clear his plans to move along pending governance tasks as quickly as possible. He swore in fewer ministers than the usual jumbo coalition cabinet. He flagged off the Swachh Bharat initiative and spoke directly to the nation over the radio every once in a while. As the months have gone by, the differences between this government and the previous ones have become starker.

Then, of course, we had the AAP and Arvind Kejriwal who used corruption to gain their fanbase — at least to start with. Fans of Kejriwal’s “I am a common man” approach thought he might make a huge dent in the BJP’s fanbase. It’s a different story that the AAP actually won the Delhi state elections, failed to impress, and resigned after 49 days (giving Kejriwal the sobriquet of ‘AK49’, among others).

But more than Kejriwal’s coughing, Rahul Gandhi’s missteps, or Modi’s thundering, the deciding factor of the election was the ‘real’ common man. The man who wanted to better his life and better the country around him.

It was his decision to vote for the party which promised good governance, progress, and a good economy. And this is the thing that makes 2014 more than a normal year for the people of India: we’re fed up of not making progress, fed up of promises that go nowhere, fed up of weird socialist schemes that do nothing. We just want better lives through our own efforts and the steadying hands of law and governance. Will the new government give us that? It remains to be seen.

World in brief

Elsewhere in the world, too, the two biggest events of the year were a continuation of the previous year. The first was the continued rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Where its predecessors — the al-Qaeda and others — worked top-down, a small group of men imposing their will on a large population, ISIS appears to have sprung up organically from a larger network of believers.

It controls a much larger swathe of land, and is likely to remain a headache for longer. Worse, they have control of a fair number of oil wells, and are obtaining their revenue by selling this oil. That means they are no longer completely dependent on external funding and kidnapping ransoms alone.

This year the ISIS declared a worldwide ‘Islamic Caliphate’, their name for the worldwide domination of their interpretation of Islam. This involved attacks on other communities within striking distance — the Yazidis in Syria, for instance. The kidnapping racket took a more serious turn with recorded executions of western hostages, to enforce their intentions. One can only speculate on how many kidnappings and extortions went through successfully and never surfaced in public.

The second was the Ebola epidemic, which started off in December 2013 in West Africa, and has taken the combined efforts of the world to keep in check. Till date, we have lost, by official count, over 6,000 lives, and the disease has spread, briefly, to the US, Spain and India among others.

Thankfully, these secondary outbreaks have been small and quickly contained. The efforts of the medical volunteers fighting this epidemic have earned them the honour of being named ‘Time’s Person of the Year’.

One other event that surprised and saddened the world was the loss of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370, when it was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Somewhere over the South China Sea, the airplane stopped responding to calls, and crashed into the water.

What makes the event much worse is that despite unrelenting efforts of the worldwide community over months, we have not been able to locate the wreckage of the aircraft, nor retrieve the bodies of the deceased. This has led to much heartburn and introspection (not to mention conspiracy theories). Is it still possible for something so big to be lost permanently?

Sporting success

The world of sports has its share of moments to remember over the year. Perhaps the most tragic of them was the untimely death of Philip Hughes, a young cricketer from Australia. During a first-class match in Australia, he was hit on the side of his head by a bouncer, and fell unconscious.

He slipped into a coma and expired two days later. Are we too careless when playing sports, or are such heart-wrenching events bound to happen, no matter how many precautions we take? The debate is still on. The remaining matches of the tournament (the Sheffield Shield) were cancelled as a mark of respect.

In the Asian Games held this year, Indian sportspersons made a good show of themselves. In an unfamiliar land, and an arena where they were deprived of crowd support, they stood up bravely and fetched a reasonable 10th place in the games.

Individual stories of guts are what make up this tally: the men’s hockey team, winning the gold, and the women’s team fighting hard for their bronze; Mary Kom, a true legend of our time, winning yet another gold; Yogeshwar Dutt with a wrestling gold; both the kabaddi teams (but, of course) getting golds.

What hogged all the media attention, however, was the tale of Sarita Devi, the boxer. In spite of dominating her semifinal bout (knocking out South Korea’s Park Ji-Na in one of the rounds!), she was judged the loser by the panel.

When she tried to file an appeal against the decision, she found herself short of money for the application fees, and the Indian officials who had accompanied the contingent refused to help. She wound up with the bronze medal in the runner-up bout, and then, to the horror of the organisers, refused to take her medal, giving it to Park instead.

Sarita Devi was subsequently barred by the International Boxing Federation from competing in events until further notice. While on one hand the events have been tragic, on the other they are a characteristic of the growing self-confidence of India’s sportspersons. We have come far from our dismal performances of decades past.

The Nobel Prizes this year have been somewhat more talked about than usual. The prize in Physics went to the trio of Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura for their work on blue LEDs, or Light Emitting Diodes.

While this may seem like a lot of gobbledygook to the common man, the blue LED was discovered after the red and green versions, and the combination of the three has enabled colour LED displays.

So the next time you’re checking your WhatsApp group on your bright mobile phone screen, or watching a TV programme on your wall-mounted LED TV (not to mention torches, bulbs, banners, and all sorts of other uses of LEDs), try and remember what the world was like before these things were created, and realise that science and technology are all the time exploring new frontiers.

The other talked-about Nobel Prize was for peace, which was shared by Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan (who we all know well), and Kailash Satyarthi of India (which made everyone say “whozzat?”).

Satyarthi has been working, silently, for many years to help underprivileged children. He founded the ‘Bachpan Bachao Andolan’ (Save childhood revolution) and his prize is a sobering reminder to all of us that in spite of India’s progress over the past decades, many, many families and children still need a helping hand to cope up with life’s struggles.

We lost many doyens of the world of Indian art and culture, of which I would like to talk of two specifically. The funny thing is that most people who know one, wouldn’t know of the other.

The first was U R Ananthamurthy, the celebrated thinker and writer. Known as much for his fiction, illustrating society’s ills, as for his often contrary views, Ananthamurthy was always a voice to listen to and understand, even if it was sometimes difficult to agree with.

The other was a man single-handedly responsible for creating an entire comics industry in Hindi, Pran Kumar Sharma. The creator of such beloved comic characters as Chacha Chaudhary (“whose brain runs faster than a computer”), Saboo, the extraterrestrial giant, the lovable scamps Billu and Pinki, Pran had been writing and illustrating his comic stories for well over five decades.

His characters had moved out of the stories alone, and been absorbed into the Hindi-speaking mainstream. We will not have any replacements for his work, his gentle spirit, and the sense of fun he imparted to generations of readers.

Others that we lost have shaped our common culture in their own ways: Namdeo Dhasal, Deven Verma, Zohra Sehgal, Khushwant Singh...

There have been other losses that India faced. In terms of natural disasters, two of the big events were the floods in the Kashmir Valley in September, and a swathe of devastation left by Cyclone Hudhud in Andhra Pradesh, in October.

Once again, we read of the lakhs of people losing everything they owned, and of the valiant efforts made by rescuers and by the residents who helped others above themselves. Although the lives lost in these disasters (and others not deemed newsworthy) did not get the individual tribute given to more famous people, each of these people meant the world to someone, and their loss is felt keenly.

Space odyssey

The end of the year brought us good news from the scientific field. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission was an unqualified success, taking an orbiting probe from the launchpad in Sriharikota, using India’s own PSLV rocket. Besides the cool technology demonstration, it also showed off how a low-cost approach could achieve as much as a traditional first-world space programme. The next step: an orbiter-rover combination for Mars, sometime in 2018-2020. We can’t wait!

Of course, this wasn’t the only great space-related news this year. The European Space Agency’s Philae probe landed on a comet — the first man-made object to do so. This probe had been launched in 2004 (a 10-year-long journey!), and, besides sending the first-ever images from a comet’s surface, also reminded everyone of an old Bruce Willis movie.

The list goes on. Events, big and small, reported and unnoticed, flow around us in a ceaseless continuum. Some that affect us — births of children, the passing away of elders or personal idols, a new job or a new house — change our lives forever, but are not the stuff of news reports. Others are news that get splashed in every channel, but we couldn’t care less about (how many of us know or care which film star had a botox?).

At the end of it all, we are back in our philosophical frame of mind: what’s the significance of the changed digit in the date? It’s just an occasion to think back to all that has been lost and gained in 300-something days, and return to our lives and loved ones with a sense of perspective. All is well, more or less. You and I are still around.

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