Patrice Riemens on Mon, 15 Apr 2002 20:17:22 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> 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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