I’m a Particle of Dust Speaking
I’m a particle of dust- something you may count on the head of a pin. You blow me off your desk, wardrobe and showcase or wipe me off the window pane and shoelace. Still, I remain by your side- float in the air, sit in the arm of your chair, hide in the pages of your book, and live in the fringe of your skirt. In trying to get rid of me, you leave no stone unturned like covering the roads with asphalt, fields with bricks and windows with glass panes. But can you escape me?
The renowned Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore in his poem ‘The Invention of Shoes’, tells the story of a king who once woke up with a disturbing thought. He became upset why the soil he rules should soil his feet! Immediately he ordered his Chief Minister to find a solution. An expert committee was formed. Thousands of brooms were brought to sweep dust away. But it led to a massive dust storm. The dust was then watered down only to create a muddy mess. The experts were confused what to do next- whether to get the land leather-bound or cover the country with carpet! At last, a cobbler came and solved the problem by covering the king’s feet with leather. Thus, shoes were invented and the problem of the king and of mankind was thought to be resolved. But I would say the problem was not resolved. As the microscope was not invented at that time people couldn’t find some finer particles of dust inside their shoes.
I know human beings, being the supreme species, are the de facto rulers on earth. They can do and undo many things, can change the direction of rivers as they did in case of Amu and Syr. The tributaries that fed the Aral Lake for thousands of years, human beings have changed that course for their agriculture, for cotton, for better yield, for their profit. They made money but I lost my home, became a refugee. How the mere changing of the course of two rivers turned a particle of dust as a refugee, is a long story.
My story will take you back to the Holocene period. Then I was not dust but part of mud and silt- it was blissful. I was calm and complacent living with time. Still, I remember the day some glorious sons of the soil crossed the lake, they mulled over ensuring food and safe drinking water for people at large. Being good Samaritans, they were obsessed with helping the nation- were calculative, altruistic, cosmopolitan and good catchers of sturgeon. At the time of dinner, they relished fourteen types of fish caught in the lake and talked for a long time about the crisis befalling China. They severely condemned the ‘Four Pests Campaign’ and mocked the Chinese leaders, who with a view to eradicating entrenched diseases declared war against the four pests: mosquitoes responsible for malaria, rodents that spread plague, the pervasive airborne flies and sparrows that ate the hard-won fruits from fields of grain and rice. These pests were charged with public health treason and widespread irritation. Therefore, patriotic health campaigns targeted the vermin and carte blanche was issued to the people to fight enemies. Beautifully illustrated posters encouraging the wielding of fly swatters, guns and gongs were released to the masses. In consequence, 1 billion sparrows, 1.5 billion rats, 100 million kilograms of flies and 11 million kilograms of mosquitoes were outright decimated. However, the sparrow’s intrinsic role in retaining the ecological balance was unrealized and resulted in well-orchestrated, unmitigated environmental disaster. Locusts, left unencumbered from the watchful hungry sparrows, came in droves and devoured fields of grain. The loss of crops resulted in untold millions starving and 20 to 30 million died between the years 1958 and 1962. Someone also revealed the terrible news of parents eating kids and kids eating parents. At last, the eminent scholars admired the book ‘Tombstone’ and dubbed it as a daunting endeavor in unravelling the truth.
By the way, on a fine morning the President of the country came to inaugurate the mega project. Everyone cheered as river water was diverted to pastures and untilled lands. Soon agriculture became a booming sector for economic growth. But the lake began to shrink. Its salt and mineral content rose drastically enough to make water unfit for drink, even for animals. Toxic pollutants were everywhere- carrots and onions contained Chlorinated Organic Pesticides, pregnant women were diagnosed with DDE, cases of heart and kidney disease were rife. Besides, infant mortality rose significantly, Kerakalpaks were detected with throat cancer and anemia. Several species of fishes like sturgeon, carp, barbell and roach became extinct from the region. The most famous Tugay habitats with all the mammals, birds and amphibians vanished as if within the blink of an eye. Maritime complexes were replaced by continental regimes, summers were warm, winters cool. Spring frosts arrived much later than usual, fall frosts came too early. Humidity was lower, growing season shorter.
The lake is no more. Now millions of tons of dust and sand are visible in the lake. Undoubtedly, this has given me an opportunity to flex my muscle. You must have remembered the storm Black Sunday when I could kill multiple and hundreds of thousands of people were relocated. California, being flooded with Okies, had to overtax the state’s health and employment infrastructure. It’s regarded as one of the worst dust storms in the history of the U.S.A. when 300 million tons of topsoil were displaced from the prairie area and I could show off my power. As you stage a parade of missiles, elite troops and defense hardware in display of strength, so also, I like to travel thousands of kilometers and cause respiratory problems to the people of faraway countries in a show of my strength. You should know that I can remain in different forms. Being a finer particle, I can penetrate your lower respiratory tract and enter the bloodstream where I have an opportunity to damage your internal organs as well as cause cardiovascular disorder. If coated by pollution I may act as condensation nuclei for warm cloud formation and as efficient ice nuclei agent for cold cloud generation. As industrial dust, asbestos or quartz – I can put an end to your charisma. Yet, to you my identity is nothing but dust. Is it only because I have neither a Joseph Goebbels nor his Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda?
I’m a particle of dust and I’ll remain so for years to come. You may raise the question of my ability to claim racial purity or supremacy! No, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m inferior to many. But what I know, I know that I believe in fact, not in myth. The popular belief of ostrich hiding its head in the sand is absurd to me. It’s a myth, a manner of dramatizing talk, a smooth functioning of the propaganda machine, the subtle art of falsification- for which human beings are unparalleled. The fact is that ostriches are flightless birds and are unable to build their nests in trees. So, they lay eggs in holes dug in the ground. To make sure that the eggs are evenly heated they occasionally stick their heads into the holes to rotate the eggs. Then it looks like they are trying to hide their face in the sand. But the propaganda machine has turned it into a popular myth.
Apart from myths, there are true stories that make me happy. A partition migrant of British India (originally from Karachi of Pakistan) fled India and on his return to Pakistan decades later, took dust from the ground, kissed it and touched to his forehead. Another partition migrant took dust from his birthplace and now keeps them in his London home. Some others took jars containing dust from their ancestral home and now preserve those as heirlooms. I was overwhelmed when in 1930’s many residents in Oklahoma began keeping accounts and journals of their lives during a dust storm. Avid D. Carlson wrote how in a dust storm ‘people caught in their own yards grope for the doorsteps. Cars came to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate the swirling murk--. But on the occasional bright day and the usual gray day we cannot shake from it. We live with the dust, eat it, sleep it, watch it strip us of possessions and hope of possessions.’ I was on cloud nine when I found musicians and songwriters like Woody Gutherie and Kat Eggleston involved in reflecting upon the Dust Bowl and the events of the 1930s. Several others documented their experiences living during the era of the storm. But all these were not before I had to wage a dust war against the most brilliant folks on earth, bury dinosaurs so fast that they never got off their nests, suffocate all the folks in Pompeii caught in a manner with a cry on their lips and sweep away entire civilizations.
Although the Marxists strained every nerve to form an egalitarian society, they failed miserably. What they could do was only to create a lot of poppycock. But I can proudly state that I’m an equalizer. You must know that the practice of burying came down from the Adena. There important people like clan leaders, healers and shaman were buried on the mounds with a variety of artefacts like beads, jewelry, pipes, mica and copper ornaments. After so many years if you want to classify the mounds on the basis of their importance, your efforts will come a cropper and you will count nothing but particles of dust. This is a clear testimony to my impartiality in dealing with the rich and poor, important or unimportant, powerful or powerless, beautiful or ugly. However, from my experience I’ve found that the unimportant i.e. the proletariat are a bit more amenable and practical. They can adapt to changes around. They are born in dust, work with dust, wallow in dust, retain dust in their armpit, chin, beard and matted hair. Eventually they get mixed with dust and do it without objection. On the contrary, it’s always the powerful and rich who have challenged my existence. They occupy the river land, divert the river water and throw chemical waste products in the river. The waste products containing cyanide, zinc, lead, copper, cadmium and mercury enter the water in high concentration killing fish and animals. Algae use nitrate and phosphate to grow rapidly while turning water as green. When algae die they are broken by bacteria which multiply quickly. The action uses up all the oxygen in water and turns it as toxic. This is the beginning of another Aral desert.
To get down to brass tacks, for the last twenty years or so, I’m lying under a fishing ship. The grounded fishing ship which sank long ago now bears witness to time. Ports are remaining like haunted houses, Vozrozdenya is lost. Now it’s time for tulermia, bubonic plague and anthrax to recur, infect the mainland and far beyond. They have found their existence amidst dust. Was I destined to be so?
I’m a particle of dust. Like you I had a dream. I wished not to become an insect, bubonic plague, south wind or a bird. Rather living cheek-by-jowl with water I wished to become a drop of water, water that rips apart hills and dales, crags and crevice, marshy land and desert. Then falls as a drop on a pink rose in early morning. Water that you drink to quench your thirst, water that invigorates life, water that washes away toxins. No doubt, you are powerful. On the contrary, I’m good-for-nothing. You like to flout me, I remain quiet. You crush me under your feet, I never object. You sweep me away, I remove myself from your way. I was silt, wanted to become water. You have turned me as dust, how can I bear! Now it’s time to take revenge.
A particle of dust, skulking under your sofa doesn’t deserve your disregard or contempt. Rather it may contain everything from space diamond to Gobi desert to the bone of a monkey or bit of a modern tire rubber. If you fail to recognize the image of your forefathers in a particle of dust, if you don’t learn how to respect others, one day you’ll become dust but without substance. That’s why Omar Khayyam once wrote:
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans song, sans singer, and----- sans End!
I hope you’ll become dust, not without substance.