Nero’s guests

Listen kid, I’m not gonna bullshit you, all right? I don’t give a good fuck what you know, or don’t know, but I’m gonna torture you anyway, regardless. Not to get information. It’s amusing, to me, to torture a cop. You can say anything you want cause I’ve heard it all before. All you can do is pray for a quick death, which you ain’t gonna get. — Mr. Blonde in the movie ‘Reservoir Dogs’

In the summer of 64 AD, Rome suffered a terrible fire that burned for five and a half days ( Rome’s emperor at that time was Nero. In order to squash rumors that he was responsible for the fire, Nero forced some Christians to confess to being the arsonists (Christianity was a newly forming religious sect at that time). These Christians were then tortured and thrown to the wild beasts in the circus, or they were crucified. Many of them were also burned to death at night, serving as ‘lighting’ in Nero’s gardens, while Nero mingled among the watching crowds. It isn’t really the brutality of Nero that is to be detested because history is replete with such acts of cruelty. The real question instead is, who were Nero’s guests? What kind of people were quietly watching and probably cheering at the spectacle of the burning Christians? On my recent trip to Spain, I found my answer at Plaza de toros, a bullfighting stadium in Madrid. When I was booking my trip to Spain, I figured that watching a bullfight would definitely have to be on the agenda. Also known as Corrida de toros (literally “running of bulls”) in Spanish, it seemed part of the package, which would let you to soak in the Spanish culture. I had seen and read about heroic matadors with their colorful capes and their skillful maneuvers to control the wild, charging bulls. It seemed like this would be the highlight of the trip. Doubts began to creep in however, when I started reading about it. The bullfight wasn’t actually a fight as much as it was an ambush. The animal would be made to run around, be tortured and killed. I did not book tickets to it prior to the trip after reading about it. It seemed wrong to be a part of this. I even had a conversation with some people expressing my feelings. And yet, when we landed in Madrid all morals flew out the window and I found myself in the stadium thinking — ‘come on how bad can it be’. I had become Nero’s guest (This analogy was first made by P. Sainath, one of India’s most eminent journalists in the documentary of the same name based on farmer suicides in Vidarbha). Back to the bullfight, there were about five matadors in the ring and they looked anything but heroic, not to mention a horseman with a spear and a confused animal. I won’t go into all the details of the bullfight. Suffice to say that we lasted all of three minutes before deciding to walk out from amidst the crowds who were still cheering. The real point of this is not self-loathing, nor is it to take a moral high-stance on the people who stayed back — after all I was part of this for as long as I was in there. The reality is, we have all probably been one of Nero’s guests at some point or the other in our lives. Every time we have not spoken up against acts of injustice, every time we’ve looked the other way when we should have raised our voices, we have been one of Nero’s guests. At this very moment, there are several movements going on around the world, driven by people who are not ready to be the spectators of their own lives. I salute these people. Indian Independence day was on August 15th and though I’m late by a few days, I am thankful to the people who made it possible by refusing to be Nero’s guests.

Originally published at on May 13, 2015.