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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My adventures with fire


A couple of incidents set me on a train of thought.

One : I was taking something out of the over the other night, and in a definitely ‘duh’ moment had not put on my oven gloves. Focussed on the cooking item I did not realise till too late that my hand had made contact with the red hot oven coil. There was a sizzle and a bit of smoke as I pulled by hand out and a very strange smell hit my nostrils. It took me a moment to realise it was the smell of burning skin as it was the very first time my brain had encountered this smell. I stood there for a few moments, transfixed, processing this new bit of information, ‘this is how burnt human flesh smells like’ before dunking my hand into cold water.

Two : Today is a windy day. The wind has been blowing like a demented animal, curling around the house trying to blow it down and the house has been creaking in complaint. It got so cold that I decided to light the fire. The operative word here is ‘I’ because the official fire lighter has always been my husband. So I thought, ‘how hard can it be?’ After all humans have been lighting fires since, well, fire was discovered and that was a long, long time ago. Fire-lighting skills should be in my genes by now. Little did I know that my fire-lighting skill gene had been mutated by the convenience of modern living.

I had the vague notion that a fire of sorts should be started using paper and kindling before the logs are introduced so that is what I set about doing. I know your are not going to believe this but let me tell you that setting fire to paper is easy but keeping it alight is close to impossible and it is even harder with kindling. The fire kept dying out and I kept adding more paper and more kindling and there was a time, I must confess, when I was tempted to ask Uncle Google. Such abomination! I’m sure my Stone Age ancestress would have turned in her fossil and gone up in smoke in shame. Finally, half and hour and reams of newspaper later, I managed to put the logs in and get the fire going. After which I sat back and toasted myself :)

Gazing into the fire brought back the memory of the smell of burnt flesh and I began to wonder. How is it that when it took me, admittedly a novice, half an hour to start a fire with dry combustible materials, do people, also novices, burn live human beings in a jiffy? True, a bride being burnt for dowry usually has kerosene poured over her and that speeds it up. Also true, that in a riot when people try to kill humans that belong to the other caste / religion / tribe, they use petrol and the clothes that people wear are combustible. Which then brought me to the deeper question, to what extent does greed or hatred eat away at a human being that he/she can set fire to another human being and bear the acrid smell of burning flesh, and watch that person writhing in agony. The shock of the smell of the slight singeing of my hand still reverberates painfully in my head, how can anyone bear to watch another human being be burnt alive?

A recent Delanceyplace article I read titled ‘soldiers are reluctant to kill’, says “It is the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.” It goes on to give evidence that “The weak link between the killing potential and the killing capability of units was the soldier. The simple fact is that when faced with a living, breathing opponent instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over their enemy's heads."

If such is the case, then how do some people overcome that resistance to kill, especially if the other has done them no harm and their lives are not being threatened in any way? How and why are we able to overcome our innate goodness, bypass the ‘survival of the species’ instincts that Nature has hard-wired into us and turn ourselves into killing monsters? What is it that pushes us over the edge into murderous madness? Is there, like Freud suggested, a basement in our psyches where we tend to keep our socially-disapproved emotions suppressed but which occasionally thunder up through the trapdoor and overcome us?

No answers, just questions. And the final one - am I capable of this act of killing? What would it take me to tip over the edge? Would I be able to stop it?