Saturday, May 03, 2008


‘Revenge’ is such a recurring theme in our movies and is an important ingredient in the masala mix. Why, even in sports, a common headline in the media is that ‘so-and-so avenged their defeat’. A stated policy of Israel– well, I am not sure if it stated- is swift retribution. When Jayalalitha came to power last time, one of her first moves was to imprison the former CM, Karunanidhi. According to the popular story, she had vowed that she would make him eat from the same plate in the same jail that he had thrown her into, when he was in power. Kids caught red-handed in the act of knocking out another kid will come up with a solid defence, “ He hit me first, so I hit him back” and this is usually seen as fair. Taking revenge is ‘acceptable behaviour”.

In his absorbing article in the New Yorker, that I came across via Guru’s blog,( warning: do read the article first, as this post gives away many of the punch lines) ,Jared Diamond narrates a story of revenge set in the highlands of New Guinea. Daniel of the Handa clan was expected to avenge the death of his uncle Soll, who had been murdered by one Isum of the neighbouring Ombal clan. The act of revenge alone would redeem the family honour. Through a series of discussions with Daniel, Jared Diamond understands and explains that “we forget that before there were states, Daniel’s method of resolving major disputes—either violently or by payment of compensation—was the worldwide norm.” Even after nation states came into being and disputes are referred to the Govt for disposal, old tribal methods of personal pursuit of justice continue to co-exist with state legal systems. Fights between two tribes come to an end only when a third tribe emerges as a common enemy, or when the state govt introduces and administers effectively the apparatus to resolve disputes.

What Diamond found interesting was the fact that Daniel was completely at peace with himself after he had successfully avenged the death of his uncle, as if his life mission had been accomplished.

As a contrast, Diamond provides the story of his own father-in-law, Josef Nabel, who as a Jew in Poland was witness to mindless atrocities committed on his family. He then set out, a la Sholay, to nab the perpetrators an, indeed, came face to face with the man who had wiped out his family. Just when he was about to shoot the man , a thought ran through his mind, ““I’ve seen enough of people killing, and behaving like animals. I’ve done enough killing myself. This man behaved like an animal, but I don’t want to become an animal myself by shooting him.” Josef decided to hand over the man to the newly formed Polish Govt, only to see him being released in a year. According to Diamond, Josef died, many decades later, an embittered man overcome with guilt over the fact that he had let go of the murderer of his wife”.

Jared Diamond concludes “We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend” and adds, “state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad. But, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged”.

While I found the story itself quite gripping, that last line made me gulp.

Also, I see the story of “ Priyanka Vadra visiting her father's killer in Vellore jail to come to terms with his death” in a new light. Completely un-tribal.

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