Earth Abides: A review

You either get sci-fi or you don’t. Unfortunately  sci-fi suffers from overexposure. There’s only so much bland teen dystopia you can digest before you see post apocalyptic as synonymous with boring.

One way to get away from the generic landscape is to go back, before the ideas everyone keeps stealing became cliche.  I first heard of “Earth Abides” from Madusudan Katti, a scientist who researched wildlife in urban settlements. He recommended it highly, so I made a mental note of it and found a copy a year later.

Earth Abides was written all the way back in 1949 by George R. Stewart. He was an English professor and wasn’t really a science fiction writer. This makes the ideas he uses a bit more interesting since he isn’t really stuck in the genre. Or maybe he’s different because the genre was still young.

To make a long story short, our protagonist, Ish, comes down from the mountains to realize that some plague had wiped out most of humanity. There’s little fuss about the plague or humans. What makes the book interesting is how it concentrates on the wildlife. Ish travels across the country as the natural world slowly begins to adapt to a landscape no longer dominated by humans.

Slowly rats overrun civilization only to be wiped out by disease and a lack of food. The pedigree cats and dogs die swift deaths without human support, the cattle begin to run wild and weeds begin to grow in crop fields. The sheepdog still herd their flocks in the absence of their masters, keeping them safe from the now plentiful wolves and mountain lions. Ish can’t help but wonder how long they’ll keep guarding the helpless sheep.

The world didn’t die overnight, it took a few months, the streets are empty and not littered with bodies. People tried to keep order, stayed in and tried to deal the disease, making sure the power and water were still running. The roads are empty, the stores are still stocked. He drives picking whatever car he wants to, eating canned food that is abandoned. It’s not like there aren’t any people left either.

There are many; most of them can’t deal with the shock of losing civilization and still go about their day dazed and confused like most of the people they known haven’t died. They loot and steal, they are suspicious and keep to themselves. They stay in small groups, you need backup in a lawless world.

Eventually he settles down with a few others mostly because they had to and because they didn’t mind each other. They try to raise families while the crops slowly fail or give way to hardy native crops. They go from producers to scavengers living off what once was, but Ish does not realize it time to do anything. Eventually the water and power fail and most of Ish’s newly formed tribe are concerned with the many, many children they keep having.

I was a bit disappointed that the book seemed to shift away from describing the natural world but it stays interesting. Especially when it moves quickly, covering years at a time. Ish’s begins to realize that his attempts at preserving civilization fails. The children don’t care about his stories of yesterday, they know the world around them and not the stories from books that they have no use for. They begin to look inwards while Ish slowly comes to realize that his descendants no longer think or understand what he says. He outlives his original tribe to become a living relic. Disease, tribal hierarchy, crop and hostile tribes on unknown frontiers are what worry the people not skyscrapers.

As he dies he comes to see that just like the natural world around him has changed so too have the men that live in it. He simply watches as his people become a naturalistic, tribalistic society that see the world before them as a mythical time through an extremely superstitious lenses. The ending was really well done, a long buildup to justify the title. It’s an extremely enjoyable book and a surprisingly refreshing take. You can see why this was the first winner of the science fiction prize.

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Rain walking

The rains seemed nicer last year. Or the year before, when I didn’t have a scooter and when I used to walk. The rains weren’t around long, or if it was I’d never notice. No, I was lost even if I knew where I was heading. Day dreams were the only place with any direction.

The streets were never the same, no matter how carefully I sought them out for their speed and ability to cut through the city. The orange street lights finally found a worthy canvas in the glistening tar roads that seemed to flow faster than the traffic on them.

Neon lights find beauty only when the world shines back their annoying, screaming colors back at them. It gave you less reason to read them, not that anyone did anyway. Traffic burrs and melts like the thoughts that stream through my mind. It blurs because there’s no one out, everyone’s going home. The city before it blooms, it’s streets coats my sandals with dirt.

Careful not to drag your feet, the pavements are more slippery than usual, and the smell of good earth, the mix of leaves, branches and the swaying of black trees might leave you in a daze. With so much like some landscape from water paint. The droplets on the leaves and walls live precariously, ready to fall and disappear, a good reminder to carry on.

You should always wait for power cuts, you’ll see warmth through windows as human figures crunch up around light trying to stay away from the world outside. You won’t see much so savor it like dew when afternoon comes.

The rains where nicer, I’d go home, maybe not my home, but all I had to do was listen to a voice lined like crystal, smiling, demanding “What are you thinking about?”

Red phone.

Sometimes you feel things that a language can’t word, so the best I can tell you is this evening-I feel Red.

Red like anger, red like the commie I am. Red, red and red repeats my head which rhymes with the Redmi* I write this on. It’s funny how cool phones used to be back in the day. The cruder they were the more popularity they had. We’d sneak those heavy bricks into school and stare into the tiny screens where we played snake. Later we’d mash our clumsy thumbs on colorful flip phone after we downloaded games off shady websites. The games were generic and ripped off movies and better games on PC’s.

Eventually the phones lost all their buttons and we were tapping at screens. It was a  long time though before our phones were more than phones. I don’t remember when they became platforms, when suddenly something that had your entire life on it was just a disposable hunk of plastic replaced every year.

The phone in my hand feels like a red button I’m used to slamming. Phones take you everywhere and this one is taking me back. I’m not a materialist I don’t feel attached to the phone but I can’t say the same for the memories that come with this one. Someone offered to trade me a Note 4 for my Note 3, they need a back up phone. What’s a single number to me anyway?

I run my hand over the cracks on the screen and my blood feels red, as memories rush back. I remember slender hands that ran over it and announced “Only red china for you comrade?”. I remember voices that came from within it, I remember what I told it and the people on the other side, I remember conversations written. I could ruin those memories by rereading old message, reviewing what actually happened. I could map myself along everything that was on it, every friend or someone more I have or haven’t talked to. It would rhyme like bad poetry.

Somewhere on it there might still be pictures of who I was but ah! It was just a phone, just a year or so, just a girl or two, just a city or two, just some friends you no longer know.Give it away, give it away. Hold onto the red but not the phone.

 

*A Chinese made phone

Time reading

While reading, time passes quickly. Look at the clock while you think about it. Reading kills time and time kills people.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Lose something everyday. A set of keys, hours badly spent. In the time it takes for a bruise to heal, for hair to grey and for you to notice- it’s too late. Everything has passed just try not to miss the rest of the show.

Bootha Kola

A Bootha Kola is a sort of shamanistic ritual where you summon Bootha’s or Daivas- spirits neither malevolent or benevolent who reflect the relationship between the tangible and intangible world. Or the farmlands and the forests.

These pictures are from one where Kalurti was summoned. She’s mute and howls while she dances. I couldn’t take a video- it would have been blurry anyway- even though most people don’t care what you do at a Kola. People would text or greet relatives right when the Bootha was dancing away or proclaiming judgments in front of them. It’s not that they don’t care, they don’t think the spirits mind.

During intervals in the dance Kalurti would point to people and make hand gestures that indicated if she was happy with them or not. But while dancing her face was expressionless. She lept and howled, carrying a touch that she beat against her chest while she circled the people who’d gathered. My grandfather said in Tulu that she was just trying to throw away her legs and arms. The performer was who really interested me. Nobody spoke to him; he never said a word- before or after the performance. These pictures were my attempts to capture any emotions the silent shaman showed under all that makeup.

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Putting on the ornaments that are owned by the Bootha.
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I can’t place this expression.
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Before the performance.
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After the performance, with a fan aimed right at her face which was covered with sweat while she danced.
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He looks at the crowd but never seems interested in it.
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A smile for a friend but no words.

Death at the apartment

Apartments are like anthills with people always running around. You can never see everything but watch long enough and you’ll see the mad scramble has a pattern to it.

Yesterday must have been something like somebody kicking the anthill’s towers. At around 6’o clock I spotted a dead body in the front yard of the apartment next to mine. It’s usually a parking space so the sight took some time to register. I thought she’d jumped but turns out she was brought there. 

Soon cars drove up and parked outside the apartment compound. This throttled the flow of traffic so the rest of the evening was terrorised by endless angry drivers smashing their horns. 

Everyone sat in the parking space on red plastic chairs they brought it. The body remained in the yard uncovered unlike it’s witnesses. A priest with evident back problems was came along and started performing some rites. 

They moved the body a bit and washed it. It was some old woman. People on all nine floors of that apartment peered down at the process. They called in their friends, they jostled for window space and spoke on the phone while the rites were performed.

 There’s a shed next to the parking space on which dogs usually climb onto from the next compound. Today there were two of them who barked while they enjoyed the show. They had better seats than the relatives. The priest finally covered the lady’s face with a cloth. 

The indifference mixed with curiosity looked so surreal I took pictures to make sure it was actually happening. While I was doing this they loaded the body onto a vehicle and left- after all the relatives made their exit.

The watchmen later sprayed down the area with a garden hose. He was bored and didn’t do a very good job. There was a large puddle left behind were the ritual happened and nothing else.

À mes meilleurs amis

I don’t usually write requests so I’m not sure where this is going. Graduating is a weird thing, so weird that I feel awkward even writing about it. I’m not really sentimental but it’s really been eating my head.

I went to a college interview today. It was boring and I had plenty of time to mull over it it, realizing that I really was graduating. The thing about Joseph’s is that it kinda feels like no one has any lives outside it. It was nice having the two of you around because I might have gone crazy otherwise. It’s funny how most of my best friends from Joseph’s are people who graduated long before I did.

In fact I think the only time I ever saw you in college when I was trying to figure out who was whistling at me in the PG canteen. A warning of things to come. I told Mel how nice the sun was and your eyelids looked like the wings of a bird about to fly.

I hope you don’t mind if I hijack this response for allegory.

People go on and on about how everything used to be great and meant so much to them. Well to be honest life is usually just mundane. Eventually you have so much mundane stuff to do in other places you forget why you cared about a college or friend so much. One day you see seniors eating near the ground, then no one eats there and then you realize the college hasn’t had much of a ground for a year now.

You can always keep your friends but they’ll never be the same people to you. The college you talked about was uncanny. The same thing but smaller, with emptier places, and thinner teachers. Nobody in your stories behave how I think they should and I have a terrible suspicion that maybe things used to be better in the college. I’ll be sure to say we’re better than our juniors at least.

Stupid posturing aside I’ll miss the three of us, the endless arguments about TW and Maoism, my stupid batch-mates and friends I spend too much time around and the fishbowl Joseph’s has been.

I guess I’ll have plenty of time for nostalgia later. You said it best- “Thank you for all the memories.”

Out of light

The smell of burning wax always takes me back. Somehow life isn’t the same without the weekly power cuts we had in Mangalore.

I remember conspiring about aliens with my cousins. We’d star watch but we were usually inside. In the bungalow’s indoor corridors people would walk with candles in hand, the shadows and light like slow cars on a highway. People would gather around the candles but stayed just out of its reach. Outlines and feet were all you could see. I guess every liked staying just out reach.

Everyone would stop what they were doing. I can’t say what because we all stuck to our own rooms and balcony spaces.Maybe it’s instinct when you live in huge joint family. But they were around, now and then they’d venture conversation never really leaving their bits of darkness. They’d smile when they knew their smiles were just out of sight. I’d sneak around them, behind sofas and conversations happy that’d I’d manage to sneak by unnoticed. You hear a lot you weren’t supposed to; I’d follow their lead and smile while I was out of sight, out of light.

For some reason we’d always gravitate towards the candle, no one went outside while the candles were lit. The long windows never figure in my memory; nothing of the city lights that night. A cousin would flick her fingers over the flame and say it never burned her nails.

Library cycle

Back in Mangalore the library came to us. Struggling against the heat and the uphill climb an old man cycled closer.

Every month or fortnight he’d arrive. His bycycle had a large open box attached at the back. He could have fit in it easily. The box was made of tin or some metal that was showing its age, but it was not rusted. 

Inside the box were comic books and magazines. Good literature too, maybe some religious works but I never bothered about them. The family would gather near the bycycle and pick up new material. The old man always stood bent over the box, watching what we’d pick up.

The material wasn’t actually new. They were just the latest things he got his hands on. Books from America libraries, books that said “remember me Jess”, book with random writing, folds and tears. The books were usually from the 70’s and 80’s with Americans having written in them. I have no idea how they got here.

I’d take copies of Archie’s comics and try to figure out the magazines. I must have been very young; I was very proud about having learnt how to spell “Zoo” from one of them. 

The cycle library seemed to disappear from my life after a while, just all those warm Mangalore afternoons when there was nothing to do.