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12 February 2015

Will Self: We like to feel cosy in our happy little tribes – but it’s a big world, after all

In my visual field alone there must have been 5,000 people suffering.

By Will Self

On the terrace of the Hotel Alsisar Halevi, the guests waft about in the shifting shades of the Indian night. Braziers are alight, sending streams of sparks shimmering into the local and empurpled void; I clutch my orange juice and am perfectly at ease in my conversational group of one. Then Faisal approaches: he has a fawn pullover, cords and thick sideburns of hipsterish extent. He introduces himself and says that he knows of me and my recent travails (I’ve spent the day being shot up with muscle relaxant and going for X-rays, suspecting a cracked rib after a fall sustained while kicking a ball for the dog), because a friend texted him moments ago, who shares a mutual friend with my daughter, who’s accompanying me on this visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival.

“Wow,” I say, “it’s a small world indeed when this feedback-loop of social connectivity lassoes you on a terrace thousands of miles from home.” Then I check myself: isn’t it absurd to be saying such things when all around us swirls the great whirl of Indian humanity, a multitude currently numbered in the region of 1.2 billion? I vouchsafe this to Faisal but he dissents: “No, it is a small world, if you mean people who speak English and have disposable income . . .”

He runs on – but I’m already crunching the numbers aloud, adding guestimates of the US population to those of the Anglophone Africans, Asians and so forth. Meanwhile, Faisal further shrink-wraps his small world: “. . . and an elite education . . .”

“Whoa!” I pull him up short. “That’s a hell of a qualification and, besides, what exactly do you mean by ‘an elite education’?”

We kick this one around for a bit (dangerous in my condition), before agreeing there can be at best 100 million of this ilk smeared across the mondial canvas. I suppose I can understand Faisal, hailing as he does from such a populous place, finding even this multitudinous company to be, um, claustrophobic. But recall: I was perfectly happy in my colloquy of one. When I first went to India in 1984, its population was a paltry 750 million, while the world’s overall was around 4.5 billion. Thirty very odd years later, India has increased by around seven Britains’ worth, while the world has stuffed itself with two full Indias (if you see what I mean) and called for more poppadoms.

I remember standing outside the Red Fort in Delhi and realising that within my visual field alone there must be 5,000 people who were – judging by their appearance – suffering. They were emaciated; they had sores and chancres; many hundreds of men were simply standing there, staring listlessly, with flies hovering around their eyes. Old women lay by the roadside on piles of rags and vice versa. Children played with shit. Good little liberal humanist that I was, I felt outraged that such things could be going on. After all, as I understood it, everybody – with a little help, admittedly – was capable of being both rational and altruistic, so what I was witnessing had to be the result of a cock-up in the distribution department. Happiness and good health simply weren’t being spread about enough.

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That was then: I’m no longer a good little liberal humanist and, though I hope I feel as much compassion as I ever did, I’m afraid I accept that while efforts to ameliorate poverty should always be made, by the same token, some people will always remain in the shit. What bamboozles me about our attitudes to our pullulating population is the strange ulterior accord between liberal humanists and the every-sperm-is-sacred theists they otherwise so excoriate. Humanists, revering the human as they do, cannot in their innermost being object to an extra billion people here or there and underlying this is a perverse utilitarian calculus: it may be objected that with greater numbers the happiness of any given individual decreases but, since the desideratum is greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number, a few billion more marginally less in the shit counts as a triumph of progress.

At least, this is what I want to convey to Faisal; this and the strangely vertiginous condition of contemporary humanity, always seeking to make the world we live in cosy by fashioning our own little tribal groups out of the rampaging hordes. I begin to expatiate in this manner, using the analogy of those peculiarly pleasing machines they have at airports that swaddle your suitcases in shrink-wrapping.

“You see, Faisal,” I say, “you have to think of the world as a suitcase that’s been packed too full; the obvious thing to do is leave some stuff behind but that’s not the way humanity behaves. Instead we try to wrap the thing tighter and tighter – arguably that’s the role of the social media that informed you about my doings. It’s a transparent film we stretch over our faces, pulling them into some semblance of familiarity, but this is a futile endeavour. It doesn’t matter how hard we try; we can’t transform 100 million people into a happy little family . . .” And I would continue in this vein, were it not that Faisal, muttering an apology, leaves me to myself and wanders off to join a much larger group on the other side of the terrace.

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