Idukki, Indonesia, and the Ongoing Apocalypse


Idukki, Indonesia, and the Ongoing Apocalypse

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

Death is primal, it is pure. It is exact and it is final. It is generally tragic but can at times be vengeful and valedictory. But it is also salacious, almost seductive in the way its arrival can be imagined and improvised. We do it every day: In watching apocalypse movies in the theatre, in dystopian reading of science-fiction, in long discussions over whether the zombies will get to us before the aliens do (the answer is: Only if they can make it in time before we nuke the galaxy.) Or even in the way we discuss the overflowing Idukki reservoir in Kerala, where an overflowing dam has prompted an airport shutdown and cost dozens of lives. Incidents like this, when viewed in isolation, seem almost apocalyptic in their nature, but are forgotten once the urgency of the crisis recedes. 

The overflowing Idukki dam in Kerala, which has caused the deaths of dozens, is but the latest headline that tells us the planet may have crossed its breaking point years ago. Idukki is a symptom of an overwhelming monsoon, but the summer took its toll as well. From wildfires in North America, to a heat wave that swept across Europe and Asia, there’s hardly a week without news of some new environmental doomsday scenario. If it sounds like the end of the world, we lap it all up, only to forget it all once the world keeps turning.

Perhaps one of the best examples of our obsession with endings – our own as well as that of the world we occupy – is our fixation with Nostradamus. The 16th-century French physician and seer, born on this day in 1503, is famously credited with having prophesied the end of the world for December 2012 (he didn’t really, it’s supposed to be a Mayan prophecy). Six years on, his inaccuracy can be confirmed. Or can it?

The prediction does not falter because it cuts time at the wrong interval, but in the fact that it seeks finality in it – a date when it all ends. It is more instructive to understand that since the age of Nostradamus himself, the apocalypse has been viewed as some sort of an event, a caustically interactive stage show. Centuries and several Cormac McCarthys, Roland Emmerichs, Resident Evils, and a zillion zombie films later that idea has only grown firmer at the root.

Therein lies the problem. Thanks to everything we are exposed to, we’ve come to believe that the apocalypse will be as immediate, cinematic, and arresting as it was in, say, 2012. Sci-fi films intend to pound home the idea that the world ends in one fell swoop, either by infection, nuclear war, alien invasions – or in the case of Emmerich’s films, pure climactic weird.

Everyone can feel we’ll turn on each other when the time comes, but what is the vehicle that will get us there?

Literature, though steadier and still more cautious, doesn’t exactly gear down either. Cormac McCarthy’s fiction – especially the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road – is replete with apocalyptic excesses but it rarely goes beyond the nature of man to injure the other. Everyone can feel we’ll turn on each other when the time comes, but what is the vehicle that will get us there?

I have some bad news for apocalypse watchers. I highly doubt we will go out in such style. As TS Eliot predicted in “The Hollow Men”, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”  

Science fiction, whatever format it appears in has done more harm than good. While scientists have been busy trying to articulate the age of Anthropocene – an age of significant and largely negative human impact on the earth’s geology and ecosystems – fabulist theories and recreations have turned this most devastating and eventually self-defeating age, into a bit of a gimmick. The superheroes continue to fight hoarders of nuclear arms, the average novelist can only think of the extant toll of the aftermath, and gamers don’t really care as long as they can shoot zombies in the eye.

A trope played out in most sci-fi is the often unexplained shortage of something essential. In I am Legend (2007) it was air; in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), water. Consider Delhi, compromised on both fronts and incapable of wriggling itself out of the way of approaching disaster. Disaster that we refuse to acknowledge because the skies haven’t yet turned red and the water hasn’t yet turned black and because we have our ways of coping, or rather compromising with this slow yawn into the abyss. Be it the humour of dank memes, the drollery of WhatsApp forwards, or lunch-time banter, death and degradation are fun as long as they seem distant.

Because somewhere inside we prefer to think there is chequered progression to this, that there are good days and bad. But in reality, they are all bad, just some less bad than others. The grass isn’t green and there are no sides to it anymore.

While death and the apocalypse are an end to something, the real tragedy lies in the little dots that come together to make the line before it.

Almost 150-200 species of plants and mammals become extinct every 24 hours on the planet. In India, the average life expectancy of those living in the choking cities is dropping by the day, but is vindicated as a modernist tilt when summed against those living farther from them. As with the Smart City project in India, there seems to be a real ebb and flow in the mono-culture of transforming villages into towns, towns into cities, and cities into super, mega, smart and whatever the hell you can think of next – disaster by iteration, if you like.

Think, for a minute, about Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which though prescient and relevant, is largely seen as the generic ramblings of an activist. Perhaps, there is a lesson to be learnt through it after all. That while death and the apocalypse are an end to something, the real tragedy lies in the little dots that come together to make the line before it. We’ll wake up only when we realise the extent of our sleep and the madness of the dreams we see in it.

But something tells me, that ain’t happening soon.

The thing about the apocalypse, is that it is no windfall, or a clear-sighted moment in the pipeline of history. It isn’t a curb, it isn’t even a bump in the bylanes of existence. It is simply progression, a rhythm in itself. A cloud of fog that settles so slowly it is imperceptible in its effect. Think of the apocalypse as a flat, one-note soundtrack, not a boxed chemical experiment with crystalline inferences.

It’s not the timer, it’s the microwave. It’s not the oil it’s the ever-expanding roads. It’s not the carbon emissions it is people, and the sheer speed at which our numbers continue to grow. And much more, so much more.