Patrice Riemens on Mon, 15 Apr 2002 13:01:01 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Amitav Ghosh, Countdown (fragment)

"The word crisis was on everyone's lips. Yet the rooms in which it was 
spoken were invariably neat, well-appointed, filled with books, paintings, 
vases, lamps - all the usual accoutrements of well-ordered lives. I took 
to glancing out of the windows at the mention of the word - looking, as it 
were, for visual confirmation outside. But almost invariably the streets 
were just as orderly as the interiors of the houses I was visiting. The 
traffic was much better regulated than New Delhi's and destitution was 
much less in evidence; the pavements were cleaner, the air infinitely more 
fresh. There was nothing frenetic in the comportment of pedestrians and 
passerby: on the contrary they seemed to possess more than their share of 
old-world grace. Where was the crisis that everyone spoke of, the historic 
catastrophe? People assured me that it was all around us. At dinner tables 
there were arguments about how long it would take before Taliban-like 
groups made a bid for power. After dessert, the talks would turn to the 
buying of Kalalshnikovs. At every meal there was a sense that the winds 
whipping at the tablecloth were the first blasts of a gathering gale.

I came to realise I was looking for the wrong signs.

So pervasive is the metaphor of the state as architectural edifice, that 
when we think of one succumbing to a crisis, it is inevitably in images of 
collapse: a sudden caving in, an explosion, black clouds of debris rising 
high to obscure the sun of normalcy. This is a misleading image: we should 
think instead of water leaching out of a lake - a process that is slow, 
indeterminate, muddy, unclear. In some seasons the flow appears to reverse 
itself; inexplicably the waters rise, gloom is dispelled, but only to 
gather again, in even greater force, when the level dips once again.

The bed of a parched lake is neither level nor dead. It is dotted with 
anthills, tree trunks, rocks: here and there islands and outcrops remain, 
soaring above their surroundings. This is an ecological niche that is 
peculiar to itself and the process of its creation is neitherapocalyptic 
nor wholly destructive. As the waters of the lake seep slowly away, it 
becomes clear that everything is not to be swept away, as, for instance, 
in a flood; on the contrary, certain features that had lain hidden beneath 
the water's surface, are revealed to possess an unexpected strength; 
others achieve a new salience. Armies, for instance, become stronger, 
better organized, more single-minded in their purpose; the enclaves of the 
rich and the criminals become fortresses, defended by high walls and 
private armies; certain kinds of voluntary organizations, religious 
groupings, and so on flourish as never before. These entities recreate for 
themselves some of the services that were once offered by the state: 
telephones, policing, basic healthcare, education, the generation of 
electricity; perhaps even the supply of water. What is lost is principally 
that life-ginving element that once provided the lake's varied features 
with a linking commonality. But even on the cracked and dust-blown bed of 
the vanished lake, all is not lost - just beneath the parched surface, 
pockets of moisture remain, breeding, from season to season, small patches 
of reeds and grass and the occasional stunted bush. Perhaps one day - who 
knows? - these remnants may succeed in attracting water back into the 

From: Amitav Ghosh,  Countdown (1999)
Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher 

'Countdown' is Amitav Ghosh's harrowing account of India's and Pakistan's 
parallel, but treacharously unequivalent nuclear policies of which he 
writes in conclusion: "The pusuit of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent 
is the moral equivalent of civil war: the targets the rulers have in mind 
for these weapons are, in the end, none other than their own people." It 
is therefore, precisely, that the matter of their use is not a question of 
'if', but of 'when'. And the answer to that when, to borrow the hallowed 
Dutch phrase, is, 'in a probability that borders on certainty': in our 

Groningen, on Bengali New Year Day.

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