Notes to Self | Verve Magazine
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June 25, 2020

Notes to Self

Illustrations by Kashmira Sarode

An anthropomorphised tiger’s perspective, a viscerally worded futuristic interpretation of loss, a critique of performative activism, a meta reflection on the earth’s crises. Told through different lenses, Janaki Lenin, Indrapramit Das, Keshava Guha and Roshan Ali’s stories — written exclusively for Verve — attempt to make sense of the fraught reality that we exist in today

Janaki Lenin

This story is loosely based on the real-life misadventures of a tiger that walked from Nagarhole to Bandipur in 2019.

I was afraid it would come to this. That I would become a captive. At least I didn’t get killed. That’s all that matters. I’m fed on time, and none of the humans seems to bear any ill will considering everything that’s happened. I’ve heard some crazy stories about me, so let me set the record straight since I have all the time in the world now.

First of all, my rival, that puffed-up two-faced gib, did not chase me away. I was merely bored with the tedium. Every day, walk the same path, spray scent on the same trees, sniff the odour of the same cranky neighbours. I wanted to see the world. Make no mistake, I left of my own free will, not because some second-rate warrior trounced me.

When I stepped out of the forest, I’ll admit I had been nervous at first. Who wouldn’t be if they had to walk across fallow fields without even a bush to hide behind? But humans, it seems, don’t feel naked and exposed by open-to-the-sky spaces.

The excitement of my adventure wore off when I grew hungry. What to eat? No langurs, sambar, or gaur. Not even spotted deer. I was in a fix.

I killed a scrawny bullock that didn’t struggle or fight. But it didn’t taste as juicy as my usual venison chops. Travellers on a budget can’t be choosers. After filling my belly, I lay on my back with my legs in the air in a nearby sugarcane field. I had just drifted into a deep, dreamless slumber when I scrambled awake on hearing a loud racket. It was already daytime. Peering through the stalks, I spied a large crowd of people shouting and gesticulating beside my half-eaten dinner. I took a long breath to calm my ragged breathing and slow my hammering heart. Forget eating seconds, if I didn’t leave immediately, my life would be in danger.

No matter how far I went, I could not escape the stink of humans and their animals. Should I turn around and go home? But who knew what new politics were brewing there? Maybe that ornery sombitch had moved into my home. He must think I’m a coward to have absconded. I didn’t care what he thought. Besides, there was always the possibility that I might find a fantastic forest, far better than the one I had left behind.

It was around this time a man died. I’m not going to admit to anything. The heat that the accident raised became too much, and I continued walking. Exhausted, I rested in the cramped quarters of a lantana thicket, dreaming of the tender meat of gaur veal melting like steaming fat in my mouth. The dream energised me to keep going.

At long last, I entered a large forest. I savoured the sight of the thick canopy and the delicious smells of meat on the hoof. My fur twitched with pleasure as the cool breeze grazed my body. With nose to the ground and whiskers trembling, I drooled with anticipation as I followed the scent trail of a sambar. A bright flash of light stunned me. Had I been shot? I took a step forward, and nothing hurt. Abandoning the hunt, I took cover, a shivering nervous wreck. I realise now that humans spied on me by tying some contraptions to trees, which captured my likeness.

A few days later, elephants swarmed all over the forest. They were not the ordinary kind. These did the bidding of people who sat astride them. There was also a blasted sniffer dog that got wind of my scent. I would have snapped its neck in a trice were it not for the humans. It wasn’t trained to track tigers, so I was safe. But then another group of humans arrived, and nothing missed their keen eyes. These barefoot trackers were right on my tail, even following my barely visible pug marks. It was a game of cat and mouse except I was the rodent.

In my desperation, I made a wrong move and found myself surrounded by elephants. Before I could spot an escape route between their tree-trunk-like legs, I heard a loud report close by. I feared I was a goner when I felt my thigh burn. A small plastic cylinder pierced my flesh. I crawled under thick bushes and lay low, barely breathing as I watched them hunting for me. I tried to sneak away, but my legs wouldn’t work. I pulled and strained, but I just couldn’t move. My legs had become paralysed. I struggled to keep watch, but soon everything turned black.

When I came to, I found myself in this zoo. I’ll take it easy for a while. The thought of my rival enjoying life back home does rankle me. But once I’ve recuperated, I’ll find a way of getting the hell out of here.

Indrapramit Das

The Smart City seemed close enough to touch, its skyscrapers shards of cool glass stuck in the earth, reflecting the sun. Matar wrapped his headscarf over his nose and mouth to shield from the hot, dusty wind. Shimmering in the heat, the city was a perfect nest woven in glass and metal, infested with silver insects. Security, commercial and service drones hovered around the city — wasps bowing and weaving on eddies rising from the drought-parched horizon. Each one servicing and surveilling the wealthy residents of those towers, who were hermetically sealed in their air-conditioned suites where a variety of bots cleaned, cooked, and repaired for them. Within, people were sheltered from infectious diseases and starvation, drought and superstorms.

For a time.

Matar’s wife Meira stood against the veil of dust, peering through it at the sky, sweat-damp sari rippling. She handed Matar their baby Sonali with a soft grunt and took the bow off her shoulder. Sonali cooed into Matar’s chest as he held her.

The Smart City was two kilometres away. Around the little family was the village of Kothali. It was empty. Only they remained. Every well in Kothali was now dry, every drop in the ground gone to feed the city that bejewelled the horizon. Nothing left for the crops and forests now vanished, transplanted to the domed gardens within the city, where they’d heard were emerald fields of rice and wheat, groves of trees dripping with fat fruit, earth redolent with moisture and studded with fresh tubers, all tended to by machines, right down to minuscule drones that mimicked the fertilising bees that once thrummed a song into the afternoon air with their little wings.

Maybe these were just rumours.

Meira didn’t see how any of it was possible. Maybe the city people fed only on food flown in from elsewhere. But the drought under Meira and Matar’s feet, hot against their soles, was real. So were the machines in their sky.

They knew there were no jobs for them in that automated paradise, except perhaps in sewers or dumps. Meira squinted up at the insects in the sky, concentrating on the ones that were in holding patterns away from the activity of the city itself. She remembered how real insects had danced above the ponds when she was a child, right by the huts that stood empty now. They had buzzed just like the drones, sending ripples across the water. She remembered the cool smell of shade, so heavy with dampness, under the groves of trees that clustered by those ponds, where the insects flew so thick, she’d kill them without a thought as a child, slapping them flat against her skin.

There were no insects left here. No trees either — all cut down for failed crops, forests disappeared for that Smart City and the highways leading to it.

Matar put a hand on her back lightly, as if to remind her not to lose focus. Sonali gurgled, slumped over his shoulder.

Meira drew back the string of her bow. No slapping these insects against skin. She released. Their cheaply made explosive arrow slashed the dust to find the blue beyond.

There was a loud pop from above, a pebble hitting an empty bucket. The patrol drone passing over Kothali traced its fall in smoke. Perfect shot. Meira turned and smiled. Matar smiled back. With a whistling thump, the drone crashed to the edge of Kothali.

Matar followed Meira towards the downed bot, holding Sonali in both arms. The drone scrap might feed them for months if they sold it on the mobile markets of the highways, where smugglers and intra-national migrants traded hardware and crates of food out of lorries by the signposts of worn milestones.

After that, they’d see.

Surely all of India hadn’t been replaced with Smart Cities. Surely somewhere, there were still forests — still water burbling through rivers not yet stolen and hoarded; still trees huddled in ancient congregations to shelter birds and beasts dangerous and not, ugly and beautiful; still giant cats roaming like unlikely dreams through the night; still flies that flickered impossibly at night like tiny aircraft, or stars drifting under the eaves, twinkling like they did in childhood memories.

There was nothing left in the village that was once home.

Meira and Matar had nothing but themselves and their child.

But they were still animals, like the ones that had fled this place long ago. That much they remembered, unlike the people inside that shining city. They could still walk over the horizon, follow their fellow animals to wherever they’d gone, even if it killed them. They knew time would not be kind to the Smart City on the horizon. Time would be kind to the earth that remained after.

Time to leave.

Keshava Guha

He leaves DISEC and enters the next ballroom, which is hosting the Special Summit on Sea-Level Rise. He has been on this circuit long enough to see many such fashionable crises; each one launches a dozen Special Summits, before it is replaced by the next year’s. Six years ago, every Special Summit dealt with maritime piracy; the year before that, it was female genital mutilation. Thirty years ago, before anyone in this room (except him) had been born, there were Special Summits on famine and overpopulation. The topics change not because the crises are solved, but because it is in the nature of “fashions” to change, in fact, that is what the word means.

The principal contribution of the fashion for Sea-Level Rise, as far as he is concerned, is the elevation of the atolls. As they are threatened with sinking in real life, they rise in Model UN. As he walks in, the delegate of Tuvalu is announced. She is stocky and loud, with cheeks as ripely red as a Winesap apple. He would bet his hair, the only point of attraction that he has left, that her gene pool is substantially Ukrainian farmer. But here she represents Tuvalu.

Ordinarily, Tuvalu is in the back along with Vanuatu and Kiribati and Cabo Verde and the Maldives. These countries are assigned to schools whose delegates have never been known to make a speech, let alone win an award. They used to pass the Thursday and Friday sessions exchanging love notes and now, doubtless, Snaps. On Saturdays, they play hooky across the street in the Copley Place Mall.

This Tuvalu does more than speak. She has the entitled assertiveness of a country that matters: if not P5, then at least India or Saudi Arabia. She trumpets a draft resolution of which she is the main sponsor. Join us, she says. The coalition of the countries for whom this is not a summit, this is a death panel. This committee gets to decide whether we exist above ground, or at the bottom of the sea like the Titanic. She names them: Seychelles, Palau, Dominica, the Marshall Islands.

What will happen, he wonders, to these atolls as they lie on the seabed? Having dubiously ascended to the status of state, indeed, UN members, with the same voting power in the GA as the United States, will they still be considered member states if they exist only in the memory? Even that may be too hopeful. Who will remember them? You couldn’t exactly call Micronesia a potential Atlantis. As far as the Model UN is concerned, the salient consequence will be less crowding in the GA.

The Ukrainian farm girl, as he will think of her, if he thinks of her, concludes with an appeal: Don’t just do it for us, do it for yourselves, for your future. Do it for Greta. Inspired by Greta, she says, We didn’t fly here. We came by boat.

Every two or three speakers, there is another homage to Greta. Greta has raised the consciousness of the world (the consciousness should rise; the sea should lie flat): we should rise to Greta’s challenge. Portugal plagiarises Tuvalu’s claim to have come by boat. When Chad does so too, nobody objects that Chad is landlocked.

All this lightly diverts rather than troubles him. He has known of Greta, of course, but only now has he seen how vast her shadow is in the minds of this generation. Who was his Greta, lord of his imagination at 16? Willie Mays, perhaps. And President Kennedy, but only in death. The difference is Greta’s absence of glamour — this is a feature, not a bug, because she is essentially a religious figure, in the tradition of Savonarola, and by following her these children are rejecting their parents’ atheistic embrace of pleasure in this world.

Then France — his delegate — goes up. The speech is fine, up until the closing. Greta, the boy says, is the reason we’re here.

Now, he is not diverted. He is seething; he is probably red as Tuvalu, and it is not just the ridiculousness of claiming that Greta is the reason they’re here — which on the face of it means that Greta is responsible for sea-level rise.

When they break for unmoderated caucus, he can’t help himself. He breaks his first rule and approaches the chair. He doesn’t bother with introductions or other niceties.

What’s with all this Greta stuff? he asks. Even my delegate did it. Can’t you remind them that they’re not here as their adolescent selves, but as delegates to the United Nations, representing countries? Do UN ambassadors pay obeisance to Swedish schoolgirls?

His tone is undoing his purpose, and he knows it. He sounds like a member of the alt-right, a pundit on Fox News. He sounds nothing like himself.

The chair, who is Indian, appears mild and kindly. Some people are lucky enough to have faces that ‘look’ those things, whatever lies behind.

Oh, you have to remember that they’re kids, the chair says (of course, as a teacher, he needs reminding). They’re inspired by Greta; it’s likely why they opted for this committee. And (as all chairs are coached to say to faculty advisors): I’ll see what I can do about it.

He doesn’t wait to see what can be done. He leaves, intent upon the haven of the Security Council, where they are discussing Iran’s nuclear programme.

Outside the ballroom, he sees a girl waiting to enter. She wears a green puffer jacket and has her hair done in two forbidding plaits. She is talking to herself and perfecting her scowl.

He doesn’t need to ask. The chair has sent out for a member of the staff to come around and play Greta Thunberg.

Roshan Ali

On this day, April the 3rd of the year 2020: I am sitting at a window looking out at a still tree with golden-yellow flowers and tiny oblong leaves, a tree whose name I do not know. Two squirrels chase each other up and down the branches. There are many more birds out today; for the first time since we have lived in this house, I heard a large green barbet this morning. For a moment it is possible to forget the state of the world (a blue bee flits by the window, its translucent wings stirring sunlight) and just watch.

But the world comes rushing back in, and, within seconds, 95 per cent of my mental bandwidth is taken up by the coronavirus. It is difficult to do anything else. It is a seemingly endless stream of bad news: pictures of overwhelmed nurses in tears; reports of a thousand deaths just in nursing homes in France; thousands of starving migrant workers who were told not to step out of their homes by an incompetent and criminally negligent government, who hadn’t realised that these people didn’t have homes to step out of — and that once out of work, they would rather attempt to go back to their home towns, to feel some semblance of security and comfort, which would cause not only a massive amount of suffering in the short term, but would also accelerate and encourage the spread of the virus to the extent of eventually negating the whole point of the lockdown.

A sense of helplessness is the main thing. I pathetically tried to matter some time back, when all this was just beginning, by sharing warnings for people not to go out, to wear masks, to cancel everything. One hopes that people understand and comprehend the scale of this tragedy better than I had when I casually shared those warnings a few weeks back, to seem prescient and cool.

What were we doing in February and early March when warnings were blaring about this novel coronavirus? Why didn’t we take it seriously? Why did I once declare to my friends that it is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu? Why didn’t we listen to the experts or pay attention to the situation in Wuhan or at least think for a second about how bad it could become if it was as bad as some were saying it was?

A few possible reasons come to mind: first, we humans are not good at intuitively understanding the concepts of exponential growth, and second, we aren’t very good at understanding large timescales. We are incapable, intuitively, of correctly answering the question, “How bad can it get?”. On the 3rd of March there were five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India; on the 3rd of April there were 2,567. That is a 51240 per cent increase in a month, which is an astonishing number (although the number of cases mentioned here is more a reflection of the limited testing India is doing, and the true numbers are probably far higher).

We also find it difficult to respond and react to things that are far away, both in terms of time and physical distance, because we often don’t feel the effects before it’s too late. And another thing — when something is approaching that could bring about calamitous change to our lives, we deny and deny till it is so close that escaping it is impossible.

This doesn’t bode well for the problem of climate change. Here, the scale of time is much larger, and the mechanisms more obscure. I look out of the window, and the sky is blue (the golden-yellow flowers glow against that blue), and last evening was cooler than the previous one, and the air smells fresher today than it has in years. But, if I understand in my gut that this apparent improvement in the environment is a short-term one and that a large-scale view of temperatures and air-quality paint a much bleaker picture, then perhaps I will take the car out less and take public transport; maybe then convenience will take a back seat to health and happiness.

To understand the state of the world, to fully comprehend reality, a human being cannot depend on their intuition and feelings. One needs to look at the evidence and listen to people who look at the evidence.

But it’s not all bad. The last two months have shown us that people are capable of great feats of compassion and efficiency. The truth, after all, is that however stupid, shortsighted, selfish, uncreative and bigoted we humans can be, the only reason we still exist on this planet is because of us. It is tempting to romanticise nature and pine about going back to the way things were, but without human progress, our species would have died out a long time ago. This planet is not a haven for us: we have made it livable. (If you doubt this, try living in a forest or desert for more than a day and see if you can survive without human inventions).

Just like we will overcome COVID-19 through creativity, persistence, innovation and a scientific temper, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that we will also solve the problem of climate change before it ruins the planet or us. The only thing we need to do is be optimistic about human capability and, most of all, listen to the experts.

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