By Mehreen Ahmed
There used to be a green pond once next to our house. This house had a red-tiled roof and a great many picture windows. It was situated on a hill known as the Dev Pahar in Chittagong. Through those picture windows, I could see the pond down by the valley. The pond was not too far, I could still see it from the hilltop. From this height, it looked mostly surrounded by moss growing on tall trees and bamboo tresses.
A great many toads sat on innumerable lily pads around the water surface of the pond. They leaped sprightly in and out of the water, legs splayed, sat back up, on the lily pads. The greenery around it was spectacular, especially on a rainy day. The leaves of the forlorn bamboo shone in the rain. More so, the young wrapped shoots in the process of opening up. They trembled, as the rain dribbled over. Many a summer’s rains. Raindrops also dribbled over the lily pads, where the toads would be sitting. They sang, serenading the rain. The rain responded. Then performed a dance – the rain and the pond together, nuanced, choreographed. The pond dimpled, this delightful duet. Nature woke up, a festive moment.
The environment was clean then, the greenery unpolluted. The resplendent pond was named The Green Pond because of this freshness. I would go out for walks and around the pond for fresh air each afternoon, down my favourite trail. On these walks, I could see the little toads, sitting without care, waiting for the next rain dance, oblivious of what was coming. Then it came, not the rain though, but something else. Something insidious that threatened them, their existence on the lily pads. Because soon after the lily pads ceased to surface, as did the toads. A disaster pressed them down to the bottom of the pond until the breathing stopped. The toads on the lily pad were gone and so were the days of the serenade.
I wasn’t prepared for this, neither were the toads nor the rain, the pond, or the lily pads. However, as time went by, a change did occur, the disappearance of the toads and the lily pads, which was ominous. The green pond began to look different; it shrunk. Lily pads replaced by something else. It eluded me, just as it eluded the toads and the lily pad, whose habitat was this pond. Who took the lifeline away?
The mossy surroundings of the pond didn’t look as clean as it used to be. First, it was just one or two plastic bottles, then the numbers increased. Over months and years, this litter doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. A deluge of plastic bottles, This impeded both my view through the picture window, as well as my walks. The least the problem posed a much bigger one. Plastic bottles didn’t just hedge the edges of the pond but slid down into the waters as well. The pond might as well be called something else, anything but green. This surface was now accosted by plastic bottles. The much-coveted pond to the toads, the lily pads, and the rain, on this brink of a disaster. The rain fell again, but without romancing the pond. Rather the pond saw how its bottled surface got shoved around in the rough rains.
As I lay, one summer’s day, looking through my picture window at this tragedy being unfolded before my eyes, the thought of a nursery rhyme, foreboded. Who killed Cock Robin? A question of a highly symbolic nature, this Cock Robin played many serious issues in my mind. Some of these pertained to the collapse of historical and political events. But to boot, the enigma of the Cock Robin invaded my thoughts in relation to these plastic bottles too. The Sparrow may have killed it, but what if this magical, symbiotic balance of a delicate ecosystem were to be destroyed one day? Often this would mean a relationship between the life of all kinds to be scissored. Man, natural flora and fauna on land, waters, and the skies. Fundamentally, a spiritual connection, which the toad enjoyed with the pond on the lily pads and the with rain. Even if one element were to be snapped one day, wouldn’t all hell break loose, and chaos descend? That which begged a formidable question, who to blame for this then? This would lead to the dismantling of all spiritual connection in nature, and render us with a place of utter confusion akin to a poet’s twisted perception of a dark place where: “The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.” – Auden.
God forbid that this was to ever happen, but then, there was no stopping of such an onslaught either. That was the summer of the last great storm; our summer of discontent. Mangled mangoes fell in the fierce winds, people felt dispossessed and lost, as the storm took everything they loved. A summer, when monsoon swept through, nipping buds, snapping bird nests perched on high branches of deep forests. A summer of discontent, ants ran amok, drains clogged up in decrepit disorder. Heightened drunkenness, and muggy nights’ infusions.
Among the flying debris, some which blocked the drains was used plastic bottles. They were swept by the winds along with crackling dry leaves, which plugged the plumbing system. However, the drains were not the only thing that suffered. There were beaches too. This particular beach at the Bay of Bengal was an environmental casualty of this calamity. The beach, a silent witness to the many dreams, lovers entwined on the sinking sand in waxed moonlight, of the mandala of human dramas, a beautiful beginning and perhaps an imperfect ending, the ocean cleans it all in its eternal ebb and flow. These mandalas done and redone until time had given up, played on the beach, a part of resurrection in the hours when all became sand on the beach indestructible, quintessentially minuscule. An atom of waves. H2O.
As the ocean cleaned away the debris of plastic of many shapes and colours, it failed to predict what it could do to the underwater life. At the museum, a miniature kingdom stood. It took its rightful place as an age-old artifact. It was a kingdom that was covered in plastic and disposable bottles of coca-cola. The king’s crown of the underwater, a mermaid king, wore a crown of dome decorated with ballooned plastic bottles. His queen sat next to him, also wore a similar crown. Their palace was in the plastic bubble, with a suffocated mermaid princess, laid with her curled-up tail on the court. They didn’t breathe, neither the King, nor the Queen, or even the ministers of this King’s court. Something happened, an accident perhaps, which took the last breath out of this Kingdom. The ocean cleansed it all, off the beach; yes, but to the demise of this little Kingdom.
The mermaid princess was playing in the palace gardens around the waving corals and the Bengal Cone when a storm arose. It swept her aside and knocked her into summersault into the deep seas. She recovered from the blow, the young, spirited princess, resurfaced to view the dark, dangerous sea-storm. Overwhelmed by its rugged beauty, she looked on open-mouthed, when she swallowed debris. It was a dirty piece of plastic from a broken bottle that she had consumed. Immediately, she hiccuped and returned to the palace, but the princess could not breathe after a while. The King and the Queen stood in awe as they witnessed the princess’s death in the court. She coughed and vomited, and then lay very still. Her turquoise tail, inert like the lifeless studded stones edging it. She was given a water burial after that. Tears of pearls fell at her grave. Her parents believed like the ancient Egyptians, that her soul would rise again, like the Orion constellation of seventy days, her soul would reappear in another part of the ocean. They whispered to her soul of a new day of resurrection when the environment would come around a full circle of better days. For this was written in the holy waters of the temple of Oracle.
However, the toxins kept coming in, too close for comfort. They suffocated gradually the entire mermaid kingdom. The King and the Queen died, along with all their subjects, the fish, they began to swallow plastic and inhale this poisonous pollution. What an abominable mess? They continued to get killed, down to the last little soul. Such was the waste, devastating damage, which could not be repaired. The environment fell into complete disrepair. The ocean’s quietude was alarming. The waves roared no more, the underwater plants died, because they stopped breathing. Plastic bottlenecked them.
This, the story of the annihilation of the mermaid Kingdom rang through history. One which entailed all of its oceanic wonders. States dumped toxic wastes, more dangerous than ever into the ocean bosom. Every plastic bottle, all found their way into the waters, oblivious to an ocean full of life therein, the green turtles, deep-sea lobsters, and oysters, jellyfish, got seriously entangled and choked to death, as heaps of bottles fell over them like bullets, as though there was an Armageddon, an intergalactic war of plastic where bullets made of plastic bottles showered on the green planet. On the land, into the sea, everywhere, not even the islands, the paradise of Serendib, or the silent island in the Bay, could escape it. A hill of plastic bottles, waste accumulated on their sandy beaches.
Soon there was a new world. A world made of plastic marvel. Men and women clothed in plastic, homes, made of plastic. Roof gardens lost all its lustre to be replaced increasingly by plastic bottles in the pots. In the summer, under molten heat, chemicals from plastic leached into the soil. It contaminated the soil. An organic planet walled completely out of orbit. The hanging gardens of vines, and scarlet bougainvillea once, no more. What hung now was rows of synthetics of plastic bottles. Such a necklace of the new inanimate hung stilly over the roof walls instead. They did not grow, neither did they produce. The clay pots, now made of bottled plastic, in which a new kind of insipid, pale plant grew. They grew not to give pleasure, but out of spite.
The sun still rose, even though the soil and the water, all of the sun’s companions had a makeover from thousands of years of decomposed plastic pollutants. Plants that grew under these conditions, with the help of the sun, had that pale blue look about them. The sun struggled, but the plants failed to photosynthesise, due to a lack of pure water and nutrition from the soil. The lights struggled to keep up, as the chemical reaction went awry. A proper photosynthesise did not occur, as in an organic world.
Whoever was living by then, looked different like the roof garden. They did not look healthy but emaciated. Breathing became difficult, and people carried an oxygen cylinder on their backs. A new look evolved. However, what they ate concerned everyone because plastic now ruled. It stuffed up the waterways so badly that irrigation of the soil could not be possible. Rain fell less, and this led to deforestation. Rainforests and fireflies coughed up blood. The roots stopped to reach out. It could not replenish. This ecological imbalance gave rise to frequent floods, and more and more dead fish resurfaced in the water. The landslide was a common occurrence. The ocean basin, a garbage dump. People walked the streets of filthy waters gushing out from the drains, pestilence of black fever advanced. Children, men, and women died in large numbers, whose immune system had already compromised died alarmingly.
Not only that the magical days of the mermaids were gone, these prosaic times too were soon coming to an end. A sense of an ending prevailed. People realised that they would have to live off garbage. But it was too late now to go back to the golden age, when the gleaners sat singing and laughing on the airy front-yard, gleaning corns, thrashing wheat, and walking on grapes to make red wines. This armageddon which had struck, people had never been so misled by greed and power. Yes, it was greed and power that blinded them, industrialists, they traded off with a cleaner environment. Too late, too late now. Hunger, pestilence, and disease woke them up. But mother earth had given up. The green planet had started to choke under the rubble of plastic. She cried out, as she saw fit at human folly, its insistence on destruction of the only place, we could call home. Alas, when it all had come to pass, the greedy too realised that they could not eat money, they could not eat plastic bottles.
Very well then, why did they use them in the first place? Because they were inexpensive and did not break. Even poor urchins were seen picking them up from the dump, to sell at a mere pittance to recycle. The bottles pressed under heavy machines, ready to be reused. But there were too many caters to.
Of the plastic rubble. Of the narrow bottleneck. Of the choking. Of the breathing. This little boy of seven cried out in his sleep one night. Upon waking, his mother held him close. There was a matter. He said he couldn’t breathe anymore. At the rubbish dump, he was collecting plastic bottles, from the heap by the beach. Then he found something shining inside in one of the bottles. He put his finger through the neck to reach the shiny object in the bottom of the bottle. It was shining. He thought it was gold. He would sell it and buy food. He was hungry, this little boy. But he couldn’t. He slept at night and fought his nightmares. He saw a huge man, made of plastic, coming towards him. His face, his hands, and his entire body, he was Mr. Plastic. He had a huge bottle for a body. He picked the little boy and put him through the neck. The boy coughed and choked. He was sitting in a bubble then, a bubble devoid of oxygen. He couldn’t breathe again. That was just the little boy’s nightmare.
Who killed Cock Robin? I said the Sparrow with my bow and arrow.
Who destroyed the Rainforests? I said Mr. Plastic with my bottleneck.
Impossibility. This jam that too many plastic bottles caused. They were sent, rubbish, from all over the world. In a clumsy effort to resolve this problem, dumped unscrupulously off the coasts of Cambodia and Indonesia, and many other countries, using them as dumping sites. This posed a huge political problem, amongst such nations. The rubbish just kept getting bigger without any solution in view. Would the world be large enough to contain plastic bottles of such a massive scale? Even the space and the moon would not be large enough. Flying debris had already been detected in space.
Disposal became a huge issue. No one could think of a good solution. Management of it was just dumping it into the oceans of a neighbouring country, or some other remote corner of the world. But that did not help. Because those remote corners too were habitable. Environmentalists spoke for days on end. In various newspapers such as Independent, and The guardian, articles were being written on how governments were pledging ways, to tackle this issue. Northern Star, penned how Cambodia planned to send back rubbish to industrialised countries.
Mars, or perhaps another inhabitable galaxy could render help for these man-made calamities. This was getting out of hand. Something needed to be done, realistically speaking, even though the magical world was all gone. No matter, all these took their rightful place in a purist’s world. A minimalist, who stored images on her canvas. Here she was, this purist now, who sat down to paint pictures of plastic bottles only. She painted them in all sizes, and colours, red, green, and blue. The paintings looked stark and surrealistic. They looked grimy, such toppling bottles all over her canvas. Bigger bottles in a red layer on top of each other in a motley collection. Their narrow necks shaped, curved like a 23-inch waistline of a model. They were sensually appealing too, visual, tactile and onomatopoeic, olfactory, and gustatory. The bottles came to life, as though water could be heard sparkling in them, to be tasted, touched, and drank. But to the purist, also sensed the waste they caused, she drew black pith over the bottles like under a rotten orange rind, to give an impression of free-floating rubbish on top. A mount of rubbish piled up edging as an extra layer on the bottles. A viewer felt like washing all that rubbish off with a splash of water. The purist who knew her art only too well, adhered strictly to the principles of painting this sullied rubbish of solid heap.
All was a part and a parcel of nature, this manmade calamity was not so difficult to remove. Humans, who were an extension of nature, knew only that a futuristic world of decrepitude awaited if an alternative wasn’t invented fast. The research was probably underway, even as we speak. Sooner the better, sure as hell, because if we didn’t want out planet to sink beneath the heavy waves of no return, children to grow up in bottleneck situations, and no toads on lily pads, serenading the rain, and the pond dimpling at a touch of romantic thrills. If this planet choked, then the environmentalists would have to stand corrected, because there was no planet B after all. There’d better be a plan B then, or else I’d be damned.