January 29, 2005

Imperceptible tilt

Wrote this for Outlook Traveller magazine some months ago. I like it, so I thought I'd share it here.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Everglades ... Emily and Peter run their rental houseboat, the Cobia, "hard into a deep shoal of silty marl." The outboard motor "churns up a pungent sulfurous geyser" of the stuff, which you can think of as muck and leave it there. (Please leave it there). The smell is putrid, help is out of radio range, they are miles from anywhere and walking to safety through the mangroves is not an option.

So naturally, Emily settles into: ruminating about poets' use of marl to symbolize hell ("burning marl of perdition", George Eliot); admiring a heron's hypnotic hunting dance and a lizard devouring a reluctant moth ("beautiful throat bulges with metamorphosis"); weaving up a story about a magical place called "Cobeloosa" ("Cobia looser"? Maybe).

Not unusual. These are The Very Rich Hours for Emily Hiestand, this languorous cruise on an enormous body of water that slithers a hundred miles over Florida's "imperceptible tilt." It has her musing about cormorants, nautical terms and charts, spiders, ecology, conquistadors and hats on Parisienne heads.

An uncommonly thoughtful journey. Do rivers produce them? Ride the gentle Narmada, corpulent as it creeps up to one of its dams, and try hard to keep a mind blank. I've tried. Lush banks, birds, the narrow canoe sliding past -- why haven't its occupants fallen in? -- crops and houses getting submerged -- all conspire to nurture thoughts.

Such conspiracy, for Isabel Allende, was once a cure for three years of writer's block. She was "On The Amazon" (in Don George's delicious anthology Wanderlust), in search of "voices to nourish my inspiration." Like Hiestand, she found plenty.

She enters the river "at a suicidal pace", but is soon influenced by the leisurely Indians she meets. "What sense is there in rushing?" she asks, with them. "Life, like the river, goes nowhere."

So, moving more slowly, Allende finds an alligator, "sadly roasting" as a meal for some Indians. It's sadder still because the Everglades 'gator who calls on Emily and Peter is a "confident emissary" with an air of ancient wisdom; the idea of roasting this nearly sentient being is disheartening. The Indians also eat piranhas. Though there are occasional measures of fishy revenge. Avon Ladies, Allende learns, have flooded into the Amazon, selling their fragrant stuff door to riverine door.

Piranhas, she also learns, ate one.

Whatever the reason, Allende is writing again.

Those submerging crops. Walking among some one darkening evening on the Narmada's bank, piranhas came to mind. Metaphorically, anyway. These days, the overriding characteristic of that lovely strip of water is dams, and it is nearly a cliche that those who build dams treat those they displace like ... well, like piranhas might an Avon Lady. Metaphorically. I think.

One day in 1948, Marc Reisner tells us in Cadillac Desert, the piranhas got the American Indian leader George Gillette. He was forced to sign away his tribes' best lands -- 155,000 acres -- for a dam project in North Dakota. As the US Secretary of the Interior signed the contract, Gillette, standing behind him, "cradled his face in one hand and began to cry."

"Right now," he said, "the future does not look good to us."

Reisner's fabulous book, something of a cult classic, has a photograph of this moment. For me, it has always stood as the softly tragic, yet inexorably reached, river journey's end. Travel on a river, run into a dam that must have caused buckets of tears. So with my exploration of this writing. Quietly flows the Narmada, through Emily's Everglades erudition, with Allende on the Amazon, and now it begins to swell behind another dam.

Dusk falls, the crops whisper sadness. These days, it's just the usual.

1 comment:

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thank you Neela (or should that be "Neela!"), you're quite right and I don't take it amiss. Actually the kind of writing/reports you mention is what I like to do, and hope to keep doing more of. Thanks for reminding me to keep on that track.

But you mean you didn't care for the Class of '74 story?